Report: Climate Change in Bangladesh Drives Worker Vulnerability, Poverty

Report: Climate Change in Bangladesh Drives Worker Vulnerability, Poverty

Underscoring the immediate risk of severe climate-induced weather events in South Asia, Cyclone Amphan last month slammed into the coast of eastern India and southern Bangladesh, destroying thousands of homes and killing at least 88 people. A new Solidarity Center report points to other, longer-term risks for workers in the region as a result of climate change, including forced job changes and migration, and increased economic vulnerability.

As many as one in every seven–or at least 16 million—people in Bangladesh could be on the move by 2050, potentially causing the largest forced migration caused by climate change in human history. Bangladesh is one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, at risk from climate disasters such as floods and cyclones. Situated on a floodplain, with a low-lying coastline and a host of rivers, the country and its people are threatened by rising sea levels, flooding, riverbank erosion, cyclones, storm surges and ever-hotter summers. These phenomena are exacerbated by climate change and contribute to loss of livelihoods, migration and poverty.

Against this backdrop, the Solidarity Center conducted a study investigating the intersection of climate change, economic activity and migration in Khulna and Jashore, Bangladesh. The study used primary and secondary sources of data, including surveys and first-person interviews with 50 Khulna- and Jashore-based workers who were employed in shrimp and fish processing and hatcheries, transport and domestic work sectors, and returnee migrant workers.

The report finds that increased salinity and flooding has driven people of both areas into new economic activities—primarily away from previously profitable farming into poverty-wage, non-farm economic activities that study participants describe as a hand-to-mouth existence. Cross-border migration of people from Khulna and Jashore to India for better economic prospects was found to be common and recurring, with international migration growing. Workers forced to transition into new jobs were found to lack information, training and financial resources to adapt to employment changes, and were mostly relying on friends and family for information and other types of resources to find new jobs. There was a low level of understanding about climate change and how it impacts their own livelihoods and the local economy.

“Climate change is forcing already-vulnerable people into often exploitative, precarious and poorly paid work, including migrating abroad for unsafe jobs where their rights are often unprotected,” says Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Sonia Mistry.

The report offers recommendations to mitigate the impact of climate change on workers in the region, including raising awareness among residents about the impact of climate change; devising strategies to recover bodies of water and develop equitable and sustainable  land-use solutions; providing skills training for workers; and reducing wage discrimination between women and men.

Uzbekistan: Progress, but Continued Forced Labor in Cotton Fields

Uzbekistan: Progress, but Continued Forced Labor in Cotton Fields

A new report on Uzbekistan’s 2019 cotton harvest by Uzbek Forum for Human Rights documents progress toward ending—but not eradication—of state-sponsored forced labor, says the Cotton Campaign.

The report, “Tashkent’s Reforms Have Not Yet Reached Us,” finds that a state-imposed cotton quota, labor shortages, lack of fair and independent recruitment channels, and weak accountability systems contribute to the continuation of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields—and that broader reform efforts in the country are being limited by slow progress on civil society freedoms.

The report’s findings are based on more than 100 in-depth and hundreds of short interviews with people involved in the cotton harvest, as well as field visits, farm monitoring in six regions, and data and analysis from a nationwide online survey conducted in partnership with the Solidarity Center and public polling/research firm RIWI Corp.

Employees of state and privately owned enterprises in interviews consistently reported being unable to refuse orders to pick cotton by government officials or employers for fear of dismissal or other job-related consequences. About half of online survey respondents said they could not refuse when asked to go to the fields or pay for a replacement picker. This testimony underscores the pressing need to establish effective recruitment systems free from interference or coercion by the government or the authorities, says the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights.

The report also documents that reform of civil society freedoms has lagged far behind the pace of reforms in other key areas, inhibiting the freedom of citizens to form civic associations such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent trade unions empowered to fight forced labor in Uzbekistan. The report notes with concern the small number of independent, self-initiated NGOs registered in the country and the high number of rejections for registration.

“Independent NGOs, unions and civic activists have a central role to play in the reform process in promoting transparency and accountability,” says Solidarity Center’s Eastern Europe/Central Asia Director, Rudy Porter. “There is a pressing need to guarantee basic civic freedoms to empower activists to conduct independent monitoring and ensure labor practices are in line with international standards.”

The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report yesterday specified that Uzbekistan will remain on its Tier 2 watchlist because the country does not yet meet the minimum standards set out in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The report noted that, “During 2019, the government continued to demand farmers and local officials fulfill state-assigned cotton production quotas or face penalties, which caused local officials to compel work in the annual cotton harvest.”

The Cotton Campaign, of which Solidarity Center is a member, is a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor and business organizations dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. A Cotton Campaign roadmap for the government of Uzbekistan to dismantle the forced labor system of cotton production was presented to government officials during high-level meetings in Tashkent in May 2018.

Photo: Tashkent region, 2019. Credit: Uzbek Forum for Human Rights

Disability Rights Progress for Kyrgyzstan Stylists

Disability Rights Progress for Kyrgyzstan Stylists

A salon has opened at the Center for Protection of Labor Rights for Migrant Women—a partner organization with the Solidarity Center that aims to improve access to decent jobs for people with disabilities, promote safety of workplaces, represent the interests of workers in informal employment and protect the rights of Kyrgyz workers, particularly women, who migrate for work—in Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan, where trained stylists will now be able to work. These stylists are women with disabilities who were unable to find work at regular beauty salons and despite specialized education could not secure employment.

The space for the salon is provided to the stylists at no cost. The uniqueness of this beauty salon is that while women receive their services, they can also get free advice on labor rights and legal migration.

