“Trade unions and NGOs must work together” to end child labor, asserted Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi as he summed up a two-day gathering of more than 40 child labor activist organizations from around the world in Seville, Spain. Participants at “Forum Spain-Americas: Civil Society for the Sustained Elimination of Child Labor” met last week to discuss United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 8.7, which aims in part at the eradication of child labor.
Satyarthi, founder of the Global March Against Child Labor, a worldwide network of trade unions, civil society organizations and education associations working to end child labor, launched the organization 20 years ago to press for adoption of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 138 on eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
“The Global March started out as a movement, which became an organization,” said Solidarity Center Asia Region Director Tim Ryan. “You can identify an issue and create an organization, but you need a vision to create a movement.” Ryan, who serves as chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labor, participated in a panel examining how the Global March’s international work over the years could inform renewed efforts to address child labor in the Western hemisphere.
Ending Child Labor, Ensuring Children Receive Quality Education
The connection of trade unions and civil society organizations in a close partnership has been a unique and important aspect from the inception of Global March, Ryan said. Currently, representatives from Education International, the global union federation of teachers, and trade union activists from Ghana and the United States are Global March Board members.
“It’s no surprise teachers’ unions around the world are part of the Global March,” Ryan said. “A key value underpinning the elimination of child labor has to be the opportunity for children to have a quality education.”
Satyarthi said that education philosophy around the world must be aimed at something greater than turning out consumers.
“Education that just produces makers and lubricators of the global economy is a disaster,” he said. But “there is no dearth of good people and good work who can strengthen our alliances with hope and resolve” to eliminate child labor with committed people and their organizations working for it.
In Zimbabwe, “there is no economy to talk about in the moment,” says Peter Mutasa, president of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), a Solidarity Center ally. “Everyone is living on subsistence and selling in the streets. Those jobs are not paying. They don’t offer decent protection. They’re not decent jobs.”
Mutasa discussed Zimbabwe’s economic crisis and unions’ efforts to support working people during a discussion on the recent Working Life podcast.
Some 95 percent of Zimbabwe’s workers eke out a living in the informal economy, with between 70 percent and 80 percent of people struggling to get by on less than $1 per day. Workers’ share of income has steadily declined since the country became part of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund’s structural adjustment programs in the 1990s, says Mutasa.
Mutasa has been involved in union building since he graduated high school in 1997 and took his first job as a bank teller. Surprised and disheartened to find that conditions were not what he had expected, such as no lunch break and overtime pay, Mutasa met with a member of a union who talked with him about his rights as a worker, launching his union activism.
Now, “We need the international community to refocus and bring back attention, so that we prevent a catastrophe by managing the situation,” he says. “This is the message we have for the international community: Everything is not all right in Zimbabwe.”
As the number of workers in the informal economy increase around the world, the result is that more and more workers are low paid, with few or no social benefits or job security. In the Dominican Republic, where many in the informal economy are Haitian migrants, the union movement successfully organized those who work in construction and, in the case of domestic workers, played a key role in pushing for passage of the International Labor Organization Domestic Worker Rights Convention 189.
The Dominican Republic labor movement’s strategies for success will be among the examples discussed November 15 during the Solidarity Center launch of the new book, Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective. (The event in Washington, D.C., is free. RSVP here.) The book collects case studies from union campaigns in such countries as Brazil, Cambodia and Colombia, bringing together in one volume a compendium of academic field research and concrete grassroots examples
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau and international worker rights advocates will explore how unions are using social and economic justice tools to organize workers and share their successes with others seeking dignity on the job, justice in their communities and greater equality in the global economy.
In recent years, Uzbekistan has increased the number of public-sector workers required to pick cotton, because the country nearly ended child labor in 2014 after pressure from the international community, including the Solidarity Center. Recent reports, however, indicate that the practice of forcing children to pick cotton has not ended in all parts of the country, with children sent to the fields.
The return of child labor is one of many examples showing that Uzbekistan’s promised reforms have not yet fully become reality, and the Uzbek cotton fields remain full of abusive practices, even resulting in death. Najmiddin Sarimsoqov, 58, became the first victim to lose his life in the Uzbekistan cotton fields this harvest season when he died of a brain hemorrhage as he prepared to pick cotton in Jizzakh Region’s Zafarobod District on October 8.
