Garment workers and their union in Haiti are hailing a landmark settlement with a factory in Port-au-Prince that provided a total of $15,480 in back pay to 1,200 workers. The compensation covers 20 percent of the amount the employer deducted from workers’ paychecks for health care coverage by the government agency, OFATMA, but failed to pay to the agency. Haitian law requires employers to register workers in the system, deduct six percent of pay (split between employer and employee), and forward the contribution to OFATMA in a timely fashion.
The settlement follows the death of Liunel Pierre, a garment worker, who died in July 2020 after being denied life-sustaining dialysis treatment due to a lack of accrued health care funds.
After Pierre’s death, the Association of Textile Workers Unions for Re-importation (GOSTTRA) demanded the employer immediately remedy its failure to contribute to workers’ health insurance. After a weeks-long work stoppage, GOSTTRA members successfully brought management to the table. The settlement also covers many workers laid off during the pandemic and GOSTTRA is working with the employer to establish processes to contact the laid-off workers so they can receive the reimbursement.
Union advocates say this is the first time a Haitian garment sector union successfully negotiated a financial settlement agreement on behalf of workers and is holding the employer accountable without international or fashion brand intervention.
With Solidarity Center support, GOSTTRA printed fliers to publicize the settlement among workers that detailed the payment they should receive, accompanied by megaphone announcements at the factory. GOSTTRA is monitoring management’s action to ensure it correctly reimburses the workers.
Few factories in Haiti make the required contributions to the health or pension funds in accordance with the law, threatening the ability of workers to access health care. The International Labor Organization (ILO)’s Better Work Haiti (BWH) has reported continuous and widespread noncompliance for 10 years. In its most recent report, BWH found that 84 percent of employers did not comply with legal requirements for social benefits between October 2019 and September 2020.
In the same month as Pierre’s death, another garment worker, Sandra René, died from pregnancy complications after she also was turned away from the hospital where she sought medical care. As in Pierre’s case, the factory had deducted funds from her paycheck for health coverage, but failed to consistently pay into the system. Hundreds of garment workers marched with René’s casket in a funeral procession to OFATMA offices to protest her death.
Little Job Security for Garment Workers in COVID-19
GOSTTRA’s success comes as Haiti’s textile industry struggles to recover from diminished demand during the COVID-19 crisis. Workers still face layoffs and reduced working hours, with roughly a third of the 57,000 workers in the country’s garment industry suspended or terminated. Increasing violence in the country threatens workers’ ability to safely travel to work, further disrupting factory operations. Further, employers are clamping down on GOSTTRA union leaders who are trying to defend their members’ interests.
The victory also comes in an environment in which Haitians face increasing gang violence, kidnappings, and political polarization. Few elected officials remain, following the President Jovenel Moise’s dismissal of the lower Chamber of Deputies and mayors across the country. Thousands have marched to protest widespread assaults on the country’s democratic processes, and journalists and others taking part have been targeted by arrests and police violence. Last month, police fired tear gas into a church where Haitian bishops led a “Mass for the freedom of Haiti.”
The Solidarity Center is honored to announce that three dynamic leaders from within the U.S. labor movement have joined its Board of Trustees.
The new members are Gabrielle Carteris, president of the Screen Actors Guild-American Federation of Television and Radio Artists (SAG-AFTRA); Rory Gamble, president of the International Union, United Automobile, Aerospace and Agricultural Implement Workers of America (UAW); and Alvina Yeh, Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). They will join current Board of Trustees members guiding the Solidarity Center as it strives to empower workers to raise their voice for dignity on the job, justice in their communities and greater equality in the global economy.
SAG-AFTRA President Gabrielle Carteris. Credit: SAG-AFTRA
Gabrielle Carteris became SAG-AFTRA president in 2016, after serving two terms as executive vice president. She became a household name playing Andrea Zuckerman on Beverly Hills, 90210 and recently starred in BH90210, a revival of the iconic show. Her extensive resume includes work in television, film and the stage, with recent credits including a recurring role on Code Black and guest-starring roles on Criminal Minds, Make It or Break It, The Event, Longmire and The Middle. As a producer, Carteris created Lifestories, a series of specials, and Gabrielle, a talk show that she also hosted. In her role as SAG-AFTRA president, Carteris chairs the National TV/Theatrical Contracts Negotiating Committee and leads the President’s Task Force on Education, Outreach and Engagement. She represents SAG-AFTRA with the International Federation of Actors (FIA), where she works to bring actors together across borders.
UAW President Rory Gamble. Credit: UAW
Rory Gamble, a lifelong union member and son of community organizers, is president of one of the largest unions in North America with decades of work building power across borders. He was elected a vice president of the UAW, which is affiliated to the global union federation, IndustriALL, in 2018. The following year, he assumed the position of UAW Acting President, as appointed by the International Executive Board. Gamble received the 1999 Spirit of Detroit award; the 2006 Horace L. Sheffield Jr. Humanitarian Award; and the 2008 Minority Women’s Network (Detroit chapter) Man of the Year award. He is a member of the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, the Trade Union Leaders Council, the Michigan Humane Society and a life member of the NAACP. He serves on the board of Bridging Communities, a grassroots collaborative of Southwest Detroit businesses, labor organizations, churches and residents.