“These women filled in documents for official employment with the help of the Center for Protection of Labor Rights of Migrant Women, said Elena Rubtsova, program specialist at the Solidarity Center Bishkek office.

“This is a very big step. Now these specialists will be able to pay into social security programs, and this is a guarantee of their ability to receive their pensions and other social benefits from the state, such as maternity benefits.”

Kyrgyzstan ratified the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) on February 7, 2019. The primary work needed for CRPD implementation will be to provide people with disabilities with access to physical therapy and rehabilitation services, increasing life expectancy among people with disabilities, providing medical and social assistance, ensuring free movement, facilitating accessible environments and promoting universal design. and expanding access for people with disabilities to education, justice and employment opportunities.

Read in Russian here.

Africa Unions Address Gender-Based Violence at Work

Africa Unions Address Gender-Based Violence at Work

Delegates to the International Trade Union Confederation–Africa (ITUC-Africa) last week passed a resolution drafted by women union leaders that will help the organization’s 101 affiliates address gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work, including pressing African governments to ratify International Labor Organization (ILOConvention 190.

Passed in June, Convention 190 is a new global treaty to prevent and address violence and harassment in the world of work that includes gender-based violence and harassment.

Delegates from more than 47 African countries gathered in the Nigerian capital of Abuja for the 4th Ordinary Congress of the ITUC-Africa’s Regional Organization November 21 and 22. Held every four years, the Congress sets labor’s priorities and direction on behalf of Africa’s working people, both internally and in its dealings with governments and employers.

“The trade union movement in Africa has tremendous power to influence the future not only of the continent but the world,” said AFL-CIO Vice President Tefere Gebre, speaking to delegates.

Some 45 women leaders of unions from across the continent—many of whom have long been engaged in a global campaign to end gender-based violence and harassment at work—presented their recommendations to the full Congress, which the ITUC-Africa leadership formally adopted.

The resolution includes the following recommendations for African unions and ITUC-Africa:

  • Women trade union leaders participate in worker negotiations with employers, so gender-based violence and harassment at work is prioritized
  • Going forward, negotiated agreements with employers include language that explicitly addresses gender-based violence and harassment at work
  • ITUC-Africa provide support for union affiliates that are lobbying their governments to adopt Convention 190.
Bangladesh: Garment Worker Safety Gains Threatened

Bangladesh: Garment Worker Safety Gains Threatened

On the seven-year anniversary of a deadly Bangladesh factory fire that killed 112 mostly young, female garment workers and injured more than 200 others, progress made by workers to improve their workplaces is threatened by the country’s crackdown on their right to organize.

From the November 24, 2012, Tazreen factory fire through this month, Bangladesh’s garment sector has seen at least 3,883 worker injuries and at least 1,310 deaths due to factory fires, fire stampedes and other safety lapses, including the April 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse and subsequent incidents.

After the Rana Plaza building collapse, worker demands for change and an international outcry spurred the Bangladesh government, international brands and some ready-made garment employers to address workplace dangers by providing workers and managers with factory-based safety training and empowering workers through organization into trade unions—measures that have improved safety for some workers.

Fire and building safety programs implemented by Bangladesh trade unions in partnership with the Solidarity Center since 2012 have trained more than 7,000 garment worker union leaders, safety committee members and rank-and-file members to identify, report and advocate for the remediation of fire and building safety hazards. The program also certified more than 400 workers as master health and safety trainers.

“[Workers] know to call a mechanic if there is a short circuit in the machine; they also notify if there are wires lying around on the floor,” says sewing machine operator and Solidarity Center safety trainer Mosammat Moushumi Akter of the Rumana Fashion Limited Workers Union in Gazipur. “I have learned these and also taught my co-workers,” she said.

Building worker power has paid measurable safety dividends: In 29 factories where garment workers organized trade unions and became empowered to negotiate with employers, workers secured collective bargaining agreements that contain legally binding safety and health provisions holding responsible parties accountable for preventing and addressing workplace safety violations.

“Faulty wiring that could easily spark a deadly fire is getting repaired; the paths to emergency exits are being cleared; and dehydrated workers are gaining access to clean drinking water,” said Solidarity Center Asia Regional Programs Director Timothy Ryan.

Where workers and management have collaborated on safety and where workers are empowered to raise safety issues with less fear of retaliation, progress has been made. More than 85 percent of life-threatening safety issues raised by workers trained under Solidarity Center’s program funded by the U.S. Department of Labor were remediated by management during the past two years.

Although significant fire and building safety improvements have been achieved, progress is being threatened by attacks on workers’ right to organize. Workers seeking to improve safety in their factories in 2018 reported employer intimidation, threats, physical violence, loss of jobs and government-imposed barriers to union registration.

Attacks on garment union leaders and workers protesting poverty wages in 2018 and 2019 also have had a chilling effect on organizing. From December 2018 to March 2019, the worst phase of the crackdown on worker rights, union application rates fell by 75 percent in comparison with the same period in 2018.

Without collective power to hold employers accountable for maintaining safety gains, worker rights advocates fear that backsliding is inevitable.

“Many people are concerned that there may be another Tazreen and Rana Plaza tragedy,” says Rakibul Hasan, Solidarity Center program officer in Dhaka. “Without the protection of the union and a way to speak out without fear of retaliation, workers are still in danger.”

Four million garment workers, mostly women, toil in 3,000 factories across Bangladesh, making the country’s $25 billion garment industry the world’s second largest, after China. Wages are the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations in the region, while the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Abu Dhabi, Dubai, Luxembourg and Montreal. Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry accounts for 81 percent of the country’s total export earnings and is the country’s biggest export earner.

(Video below in English)

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