LGBTQ workers in Southeastern Europe face daunting barriers to attaining equality and safety on the job, among them exclusion, discrimination in obtaining employment, harassment and violence on the job, and poverty.
In the region, two-thirds of workers who identify as LGBTQ hide their identity due to fear of losing their job, fear of alienation and discrimination from other colleagues, fear of violence and fear of exploitation, according to research by LGBTQ Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey (ERA), an umbrella organization for more than 60 LGBTQ groups in the region. ERA also reports that 16 percent of workers surveyed have experienced unfair treatment with respect to employment conditions, and 41 percent of workers have witnessed negative conduct toward their colleagues who identify as LGBTQ.
“This is where unions come in. These are workers who are being harassed simply for showing up and doing their job. That is definitely a trade union issue,” says Steven McCloud, country program director for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.
This year, the Solidarity Center launched a program with Southeast Europe regional trade union network Solidarnost, participating unions in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, and Pride at Work, which represents LGBTQ union members in the United States, to take on LGBTQ worker issues and build solidarity by addressing LGBTQ discrimination and harassment at work as part of larger efforts tied to improving occupational safety and health and eradicating gender-based violence and harassment on the job. The program focuses on the intersection of LGBTQ rights with workers’ rights to safe and healthy workplaces free from violence and harassment.
Countries in Southeastern Europe have some laws that protect LGBTQ people from basic discrimination. However, the struggle often lies in creating a safe space where LGBTQ workers who experience discrimination can come forward, exercise their rights and be supported, McCloud says.
“This can be done through promoting practices that strengthen their visibility, representation and capacity in trade unions in those countries,” says McCloud. “LGBTQ rights are worker rights, and unions need to ensure that LGBTQ workers are meaningfully included and represented.”
Trade unions shuttered workplaces and brought thousands of people to the streets Monday in Myanmar, mobilizing a general strike as part of their continued resistance to the military takeover of the government on February 1.
In a statement calling for a nationwide strike on Sunday, the coalition of 18 unions said: “To continue economic and business activities as usual, and to delay a general work-stoppage, will only benefit the military as they repress the energy of the Myanmar people; The time to take action in defense of our democracy is now. The workers of Myanmar are prepared to take action to protect democracy and save our future generations from dictatorship. We believe all Myanmar people are prepared to respond to a call to action.”
In response to worker leadership in the civil disobedience movement (CDM), including other work stoppages, the military has declared at least 16 labor unions to be “illegal organizations” and has arrested or filed arrest orders for at least 71 individual union leaders, sources in the Myanmar labor movement tell the Solidarity Center. In 135 confirmed cases, workers have been fired for participating in street protests, while thousands more have had their factory jobs threatened if they participate further in the CDM.
The unions, mostly led by women, are on the front line with students and broader civil society calling for a return to democracy. For their leadership, they have had their union offices and homes and dormitories, where most garment workers live, raided and warrants for their arrest issued. Over the weekend, according to the Confederation of Trade Unions-Myanmar (CTUM), the military sought to arrest seven labor leaders, five women and two men: CTUM Women’s Committee President Swe Swe Khaing; AMG Garment Factory Union President Thet Mar Soe; Honor Garment Factory Union President, Sai Min Theta; Popular Garment Factory Union Secretary Treasurer Aye Thandar; Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar union organizers San Sen and Myo Min Win; and Ei Ei Hlian, an executive committee member of Charming Garment Factory Union.
More than 60 people have been killed during the brutal crackdown on protesters and nearly 2,000 people have been arrested.
Since the political opening to quasi democracy in 2011, Myanmar has seen rapid growth in foreign direct investment. Major multinational brands source from factories there, with low-paid workers producing garments, footwear, sports equipment, cars and consumer goods. The country logged $4.5 billion in garment exports from October 2019 to July 2020.
Myanmar unions are urging countries and businesses to publicly condemn the coup; to exercise due diligence to ensure no business or investment is linked directly to or associated with the military; to announce that future international investments in the country would be reconsidered if democracy is not restored; ensure that no worker or union leaders are punished for going on strike or joining the current demonstrations against the coup; and to protect and respect freedom of association and the rights to assemble and peacefully protest.
