Sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are rampant in garment factories in Bangladesh and throughout the textile production and retail industry in South Africa, according to two recently published Solidarity Center reports. The sample surveys are among a broad spectrum of outreach by Solidarity Center partners who also are addressing gender inequities through awareness efforts among informal economy workers and workers with disabilities in Nigeria, in labor rights and career workshops in Armenia and Georgia, and among app-based drivers in multiple countries.
In addressing the root causes of GBVH in the world of work, a priority for the Solidarity Center, workers and civil society join together to advocate collectively beyond the workplace to push for policy and legal reform, expanding democracy.
November 25 marks the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual international campaign in which union activists stand in solidarity with women’s rights activists to highlight the prevalence of GBVH at the workplace and to support feminist movements around the world in calling for a world free from GBVH. The campaign culminates on December 10, Human Rights Day.
As activists mobilize worldwide, here’s a snapshot of how Solidarity Center and its partners are moving forward efforts to end GBVH at the workplace and achieve decent, inclusive work for all.
Garment Industry: Rife with GBVH
Because so little data exists on the prevalence of GBVH at workplaces, union activists and their allies in Bangladesh and South Africa sought to document workers’ experiences at garment factories and clothing outlets. Solidarity Center partners previously conducted similar studies in Cambodia, Indonesia and Nigeria.
In South Africa, 98 percent of the 117 workers surveyed said they had experienced one or more forms of GBVH at work. The Bangladesh survey found severe outcomes for workers who experienced GBVH at work, with 89 percent saying they “broke down mentally” and 45 percent reporting leaving their jobs temporarily and/or losing pay. The survey involved 120 workers in 103 garment factories and was conducted by 21 activists from grassroots and worker organizations.
In many cases, workers’ jobs and wages were at risk if they did not agree to sex with employers or managers. In Bangladesh, 57 percent of survey participants said they lost their jobs because they refused such overtures. As one survey participant in South Africa said:
“My manager called me to his office and said that if I want to extend my hours of work, I must go out with him. He kept on asking, even forcefully and aggressively … I heard from other women workers that he had also asked them.” Survey participants were not identified for their safety.
Both surveys were conducted through participatory action research, rooted in collaboration, education, developing skills and centered on a “Do No Harm” ethos to avoid re-traumatizing interviewees. Through worker-driven strategies to address and prevent GBVH in the garment sector, the processes created a set of recommendations including urging employers to enforce zero tolerance policies for GBVH and for unions to prioritize GBVH prevention and make women worker safety a core union priority.
Key to the recommendations is ratification and enforcement of an international treaty on ending violence and harassment at work. Convention 190 was approved by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2019 after a decade-long campaign led in part by the Solidarity Center and its partners. C190 now must be ratified by governments, and union activists are mobilizing members and allies in ratification campaigns that include awareness-raising about GBVH at work. South African unions, led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), successfully pushed for ratification in 2021.
Reaching Marginalized Workers
Amina Lawal, a Solidarity Center-trained GBVH researcher, leads the way for Nigerian Labor Congress leaders in Lagos’s Mile 12 market. Credit Solidarity Center / Nkechi Odinukwe
In Nigeria, union activists are using awareness raising to address the intersecting challenges facing workers with disabilities who also experience GBVH and gender discrimination at work. Through a weekly radio program and public service ads, the program elevates the voices of workers with disabilities who already are marginalized because of their status, providing a platform where they discuss their concerns around GBVH and access to equal rights to work and pay.
The program stems from recommendations in a survey of more than 600 workers with disabilities in Nigeria by the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) to create mass awareness of disability rights and GBVH.
The radio program also is an avenue to reach workers in Nigeria’s large informal economy. Following the adoption of C190, union leaders at the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC), with Solidarity Center support, began training vendors at the sprawling Mile 12 market in Lagos. The vendors formed a GBVH task force that worked with the NLC to develop a market code of conduct covering gender-based violence and harassment and helped raise awareness among vendors about their rights to a violence-free workplace.
Their outreach resulted in the identification of multiple cases of rape and sexual assault against minors, who often assist their parents in the market. Five people have been arrested and now are awaiting trial for allegedly violating the rights of children between 9 and 14 years old, said Agnes Funmi Sessi, NLC Lagos State Council chairperson.
Building Leadership Skills, Building Power
The OxYGen foundation in Armenia, with Solidarity Center support, held “Women for Labor Rights” seminars this year as part of its professional empowerment network. Credit: Solidarity Center
Building leadership and power within historically marginalized populations to take on issues and traditional hierarchies is a key part of Solidarity Center’s focus on ensuring equality and inclusion at the workplace.