APALA Executive Director Alvina Yeh. Credit: APALA
Alvina Yeh serves as the Executive Director of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA) and Institute for Asian Pacific American Leadership & Advancement (IAPALA). Originally from Colorado, she comes from a Chinese family who fled from the war in Vietnam. Alvina, a lifelong community organizer with experience in electoral and issue-based campaigns, has a career committed to social justice. She is deeply passionate about building a movement where everyone has a fair shot in a thriving society, and brings an international lens on human and worker rights to the work of APALA. Yeh currently serves as the Co-Chair of the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) and serves the Congressional Progressive Caucus Center Advisory Board and the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium Action Fund (NAKASEC AF) Board.
“I am thrilled that Presidents Carteris and Gamble and Executive Director Yeh are joining our Board,” said Richard L. Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO and chair of the Solidarity Center Board of Trustees. “They bring important and diverse points of view and a deep commitment to the Solidarity Center’s mission to support worker rights around the world, for everyone. We look forward to their contributions.”
Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center said: “The Solidarity Center is dedicated to building cross-movement relationships and strengthening the connections between workers in the United States and workers around the world. So we are excited to begin work with these three labor leaders who bring a passionate interest in worker rights, additional connections to the U.S. labor movement and a wealth of experience in organizing, international solidarity and power building for workers in the United States and beyond.”
The Solidarity Center is the largest U.S.-based international worker rights organization helping workers attain safe and healthy workplaces, family-supporting wages, dignity on the job, widespread democracy and greater equity at work and in their community. Allied with the AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center assists workers across the globe as, together, they fight discrimination, exploitation and the systems that entrench poverty—to achieve shared prosperity in the global economy.
Two union leaders in Myanmar recently have been arrested for their participation in pro-democracy rallies, and unions worldwide are calling for governments to halt trade and other financial support that provide backing to the country’s military government. The total number of union leaders arrested since the February 1 military coup is at least 20, according to union leaders. (Support workers under attack in Myanmar.)
More than 750 people, including more than dozen union members, have been killed and at least 3,400 people arrested. Union members killed include Chan Myae Kyaw, a union activist and truck driver at a copper mine, who was shot dead while protecting other protestors during a peaceful rally.
Ma Myo Aye, leader of the Solidarity Trade Union Movement (STUM), was arrested at the union’s office in Yangon in recent days and taken to prison by the military. Union leaders say she is charged for allegedly violating Section 505a of the Penal Code, which makes it a crime to cause or intend to cause disobedience or disloyalty to members of the government. Her first court hearing is scheduled for April 29.
She has been transferred to Insein prison in Yangon, which union leaders say is notorious for its torture of prisoners. Myanmar media is reporting horrific sexual assault and other forms of torture against women imprisoned by the military.
Mi Aung, the finance officer of the Hmawbe Brick Factory Union, an affiliate of the Building and Wood Workers Federation of Myanmar (BWFM), was arrested by the army in Hmawbe, where she was visiting her family. Her whereabouts are unknown. The union is vowing to carry on the struggle for democratic freedoms.
The two leaders are among tens of thousands of union members who have taken a leading role in the nationwide Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM) to peacefully protest for an end to the military coup. Union offices have been ransacked and the military has conducted door-to-door searches for union activists, most of whom have now gone into hiding outside Yangon. Arrest warrants have been issued for at least 75 union leaders.
Military Harassing Garment Workers, Union Activists Fired
Garment workers–women in particular–have taken a leading role in the protests, with the country’s 450,000 garment workers especially active in organizing civil disobedience actions and shutting down factories.
In Hlaing Thar Yar, an industrial zone outside Yangon, factories are re-opening despite the dangers to workers. The Industrial Workers’ Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) says the military is arbitrarily stopping workers on the streets, demanding they give their phones to soldiers or face arrest. If they do not have phones, the military requires them to pay a fine. During CDM rallies, the military has killed more than 100 workers in the area, burning some alive, and factories also have been burned, according to the federation.
Yet if workers do not return to their jobs, IWFM says factory management is using their absence to lay off union representatives. Because the military regime cut phone lines and internet access, workers are unable to tell their employers they cannot return to work, and so lose their severance pay.
Unions Worldwide Demand Immediate Action
IWFM and the Federation of General Workers-Myanmar are asking multinational fashion brands to ensure workers can take unpaid leave if they request it because of the lack of safety, and to enable participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations.
Unions around the world are pushing their governments to take immediate action by isolating the military junta and impose sanctions on the Myanmar Oil and Gas Enterprise (MOGE), which provides the military with crucial financing.
The global union movement also is urging international financial institutions to recall all projects and loans to the military government, and initiate dialogue with the National Unity Government, which includes leader Aung San Suu Kyi, who was among elected officials the military arrested.
