Threats, including death threats, and intimidation were the most common forms of violence against union activists and workers seeking to form unions in Guatemala last year, according to a new report by the Network of Labor Rights Defenders of Guatemala (REDLG).
Several union activists were targeted with death threats in 2019, including Damaris Jiménez and Edgar Chiguichón, leaders of an organizing committee to form a union at a maquila, according to the 2019 Annual Report on Anti-Union Violence. Union leader Hector Reyes also received a death threat indicating he should resign from his job and end his efforts to form a municipal union in San Diego, a city in Guatemala’s Zacapa Department. Two other maquila union leader also received death threats.
REDLG has documented and verified 26 cases of anti-union over the past year. But these numbers represent severe underreporting. Fewer than half of survivors of anti-union violence in 2019 say they formally denounced the incidents “before a competent authority.”
Among the recorded cases, the most frequent was “criminalization,” or using the criminal justice system “for halting the work of a defender.” In some cases, criminal denunciations against a labor unionist are fabricated to prevent the accused from pursuing union work while challenging the charges, according to the report.
In other cases, the intention is to ensure a labor activist is imprisoned to completely halt the individual’s union activity—“that is, the criminal system or other punitive methods are used to discredit or hinder the defense of rights,” according to the report.
Guatemala: Violence Pervasive and Unpunished
Guatemala is consistently ranked among the countries with the world’s worst worker rights, according to the new International Trade Union Confederation’s 2020 Global Rights Index. “The pervasive climate of repression, physical violence and intimidation against workers and trade unionists” is made worse by the government’s “failure to pursue the many historic cases of murders and other violent crimes,” according to the Global Rights Index. Since 2004, the year the CAFTA-DR free trade agreement was signed, 101 trade unionists have been murdered in Guatemala, according to the International Labor Organization and the REDLG.
The Anti-Union Violence Report, which seeks to show that “anti-union violence is a complex social occurrence in Guatemala, of which we are far from knowing its depth,” points out that domestic violence and other forms of gender-based violence are rarely reported and in fact may sometimes be directed at women for their involvement with unions. “This type of violence can be normalized and go undetected,” according to the report, which points out that vulnerable groups such as members of the LGBTQI+ community, Indigenous people and persons with disabilities also are targets of such unreported anti-union violence.
The report situates the struggles by workers to form unions within the country’s larger economic challenges, including vast poverty affecting those with jobs who do not earn enough to support themselves and their families. Some 70 percent of all workers are in the informal economy, selling food in markets, driving taxis and cleaning homes. Yet for the first time in 10 years, the government last year did not raise the minimum wage in any job sector. The government also issued a decree that sought to create jobs in the formal economy with lower benefits than allowed by law and wages lower than the minimum, a move unions in part successfully countered.
More than 2,000 garment workers in Bangladesh are celebrating a new collective bargaining agreement that includes a 10 percent pay increase—double the amount required by law—and creation of a committee to prevent violence and harassment on the job. The pact, negotiated by the Hop Lun Apparels Ltd. Sommilito Sramik Union (HLALSSU), is retroactive to January.
The new agreement comes as many garment workers in Bangladesh and around the world are being laid off without pay because major fashion brands are canceling orders due to lack of demand during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
2,000+ Bangladesh garment workers have new contract that includes a 10 percent wage increase and a day care facility for their children. Credit: SGSF
“The guarantee of promotions for women to the higher posts and the establishment of the sexual harassment committee will empower the women and provide safeguards against sexual abuse and harassment in our factory,” says Aklima HLALSSU president.
Under the new contract, Hop Lun will set up a day care facility for workers’ children younger than age six, who will be guaranteed quality care and education. Factory management will provide free ultrasound tests for all pregnant workers, subsided food in the factory canteen, and guarantee a minimum of 20 women workers will be promoted annually.
Under Bangladesh law, women workers are entitled to 16 weeks’ maternity leave, yet employers often do not grant garment workers the required leave. The new contract provides enforcement of the law.
“It is because we have a strong union that we could maintain a good relation with the factory management and sign this collective bargaining agreement,” says Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) General Secretary Nahidul Hasan Nayan. “That is why, during this COVID-19 crisis, Hop Lun factory maintained the highest standard of safety for its workers and has provided each and every employee with proper protective equipment.”