In Armenia and Georgia, young women workers are learning crucial employment skills as part of Strengthening Women’s Participation in the Workforce, a Solidarity Center-supported program in partnership with professional networks and other civil society organizations. The project seeks to increase women’s full, equal and safe participation in the workforce, including vulnerable women workers’ access to decent work. Training sessions include exposure to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions and other career development, and cover labor rights, including the right to a safe and healthy workplace. The programs reach women in rural areas, many of whom are marginalized with limited access to job opportunities and skills building.
In Armenia, where the project operates as the Women Professional Empowerment Network (WPEN), young women take part in an interactive exchange that fosters the development of a supportive network and includes upskilling and raising awareness of employment opportunities, along with advice and guidance about the most in-demand new careers.
Women Delivery Drivers Stand Strong Together
“Not just in Colombia, but worldwide, women are always the ones that are the most vulnerable and paid the worst”—Luz Myriam Fique Cárdenas. Credit: UNIDAPP_Jhonniel Colina
Addressing GBVH is an essential part of campaigns mobilizing app-based drivers to achieve their rights on the job, including the freedom to form unions, as the safety risks they face every day are especially compounded for women platform workers.
“Not just in Colombia, but worldwide, women are always the ones that are the most vulnerable and paid the worst,” Luz Myriam Fique Cárdenas told participants earlier this year at a Solidarity Center-sponsored event, Women Workers Organizing: Transforming the Gig Economy through Collective Action. “We suffer harassment. We don’t have security in the streets because we’re women,” said Cárdenas, president of Unión de Trabajadores de Plataformas (Union of Platform Workers, UNIDAPP) in Colombia.
Recently in Mexico, the Solidarity Center hosted women delivery drivers from seven countries in Latin America and in Nigeria. The eight unions participating agreed on five key gender-focused points for inclusion in the Convention on Decent Work on Digital Platforms now being drafted for consideration by the ILO. The women leaders at the Alza La Voz (Raise Our Voice) forum are planning a joint campaign to ensure the convention addresses the specific challenges women app-based workers face.
As throughout the campaigns to end GBVH at work, women app-based drivers are finding strength in joining together and experiencing the power to improve working conditions through collective action.
“We have to create alliances,” Shair Tovar, gender secretary of the National Union of Digital Workers (UNTA) in Mexico, told participants. “Women can achieve enormous things together.”
While the rapid increase in app-based jobs around the world offers millions of workers additional avenues to ear money, it also creates new opportunities for employer exploitation through low wages, lack of health care and an absence of job safety–and that means unions must take action, says Sarah McKenzie, Solidarity Center program coordination director.
“If we’re going to make sure that workers’ rights are upheld and that we continue to create decent workplaces, we’ve got to care. We’ve got to care about where the work is going and where the workers are,” she says.
In the final episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast series, My Boss Is A Robot, Solidarity Center Executive Director and Podcast Host Shawna Bader-Blau speaks with two Solidarity Center union organizers to explore strategies for ensuring a decent future of work for delivery drivers and others engaged in platform-based jobs.
“Employers will continue to shift more and more toward this organization of work if they think it’s a way to avoid having to be accountable to their workers, a way to avoid labor unions,” says Andrew Tillet-Saks, Solidarity Center organizing director. “So I think in terms of trying to build the whole global labor movement, it’s really the nut that the global labor movement has to crack.”
Throughout the six-part My Boss Is a Robot series, app-based drivers and experts highlight the precarity of work through platforms, where algorithms are the new face of an old scourge: the bad boss. Download this episode and the full My Boss Is a Robot series here or at Spotify, Amazon, Stitcher or wherever you subscribe to your favorite podcasts.
Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) President Joe Ajaero was beaten and arrested November 1 as workers rallied to protest unpaid wages in Imo state in southeastern Nigeria. Police reportedly beat Ajaero and assaulted protesting workers with machetes and confiscated their mobile devices. Some NLC and Nigeria Trade Union Congress members who attended the rally say they have not been paid for up to 20 months. Ajaero was released from police custody to a hospital because of his injuries.
Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau offered this statement:
“The Solidarity Center joins calls by the Nigeria Labor Congress and the Nigeria Trade Union Congress in condemning the assaults on NLC President Joe Ajaero and the workers who rightfully stood up to receive the pay that they worked for and deserve. Violence and bloodshed have no place in the democratic exercise of the freedom to peacefully gather. The fundamental right of workers to be paid what they are owed is one of the bedrock principles of democratic societies. Efforts to intimidate workers and their elected leaders through brutal attacks must be called out for what they are: violations of fundamental human rights as guaranteed by international conventions and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights, all of which the Nigerian government has signed.”