A coalition of global union federations issued a statement conditionally supporting the Five Point Consensus statement by the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in which the organization and Myanmar’s junta agreed to a plan to end violence and hold a constructive dialogue among all parties.
While ASEAN’s plan is a good, partial step forward, the union federations say, it omits key concerns.
“A dialogue process will be meaningless if political leaders remain imprisoned and if trade unionists, activists and even health workers who assist the injured, remain at risk of arrest, torture and imprisonment,” the union federations say. “Trade unionists have been arrested, tortured and harassed in door-to-door searches, while others are hiding in fear. The military has imposed widespread restrictions on workers’ rights and curtailed freedoms of speech and assembly, blocked social media and declared 16 labor-related organizations illegal.”
Education International is urging the United Nations Security Council to take stronger action, including targeting military leaders, and asks national governments to use all means available to sanction the military, including through economic pressure.
IndustriALL global union is calling on companies to end commercial ties with the military and urging its affiliates to pressure governments to impose economic sanctions
In New Zealand, the Council of Trade Unions is pushing its government to not ratify the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) trade agreement because it includes trade with Myanmar. The Swedish union of forestry, wood and graphical workers called on the country’s Forest Stewardship Council to stop providing certifications to raw materials exported by Myanmar’s military junta.
Workers and their unions in Colombia will hold a national strike April 28 to protest a tax hike proposed by President Iván Duque that would increase costs for workers already struggling from lost jobs and income from the COVID-19 pandemic.
Union leaders say the tax plan is misleadingly labeled a “Sustainable Solidarity Law” and instead would raise taxes on fuel and electricity and greatly expand the number of people required to pay additional taxes. The plan also would increase taxes on produce, harming both farmers and consumers.
It is a “tax reform that disguises itself as solidarity, ” says Unitary Workers Center (CUT) President Francisco Maltés.
Unions across Colombia have joined in solidarity to hold the 24-hour strike as part of a Unified National Command (Comando Nacional Unitario) comprised of the CUT; the General Confederation of Workers (CGT); the Workers Confederation of Colombia (CTC) the Education Workers Federation (FECODE); and the Confederations of Pensioned workers (CPC and CDP).
Tax Big Business, Not Working Families
In an 11-point set of demands, unions say the government should establish tax reform based on progressive taxation so those who earn more pay more. Unions also say taxes should be lowered for small and medium businesses while increased for big business, including multinationals. Further, tax evasion should be effectively punished and taxes increased on large land
Colombian workers have been especially hard-hit during the pandemic. Unemployment is at a record 20 percent, with more than 5 million people losing their jobs.
Women in Colombia, as around the world, have been disproportionately affected. Between September 2019 and September 2020, for every man who lost his job, 2.2 women did so, nationally. In smaller cities, for every eight women who lost their jobs, one man lost his job. Many women work in the informal sector, where nearly half of Colombians make their living as market vendors and domestic workers, who are paid low wages and are not covered job protections like health care.
The pandemic compounded workers’ struggles to make a living and support their families. In 2019, more than 35 percent of Colombians lived in poverty, and the top 10 percent of the country’s earners received 40 percent of the country’s income, 10 times what the bottom 20 percent earned.
Beginning in November 2019, tens of thousands of workers have taken to the streets to protest the Duque government’s repeated attempts to hike prices and reward corporations with tax cuts.
When the Nigerian government sought to raise taxes on basic goods and decrease subsidies on key items like fuel as millions of workers struggled without jobs or wages during the COVID-19 pandemic, the 4 million members of the Nigerian Labor Congress (NLC) successfully stood up against these assaults. NLC President Ayuba Wabba says the union first tried negotiating with the government. When that effort did not work, workers were set to strike, he said on the latest episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast.
“Many Nigerians are in very difficult situations right now because of the challenge of COVID-19. Most of their income have been disrupted and their survival is so difficult. So that is why we have to respond, to actually draw the attention of government. And such an approach is very, very necessary. We thought that governance should be about the interest of justice,” Wabba told podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.
A New Social Contract
In a wide-ranging conversation, Wabba, who is president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), describes efforts at the global level to build a post-COVID world where all workers are covered by social protections such as paid sick leave, access to protective safety equipment, health care and good wages.
“COVID-19 has exposed the inadequacies in the entire social protection system,” he says. “We are also trying to make sure that COVID-19 is one of the diseases that is also covered by occupational health and safety for all workers, including casual workers, including migrant workers, including workers working in the precarious sector because this is very important. If not, the inequality gap between the rich and the poor will continue to be widened.”
As a global union leader, Wabba is at the forefront of the international campaign to ensure the future of work ensures good jobs as well as green jobs to address the ongoing challenges of climate change. “You don’t need to contaminate the environment for you to be able to retain jobs. Jobs can be produced using greener forms of energy.”
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This podcast was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under Cooperative Agreement No.AID-OAA-L-16-00001 and the opinions expressed herein are those of the participant(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID/USG.