“There’s extensive research and empirical studies on the working class and unions and the critical role that they’ve played in forging and defending democracies,” Cornell University law professor Angela Cornell tells Podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “The organized working class was the primary carrier of democracy, playing a decisive role in the forging of democratic regimes and the most consistently pro-democratic force, which pushed forward and fought for democracy against the resistance of other class actors.
Unions, in Coalition, Advance Democracy in Colombia
A recent example is unfolding in Colombia, where a diverse coalition of unions, young people, members of Black and Indigenous communities and others joined together to craft changes to the country’s laws that reflect the needs of workers and all communities historically marginalized by the government. Their efforts resulted in the election of a progressive slate of candidates in August, including Francia Márquez, a former housekeeper, union member and Colombia’s first Black vice president.
“We had focused so many of our efforts on changing, on getting to pick something different in over 200 years of our republic,” says labor lawyer and union activist Mery Laura Perdomo. “We focused on taking the streets. Every union became essential where the campaign was discussed. They became forums for the discussion of politics, on how to change the country. In every square you would see students talking to the citizens about the different candidates, about the different political programs and why this was important.”
Perdomo, who is on staff with the Solidarity Center and International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) network, and Cornell, who recently co-edited the Cambridge Handbook of Labor and Democracy, describe how unions’ role in reducing economic inequality, strengthening the social safety net and uniting diverse groups create more democratic outcomes.
“The Haitian government must ensure that workers earn life-supporting wages,” according to the study, which recommends the Haiti government increase the minimum wage to a living wage and ensure that “workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are fully respected, so that workers are empowered to negotiate wage increases and improve working conditions with employers.”
The report builds on two previous living wage studies the Solidarity Center published in 2014 and 2019 and an unpublished 2011 living wage report that demonstrate the daily minimum wage for garment workers is far less than the estimated cost of living—including in 2019, when inflation was 18.7 percent. The latest data from May 2022 show Haiti’s inflation rate at 27.8 percent.
Garment Worker Unions Seek to Build on Wage Gains
Garment workers say that despite recent improvements in benefits, the current wage is far from what they need. In August, Haitian garment workers in Port-Au-Prince scored a victory after a coalition of unions negotiated an agreement with the government to provide garment workers with transportation and food stipends. The government made improvements in February, after garment workers and their unions held protests in January demanding a living wage in line with the Haitian Labor Code, which stipulates that if the inflation rate exceeds 10 percent, the wage is to be adjusted.
Haitians, especially the most marginalized, are suffering from a wave of violence this year that, along with fuel shortages, impact transport along Haiti’s roadways, preventing many apparel workers from getting to work and materials from arriving at factories. After paying a significant portion of their wages for transportation to work—and enduring an often-dangerous journey—some apparel workers are sent home without pay because the factory has not received supplies necessary for production, according to the report.
The country’s garment industry is the largest source of formal employment for workers in Haiti, where the majority of 58,571 garment workers are women and often the only wage earners for their families. Yet they routinely face worker rights abuses, including occupational safety and health violations and wage theft. Factory management frequently do not pay into the national health insurance system for occupational injury, sickness and maternity (OFATMA), failures that even have led to worker death.
To compile the study, three data collectors in May and June surveyed the prices of products and services for a locally appropriate basket of goods, including housing, transportation, food and education and used the standard 48-hour work week to determine cost of living needs.
In a significant assault on worker rights in Ukraine, President Volodymyr Zelensky last week signed into law legislation that deprives around 73 percent of workers of their right to union protection and collective bargaining.
“For more than 15 months, the Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine, in solidarity with other trade unions, with support of the international community, actively opposed promotion of the anti-labor draft law,” the Federation (FPU) said in a statement.
The Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) stated, “KVPU will not tolerate a blatant violation of the rights of workers, their constitutional guarantees and international norms and standards. We will continue the fight for workers’ rights.”
The law references “freedom of contract,” which the non-governmental organization Labor Initiatives says “provides ample room for employers to prescribe literally any provisions in a contract, while workers, desperate for jobs during a pandemic, will likely accept such provisions.” Labor Initiatives is a Solidarity Center partner that works closely with unions and other NGOs, analyzes labor laws and advocates for worker rights at the individual and national levels.
The law applies to Ukrainian companies with fewer than 250 workers, and is valid during martial law in Ukraine, but labor experts express concern that it may be extended.
The law, which amended the Labor Code of Ukraine, is the latest in a string of legislation targeting worker rights and the ability of unions to function freely. For the past two years, lobbyists have pushed laws in Parliament that reduce wages, limit the use of formal contracts that ensure workers have job stability and weaken their collective voice by targeting unions. Under the restrictions of martial law and the chaos of war, members of Parliament have passed many of these measures.
