As the U.S. Congress considers renewal of the Caribbean Basin Trade Partnership Act (CBPTA) for Haiti, labor rights provisions must be enforced for trade benefits to reach 57,000 Haiti garment workers, says Solidarity Center Americas Regional Program Director Lauren Stewart.
Further, trade preference programs with Haiti, such as the CBTPA, which allows duty-free access for Caribbean countries to the U.S. markets, have not specified labor rights enforcement “in a way that there is actual teeth,” Stewart said.
Solidarity Center union partners in Haiti say trade agreements should specify the amount of time a factory can be in noncompliance before losing its trade preference eligibility, and should be required to demonstrate progress in remedying violations before being readmitted, she says. Further, unions say there should be a limited number of times a noncompliant factory can be admitted to trade preference programs.
Haiti Garment Workers Struggle to Form Unions
Trade preference agreements for Haiti’s garment industry must include enforcement for decent working conditions and freedom to form unions—Lauren Stewart
With labor abuses unaddressed, garment workers endure poor working conditions and low wages: A 2019 Solidarity Center living expense survey estimated the minimum wage for garment workers in Port-au-Prince at least three times less than basic cost of living.
But because the country has a history of repressing worker efforts to form unions to improve working conditions, many workers fear exercising their right to freedom of association.
“Trade preference programs that enforce workers’ right to organize and bargain is critical to improve working conditions in Haiti,” Stewart told committee members.
There is only one authentic collective bargaining agreement in the garment sector—which means “the great majority of workers are unable to negotiate higher wages and lack a voice in shaping the terms of their labor,” Stewart said.
Although the CBTPA and other trade preference programs in the Caribbean Basin Initiative have stimulated Haiti’s garment industry, Stewart says the economic gains of garment industry have not translated into decent wages and working conditions.
Enforcing worker rights provisions in the CBTPA is “critical to guaranteeing internationally recognized worker rights and fostering the rule of law, both of which are necessary to promote stability and economic development in Haiti,” Stewart said.
The CBPTA expires September 30 and Congress is considering its renewal to 2030.
Witnesses also included Republic of Haiti Ambassador Hervé H. Denis,Georges Sassine, Association des Industries d’Haïti board member, Beth Baltzan, principal at American Phoenix Trade Advisory Services and Jerry Cook, Hanesbrands vice president for government and trade relations.
The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) is calling on employers and the government to join with it in addressing the severe challenges textile workers are facing during the COVID-19 crisis and negotiate an action plan to guide the struggling garment sector.
Some 160,000 workers, the vast majority of whom are women younger than age 35, work in Tunisia’s textile industry, which accounts for 34 percent of the country’s manufacturing sector. Following the country’s coronavirus lockdown, workers lost jobs and pay, in part because the industry experienced a 45.2 percent decline in textile exports in March from the previous year, according to the National Institute of Statistics in Tunisia. Many corporate brands also canceled “mid-season” orders.
But crucially, employers also took advantage of the COVID-19 crisis to cease or suspended paying workers’ social security benefits or family allowances, such as food tickets, under the pretext of force majeure, union leaders say. Employers coerced workers, especially new employees, into signing fixed-term contracts and giving up their status as permanent workers. Workers also say some employers blocked their efforts to form unions to gain fundamental rights on the job, closed union offices—prohibiting workers from meeting in the office even outside working hours—and removed posters and other legally placed union material from worksites.
Habib Al-Hazami. Credit: General Federation of Textile Leather and Footwear
“All trade union activists and the General Federation affirm that the garment and textile sector in Tunisia has been marginalized and is facing a crisis,” says Habib Al-Hazami, general secretary of the General Federation of Textile, Leather, and Footwear.
In April, the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the Tunisian Federation for Industry and Trade entered into a landmark agreement on workers’ wages, including textile workers’ wages. The government agreed to contribute $73 per worker, with the remaining salary paid by employer. Employers also agreed to register unregistered workers with the National Social Security Fund within a month after the agreement to ensure they are eligible for social benefits.
