Demanding the ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers, leaders and members of the National Domestic Women Workers Union (NDWWU) on June 16, 2022, rallied in front of the National Press Club in Bangladesh to mark International Domestic Workers Day.
They also demanded the ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention on violence and harassment in the world of work (ILO C190). A Bangladesh Institute of Labor Studies (BILS) report says 12 domestic workers were raped in 2020.
Although Bangladesh presided over the 100th session of the International Labor Conference and voted for ILO C189, the country’s domestic workers still are not protected by the global treaty because the government has yet to ratify it.
When Sitara Begum, 60, approached law enforcement after being harassed at her job as a domestic worker they did not assist her, and she was forced to flee from her employer. “In 22 years of working as a house help, I had to endure many such incidents. When does our agony stop?” she asks.
Domestic worker Rehana Akter Mita, 37, her family’s only breadwinner, earns $96.59 per month, which does not cover living expenses. Mita often takes loans from relatives to support her son’s education and husband’s medical costs.
The 2006 Bangladesh Labor Act does not recognize domestic worker rights. Domestic workers and their unions are urging the government to ratify ILO C189, a global treaty ensuring domestic workers their rights on the job.
In a letter to Belarus Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko and Head of the Administration of the President Igor Sergeyenko, the AFL-CIO condemned the recent detention of 17 trade union leaders who represent their country’s independent labor movement and the shuttering of union offices there.
Calling for an immediate release of all those detained and resumption of the activities of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) and its affiliate unions, the AFL-CIO letter cites “a troubling increase in anti-union harassment” in the country and points to an international labor movement protest against anti-union repression in Belarus.
Those arrested and detained include BKDP President Aleksandr Yarashuk and Vice-President Sergei Antusevich, as well as other activists, independent journalists and legal experts. The offices of the BKDP have been closed, as have the offices of its four affiliated unions.
The government of Belarus has been repeatedly called out by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for its systematic violations of freedom of association and core labor standards.
A new Solidarity Center study finds that, although Bangladesh claims the global lead in eco-friendly ready-made garment (RMG) manufacturing, government officials, factory owners and global fashion brands are not adequately addressing unhealthy working conditions, dangerous pollutants in the factory-adjacent communities in which garment workers are trapped by poverty wages, long working hours, or the negative effects of garment manufacturing on the environment.
Even in so-called green factories, “different stages of garments production may have serious impact on the physical and mental health and safety of the workers—emanating from yarn dust, excessive heat, use of chemicals, accidents, communicable diseases, lack of basic amenities and excessive workload,” says report author University of Dhaka International Relations Professor Dr. Syeda Rozana Rashid Rashid.
Bangladesh is the world’s top global sourcing location for international fashion brands. Of the country’s estimated 5,000 garment factories, in 2022 only 155 were certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green factories.
A comprehensive green solution, finds the report, requires engagement with workers and their unions as social partners in the design and implementation of environmental practices that also improve conditions for workers through collective bargaining and policy development. Partnership with workers and their unions will promote properly implemented climate-protection laws, policies and processes that better protect RMG workers from unhealthy and unsafe workplaces, factory-adjacent community members from garment production pollutants, and all citizens from climate change impacts, such as flooding and drought.
Also, to protect their health and well-being, garment workers must earn wages sufficient to pay for housing located away from their jobs, and work hours that make transportation from greater distance possible. More than 4 million people work in the RMG sector, most of whom are young women living near the factory where they work.
“The area is full of odorous waste and chemicals,” says a union leader about workers’ living conditions in her community.
“Even local drinking water takes different colors due to the nature of different chemicals disposed of in the river. Situations become intolerable during the rainy season when roads are overflown by the toxic water under heavy rain. Workers get infected by skin diseases.”
Interviews with 20 union members and leaders, and other experts from Dhaka and Gazipur, Savar and Chattogram regions also found that:
Not all green factories are labor rights compliant.