The global labor movement has condemned the military coup, including the International Trade Union Confederation, AFL-CIO and IndustriALL, and called for the immediate restoration of democracy.
In an historic judgment, the South African Constitutional Court in mid-November recognized that injury and illness arising from work as a domestic worker in a private home is no different to that occurring in other workplaces and equally deserving of compensation. Beyond recognizing occupational hazards in the home, the decision also recognized the broader harm wrought by the invisibility of gendered, racialized work in the privacy of homes in the context of post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa.
In the case of Mahlangu and Another v Minister of Labor and Others, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), with support from the Solidarity Center, challenged the constitutionality of provisions of the Compensation for Occupational Injury and Illness Act (COIDA), which precludes domestic workers employed in private homes from making claims to the Compensation Fund in cases of illness, injury, disablement or death at work. The Constitutional Court agreed that this exclusion violates rights to social security, equality and dignity, and it made this finding retroactively applicable from 1994, the date the South African constitution was enacted. In so doing, the court articulated a theory of intersectional discrimination and moved forward its own jurisprudence on indirect discrimination, infusing the right to social security, dignity and retrospective application with an intersectional analysis. It also reframed the narrative on domestic workers: no longer invisible but “unsung heroines in this country and globally”(paragraph 1).
The judgment gives a central role to international law, and establishes that “in assessing discrimination against a group or class of women of this magnitude that a broad national and international approach be adopted in the discourse affecting domestic workers“(Paragraph 42). It continues that, under international law conventions, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the exclusion of domestic workers from COIDA is inexplicable.
The court found that COIDA is a form of social security because the inability to work or the loss of a breadwinner’s support as a result of the COIDA exclusion, traps domestic workers and their dependents in cycles of poverty. According to the court this exclusion is unreasonable because it did not take into account the needs of the most vulnerable members of society, particularly those who experience compounded vulnerabilities arising from intersecting maltreatment based on race, sex, gender and/or class. It concludes that there is no legitimate objective to the exclusion, rather it entrenches patterns of disadvantage.
This case could be easily disposed on grounds of direct discrimination, since the majority found the exclusion irrational and arbitrary, and therefore constitutionally invalid. However, the case provided the court with a unique opportunity to interpret constitutional provisions on indirect discrimination, using an intersectional framework: Domestic workers “are predominantly Black women … and discrimination against them constitutes indirect discrimination on the basis of race, sex and gender” (paragraph 75). It goes on to find that discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and sex are not only presumptively unfair “but the level of discrimination is aggravated”(paragraph 73).
The court took the opportunity to enunciate a theory of intersectionality, which considers the social structures that shape the experience of marginalization, and the convergence of sexism, racism and class stratification. Viewed historically, the racial hierarchy established by apartheid, placed Black women at the bottom of the social hierarchy and relegated them to low-skilled and low-paid sectors of the workforce, such as domestic work. This sector was and is predominated by Black women and remains the third largest employer of women in South Africa. Yet it continues to be characterized by poverty-level salaries and poor living conditions, in which domestic workers are deprived of their own family while caring for that of their employers. As a result, the court found that domestic workers are a “critically vulnerable group of workers,” declaring the COIDA exclusion invalid both at an individual and group level (paragraph 106).
The case centers on Maria Mahlangu, who was employed as a domestic worker in a private house for 22 years. According to her family, she was partially blind and could not swim. In March 2012 while at work, she fell into her employer’s swimming pool and drowned. When Mahlangu’s dependent daughter approached the Department of Labor for compensation, she was told that she was precluded from doing so under COIDA. Then SADSAWU organizer Pinky Mashiane read about the incident in a newspaper and approached the family to see how she could assist.
In 2013, the Solidarity Center embarked on a research project under a USAID grant to examine domestic workers’ socioeconomic rights in South Africa, which culminated in a list of domestic worker issues requiring urgent law reform. At the top of this list was inclusion of domestic workers in COIDA. Indeed, the issue had been on the agenda since 2001, without legislative reform being passed.