Our thoughts are with Joe Ajaero and all those injured as we call for justice to the perpetrators of these crimes.”
In the Philippines, 200 Grab Food Delivery Riders, through the National Union of Food Delivery Riders (RIDERS-SENTRO), waged a one-day strike October 25 to protest a fare decrease scheduled to start that day.
Grab’s new rate will reduce the base fare from 45 pesos to 35 pesos per order (from 79 cents to 61 cents), and the per kilometer compensation from 10 pesos to 7 pesos (from 18 cents to 12 cents).
The drivers turned off their apps and held a unity ride around the Quezon Memorial Circle in metro Manila, with signs on their motorcycle delivery boxes demanding higher fares and fairly calculated compensation. Grab riders also are seeking comprehensive insurance coverage, social protections and union recognition.
“If the goal of this new fare matrix is to ease the burden on Grab’s customers, it should not come at the expense of the platform’s riders,” Philippines Sen. Risa Hontiveros said in a video statement supporting the delivery riders.
The rally is the second in a week, with more than 80 drivers and their union protesting on October 19 at the Boy Scout Circle in Metro Manila.
Some riders who took part in the rallies reported that their Grab accounts were suspended or terminated, and RIDERS-SENTRO is planning legal action seeking to reinstate them. Several drivers in Pampanga were unjustly fired late last year following a worker rights rally they attended as drivers formed the Pampanga chapter of the National Union of Delivery Riders (RIDERS). They appealed the decision to the National Labor Relations Commission (NLRC) and the case is ongoing.
App-Based Drivers Advocate for Safe Jobs, Better Wages
Despite the challenges helping delivery drivers form unions—drivers have no single workplace and platform companies refuse to acknowledge they are employers so as to avoid fair compensation—RIDERS-SENTRO, a Solidarity Center partner, has made big gains.
(SENTRO General Secretary Josua Mata and John Jay Chan, a driver and union organizer, discuss how they are mobilizing drivers on the latest My Boss Is a Robot Solidarity Center Podcast episode.)
In just over a year, the union established four chapters of delivery drivers in multiple cities and islands and is organizing drivers in another 15 cities. Drivers are also engaging with local and national governments and, together with their union, crafted a Charter of Rights that lists basic rights for gig workers: a minimum wage, a written contract, health or accident insurance, and access to the country’s social security services. The Senate is now considering the bill.
Drivers also successfully advocated for a local ordinance in Cebu City to create free outdoor “riders’ hubs” in commercial outlets with seating and parking to offer drivers shelter from heat and rain.
Despite unfair working conditions, many gig workers need to be convinced to join together in unions or associations to more effectively advocate for basic benefits granted to employees in traditional jobs. On the latest episode of the Solidarity Center Podcast series My Boss Is a Robot, union organizers in the Philippines talk about how they reach workers who believe that they should not—or cannot—–stand up for their rights on the job.
“Many riders thought that we don’t have any labor rights,” John Jay Chan tells Podcast Host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. Chan, a delivery driver, is helping organize app-based food delivery drivers through RIDERS-SENTRO. Launched in 2022, the union has established four chapters in multiple cities and islands and is mobilizing drivers in another 15 cities, while navigating an environment where red-baiting of unions is common and where union members are often threatened, harmed or murdered.
Yet Chan and Josua Mata, SENTRO secretary general, say one of their biggest hurdles is getting drivers to understand they are not freelance workers with no rights but employees of corporate giants that “have effectively disguised the employee-employer relationships that they have with their riders,” says Mata.
“Essentially every rider, whether they’re considered a freelance rider, independent contractor, actual employees of the platform, has to enjoy the rights that every single worker enjoys in this country,” he says. Working with the drivers, the union crafted a Charter of Rights that lists basic rights for gig workers: a minimum wage, a written contract, health or accident insurance, and access to the country’s social security services. The Senate is now considering the bill. The Charter itself provides a focal point for organizing more drivers.
For union organizers, reaching app-based workers with no central workplace and employers who refuse to acknowledge their role requires new approaches. Says Mata: “We in SENTRO will never claim that we know the proper strategy now. We’re practically experimenting. We’re testing everything.” Download The Solidarity Center Podcast to find out more about SENTRO’s strategies for organizing delivery drivers.
“My Boss Is a Robot” is a six-part series that seeks to shine a light on the behind-the-scenes practices of app companies that exploit workers in the global gig economy. Download the latest episode, Tips to Help Delivery Drivers Form Unions, and watch for the final episode on November 8.
Listen to this episode and all Solidarity Center episodes here or at Spotify, Amazon, Stitcher or wherever you subscribe to your favorite podcasts.