The contract also includes provisions to streamline union representation, with the employer providing space for a union office and automatically deducting union dues. Union leaders will be involved in trainings and workshops and joint meetings with management.
Workers at the Myan Mode garment factory in Myanmar (Burma) are celebrating the return to the job of many recently fired union members.
Following a two-month fight against the factory’s attempt to use COVID-19 to destroy their union, they won an agreement May 30 that immediately reinstates 25 fired union members and brings back within two months 50 workers who joined strikes to protest the employer’s actions. It also guarantees the recall of hundreds of other fired union members when operations return to normal as the pandemic eases.
In March, Myan Mode permanently fired all 520 union members working in the Yangon factory, citing a decrease in orders due to COVID-19. Yet the owners retained more than 700 non-union workers and continued to operate the factory. The workers were fired minutes after union leaders held a contentious meeting with management in which they demanded an end to mandatory overtime due to fear of contracting COVID-19.
The move has been repeated around the world by employers seeking to use the novel coronavirus pandemic as a means to eliminate unions and weaken workplace rights. In a key provision of the new agreement, the employer agrees to not break the union and that “no discrimination against the union shall occur for any reason.”
“This was not an easy fight,” says Mg Moe, general secretary of the factory-level union, which is affiliated to the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM). “We wanted all our unfairly dismissed union brothers and sisters to be immediately reinstated.”
During negotiations with the union, factory management repeatedly resisted retrenchment plans that would not discriminate against union members. Myanmar authorities and global apparel brands doing business with Myan Mode failed to compel the factory to do otherwise, despite the company’s actions having violated labor law and the brands’ ethical codes of conduct.
‘Our Union Members Stood Strong’
“The central factor in our victory was that our members stood strong”, says Moe Sandar Myint, a union leader at FGWM. “Although we could not achieve full justice, the employer and the brands could no longer ignore our demands entirely. Our workplace union fought doggedly to win the survival of our union, and we now live to fight another day.”
The workers conducted ongoing actions to protest the dismissals, initially staging a five-day sit down at the factory gates but switching to creative uses of social media as authorities banned gatherings due to COVID-19 concerns. Their sustained efforts garnered international media attention and solidarity support from worker advocates around the world, including the Solidarity Center.
“We are also fighting against union-busting in other factories that supply clothes to the same brands that do business with Myan Mode,” says Moe Sandar Myint. “These brands promise to uphold worker rights in their contracts with their factory suppliers but we see little action from them to enforce those commitments. We will continue to struggle against injustice using strong unions in the factories and international solidarity, and will not rest until the entire garment industry is humane for workers.”
To ensure the agreement at Myan Mode is honored, the company has agreed to form a monitoring committee with a third party that is neither the company nor the union. The committee, created in consultation with nongovernmental organizations that include the Solidarity Center, will assess whether laws and company regulations are being followed as dismissed workers are rehired, and it will operate until at least the end of 2020.
Trade unions around the world are raising the alarm as some governments and employers during the coronavirus pandemic are failing to meet their obligation to protect workers’ health and safety in violation of international agreements and hard-fought-for national legislative frameworks that provide workers with the means to secure safer and healthier workplaces.
Workers in health care and other sectors are demanding that governments and employers take steps to protect workers, including recognition of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) as an occupational hazard and COVID-19 as an occupational disease. The ITUC, on UN World Day for Safety and Health at Work, said that recognition will ensure for workers the right to representation and occupational safety and health (OSH) rights and the application of agreed-upon measures to reduce risk, including the right to refuse to work under unsafe working conditions.
Healthcare workers are particularly imperiled on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak, given their vulnerability to pathogen exposure, long working hours, psychological distress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma and physical and psychological violence. On April 28, UN World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the World Health Organization (WHO) called upon governments, employers and the global community to take urgent measures to strengthen their capacity to protect the health and safety of health workers and emergency responders, and to respect workers’ right to decent working conditions especially during the pandemic.
“We just want to be able to do our job safely,’ says a Hussein University hospital doctor in Cairo, Egypt.
Amid continuing shortages of protective equipment, at least 90,000 healthcare workers worldwide are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, and perhaps twice that, said the International Council of Nurses (ICN) earlier this month. Health workers around the world are at risk from preventable infections and other job-related dangers during the crisis. For example:
- Algeria doctor Wafa Boudissa—denied early maternity leave three times by hospital management in contradiction of a presidential decree protecting pregnant women–died at age 28 last month, at eight months pregnant.