Although the lockdown ended June 27 and many factories resumed nearly full production, union leaders say worker rights’ violations persist, with factories not following government regulations to slow the spread of the novel coronavirus.
In calling for discussions with employers and the government, UGTT is seeking to:
Strengthen job security for garment and textile workers by reducing short-term contracts and increasing formal employment.
Examine how best to restructure the sector with a focus on ethical market competition so workers do not bear the brunt of corporate brands’ rush for products at the lowest cost.
Take urgent steps to end gender-based violence and harassment at work and ensure decent working conditions.
Increase workplace inspections to monitor potential safety and health violations.
Create space for workers to form and join unions so they have a voice on the job.
In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, millions of migrant workers have been forced to return to their homes or are languishing in their destination countries without jobs, and Nepali migrant workers are no exception.
In 2019, Nepal’s Department of Foreign Employment issued 236,208 labor permits for migrant workers, 8.5 percent of which were issued to women. As the pandemic spread, work in major destination countries for Nepali workers in Kuwait, Malaysia, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates also came to a halt. Sudden job loss and pay cuts pushed migrant workers into precarious positions. The government’s decision to cancel all international flights to contain the spread of the virus added to their stress and uncertainty. The nationwide lockdown began March 24.
After more than two months, the Nepal government’s repatriation plan came into force. The government arranged to hold returning migrant workers in quarantine centers in Kathmandu until their respective provinces arranged departure to their home districts. On the first repatriation flight, 306 women, all previously working as domestic workers and granted amnesty by the Kuwaiti government, landed in Nepal in June.
Bijaya Rai Shrestha, founder and chairperson of Aaprabasi Mahila Kamdar Samuha (Returnee Migrant Women Workers Group, AMKAS) in Nepal, knew she had to help. “I could hear my inner self telling me that I have to step up to do my part to support these sisters,” she says. The first flight from Kuwait landed while AMKAS was navigating the procedures and formalities to get authorization to host returnees at its shelter. After 12 hours, they received approval—and later that evening, they were notified 10 women were headed their way. The shelter has capacity for 15 women following quarantine procedures.
Reaching Migrant Workers and Relating to Their Pain
AMKAS—created, led by, and working for migrant workers to make migration safe and dignified—advocates for the rights of migrant women workers and provides them with a variety of services. It is a Solidarity Center partner.
“On the first day, around 8 p.m., I received the message that 10 sisters from Kuwait would be brought to our shelter. I had no clue that they would come that late. My team had already gone home. I could no way to request that they postpone bringing the sisters the following morning. I still remember in my quivering voice I said, ‘Yes, please bring them!’” she says. That night, Bijaya booked a hotel near the shelter so the women had a place for the evening. They came to the shelter the following day. Despite insufficient resources to support the influx of women, Bijaya says the humanitarian need outweighed the obstacles.
Complicating the return and reintegration of the workers is the stigmatization that they might be virus carriers. Her landlord wanted her to move operations. He sent the police, then the Nepal Army, but their paperwork was in order. The soldiers, she says, “thanked us for the work that we are doing and requested the neighbors to extend their cooperation to us.”
AMKAS has successfully hosted 109 women in different groups. The organization books other returning women into a hotel near the shelter.
I was also a migrant worker,” Bijaya recalls. “From the beginning of the pandemic, I could relate to the pain that thousands of women were going through. She adds, almost all women who we hosted were not paid for up to six months. Returnees must cover the cost of travel to their home district.
Chandra Maya BK, a returnee migrant from Kuwait says, “I do not have the 1,500 rupees (approximately $13) to return to my home district. This explains how much I wish to get my six months pay that is due. At the shelter, I learned that the government has some loan provisions and legal aid facilities for us. Help me get my pay, I can start something on my own.”
At present, the shelter is at capacity with returned workers waiting out their 15-day quarantine [and test results]. The organization also serves other returned migrant workers for whom AMAKS helped find positions but who are also jobless because of the pandemic.