At the same time the Solidarity Center was looking for a litigant to challenge COIDA’s constitutionality. Pinky Mashiane—after having been turned down by multiple lawyers and law centers—was looking for a remedy to assist Mahlangu’s family. The Solidarity Center approached lawyers in South Africa as well as SADSAWU leadership with the proposal to litigate this case in constitutional terms, with financial support. Beginning in 2015, the case wound its way through the South African court system, litigated before the Constitutional Court by lawyers from the Social and Economic Rights Institute (SERI).
The case benefited from sustained advocacy at global and local levels. In 2019 , the Solidarity Center and partners brought the issue of domestic workers’ exclusion from COIDA before the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was considering South Africa’s compliance with treaty obligations. In its concluding observations, cited in the Constitutional Court’s decision, the Committee recommended that South Africa include domestic workers in COIDA. Similarly, in the early stages of litigation, the amicus, the Gender Commission of South Africa, expressed frustration at the almost complete absence of information on the types of injuries and illnesses arising in the context of domestic work in private homes. To fill this vacuum, Solidarity Center commissioned qualitative research consisting of in-depth interviews with domestic workers around the country, describing the types of injury and illness occurring in the context of the home. After the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, which had severe consequences for domestic workers, domestic worker unions and partners also put together a petition to try and propel the legislature to include domestic workers in COIDA. Most significantly, at each of the numerous court hearings, the domestic worker unions and groups maintained a constant presence at the court, and in the media, insisting that the death of Maria Mahlangu not be in vain.
When Solidarity Center initially proposed constitutional impact litigation on COIDA, it was with the hope that a successful outcome in this case would serve three purposes: obtain much-needed relief for domestic workers who were outside of COIDA’s purview; strengthen domestic worker unions; and create an important precedent that would lay the foundation for jurisprudence on domestic workers that could serve as a global marker.
The Mahlangu decision will clearly achieve the first as it removes the legal obstacle to domestic workers claiming compensation, with immediate and retrospective effect. Meanwhile, the long road to Mahlangu has also strengthened a growing coalition of unions and NGOs that have articulated their claims effectively in all forms of media. The fact that after 26 years of democracy, Mahlangu is the first case brought by the domestic worker union to the apex court of South Africa and guardian of constitutional values is a significant milestone.
Yet, perhaps the greatest import of Mahlangu might lie both in its precedent and in the paradigm it establishes to conceptualize domestic work. Using international human rights norms as a reference point, the court sets up an approach on domestic workers as a category, which stands to benefit domestic workers in South Africa and beyond. It also reasserts the goals of transformative constitutionalism as “undoing gendered and racialized poverty” and insists that an intersectional and historic lens is essential to the achievement of structural and systematic transformation. Indeed, the adoption of a historical lens allows the Court to reframe the narrative of domestic workers and their place in South Africa’s constitutional democracy: no longer powerless and invisible, but foundational toSouth Africa’s constitutional project. This reframing is captured eloquently in the concurring judgment of Justice Mhlantla who asserts that these Black women are smart, creative and survivors; who frequently work in environments that are emotionally and physically challenging, and which carry vestiges of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past. She concludes: “On the contrary, they have a voice,” and according to Justice Mhlanthla J (paragraph 195) as well as the substance of majority judgment, the Constitutional Court is “listening.”
Around the world, workers and their labor unions and have joined in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protesters in the United States, demonstrating support for peaceful marches, and decrying racism, police brutality and inequality—in the United States and in their own countries.
In South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) expressed outrage “at the extent to which racism is deeply entrenched and vicious in the U.S., particularly against blacks and other minority groups in a country purporting to be the world’s leading democracy.” COSATU also is one of the organizers of “Black Friday,” a campaign calling on South Africans to wear black every Friday to show solidarity in the fight against racism.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions wrote: “Saying ‘Black Lives Matter!’ is not just about opposing police brutality though. It is also about the structure of society: the political and economic systems that devalue black lives, black land, black culture and blackness.”
