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.
In a joint effort to protect market vendors and workers and reduce community spread of COVID-19, Kenya’s labor federation, Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU-K), last week provided three of its affiliates with infection control supplies for distribution through the informal worker organizations that they represent. Under the August 13 “COTU CARES” campaign, six organizations that represent almost 6,000 informal workers are distributing to their Nairobi-based members, with Solidarity Center support, 4,000 KN95 face masks, 2,000 pairs of disposable surgical hand gloves, 100 pairs of industrial hand gloves, 140 gallons of liquid handwashing soap, 100 soap containers, 46 gallons of hand sanitizer, 36 handwashing stands and nine thermal body temperature scanners.
“Many people think that trade unions only represent formal workers, but now you know that informal workers are equally important and that’s why we are here,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), which helps represent automobile mechanics.
Recipients of the distribution include informal worker organizations Grogon-Ngara Food Vendors Association, metal worker associations Ambira Jua Kali and Migingo Mechanics Self Help Group, Muthurwa Cleaners Association, Muthurwa Food Court Vendors Association and street vendor association Nairobi Informal Sector Confederation (NISCOF). COTU-K affiliate participants include AUKMW, the Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers Union (KLDTDU), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA).
Given the prominence of market shopping in Kenyan citizen’s daily lives—96 percent of the country’s retail is informal—together with relatively high infection rates of market vendors, infection control at markets is essential for containment of the pandemic. Scientists surveying about 10,000 people in Mozambique last month found that market vendors had the highest rate of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—followed by healthcare workers.
COTU-K and its affiliates are addressing the pandemic on several fronts, including advocating with the Kenyan government to ensure informal worker access to government-provided COVID-19 relief measures such as food support and cash transfers. Solidarity Center partners AUKMW, KUCFAW and KUDHEIHA together with the Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers Union (KLDTDU) are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public. COTU-K and its affiliates are conducting several pandemic relief drives, including food and PPE distribution to flower workers in Isinya, Kajiado County, with the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) on August 17.
The pandemic has thrown systematic inequality in the Kenyan workforce into stark relief. As compared to the fewer than 3 million people who work in the formal sector, Kenya’s nearly 15 million informal sector workers—the majority of whom are women—historically have few legal protections. Most informal-sector workers, which include domestic workers and cleaners, market and street vendors, mechanics and security guards, are not covered by national safety and other employment regulations and have no access to government social programs such as social security, healthcare and unemployment benefits. Last year COTU-K affiliate trade unions representing Kenya’s formal-sector workers in food, health, education and metals signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with informal worker associations in their respective sectors in order to bring 5,600 newly organized informal-sector workers under the country’s legal framework that protects formal workers.
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