- In Brazil, nurses are dying as the pandemic overwhelms hospital, even while the government downplays the contagion.
- Medical staff in Cameroon are asking for additional security at hospitals following a series of attacks by people upset that they or their loved ones were diagnosed with the coronavirus.
- In the impoverished North Caucasus republic Daghestan, more than 40 healthcare workers are reportedly dead of COVID-19, although officials claim they did not all die from coronavirus.
- Medical workers in Egypt are describing dangerous workplaces in which personal protective equipment (PPE) is in short supply and too few COVID-19 tests are available to workers and patients. About 13 percent of those infected in Egypt are medical professionals, according to the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO). 19 doctors have reportedly died so far from the disease.
- Doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians among others in Lesotho deemed themselves unable to work following multiple failed attempts to engage authorities on how to obtain protective gear, provide payments for health care workers contracting COVID-19 and providing a risk allowance for those treating COVID-19 patients.
- In Mexico, health care workers are facing violent attacks by members of the public who fear contagion as well as by family members angered by news of a loved one’s infection or COVID-19–related death. Medical workers have been chased from their homes, doused in bleach and beaten. Following false reports of intentional transmission of the coronavirus by medical personnel, citizens blocked highways and roads in the municipalities of Ciudad Hidalgo, Tuxpan and Zitácuaro.
- 27 doctors and 20 nurses are reported dead in Indonesia. With 3,293 infections and 280 deaths, Indonesia has the highest death toll in Asia after China, although health experts fear it could be much higher.
- In Kaduna State, Nigeria, government threatened mass dismissals of health workers who choose not to report for work during the pandemic, even though they report inadequate PPE and the government recently cut their salaries by 25 percent.
- In Pakistan, after police arrested more than 50 doctors demanding PPE, dozens of doctors and nurses went on a hunger strike to demand safety equipment and protest the infection of 150 medical workers and deaths of several, including that of a 26-year-old doctor who had just begun his medical career.
- Medical workers in Russia are dying 16 times more often than in countries with comparable coronavirus outbreaks; health care workers there comprise 7 percent of COVID-19 fatalities, according to Russian media outlet Mediazona; medical workers’ own list numbers healthcare-worker fatalities at 240.
Not only those working in the health sector are at risk, say trade unions, given that many of the world’s workers must continue to physically report for work because they do not have savings to sustain a lengthy quarantine, they do not want to lose their jobs or their work has been categorized essential. For example:
- In Bangladesh, against Ministry of Health advice and during the country’s coronavirus lockdown, tens of thousands of garment workers returned in late April from far-flung homes to crowded, factory-based dormitories to jobs in factories that mostly lack adequate infection control measures. In an attempt to deliver pending orders to global clothing brands, about half of Bangladesh’s 4,000 garment factories have reopened.
- After exposure to a single infected worker in Ghana, 533 factory workers at a fish-processing plant in the port city of Tema tested positive for the coronavirus, representing more than 11 percent of Ghana’s total COVID-19 infections to date.
- More than 200 textile workers at an export-focused plant in Guatemala tested positive last week for the novel coronavirus, with more results pending; testing was forced on the employer after reports surfaced that infected workers were continuing to work and the company was not taking protective measures.
- At some apparel factories in Honduras workers were expected to continue to work in violation of the government’s lockdown order, including at a plant where 2,400 workers make T-shirts and sweatshirts for export.
- Mexico oil company Pemex and the country’s Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) together had 1,245 confirmed cases by mid-May. Pemex alone reported 1,092 cases and 141 deaths as of last week: an average rate of infection of 20.7 people per day and 2.5 daily deaths.
- A number of firms in Mexico continue to produce goods for the U.S. market despite coronavirus lockdown rules, putting their workers in grave danger of contracting COVID-19.
- In South Africa, which has the most cases of coronavirus in Africa, an outbreak closed Mponeng gold mine after 164 cases of coronavirus were detected there last week despite working at 50 percent capacity. The South African Human Rights Commission (the SAHRC) warned employers that failure to failure to implement precautionary measures to protect workers from contracting COVID-19 would constitute a human rights violation under the South African constitution, and be pursued as such by the Commission with other statutory regulatory bodies.