“We couldn’t leave them to survive on their own,” says Bijaya. “Masks are in need, so we managed to provide 30 returned workers with virtual mask-making training. After the training during those strict lockdown days, we delivered sewing machines along with the raw materials to all of them,” she says. The women are making masks and AMKAS is helping them sell them online.
AMKAS is planning an awareness program covering various aspects of the government’s reintegration provisions, legal aid, migration cycle and trafficking at the shelter and also at the community level, with support from the Solidarity Center.
Garment workers in Haiti are calling for action after Sandra René, a garment worker at the Palm Apparel factory, died due to pregnancy complications in early August. René was turned away from the hospital where she sought medical care because the factory had not paid into the health insurance system for occupational injury, sickness and maternity (OFATMA) on her behalf, as legally required.
With their unions, the Association of Textile Workers Unions for Re-importation (GOSTTRA) and Workers Struggle (Batay Ouvriye), workers are demanding that employers meet their legal obligations so Haitian workers can access health care, especially critical during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Few Garment Factories Pay into Required Health, Pension Funds
Few factories make the required contributions to the health or pension funds. Some 83 percent of factories were noncompliant with such legal requirements between April 2019 and March 2020, according to Better Work Haiti (BWH). Employers are required to register workers in the system, and both employers and workers must contribute the equivalent of 3 percent of the employees’ wages for the past pay period to OFATMA. The employer is responsible for deducting the employees’ contributions from paychecks but often either do not register workers or take paycheck deductions without sending the funds to OFATMA.
Garment workers began returning to the job as early as April when factories reopened after shuttering for a month to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. Desperate for wages to support themselves and their families, workers risk COVID-19 exposure during crowded work commutes.Workers say they fear they will not have access to health care if they become ill because employers are not paying into OFATMA.
Income inequality is widening in Haiti, which remains among the most unequal countries in the world. The persistence of high levels of inequality is due in part to a concentration of resources in the hands of a small but powerful group of elites, and the weakness or absence of channels of resource redistribution, such as targeted transfers and a social safety net, according to the International Monetary Fund.
Further, the minimum wage for garment workers in Port-au-Prince, the capital, is at least four times lower than the cost of living, according to a 2019 Solidarity Center survey. Since the pandemic, workers no longer work a standard 48-hour workweek, reducing their pay and making them ineligible to receive one day of paid rest per week.
Garment workers at the Miroglio Maroc factory are standing strong with 14 co-workers who they say were fired for speaking out against the lack of sufficient safety gear and other protective measures at the workplace during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
Three workers were recently diagnosed with COVID-19, and the 14 fired workers alerted authorities to the unsafe working conditions at the plant, where up to 250 workers make ready-wear garments. The employer says he fired the workers, eight of whom are union members, for “defamation,” that is, allegedly attacking the reputation of the company.
Yet the Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) says the owner also fired workers who took part in forming the factory union in April. The employer also sought to intimidate the 14 fired workers, all of whom worked at the factory between five and six years, by calling in a judicial commissioner, a move the UMT says violates Morocco’s labor law. Their union, the Union Office of Miroglio Marco, is affiliated to the Federation of Garment, Textile, and Leather Workers/UMT.
Factory union leaders say the employer refuses to pay the fired workers for May and June, and demanded they sign a statement saying they will not strike, a move prohibited by the country’s labor law. Further, union representatives say the general manager has verbally harassed women garment workers who requested safety and health protections.
Workers now are waiting for the results of their COVID tests, which the company was forced to undertake after the workers alerted authorities.
Employers worldwide are penalizing and even firing workers who demand their rights to safety measures to protect against COVID-19, and are using the pandemic to lay off workers, often targeting those seeking to form unions or exercise their rights on the job. But, together with their unions, workers are fighting back.
Clapping as they rallied outside the plant in Casablanca’s Albarnoussi industrial district in recent days, the workers chanted, “We do not want injustice, we do not want to strip women of their rights.”
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