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.
Two union leaders in Honduras were murdered in 2019, and dozens more physically attacked, threatened and harassed for their activism in advocating worker rights, according to the just-released report, The Price of Defending Freedom of Association: A Report on Anti-Union Violence in Honduras. (Read the report in Spanish.)
Unions leaders took part in the online release of the report documenting anti-union violence in Honduras. Credit: Network Against Anti-Union Violence
Published by the Network Against Anti-Union Violence, the fourth annual report provides detailed case studies, including the murders of Joshua Sánchez, a maquila worker and member of the Workers’ Union of Gildan Villanueva S.A. (SITRAGAVSA), and Jorge Alberto Acosta, executive committee/board member of the agricultural Workers’ Union of the Tela Railroad Company (SITRATERCO). The Network released an online presentation of the findings via Facebook Live.
Acosta was murdered despite requesting the government provide protection, and his assassination drew international condemnation and a global petition to Honduras President Juan Orlando Hernandez demanding his assassins be brought to justice. As U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal tweeted: “The murder of Honduran trade unionist Jorge Alberto Acosta is a tragedy, and part of a disturbing trend against the trade union movement in the country.”
Between 2009 and 2019, at least 36 trade unionists were killed in Honduras. More than 97 percent of the cases of violence against human rights defenders in Honduras go unpunished.
Most of the violence in Honduras last year, including Sánchez’s murder, took place as unions and human rights groups protested measures to cut the country’s health and education budgets. Unions, professional associations and teachers in 2019 joined together to form the Platform for the Defense of the Right to Health and Public Education, which held rallies across the country to urge funding for these key social programs.
Six out of 10 Hondurans live in poverty (62 percent), while four out of 10 live in extreme poverty (38 percent). The vast majority work in the precarious informal economy jobs like market vending and domestic work, where they are paid low wages and have no social benefits like paid sick leave or pensions.
The most common violence recorded was harassment, according to the report. For instance, union leaders report being followed and photographed after attending union meetings by individuals unknown to them.
To address the ongoing violence against workers, the Network, a Solidarity Center partner, championed creation of an international body to investigate crimes against trade unionists and offer state security protection. As a result, the International Labor Organization (ILO) established an Inter-Agency Commission on Anti-Union Violence which was launched in August 2019. Yet so far, the commission “has not managed to meet any of its objectives which are to protect victims or to encourage the Justice System to promote criminal investigation and reduce impunity,” according to the Network.
The report also describes the Network’s creation of a new campaign, with Solidarity Center support, to ensure union collective bargaining agreements represent a gender perspective and its efforts to draft proposals to amend trade union statutes to ensure the equal participation of men, women and the LGTBI community.
About 50 trade union leaders, staff and members gathered for a rally today to call on the U.S. government to stop police violence, racism and discrimination against black people. The Black Lives Matter rally at the U.S. embassy in Bangkok was organized by the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC) and the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee (TLSC). Sawit Kaewvarn, SERC general secretary, led the rally and prepared a letter addressed to the ambassador. Embassy staff greeted Sawit and accepted the letter. “We organized today’s rally to demonstrate our strong support and solidarity with Black Lives Matter,” said Sawit Kaewvarn.
“We call on the U.S. government to stop violence, racism and discrimination against black people, to urgently transform its militarized police force and to adopt public safety measures that are consistent with democratic values and principles. “Although we are very far from these events, still we are touched by the outpouring of protest and solidarity against racism and police brutality. We are also part of the global trade union movement with the AFL-CIO—and we express our fullest solidarity with our union sisters and brothers in the U.S. as well as the American people as they protest for justice and an end to institutionalized racism, wealth inequality and injustice,” he said. Protesters knelt at the end of the rally in honor of Black Lives Matter.
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