Around the world, workers and their labor unions and have joined in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protesters in the United States, demonstrating support for peaceful marches, and decrying racism, police brutality and inequality—in the United States and in their own countries.
In South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) expressed outrage “at the extent to which racism is deeply entrenched and vicious in the U.S., particularly against blacks and other minority groups in a country purporting to be the world’s leading democracy.” COSATU also is one of the organizers of “Black Friday,” a campaign calling on South Africans to wear black every Friday to show solidarity in the fight against racism.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions wrote: “Saying ‘Black Lives Matter!’ is not just about opposing police brutality though. It is also about the structure of society: the political and economic systems that devalue black lives, black land, black culture and blackness.”
In a letter, the Nigerian Labor Congress condemned the murder of George Floyd and demanded justice for his killing, and demanded that world governments and institutions “take very strong and stern steps to stamp out racism in all its shades on the streets, in the workplace, and on play grounds.” And the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers took to Twitter, calling George Floyd’s murder “unacceptable in this modern day.”
Meanwhile, the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions said, “We recognize that anti-blackness is an injustice that must continue to be addressed fearlessly in the United States and around the world. We strongly believe that labor unions have a crucial role to play in this fight.”
In a letter of support, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions said, “Racism has no place in the modern-day world,” adding that it “supports the fight of the American people to dismantle racism and establish equality and social justice.”
Africans also marched in Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal.
Across Brazil, unions have organized rallies and panel discussions, and have sent letters in support of the U.S. protest movement. The CUT, which also participated in #BlackoutTuesday, said, “There have been centuries of oppression, inequalities and social injustices. Especially in this pandemic moment, the working class is the one who suffers the consequences both for the defense of lives as well as for the defense of jobs and rights, in addition to ensuring survival for many who can no longer guarantee their income in the informal economy.”
Brazil’s National Confederation of Workers in the Financial Sector (CONTRAF) repudiated all police violence against black people—especially in Brazil, where “75.4% of victims by Brazilian police were black” in 2019. And Brazil’s UGT, garment-sector federation CNTRV and the Center for Human Rights and Immigrant Citizenship conducted an online anti-racism campaign.
Tunisia’s UGTT called on all the unions around the globe to “build an international united front against racism and hatred, and to build social justice and equality in the USA and all over the world.”
On the other side of the world in Bangkok, about 50 Thai trade union leaders, staff and members gathered for the rally at the U.S. embassy to call on the U.S. government to stop police violence, racism and discrimination against black people. Garment unions in Bangladesh and Myanmar—in their own difficult fight for survival during the COVID-19 pandemic—posted photos of solidarity. To protesters in U.S. streets, the Bangladesh Sommolito Garment Sramik Federation tweeted, “What you are doing is necessary and vital to dismantle the oppression that saturates our world and deliver a future where justice prevails.”
All are Solidarity Center partners.
See the Solidarity Center’s statement on Black Lives Matter and the fight for social justice here.
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.
In June 2019, the International Labor Organization adopted Convention 190, along with Recommendation 206, the first global binding treaty to address gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work. The treaty calls on governments, employers and unions to work together to confront the root causes of GBVH, including multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, gender stereotypes and unequal gender-based power relationships.
Women trade unionists and feminist activists campaigned for more than a decade to make this historic victory possible, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, the Solidarity Center and other labor allies. One year later, women from around the world who led the fight reflect on what has changed in the last year, discuss their current plans to ensure ratification and implementation of C190/R206, and envision the changes necessary to end GBVH in the world of work.
“We are commemorating the one-year of the passage of Convention 190, a vitally important convention that addressed one of the most pressing issues facing workers, violence and harassment in the world of work,” says Rosana Fernandes, at the Secretariat of the Committee to Combat Racism of CUT in Brazil. C190 “has translated into many victories—it has opened new areas of dialogue and negotiation for local unions with employers in their collective bargaining agreements, ranging from use of bathrooms to verbal abuse.” (See more videos with union activists on C190 here.)
Creating Space to End the Culture of Silence and Create Change in the Workplace
Since C190’s adoption by governments, employers and worker representatives one year ago, unions have conducted extensive education and awareness training among members, a process that has mobilized members to confront GBVH at their workplaces through collective bargaining.
“The Nigerian Labor Congress has strategically mainstreamed Convention 190 into all programs, activities and events to popularize and continuously sensitize our members and all workers,” says Mercy Okezie, chairperson of the NLC Women Commission.
