WEST AFRICA UNIONS FIGHT FOR WORKER RIGHTS IN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT

WEST AFRICA UNIONS FIGHT FOR WORKER RIGHTS IN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
WEST AFRICA UNIONS FIGHT FOR WORKER RIGHTS IN FREE TRADE AGREEMENT
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The African Continental Free Trade Area (AfCFTA) was sold with the promise to “promote and attain sustainable and inclusive socioeconomic development, gender equality and structural transformation.” However, many governments’ failure to engage civil society partners, including the labor movement, as they begin to develop national strategies and plans for implementation of the agreement means that the rights of working people are not being effectively represented or protected, and their access to decent work is therefore imperiled.

“Unions in my country are not fully aware of the AfCFTA,” says Sierra Leone Labor Congress (SLLC) Secretary General Max Conteh.

Similarly, trade unions in Mali are yet to familiarize themselves with the agreement and its provisions, says Union Nationale des Travailleurs de Mali (UNTM) General Secretary Seydou Diarra.

In Burkina Faso, “[W]e were not consulted,” says Confédération Nationale des Travailleurs de Burkina (CNTB) Secretary General Augustin Blaise Hien—adding that the AfCFTA is not well synchronized with the country’s existing national plans. AfCFTA creates the largest free trade area in the world measured by the number of countries participating, connecting 1.3 billion people across 55 countries with a combined gross domestic product (GDP) valued at $3.4 trillion. The agreement, which was ratified by the required number of countries in 2019 and came into force last year, is designed to increase intra-African commerce through trade liberalization and enhanced regulatory harmonization and coordination across African states—including a process that will gradually eliminate tariffs on 90 percent of goods.

AfCFTA has potential to raise all boats, including through harmonization of member countries’ labor provisions with international standards. However, unions say that without their participation as advocates for workers’ interests as implementation moves forward, worker rights protections and the shared prosperity promised by agreement proponents—including business and governments—are far from assured.

For example, worker rights and safety improvements cannot be realized under provisions of the AfCFTA until the region’s governments improve current labor laws—or their enforcement systems—say unions. Niger’s current mechanism for applying labor rights, such as labor inspections, does not yet present enough guarantees, says Union Syndicale des Travailleurs du Niger (USTN) Secretary General Alain Adikan. And, in Ghana, lack of resources detracts from the ability of various government agencies to promote and protect the rights of workers and their unions, says Ghana Trades Union Congress (GTUC) Labor Research and Policy Institute Deputy Director Prince Asafu-Adjaye.

And say some West African unions, tighter rules are needed to protect African markets. Countries that import more than they export, like Niger, are potentially disadvantaged under certain provisions of the AfCFTA agreement, says Adikan.

“[It] could lead to enormous losses for a country like ours due to the removal of customs barriers… and can have dire consequences on the purchasing power of workers,” he says.

Inclusive socioeconomic development requires decent worksays the International Labor Organization (ILO). The four pillars of the ILO Decent Work Agendaemployment creation, social protection, rights at work and social dialogue—are therefore integral elements of the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.  

With Solidarity Center support, the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA) is developing and sharing a regional position paper on how to address worker rights and promote a decent work agenda within the continental agreement—with participation of the Federation of African Journalists—to educate the public on what is at stake. With its members, OTUWA is focused on mobilizing civil society organizations to better protect consumers’ and working people’s interests as implementation proceeds.

This month eight countries—Cameroon, Egypt, Ghana, Kenya, Mauritius, Rwanda, Tanzania and Tunisia—launched the Guided Trade Initiative. The first products to be traded under AfCFTA include ceramic tiles, coffee, corn starch, processed meat products, sugar and tea.

Kosovo Workers Strike for Wage Relief

Kosovo Workers Strike for Wage Relief

Workers demanding relief from inflationary pressure on wages will launch a general strike on Thursday unless the Kosovo government grants public sector workers an emergency wage increase of almost $100 per month. This proposed amount will provide most public sector workers—including doctors and nurses—with an immediate 20 percent increase in lieu of a long-delayed wage law, says the Union of Independent Trade Unions of Kosovo (BSPK).

“It is the [failure of] the wage law that obliges us to go on strike,” says BSPK Chairperson Atdhe Hykolli, who announced that the work stoppage will last until the workers’ plea for relief is met.

According to BSPK, Kosovo’s workers and their families can no longer meet their basic needs due to historic inflation. The country’s inflation rate is inching higher each month, reaching a 14-year high of more than 14 percent in June and it increased again in July.

Escalating costs for food and non-alcoholic beverages, housing and utilities, and transportation are the main driver of inflationary pressure on wages in Kosovo. For the 12 months ending in June this year, the cost of transportation increased more than 30 percent while the cost of food and non-alcoholic beverages increased by more than 17 percent.  From 2003 through 2021, the country’s inflation rate was less than two percent per year. The average public sector worker’s take-home pay of $542 has not increased since 2021.

“The situation for workers in Kosovo is like those in many countries around the world: Rising costs coupled with stagnant wages is simply not sustainable,” says Solidarity Center Southeastern Europe Country Program Director Steven McCloud.

Bangladesh Domestic Workers Stand Up for Their Rights!

Bangladesh Domestic Workers Stand Up for Their Rights!

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.

Photos: Solidarity Center/Amir Hasan Shahriar

AFL-CIO CALLS FOR RELEASE OF 17 DETAINED BELARUS UNION LEADERS

AFL-CIO CALLS FOR RELEASE OF 17 DETAINED BELARUS UNION LEADERS

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.

Read the full letter.

‘THE FACTORY IS GREEN, THE JOB IS NOT’—BANGLADESH GARMENT WORKER

‘THE FACTORY IS GREEN, THE JOB IS NOT’—BANGLADESH GARMENT WORKER

A new internal Solidarity Center survey 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.”

The Bangladesh government has declared three Dhaka rivers biologically “dead” due to the untreated effluent flowing into them.

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.

 

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