A worker-centered, precedent-setting program that targets gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in four Lesotho garment factories is now in effect for as many as 10,000 workers producing jeans for the global market.
The program inauguration on Friday was marked by a social media campaign, including SMS text blasts to garment workers, Lesotho-based media coverage and a video announcement by signatories to binding 2019 agreements—the factory owner, brands, local unions and women’s rights groups, and international organizations and unions, including the Solidarity Center, Workers United, and the Worker Rights Consortium. The program, which is unique in that it is binding and worker-led, will empower Lesotho unions, human and women’s rights groups to effectively address GBVH. One of its tools is a new Solidarity Center GBVH training video in English and Sesotho, which debuted on Friday, that will be widely disseminated to garment workers during training programs and via social media.
To combat widespread abuse, the program is providing garment workers with GBVH awareness trainings, a confidential reporting system and enforcement processes administered by an entity independent of employer influence. Under the program:
Workers’ Rights Watch, an independent Lesotho-based nonprofit entity established by the agreements, is fully empowered to investigate complaints of GBVH and determine remedies to redress violations of the agreements’ GBVH code of conduct.
A confidential, toll-free information line run by one of the women’s rights organizations is available six days a week for garment workers to discuss GBVH issues and remedies with trained counselors, including determining their rights under the code of conduct and how to participate safely in a complaint and remedy process.
Education and awareness campaigns and programs are being provided to garment workers and their supervisors that get at the root causes of gender discrimination and violence against women, outline the GBVH code of conduct and remedies under the program, and encourage reporting through the information line.
“Painful occurrences have been happening at our place of work,” said Nien Hsing shopfloor union representative ‘Mamoleboheng Mopooane, describing demands by supervisors for sexual favors from workers seeking employment at the factory gate in exchange for work in previous years.
“We are really grateful for this program because before it has even [officially] started, we can see that there are already existing successes,” she said, adding that the program will be of even greater assistance once workers know where to report violence and harassment, and can see that GBVH incidents are taken seriously.
Program partners include Lesotho-based unions and women’s rights groups that will play a key role in implementing the program to ensure that the binding agreements change the culture and practice at Nien Hsing’s factories and provide remedy for victims of GBVH. These include the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA), the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, Lesotho (NACTWU), the United Textile Employees (UNITE) and Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA)-Lesotho; international rights organizations Solidarity Center, Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and Workers United. Global brands Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands and the employer Nien Hsing are signatories to and participants in the binding agreements and GBVH program. Funding comes from Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands together with the Solidarity Center and WRC in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
A 2019 survey of workers at three Nien Hsing factories in Lesotho by WRC, which spurred the agreements, found that nearly two-thirds of the women from three factories who were interviewed reported “having experienced sexual harassment or abuse” or having knowledge of harassment or abuse suffered by co-workers. Women workers from all three factories surveyed identified GBVH as a central concern for themselves and other female employees.
The agreements build on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, in which unions were key participants. The Accord recognizes the fundamental role of collective bargaining in achieving an agreement that is binding and enforced, backed by international brands’ commitment to link their ongoing business with their supplier to their compliance.
The Lesotho GBVH program also is partially modeled after the Fair Food Program, a set of binding agreements between leading food brands, like McDonald’s and Whole Foods, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which uses an independent complaint mechanism.
A vicious crackdown in Belarus on striking workers peacefully protesting President Lukashenko’s refusal to leave power despite months-long popular protests is drawing the attention and condemnation of worker and human rights experts, including Amnesty International, the AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
“The right to strike is guaranteed under international law, and the government is obliged to respect this right, all the more because Belarus has ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98,” says ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow, who also denounced Belarus’s violation of workers’ fundamental right to freedom of assembly and of association rights through police violence and threats targeting the general public.
In Minsk, where 100,000 people marched to deliver a “People’s Ultimatum,” authorities cut off mobile internet access, closed down public transportation, turned out balaclava-clad riot police and military and riot control vehicles at strategic sites, and attacked protesters in the evening.