In a letter, the Nigerian Labor Congress condemned the murder of George Floyd and demanded justice for his killing, and demanded that world governments and institutions “take very strong and stern steps to stamp out racism in all its shades on the streets, in the workplace, and on play grounds.” And the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers took to Twitter, calling George Floyd’s murder “unacceptable in this modern day.”
Meanwhile, the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions said, “We recognize that anti-blackness is an injustice that must continue to be addressed fearlessly in the United States and around the world. We strongly believe that labor unions have a crucial role to play in this fight.”
In a letter of support, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions said, “Racism has no place in the modern-day world,” adding that it “supports the fight of the American people to dismantle racism and establish equality and social justice.”
Africans also marched in Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal.
Union activists support rally in support of Black Lives Matter in Thailand, Nigeria, Brazil and Tunisia.
Across Brazil, unions have organized rallies and panel discussions, and have sent letters in support of the U.S. protest movement. The CUT, which also participated in #BlackoutTuesday, said, “There have been centuries of oppression, inequalities and social injustices. Especially in this pandemic moment, the working class is the one who suffers the consequences both for the defense of lives as well as for the defense of jobs and rights, in addition to ensuring survival for many who can no longer guarantee their income in the informal economy.”
Brazil’s National Confederation of Workers in the Financial Sector (CONTRAF) repudiated all police violence against black people—especially in Brazil, where “75.4% of victims by Brazilian police were black” in 2019. And Brazil’s UGT, garment-sector federation CNTRV and the Center for Human Rights and Immigrant Citizenship conducted an online anti-racism campaign.
Tunisia’s UGTT called on all the unions around the globe to “build an international united front against racism and hatred, and to build social justice and equality in the USA and all over the world.”
On the other side of the world in Bangkok, about 50 Thai trade union leaders, staff and members gathered for the rally at the U.S. embassy to call on the U.S. government to stop police violence, racism and discrimination against black people. Garment unions in Bangladesh and Myanmar—in their own difficult fight for survival during the COVID-19 pandemic—posted photos of solidarity. To protesters in U.S. streets, the Bangladesh Sommolito Garment Sramik Federation tweeted, “What you are doing is necessary and vital to dismantle the oppression that saturates our world and deliver a future where justice prevails.”
All are Solidarity Center partners.
See the Solidarity Center’s statement on Black Lives Matter and the fight for social justice here.
The Solidarity Center is deeply saddened by the death of our colleague and friend, Lyuba Frenkel, senior program officer for Europe and Central Asia, who succumbed July 30 after a brave battle with brain cancer.
Over Lyuba’s 26-year career with the Solidarity Center, she was instrumental in designing, supporting and monitoring projects that bolstered freedom of association throughout Eastern Europe, and for several years also in Southeast Asia. She built close cooperation with local partners, with a focus on collective bargaining, grievance representation, labor laws, trade union organizing, dispute resolution, migration and worker rights. Throughout her successful career, Lyuba never missed an opportunity to convince workers their lives can be better when they join in a union to fight for their interests together.
“A quiet person with a passion for the work, Lyuba helped thousands of workers understand and exercise their rights,” said Rudy Porter, Solidarity Center regional program director, Europe and Central Asia. “She will be deeply missed, both within the Solidarity Center and among the dozens of partner organizations around the globe with which she had such close ties.”
Lyuba was a tireless defender of those who suffered persecution because of their participation in independent unions, and almost daily sought new ways to push their cases to the forefront of public attention. And as a longtime advocate for women’s leadership to drive economic justice and social protection for all, Lyuba was an important catalyst for the Solidarity Center’s gender work today. She was especially involved in building union campaigns in Eastern Europe to end gender-based violence in the workplace.
“In her 26 years with the Solidarity Center, Lyuba stood firmly by people engaged in some of the world’s most consequential struggles for worker rights and human dignity. She did so with integrity and generosity, born of her deep commitment to justice. Lyuba was respected, liked and admired by everyone she worked with, and we will miss her,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director.
Lyuba is survived by her mother and daughter.
A graveside memorial service will take place at 1 p.m. Sunday, August 4, at the Garden of Remembrance Memorial Park, 14321 Comus Rd., Clarksburg, Maryland.