Garment workers’ vulnerability to environmental degradation and climate change will increase until their basic rights and needs are addressed by government and employers.
The communities surrounding RMG facilities are significantly impacted in terms of health, quality of life and, in many cases, by associated impacts on their livelihoods from farming and fishing.
Suffering due to excessive heat has become pervasive in RMG factories due to climate change, especially in the hot summer season, where lack of ventilation increases workers’ risk of being infected with communicable diseases, including COVID-19.
Many factories will not allow workers to organize, impeding their education on how production, climate change impacts and environmental degradation are linked to their health and well-being.
Global fashion brands largely do not take responsibility or accountability for environmental degradation, instead putting the responsibility on suppliers.
Although global fashion brands use their code of conduct as a voluntary policy tool to focus on international standards, they mostly ignore climate issues and their impact on workers and their communities.
The impact of climate change on factory workers is overlooked by formal inspection and monitoring mechanisms.
Union respondents cannot engage global buyers in pressuring local producers to implement measures to improve workers’ living conditions.
Without implementation demands and effective implementation processes, global brands’ prescribed eco-friendly standards appear to exist for appearances only in a process known as “greenwashing.”
“The factory is not green for the workers. We see a rosy picture; we hear nice stories. In reality, you would hardly hear workers’ voices in a green factory,” reports a union leader.
Bangladesh’s RMG sector accounts for 84 percent of the country’s exports. RMG exports more than doubled from 2011 through 2019—from $14.6 billion to $33.1 billion.
With long-term experience in people-centered policy and legislative rights-based advocacy, workers and their unions in Bangladesh are uniquely positioned to push forward a rights-based climate agenda as well as participate in a global climate justice movement.
“Without a union to safeguard workers’ interests and freedom of expression, no factory can properly be considered green,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center climate change and just transition global lead.
Two union leaders were killed on Monday during a violent attack on a train headed to north-central Kaduna from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Musa-Lawal Ozigi, secretary-general of the Nigeria Trade Union Congress (TUC), and Akin Akinsola, chairman of TUC-Kwara State, are two of at least eight people left dead. Dozens were wounded while an unknown number of those who were abducted remain missing.
“[N]owhere is safe now—we cannot travel by air; the road is not safe and neither is the rail. Is Nigeria a failed state?” said TUC President Quadri Olaleye.
The TUC–one of two major labor federations in the country—together with other labor groups and pro-poor and pro-democracy organizations are engaged in a transformative governance campaign to better protect citizens’ security and access to adequate public services and civil and labor rights. In Nigeria, 93 percent of working people toil in the informal economy for low wages, unprotected by labor law and without social services such as pensions and healthcare.
“The loss of Secretary General Musa-Lawal Ozigi and TUC-Kwara State Chairman Akin Akinsola is a severe blow to unions’ efforts to protect the interests and welfare of Nigeria’s working people,” said Solidarity Center Africa Regional Program Director Christopher Johnson.
Brazil and Honduras Solidarity Center partners raised union women’s voices in three civil society sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women last week, focusing on issues including femicide in the world of work, climate change as a root cause of migration and women workers in the climate justice struggle. Speakers representing diverse organizations, sectors and regions addressed the challenges that arise from the lack of gender-sensitive justice and rights-based responses to climate-related migration, and shared how migrant women are leading with resilience and in solidarity.
“The women were the most affected,” said Munguía describing the impact of devastating back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020 on women working in the banana sector. In addition to trying to recover from the loss of possessions, home and work, “we have the full responsibilities of families on our backs.”
In the aftermath of the two hurricanes, which impacted 90 percent of Honduras’ agricultural sector, more than 10,000 women employed by commercial banana growers immediately lost their income, said Munguía. Struggling to rebuild communities and homes leveled by hurricane winds and flooding while waiting up to nine months for their jobs to return, many women and girls were forced to migrate north to earn their livelihoods—a dangerous passage that exposed them to sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence. Women who remained behind while partners or other family members took the perilous journey north struggled to keep children and other dependents safe, sheltered and fed while waiting for remittances that might never come.
