Since the start of 2019, more than 2,000 migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan have joined together to protect their rights abroad through the new Migrant Workers’ Union. On October 17, more than 100 union delegates came together in the town of Isfana, Kyrgyzstan, for the union’s founding congress.
Newly elected deputy chairwoman of the Migrant Workers’ Union, Batyrova Kanykey, addresses more than 100 delegates at their founding congress. Credit: Elena Rubtsova
The congress marks a crucial step as the union establishes itself as a leading support system for migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan. Delegates cast their votes to elect union leadership and planned activities and outreach to more workers in the coming year.
Workers from across three regions of western Kyrgyzstan—Batken, Jalal-Abad and Osh—worked together to build this new organization, with support from the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek, a local foundation that provided assistance to migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan over the last five years. The union has also garnered support from the Germany-based Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung and Caritas France.
Insan-Leilek celebrated the milestone with a video in Russian.
Protecting Workers Abroad
Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan, and from around the world, often face discrimination, exploitation and unsafe working conditions when they arrive in their destination countries. In Russia, a common destination for Kyrgyz migrants, workers have reported working without official contracts or having their wages stolen, with few opportunities to stand up for their rights and hold their employers accountable. Kyrgyz workers also travel to Kazakhstan, Germany and elsewhere for work. Many stay year-round, while others travel back and forth each year for seasonal jobs.
“A large number of labor migrants are subjected to exploitation and violation of their rights by employers, employment agencies and other intermediaries,” says Gulnara Derbisheva, a human rights activist in Kyrgyzstan and the leader of Insan-Leilek. “They face abuse of authority by the police and other officials. In some cases, labor migrants are victims of trafficking and forced labor.”
Since 2015, the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek have held pre-departure trainings for working women and men who are preparing to migrate abroad, most of them to Russia. Through these trainings, thousands of migrants have learned about their rights and the protections they have under Russian labor law. Armed with this knowledge, many workers have started exercising their rights the moment they arrive at their new jobs.
Many migrants have used their knowledge of Russian labor law to negotiate higher wages and overtime pay. Others have worked with their employers to ensure they have fully signed contracts that specify their working conditions and document their ability to work in the country. Migrant women have also learned how to protect their rights, including avoiding human traffickers and reporting workplace harassment.
The Solidarity Center also provides training participants with contact information for local legal support in their destination countries. Through hotlines and free consultations, workers can seek legal help if or when they encounter issues on the job, such as wage theft and harassment.
The Solidarity Center’s pre-departure trainings have also shown migrants how they can join trade unions to further protect their rights, even when they are working abroad. As a result, workers decided they should create their own union so they could tailor it to support Kyrgyz migrants.
Migrant Workers Organizing for Justice
The creation of the Migrant Workers’ Union, its members say, is not just timely but also necessary to protect their rights at a time when more than one-fifth of Kyrgyz citizens are living and working abroad.
Gulzat, a delegate at the congress from the village of Boz-Adyr in the Batken region, first heard about the union at a training session the Solidarity Center and Insan-Leilek held in her village earlier in 2019. “I learned many important things about my labor rights and how they could be protected,” she says. “It was then that I decided to join the Migrant Workers’ Union because I am going back to work in Russia.”
Gulzat first went to work in Russia in 2010, where she experienced wage theft firsthand. “I became a dishwasher in a Moscow cafe and was a victim of fraud when I was left without a salary,” she explains. “I didn’t know where to turn for help, but now I know.”
The Migrant Workers’ Union currently has 2,150 members. But the union’s protections extend beyond just its members. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan rely on decent wages not only for themselves but also to support their families back home. Migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan remitted an estimated $2.48 billion in 2018, about 34 percent of the country’s gross domestic product. Since 2017, Kyrgyzstan has been the most remittance-dependent country in the world, and remittances are particularly important in its western regions like Batken. As migrant workers learn to defend their rights abroad, they also ensure their families in Kyrgyzstan can have more economic security and access more opportunities at home.
“Everybody needs their union,” says Gulzat. “Especially migrants.”
The freedom to speak, join unions and take part in community life are basic human rights that apply to all people—including migrant workers and refugees, panelists at a United Nations side event said this afternoon in New York City.
“Migrant workers and refugees don’t usually have access to justice, and so the lack of enjoyment of these rights has more of a negative impact on them than on the general population,” said Felipe Gonzalez Morales, United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants.
Gonzalez and other panelists took part in the event to launch a new report, Freedoms on the Move: The Civic Space of Migrant Workers and Refugees, by the Solidarity Center and CIVICUS. The report’s findings make clear that many migrant workers and refugees want to access their civic freedoms and do not want to remain on the margins. They want to have a say in their communities and their workplaces, and in the decisions that affect their lives.