The NLC has undertaken actions, including “media campaigns, advocacy and engagement with the government,” says Rita Goyit, head of the NLC Women and Youth Department and Secretary of National Women Commission. “There is increased outcry against gender-based violence. People are also ready to speak out to condemn such actions.”
In Indonesia, “many trade unions have also initiated keeping records of cases and victims of violence and harassment in the world of work, says Sumiyati, chairperson for Women and Children’s Affairs at the National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner. “Another positive thing we have identified is that some companies, through their management, join our forces in campaigning for the elimination of all forms of violence and harassment in the world of work.”
“We have seen changes in the way some unions have negotiated their collective bargaining agreements,” says Rose Omano, national chair at the Central Organization of Trade Unions in Kenya. The union is planning to push for negotiations with employers “so that we can have a modern collective bargaining agreement that talks about GBV at the workplace. It is also very important for us to educate women, educate men, educate young girls and boys on the effects of gender-based violence on the workplace.”
“We are working on an education campaign with print materials and social media information to empower the working class and our members to stand up against violence and harassment,” says Francisco Xavier Santana, director of Bahia Domestic Workers Union.
Cida Trajano, president of the CNTRV national garment workers federation in Brazil, says “we have worked to build the capacity of workers, women and men, to confront and prevent gender-based violence in the world of work, and included these demands in our negotiating platforms. We are organizing to hold employers accountable for their responsibility to prevent and eradicate GBVH.”
“When we address gender inequality and violence as union issues, it means we, as women, can set an agenda in our organizations, in our collective bargaining agreements and in our political advocacy,” says Cassia Bufelli, vice president of the UGT confederation in Brazil.
COVID-19 Highlights Connection Between Violence at Home and Work
Many sisters from Solidarity Center partner unions reflected on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that it has left women in particular more vulnerable to GBVH, including the impact of domestic violence on the workplace.
“Gender-based violence has increased to the extent that in the first eleven days of the COVID-19 lockdown, we had 700 cases of gender-based violence, ” says Fiona Magaya, gender coordinator for the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
C190/R206 explicitly recognized the profound impact of domestic violence in the workplace, and calls on governments and employers to address its impact on worker safety, dignity and health and its broader effects on the full and equal participation of women in the economy and society.
Women—the primary targets of domestic abuse—have struggled to protect themselves and their children, often while attempting to continue working or weathering recent unemployment in an unsafe home. For many women around the world, including child care workers, in-home healthcare workers, cleaners and other domestic workers, as well as many small enterprise handicrafters, a home already was their workplace.
“We need to ensure all our sisters and brothers and comrades can work free from violence,” says Andrea Morales Perez, secretary general of FETRADOMOV, a domestic worker union in Nicaragua. “This pandemic has left us even more vulnerable, and suffering even more rights violations—and highlights the importance of the work of domestic workers.”
“GBVH is so common that it has come to be seen as a normal part of our work or something that should not be questioned. Domestic workers are more exposed and vulnerable to violence at work than those in some other sectors for reasons including: asymmetrical power relationships, isolation, under-recognition of this occupation as work, and insufficient, ineffective legal protections,” says Maria Isidra Llanos, co-secretary general of SINACTRAHO Mexico.
“We face growing violence in the workplace in our society, especially in the context of the COVID crisis,” says Marcia Viana, secretary general of Sorocaba Garment Workers Union in Brazil. “In São Paulo, we are launching a campaign with all the unions in our state to combat violence against women, to create a moment to engage workers and employers to end violence in our workplaces and our society.”
Says Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Co-Director Robin Runge: “By raising broad awareness of the intricate connection between domestic violence and violence in the world of work, this unprecedented crisis offers a significant opportunity for the type of education and awareness-raising among among governments, employers and the broader public that can ensure the right to a violence-free workplace, one that is protected under international law.”
Unions Urge Ratification of C190 Around the World
Just as women trade unionists led the struggle to win C190/R206, they are now at the forefront of the struggle to ensure governments widely ratify and implement its framework. Uruguay recently became the the first country to officially ratify C190, with several others expected to do so in the coming months. Women trade unionists have been pushing governments around the world to ratify C190/R206.
“We urge our government to ratify, implement, and enforce Convention 190 on its one-year anniversary,” says Silma Perez, president of SINTRAHO in Honduras. “We are domestic workers and must defend our rights,” states Miriam Sanchez, also of SINTRAHO.
“Convention 190 is an important tool for us to be able to denounce abuses, the Brazilian government must ratify this convention,” says Luiza Batista, president of FENATRAD, Brazil. “The struggle continues.”