Munguía highlighted the role of banana sector unions in fighting for their members’ rights, describing outreach efforts to secure and coordinate international hurricane relief and recovery efforts and encouraging multinational banana companies to compensate women banana packers while they were waiting for production to come back online.
Honduran unions are working with the country’s government to address climate crisis effects and resultant migration, said Munguía, such as river maintenance to better prevent flooding and labor rights improvements so that desperate and disenfranchised workers are not forced into dangerous migration.
“Climate disasters can be particularly devastating for women on the move—whether through involuntary displacement, voluntary migration, or some combination thereof,” said Sonia Mistry, panel moderator and Solidarity Center global lead on climate change and just transition. And, she added, failure to meet the needs of migrant and displaced women through policies and practices can be equally disastrous—creating additional marginalization and vulnerabilities.
Panel Moderator and Solidarity Center Climate Change and Just Transition Global Lead Sonia Mistry.
Women Empowered Can Drive Change
In Nigeria, unions are building the capacities of members who find themselves on the frontlines of the climate crisis, said Moradeke Abiodun-Badru, a former officer of Solidarity Center partner the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), health professional, gender expert and global union Public Service International’s (PSI) West Africa project coordinator.
“Women must be empowered as agents of social change,” says Moradeke Abiodun-Badru, global union Public Service International (PSI) West Africa project coordinator.
In Nigeria’s north, where 65 percent of surveyed families in Yobe state reported involvement in farming, two-thirds of last year’s crops were lost to drought.
“Women must be empowered as agents of social change,” said Abiodun-Badru, adding that refugee camps in the north are mostly populated by women and children fleeing regional violence caused in part by the hunger and poverty associated with ever-increasing drought conditions—including competition between farmers and herders for scarce resources.
Climate change impacts are increasing so rapidly they could soon overwhelm the ability of nature and humanity to adapt, concluded a report by a panel of experts appointed by the United Nations earlier this year.
Last year’s World Bank Africa’s Pulse report—which is focused on the economic impact of climate change adaption on sub-Saharan Africa—found that the African continent’s mean surface temperature has risen at an even faster pace than that of the rest of the world, with 2020 being the fourth-warmest year since 1910. Rises in temperature and rainfall changes have fueled an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the continent and at a faster pace than in the rest of the world. Drought frequency nearly tripled, the number of storms quadrupled and floods increased more than tenfold finds the report when comparing the period 1970-1979 to the period 2010-2019.
“We believe that human rights are at the core of solutions to people who are displaced or must migrate,” Abiodun-Badru said.
Event speakers included Elizabeth Ibarra, human rights defender with Asociación Coordinadora Comunitaria de Servicios (ACCSS) Guatemala; Alice Ncube, program director of the University of the Free State, South Africa, Africa Disaster Management Training and Education Centre (DiMTEC); Helena Olea, Alianza Americas associate director for programs and international human rights lawyer; Erika Pires Ramos, co-founder, South American Network for Environmental Migrations; Zoraya Urbina, regional advocacy and communications officer and gender focal point for Lutheran World Federation Central America; Alicia Wallace, director of Equality Bahamas; and Mariana Williams, director of the Institute of Law and Economics (ILE), Jamaica.
Panelists emphasized the importance of addressing environmental racism and applying the lens of intersectional environmentalism to a cross-movement fight for climate and gender justice. Intersectional environmentalism—a term largely inspired by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work with intersectional feminism—is an inclusive form of environmentalism that advocates for the protection of all people and the planet, and identifies the ways in which injustices affecting marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.
A recent analysis finds that, although the Global North is overwhelmingly responsible for the climate crisis, contributing 92 percent of excess global carbon dioxide emission, the Global South shoulders most of the devastation. For example, 80 percent of environmental impacts generated by Europe’s textile consumption takes place outside Europe.
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