Through in depth surveys, Freedoms on the Move highlights the experiences of 1,000 migrant workers and refugees in Germany, Kenya, Jordan, Malaysia and Mexico who discuss the barriers to freedom of association, assembly and expression, and the factors enabling them to exercise those rights.
“Legislation in countries deny migrant workers the right to have access to freedom of association,” said Griet Cattaert, policy officer at the International Labor Organization. And because migrant workers often work in the informal economy, sometimes in “hidden work” like domestic workers in private homes, “it is much more difficult to organize themselves in unions,” she said.
“Migrant worker rights are not just good for them but their communities.”—Neha Misra Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
The global assaults on democracy and fundamental rights is an urgent call to action for unions and other civil society groups to include migrant workers and refugees in advancing these rights, panelists said.
In the report, CIVICUS and the Solidarity Center urge all states to create and maintain, in law and in practice, an enabling environment for the rights of migrant workers and refugees, in accordance with international laws and standards.
“Democratic society cannot thrive when entire populations of people excluded,” said Neha Misra, Solidarity Center senior specialist for migration and trafficking. “Migrant workers we talked to rightfully insisted their destination countries have much to gain from their presence. Migrant worker rights are not just good for them but their communities.”
“Freedom of association and expression are important for migrant workers because they are human rights,” said Crispin Hernandez, a migrant agricultural worker who helped his co-workers organize with the Workers’ Center of Central New York.
“It doesn’t matter where we come from, or our country of origin, or our gender. At the end of the day, it doesn’t matter what kind of work you do. It doesn’t matter what I do for a living. I am entitled to my rights. We are humans.”
Freedom to Form Unions Key to Migrant Worker Rights
More than 258 million migrants, 164 million of whom are migrant workers, live outside their origin countries as global inequality and the search for decent work push workers to migrate far from their homes, and as war and economic crises force millions across borders.
Monami Maulik, international coordinator at the Global Coalition on Migration, discussed how the report builds on the recently negotiated Global Compact on Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration, the first-ever UN global agreement on a common approach to international migration in all its dimensions.
“Fundamental to success of the Global Compact on Migration is the participation and engagement of migrant workers with unions and civil society, and so the success of implementing rights’ protections for migrant workers means we first must look at what’s happening to their freedom to organize,” she said.
Freedoms on the Move finds that “migrant workers and refugees must have the opportunity to come together, advocate for their well being without fear of reprisal and hold states accountable for delivering on their obligations under international laws,” Misra said.
Employer Harassment Major Barrier to Forming Unions
Griet Cattaert and Crispin Hernandez discussed why human rights laws apply to migrant workers .Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
The report found that harassment or pressure from employers is the main obstacle for migrant workers seeking to form unions or otherwise exercise their freedom of association: 78 percent of respondents in Jordan, 66 percent in Kenya, 74 percent in Malaysia and 33 percent in Mexico.
More key findings from the report include:
Migrant workers believe the main limitation on their freedom of expression is the possibility of being fired from work, detained or deported, with wide variations by gender: 47 percent of women and 72 percent of men in Jordan; 62 percent and 71 percent respectively in Kenya; 50 percent and 41 percent in Malaysia, and 80 percent and 45 percent in Mexico.
Rates of participation in protests vary widely, from only 11 percent in Jordan and Mexico to 58 percent in Germany.
Refugees say a lack of resources is the major limitation that prevents people from associating and organizing.
Join Solidarity Center and CIVICUS Friday, October 18, at 3 p.m. EST for the launch of a new report, Freedoms on the Move: The Civic Space of Migrant Workers and Refugees, by CIVICUS and the Solidarity Center. Participants at the event will share findings and recommendations on civic space barriers for migrants and refugees.
United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants Felipe Gonzalez Morales will join other civil society activists to discuss how they are advancing freedom of association, expression and assembly for migrant workers and refugees. Panelists also include:
Griet Cattaert, International Labor Organization
Crispin Hernandez, Workers’ Center of Central New York
Neha Misra, Solidarity Center
Monami Maulik at the Global Coalition on Migration will moderate.
As globalization and the search for decent work push workers to migrate far from their homes, and as war and economic crises force millions across borders, there is limited data on whether and how migrant workers and refugees are able to exercise their fundamental civic freedoms.
Through two in depth surveys, one of migrant workers and another of refugees, Freedoms on the Move also explores the factors that make migrant workers and refugees more likely to try to assert their rights, the circumstances that make them more vulnerable to violations and abuses, and the perpetrators and enablers of denials of their rights.
Freedoms on the Move is an urgent call to action for unions and civil society advocating for civic freedoms in their countries. As the report states:
“International human rights law does not limit civil and political rights to citizens. Like everyone else, migrant workers and refuges should be able to enjoy the key civic freedoms of association, peaceful assembly and expression. For migrant workers and refugees, these freedoms offer protection against discrimination, marginalization and scapegoating, which commonly affect them in their host or destination countries. When the rights to association, peaceful assembly and expression are open to migrant workers and refugees, they can organize and act to uphold their interests in their workplaces and communities, influence public opinion and hold public officials accountable.”