“This is especially important for us as women workers, who face constant harassment and violence, we need ratification in Paraguay, and we need real enforcement and implementation,” says Marcia Santander, Secretary General of SINTRADESPY in Paraguay.
In Ukraine, “we talk about C190 ratification at every government meeting,” says KVPU vice president and gender committee head, Nataliya Levytska. “We need to protect workers from violence at the workplace. Employers, government and trade unions must do everything to ratify the convention. Recently, we provided our proposals to the National Action Plan to the National Human Rights Strategy to ratify C190 and implementation of its norms into Ukrainian legislation. We hope that our proposals will be implemented.”
“We as trade unions must do everything to ratify C190 and to eradicate violence at the work. Our workers deserve protection.”
“In C190, we find the mechanisms that will enable us prevent and and defend workers against violence and harassment. Up with women! Together we will win!” says Selfa Sandoval, SITRABI Izabal banana workers union in Guatemala. Sandoval is also coordinator for Gender Equality of the Latin American Coordinating Body of Banana and Agricultural Unions (COLSIBA).
“In El Salvador, we are fighting to ratify Convention 190, a tool that will help us eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work,” says Marta Zaldaña, secretary general of FEASIES federation in El Salvador. “YES to ratification of ILO C190!”
Through education, mobilization and advocacy on a global scale, workers and their unions are taking the lead in this transformative change.
Tens of thousands of garment workers in Lesotho waged a successful one-day strike for unpaid wages, returning to work after the government agreed over the weekend to honor the agreement it made in April to pay workers during the novel coronavirus lockdown.
Some 50,000 workers will now receive the $47 pay they were promised in April when their unions negotiated three months’ salary with the government. After paying one installment, the government refused to provide the rest of the negotiated wages. The workers are represented by the United Textile Employees (UNITE), National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers’ Union (NACTWU) and the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL).
“The strike was very successful because workers have now realized that without them coming together as one, there is nothing that they will get,” says IDUL Deputy General Secretary May Rathakane.
“They have realized that without unity, there is nothing and unions working together made them realize the importance of unity.”
Unions say the government deployed special forces in the capital, Maseru, and surrounding areas, with police shooting one worker three times with rubber bullets, and beating and arresting others.
Domestic workers—at great risk during the pandemic crisis—are mobilizing to secure rapid relief and protection says the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). This International Domestic Workers Day, more than 60 million of the world’s estimated 67 million domestic workers, most of whom are women of color working in the informal economy, are facing the pandemic without the social supports and labor law protections afforded to workers in formal employment. And, during a period of heightened infection risk, tens of thousands of migrant domestic workers are being forced to live in their employers’ homes, housed in crowded detention camps or have been sent home where there are no jobs to sustain them or their families.
The health and economic risks to domestic workers during the pandemic and compulsory national lockdowns are high. At the margins of society in many countries, most domestic workers are excluded from national labor law protections that require employers to provide paid sick leave and mitigate workplace infection risks through provision of adequate personal protective equipment (PPE) and appropriate social-distancing measures. And, if they get sick, many domestic workers cannot access national health insurance schemes.
“Domestic workers are among those most exposed to the risks of contracting COVID-19. They use public transport, are in regular contact with others… and don’t have the option of working from home, especially daily maids,” says Brazil’s national union of domestic workers, FENETRAD.
Without adequate personal savings due to poverty wages, many domestic workers and their families are suffering food insecurity because of income interruption or job loss.
“We can’t have many domestic workers left out in the cold,” says Myrtle Witbooi, founding member and first president of IDWF, and general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU).
“Let us shout out to the world: We are workers!” she says.
In Mexico, where 2.2 million women are domestic workers, most of them are being dismissed without compensation. In a recent survey of domestic workers, the national domestic workers union SINACTRAHO found that 43 percent of those surveyed suffered a chronic condition like diabetes or hypertension, increasing their vulnerability to COVID-19.
The United Domestic Workers of South Africa says their members report that some employers refused to pay wages during the country’s compulsory lockdown unless staff agreed to shelter in place with their employer, and that domestic workers who could not report to work were not paid.
In Asia, women performing care work were excluded when countries launched COVID-19 responses and stimulus packages, says Oxfam.
In the Latin American region, where millions of people who labor in informal jobs rely on each day’s income to meet that day’s needs, the pandemic lockdown is causing an economic and social crisis.
Globally, unemployment has become as threatening as the virus itself for the world’s domestic workers, reported the ILO in May.