- Worldwide, migrant workers clustered in low-wage, informal sector jobs in high-density living conditions or engaged in care work in close quarters with their employers are succumbing in higher numbers to infection as compared to local populations. Last month, Saudi Arabia sent home nearly 3,000 of the estimated 200,000 Ethiopians living there before the United Nations called for a halt.
There were at least 5,546,000 cases and 347,000 deaths reported in at least 180 countries worldwide in the COVID-19 pandemic as of May 26, 2020, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
Among the world’s most vulnerable workers are those marginalized within their economies and societies, namely the women and labor migrants who predominate in the informal economy, where they perform valuable work in low-wage jobs as janitors, domestic workers, agricultural workers, home healthcare workers, market vendors, day laborers and others. Today, many of these workers are on the coronavirus front lines, risking their health without benefit of paid sick leave, COVID-19 relief programs or personal savings. Others are working where they can, if they can, to survive.
Although more than 2 billion workers globally make their living in the informal economy and can create up to half of a country’s GDP, they have limited power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work, and never more so than during the current pandemic when informal-sector workers are disproportionately falling through the cracks. Due to the failure of governments to build systems of universal social protection, the world is facing the pandemic with 70 percent of all people lacking a safety net, says International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow. Also, despite their vast numbers—61 percent of the world’s workers work in the informal economy and, in developing countries, that number can rise to 90 percent of a country’s workforce—informal-sector workers are consistently overlooked by legislators and policy makers for economic assistance and legal protections during the current crisis.
A new brief from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) warns that workers earning their livelihoods in the informal economy in 2020 are being forced “to die from hunger or from the virus” and offers a raft of immediate, medium- and long-term recommendations for governments and employers’ organizations to address the crisis. Without urgent action, quarantine threatens to increase relative poverty levels in low-income countries by as much as 56 percentage points, according to the brief.
The far-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic have expanded global calls for a new social contract by worker rights organizations that are championing a “build back better” campaign as well as by some businesses that recognize the unsustainability of economic and social structures in which workers absorb the burdens of our economies but not the benefits.
Unions and worker rights activists are stepping into the breach, giving voice to workers’ struggles during lockdown, providing relief where resources allow and banding together to urge governments to provide financial and other social support for informally employed workers, as well as protection from harassment.
- The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer to workers before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce.
- In Zimbabwe, informal economy association ZCIEA is giving voice to vendors’ struggle for survival under quarantine and advocating for their right to operate. In Harare, even though markets are legally open and deemed essential for citizens to secure food, ZCIEA Chitungwiza Territorial President Ratidzo Mfanechiya says that ZCIEA has had to intervene with the town manager, town council and local police to protect Jambanja market vendors’ right to operate free of harassment and forced removal during the five-week lockdown. She is also speaking out against gender-based violence, given that many women are reporting incidents of abuse while trapped at home with partners during lockdown.
- The Alliance Against Violence & Harassment in Jordan, a Solidarity Center partner, is urging the government to grant assistance to migrant workers, who have little or no pay but cannot return to their country of origin. The Alliance also asks for safety gear for migrant workers still on the job. The domestic workers solidarity network in Jordan shares information on COVID-19 and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page.
- Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) activists are speaking out on behalf of an emerging small entrepreneurs’ movement that is protesting disproportionate government support for larger, mostly oligarchy-owned, businesses during the lock down, and demanding equal support for small and micro-businesses including small-scale farms.
- Leaders of multiple women’s worker rights movements banded together in May to make a joint call on the world’s governments to collaborate at all levels with domestic workers, street vendors, waste pickers and home-based workers during the COVID-19 crisis so that some of the world’s most important systems traditionally propped up by informally-employed women—including food supply, the care economy and waste management—are preserved.
- In India, where an estimated 415 million workers, or 90 percent of the country’s total workforce, toiled in informal-sector jobs in 2017–18, trade unions lobbied Labor Minister Santosh Gangawar for income support and eviction support for more than 40 categories of informal workers hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2018, the workforce in informal employment in Africa was 86 percent; in Asia and the Pacific and the Arab states, 70 percent; in the Americas, 40 percent; and in Europe and Central Asia, 25 percent.