Participants in Monday’s general strike, including ITUC affiliate the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), demanded Lukashenko’s resignation, a halt to the crackdown and the release of political prisoners. Thousands stayed home or took to the streets—including workers at state-owned factories and private enterprises, including restaurants and cafes—as well as university students and their teachers. At least 155 people were arrested for supporting the strike in Minsk, Borisov, Brest, Grodno, Mogilev and Novopolotsk, human rights group Vesna reported.
Intimidation may have had a chilling factor on the strike, says the BKDP, who also reported that peacefully protesting workers at Minsk’s Hi-Technology Park were being intimidated and dispersed. Other intimidation tactics included visits by security officers to the homes of workers who failed to start their shift at Grodno Azot, a major nitrogen fertilizer producer in Grodno, as reported by the Associated Press.
“A frank disregard is being shown for the most basic of human rights, and the right to strike is now one more that is being mercilessly crushed,” says Amnesty International Acting Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Denis Krivosheev.
The AFL-CIO, in a letter to the BKDP president, praised the BKDP, its affiliates and members for their support for worker rights and democracy despite government repression and harassment.
“Intimidation must end. We support the right of workers to participate in collective actions specifically to demand fair and democratic elections,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Director Rudy Porter.
The ITUC Global Rights Index, has ranked Belarus “no guarantee of rights” for many years under Lukashenko’s government, including in 2020, in part because legal strikes are effectively impossible while illegal strikes fall afoul of severely punitive legislation.
Update: Read the BKDP’s November 2 statement regarding the punishment of striking workers and their leaders, in Russian.
A recent study by NORC at the University of Chicago found that child labor in Ghana and Ivory Coast cocoa production increased 14 percent in less than a decade, demonstrating the urgent need for more effective and inclusive interventions, says the General Agricultural Workers’ Union of Ghana (GAWU). GAWU is reducing child labor in cocoa farming communities by applying a child-labor-reduction model honed in fishing communities on Lake Volta that raises awareness and incomes of parents so kids can stay in school.
“Where the union is present, child labor is absent,” says GAWU Deputy General Secretary Andrews Addoquaye Tagoe about a new video produced with Solidarity Center support. He points to the successful long-term GAWU child labor interventions in fishing communities in Kpando Torkor and, more recently, child labor reduction programs in cocoa farming communities, for which GAWU received an international labor rights defender award this year.
Girl opening a cocoa pod with a sharp machete in a GAWU child labor video
Up to 2 million children are engaged in cocoa production in West Africa, primarily in Ghana and Ivory Coast. The two countries together supply about 70 percent of the world’s cocoa beans. As cocoa production in both countries has increased—by 62 percent during the past decade—so has child labor. In Ghana, 55 percent of children living in agricultural households are reportedly engaged in child labor, more than 90 percent of them engaged in at least one form of hazardous child labor.
Unions are at the heart of sustainable, effective interventions because they engage community leaders, including women and youth, in their design and implementation, as recommended by NORC and the Child Labor Coalition. “We are driven to step up our organizing efforts and help new and current members work with community partners to fight child labor in cocoa,” says Tagoe. “Agriculture without child labor is possible.”
According to the Child Labor Coalition, of which the Solidarity Center is a member, “The industry needs to focus on paying a living income while also rapidly scaling up programs that identify child laborers and ensure that children are able to go to school.”
GAWU is the largest trade union representing formal- and informal-sector farmers and agricultural workers in Ghana, and an affiliate of Solidarity Center partner Trades Union Congress-Ghana (TUC-Ghana) and the International Union of Food, Hotel, Tobacco, Restaurant and Allied Workers (IUF).
A new survey of 700 health workers in six West African countries—Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo—provides a window into health-sector shortcomings that are compounding the region’s ability to respond effectively to the COVID-19 crisis. The survey, conducted by the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA) together with national trade union centers and healthcare unions, was released last week together with a raft of union recommendations for ensuring the protection of health care worker rights and effective, accessible health care for all.
“The results of OTUWA’s health care worker survey are very important for the decision-makers in this region, especially in the midst of a pandemic,” said OTUWA President and National Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Senegal (UNSAS) General Secretary Mademba Sock.