Meanwhile, migrant domestic workers—who often leave behind their own children to care for others to support their own families back home—are in peril. Some are being sent home without pay, some are subject to wage theft. Others are being quarantined by the thousands in dangerously crowded conditions or in lockdown in countries where they do not speak the language and have little access to health care, local pandemic relief or justice. For example:
Thousands of Ethiopian domestic workers are stranded in Lebanon by the coronavirus crisis.
At least one-third of the 75,000 migrant domestic in Jordan had lost their incomes and, in some cases, their jobs only one month into the pandemic.
For millions of Asian and African migrant domestic workers in the Middle East, governments restrictions on movement to counter the spread of COVID-19 increased the risk of abuse, reports Human Rights Watch.
Several Gulf states are demanding that India and other South Asian countries take back hundreds of thousands of their citizens. Some 22,900 people were repatriated from the UAE by late April, many without receiving wages for work already performed.
On June 16, International Domestic Workers Day, we honor the majority women who perform vital care work for others. Every day, and especially during the pandemic, the Solidarity Center is committed to supporting the organizations that are helping domestic workers attain safe and healthy workplaces, family-supporting wages, dignity on the job and greater equity at work and in their community.
“International Domestic Workers Day is a great opportunity to talk about power and resistance, and how we survive now and build tomorrow,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director, Shawna Bader-Blau, who applauds actions by all organizations dedicated to supporting and protecting domestic workers during the pandemic. These include:
Domestic workers who are leaning into organizing and advocacy efforts during the pandemic, including in Peru, where they won the right to a minimum wage and written contracts by challenging the constitutionality of failing to implement the ILO domestic workers convention after ratification; in the Dominican Republic, where they mobilized to register 20,000 domestic workers into the social security system and lobbied for their inclusion in government aid, gaining new members in the process; in Brazil, where they successfully fought to remove domestic workers from the list of “essential workers” to limit their exposure to COVID-19 because of their limited safety net.
In Bangladesh, BOMSA, a migrant rights nongovernmental organization (NGO), is creating and distributing COVID-19 awareness-raising leaflets specifically for migrant domestic workers returning to Bangladesh from abroad. Members are distributing soap, disinfectant and other cleaning supplies, and encouraging workers to maintain social distance. Another migrant rights NGO, WARBE-DF, is distributing COVID-19 awareness-raising leaflets to returned migrant workers and their communities. And as thousands of migrant workers return, the organization is engaging in local government coronavirus response committees to ensure inclusion of migrant-specific responses. Both are longtime Solidarity Center partners.
Also in Bangladesh, in Konbari area—where garment workers who are internal migrants are not eligible for relief aid as it relies on voting lists for relief distribution—the local Solidarity Center-supported worker community center is connecting with local government officials and has provided nearly 200 names for relief, and is fielding more calls from internal migrant workers seeking assistance.
In Brazil, which has more domestic workers than any other country—over 7 million—the National Federation of Domestic Workers (FENETRAD) and Themis (Gender, Justice and Human Rights) started a campaign calling for domestic workers to be suspended with pay while the risk of infection continues, or to be given the tools to protect against risk, including masks and hand-sanitizing gel.
Also in Brazil, FENATRAD is providing legal and other advice by phone to domestic workers and delivering relief packages of food, medicines and protective gear, including masks, clothing, soap and hand sanitizer, to union members and their families.
In the Dominican Republic, three organizations representing domestic workers successfully advocated with the Ministry of Labor for domestic workers’ to be included in the country’s COVID-19 relief program.
In Mexico, to raise awareness and make the sector more visible, SINACTRAHO collected WhatsApp domestic worker audio messages about their experiences during the crisis for sharing on a podcast.
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. The Domestic Workers’ Solidarity Network in Jordan shares information on COVID-19 and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page
The Kuwait Trade Union Federation urged the government to address the basic needs of Sri Lankan migrant workers, many of whom were domestic workers trapped in Kuwait after Sri Lanka closed its borders on March 19. Workers were eventually housed in 12 shelters while travel arrangements home were made.
In Qatar, Solidarity Center partners Migrant-Rights.org and IDWF in April helped launch an SMS messaging service in 12 languages to provide tips to migrant domestic workers on COVID-19 and how to protect their rights.
In South Africa—where many domestic workers suffer deaths and crippling injuries without compensation because they are excluded from the country’s occupational injuries and diseases act (“COIDA”), according to a recent Solidarity Center report—trade unions are demanding that employers provide their domestic workers with adequate PPE.
Without urgent action to provide relief to workers in informal employment, including those providing domestic work, quarantine threatens to increase relative poverty levels in low-income countries by as much as 56 percentage points according to a new brief from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO).
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