“Instead of having some greater protection of labor rights, greater protection of the people who are baking bread, washing dishes or cleaning the streets, since March we faced very regressive labor reform in Ukraine,” George Sandul, a Kyiv-based labor lawyer, said on the latest episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast, where he detailed the laws.
The FPU points out that in 2021, the European Parliament indicated as part of the European Union–Ukraine Association Agreement that Ukraine’s “measures to improve the business climate, attract direct investment and promote economic development cannot be implemented at the expense of limiting workers’ rights and worsening working conditions.”
With martial law prohibiting workers from public protest and strikes, the FPU, KVPU and other Ukrainian trade unions say they will challenge the law in Ukraine’s Constitutional Court, the International Labor Organization and other international and European bodies.
“We will also vigorously oppose dozens of other anti-labor and anti-union pieces of legislation that government lobbyists are trying to push through the Parliament,” the FPU says.
Excessive heat, flooding and pollution are some of the negative environmental effects a majority of garment workers in Cambodia say they have experienced in their factories, resulting in lost pay, illness and other hardships, according to a new study examining the toll of climate change on workers in the garment industry.
“What we’re seeing now is that during the rainy season, factories will be flooded, and floods cut off roads so workers cannot commute to the workplace,” says Sina Pav, president of the Collective Union of the Movement of Workers (CUMW), which represents more than 30 local garment worker unions. CUMW negotiated an agreement with employers in which workers receive 50 percent of their pay when factories close due to flooding, but nonunionized workers typically receive no wages for the days or even weeks a factory is closed.
Lost pay is especially burdensome for workers in precarious jobs: Even before the recent surge in inflation, garment workers’ wages failed to keep up with the cost of living, with their minimum wage at $194 per month.
Climate Change: Far-Reaching Effects on Workers
While the impact of climate change is more obvious for agricultural workers and others who make their living outdoors, the report makes clear that escalating heat, pollution and rain adversely affect workers in a range of jobs.
“It was not sizzling like this in the past, 10 years ago,” says Sarath, a union representative in a Kandal factory, quoted in the report. “Nowadays, it is burning from 9 a.m. In Cambodia, we have flooding and many other things … the weather has changed dramatically.”
Some 22 percent of Cambodian garment workers experiencing heat stress reported that it compromised their ability to work, and 6 percent said they had missed work as a result of excess heat, according to the report. As workers suffer, the survey finds a 2.75 percent reduction in overall productivity which, if extrapolated across the country, would translate to an average annual $290 million reduction in Cambodia’s value of export goods.
Climate Change Harshest in Poor Working Conditions
Poor working conditions exacerbate the effects of climate change. In a key finding, the report says workers on fixed-term contracts are substantially more likely to perceive temperature changes than workers on unlimited duration contracts (85 percent versus 47 percent).
Employers frequently keep workers on short-term, fixed-duration contracts, in many cases using loopholes to allow them to do so for longer than the legally permitted time, or firing workers before they would be legally required to move onto undetermined duration contracts. With no job security, workers on short-term contracts fear they will lose their jobs if they join unions, which have worked to address health and safety issues related to climate change long before issues of excessive heat and flooding had a name.
“Climate change put a label on what we understood. These are not new issues for the union,” says Pav. “I think people can generally agree it is getting quite hotter, but more important, we want the employer to be aware of and address the issues.”
CMUW has been working with garment employers to address heat by adding exhaust fans, insulation and cooling systems to factories. Government also has a role, he says, in providing proper infrastructure such as functioning sewage systems. Key to moving solutions are the fashion brands that contract with factories.
“Brands have an important role to urge implemention and prevent climate change,” he said, citing how the recent involvement of a fashion brand sped up what had been protracted negotiations with a garment factory owner over heat mitigation.
Even as war rages in Ukraine, with daily bombings, food and medicine shortages and tens of thousands of displaced people crowded in cramped public spaces, the Ukrainian Parliament recently passed a series of laws that attack workers’ basic rights on the job and undermine the ability of unions to freely function.
“Instead of having some greater protection of labor rights, greater protection of the people who are baking bread, washing dishes or cleaning the streets, since March we faced very regressive labor reform in Ukraine,” says George Sandul, a Kyiv-based labor lawyer, on the latest episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast.
Sandul outlined a series of laws parliament recently pushed through as martial law limited the ability of union members to strike or protest the changes, and as many unions and their members are focused on providing humanitarian assistance.
‘Unions in Ukraine have literally invested everything to support their country—union offices and labor halls have become shelters and refugee support centers. In some cases, unions have even donated all their money,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director and Podcast Host Shawna Bader-Blau.
“And in return for their heroism, sacrifice and commitment to country, big business and their allies in parliament want to slash workers’ collective rights to bargain for better wages.”
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