The survey found that most health workers are being subjected to increased workload without additional compensation and feel unsafe at work due to shortages of personal protective equipment and inadequate access to COVID-19 tests. Respondents indicated insufficient health facilities, shortage of medical personnel and unaffordable medical care as their most pressing issues.
OTUWA, which represents trade union national centers in the 15 West African countries comprising the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), will promote the survey’s findings and policy recommendations within regional organizations such as ECOWAS and the West African Health Organization (WAHO). OTUWA will also support affiliates as they engage their own governments on issues that negatively affect health care workers and prevent universal access to good health care.
“The survey findings underscore the fact that workers and unions must be involved in all discussions and decisions about health care systems in our region, so they properly serve everyone’s needs,” said OTUWA Secretary General John Odah, who is urging governments in the region to prioritize and increase budgetary spending on health facilities and supplies.
The survey report was released during an OTUWA-led virtual presentation on October 8, during which Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-Africa general secretary, and David Dorkenoo, International Labor Organization (ILO) Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV) specialist for Ghana, Liberia and Sierra Leone, underlined the survey’s importance for policymakers. Other participating organizations in the event included the Organization of African Trade Union Unity (OATUU); Benin, Gambia, Ghana, Mali, Nigeria and Senegal national union centers; and several health care unions.
“We are brothers and sisters across these countries, and we have learned a lot from the pandemic,” said West Africa Health Sector Unions’ Network (WAHSUN) Chair Perpetual Ofori-Ampofo, during the event.
At Ofori-Ampofo’s suggestion, event participants agreed that union representatives discussing health care issues with their governments should emphasize the urgency of ratifying International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 190. C190 is the world’s first treaty requiring governments to address gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work, which Ofori-Ampofo said is commonly reported by health workers in the region.
The survey is an activity of OTUWA’s new “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign. Launched in Abuja in March, the campaign unites OTUWA affiliates in a fight for equal and fair health care access for all who live within the ECOWAS region.
To promote youth civic engagement and the fair employment of women, workers with disabilities and those migrating outside the country to earn a living, the Solidarity Center’s second annual School of Young Leaders in Bishkek educated dozens of young people in mid-September about their protections under the country’s labor code, with a special focus on disability rights. Event attendees—selected from around the country based on a writing competition—included youth and mentors with disabilities.
“This is my first experience in the framework of an inclusive society—where no one divides into some groups, everyone supports each other, accepts each other equally and shares their experiences,” said Sezim Tolomusheva, organizing and socioeconomic protection lead specialist for the Union of Textile Workers of Kyrgyzstan.
During a session covering how to engage traditional and social media, local disability-rights activist and blogger Askar Turdugulov encouraged attendees to pursue their goals despite limitations, such as the spinal injury that impaired his ability to walk from age 18.
“This [event] is a bright example in the promotion of the principle of ‘equal opportunities for all’ that gives equal labor rights for all people, regardless of their origin, gender or health status,” said Turdugulov.
Participating NGOs, trade unions and government agencies also provided young attendees—many of whom work directly to aid migrant workers and some of whom may one day migrate for work—with information about common challenges for migrant workers, the protective role of the Kyrgyz Migrant Workers’ Trade Union, the importance of pre-departure trainings and information about labor laws in destination countries. Other highlights included discussion on the rights of women at work under national legislation and the International Labor Organization’s 2019 Convention: Eliminating Violence and Harassment in the World of Work (C190). NGOs contributing expertise to the event included the “Equal Opportunities” Social Center and the Public Association of Girls with Disabilities, Nazik-Kyz.
Youth un- and under-employment in Kyrgyzstan stands at 55 percent. Most young people feel forced to migrate in search of work, primarily to Russia and Kazakhstan, although also further to South Korea, Turkey or other countries. Kyrgyz migrant workers provide more than one-third of the Central Asian country’s GDP in money they send home. When workers migrate from Kyrgyzstan, they often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions. Many are at risk of being trafficked and subjected to forced labor.
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 expanding access for people with disabilities to education, justice and employment opportunities, physical therapy and rehabilitation services, medical and social assistance, and ensuring their free movement through promotion of universal design.
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