Stop back to access the full report on October 10, and follow us on Twitter and Facebook for more updates!
More than 40 labor organizations in Haiti joined a call for vast nationwide legal reforms, including free and fair elections and the resignation of President Jovenel Moïse. The move follows weeks of massive demonstrations against rampant government corruption and wasteful spending that has devastated the economy.
The most recent round of protests began September 2, sparked by fuel shortages, spiraling inflation, a lack of safe drinking water, environmental degradation and food scarcity. Factories, schools, and businesses have sporadically closed with the near daily protests. In one of the largest rallies to date, thousands turned out on Sunday in a peaceful demonstration, with human rights organizations, popular artists, and business leaders joining unions, young workers and the many others hard-hit by the country’s economic crisis.
In the Joint Declaration for a National Rescue Government, issued October 11, more than 100 organizations—including three Solidarity Center union partners–urge all segments of society to join together to demand a return of public services and implementation of an emergency program for the most vulnerable groups. The Joint Declaration also seeks an end to the culture of impunity in the judicial system and demands a clean accounting of public finances.
A Solidarity Center survey this year found that the daily minimum wage for export apparel workers in Haiti is $5.07—more than four times less than the estimated cost of living. These workers—the majority of whom are women who support families—are forced to toil longer for less due to diminished purchasing power and are unable to cover daily necessities, including food.
“The High Cost of Low Wages in Haiti,” which tracked living expenses for garment workers from September 2018 through March 2019, recommends the government increase the minimum wage to an estimated $18.30 per day and allow workers to select their own representatives to the country’s tripartite minimum wage committee. Unions are advocating for these measures and raise them as key remedies to addressing the crisis underway.
The Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC), Trade Union Congress (TUC) and Joint National Public Service Negotiating Council (JNPSNC) are threatening to launch a nationwide strike October 16 unless the government implements a minimum wage adjustment for all public sector workers as mandated by a new minimum wage law signed by President Muhammadu Buhari more than five months ago.
Although many of Nigeria’s lowest-paid workers are receiving the 67 percent increase afforded to low-wage public-sector workers under the new law, an increase for public-sector workers at all but the lowest skill levels remains in contention. Even as an increasing number of Nigeria’s citizens slide into poverty, the government continues to withhold the increase for more skilled public-sector workers—a delay that is holding down private-sector wages as employers follow the government’s lead.
Workers at public-sector salary grades 7 and above, or those earning $85 per month or more, have not seen a true wage increase, unions say, because wages have not been adjusted to compensate for income eroded by inflation—which last year stood at 11 percent.
While the NLC and TUC are fighting for salary adjustments retroactive to implementation of the April 18 law, they are also embroiled in talks with the government regarding the reconvening of a committee that will negotiate a new minimum wage for workers at higher skill levels.
“To talk about setting up another committee over the same issue makes us feel we have been swindled. We have learnt our lessons,” said TUC president Quadri Olaleye and secretary-general Musa-Lawal Ozigi in a joint statement.
While Nigeria’s workers wait, poverty is on the rise. Nigeria overtook India last year as the country that is home to the most extremely impoverished people in the world. Working people have seen a steady erosion of their purchasing power due to double-digit inflation, with the cost of staple foods and other commodities rising steadily. While workers wait for their adjusted wage increase, gasoline prices rose from 24 cents to 40 cents per liter, and the cost of electricity increased by almost 60 percent, said unions. This month, after the Nigerian government closed borders to restrict rice imports, the cost of a bag of imported rice jumped by over 40 percent. According to the National Bureau of Statistics, 43 percent of Nigeria’s 190 million people are either unemployed or underemployed.
If a general strike is triggered, all public-sector institutions—including schools and hospitals–will be affected.
“We demand immediate implementation of the signed agreement on consequential adjustment of public workers’ salaries with effect from April 18 when the new national minimum wage of [$83] per month was signed into law,” said NLC president Ayuba Wabba, TUC president Quadri Olaleye and JNPSNC acting chairman Simon Anchaver in a statement.
Although workers accepted the country’s new minimum wage of $83 per month for those at the lowest skill levels—among them, cleaners, receptionists, security guards and gardeners—this amount falls far short of the $164 per month unions said would fairly compensate workers and help them survive under inflation. Nigeria’s unions have been engaged in a contentious, years-long effort to force government and employers to respond to workers’ pleas for a living wage.
A threatened general strike in October 2018 was called off only hours before it was scheduled to begin, after the country’s wage committee agreed to increase the minimum wage from around $50 per month to $83. A second general strike was called off in January this year after passage of the new national minimum wage bill through the National Assembly was delayed.
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