Each year, the Uzbekistan government forces approximately 1 million people to work in the country’s cotton fields, picking a crop that makes up nearly a quarter of the nation’s GDP. The Walk Free Foundation, a group committed to ending forced labor, estimates that 4 percent of the country’s population is sent to the fields.
According to experts, the situation in Uzbekistan is unique, since the work is mandated by the government, a practice that dates back to the Soviet era. This makes monitoring and addressing the situation in Uzbekistan even more difficult, because monitoring must be conducted in tandem with Uzbekistan officials.
According to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations “dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in cotton production,” of which the Solidarity Center is a member, the Uzbek government’s practice of forcing doctors, nurses, and teachers to work in the fields is extremely detrimental to the nation’s health and education services.
This year, however, the Uzbek government claims to have sent many of these public-sector employees out of the fields and back to their schools and jobs. The decision, made by President Shavkat Miriziyoyev, presumably comes after Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, put pressure on the country to end the horrific practice. However, this situation has not been remedied.
Many of the public employees no longer forced to work are instead required to pay their replacements at costs that are unaffordable. Some teachers, who had been sent back to their classrooms from the fields, were forced to pay $40 to local officials, half of their monthly salary.
Praise for Uzbekistan Liberalized Labor Laws ‘Premature’
Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, called praise of the news regarding Uzbekistan’s supposedly liberalized labor laws “premature,” as long as activists face threats of violence and detention. “President Mirziyoyev’s government should send an unambiguous message to independent activists and cotton monitors that their work is valued and that they will be free to monitor this cotton harvest without retaliation or interference,” he adds.
The Solidarity Center and its partners have long been involved in the fight against forced labor in Uzbekistan. A report released earliert this year highlighted worker rights abuse in areas with World Bank investments. Even more recently, the Uzbek-German Forum published a report on forced labor in these areas, highlighting the World Bank’s failures to stop the practice in areas where it invests, such as Karakalpakstan, a region in the western area of the country. Together with its partners in the Cotton Campaign, the Solidarity Center has joined in calling on the World Bank to live up to its promises in Uzbekistan.
Despite government claims to the contrary, it is clear that Uzbekistan’s cotton fields are still rife with forced labor and child labor, and the Solidarity Center and its allies will continue the struggle for decent work in Central Asia and beyond.
Agricultural work remains one of the most dangerous in the world. And women, who comprise between 50 percent and 70 percent of the informal workforce in commercial agriculture, are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, physical abuse and other forms of gender-based violence at work.
Through gender equality training, Touriya Lahrech has enabled women farm workers to stand up for their rights. Credit: Solidarity Center/Hind Cherrouk
In Morocco, where the Solidarity Center partners with the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) to improve worker rights, the first step in addressing gender-based violence in the agricultural sector is enabling women to recognize its detrimental impact, says Touriya Lahrech, coordinator of the CDT’s Women Department and part of its executive board.
When women understand how gender-based violence at work is part of a larger structural system preventing them from attaining better wages and decent working conditions, they can go on “to denounce these kind of practices and exercise their rights,” she says, speaking through a translator.
Empowered Women Propel Landmark Bargaining Agreement
In Morocco’s fertile fields outside Meknes, some 1,000 agricultural workers on five large farms won a landmark contract in 2015 that boosted wages, provided safety equipment and other fundamental protections. Since then, union leaders have negotiated an extension of the contract to 200 additional workers at another large farm.
The success of the multi-year effort to achieve the agreement stems in large part from the gender equality trainings by CDT and Solidarity Center. Launched in 2007, the trainings enabled women to understand their rights and to take steps to improve their difficult conditions, says Lahrech.
Agriculture workers in Meknes, Morocco, head to work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Hind Cherrouk
The women help determine the issues important to them and also design their trainings, which are conducted through role play because many are illiterate. “The fact that they participate in the design of the role play which builds on their own experiences” is especially meaningful and effective, says Lahrech. Engendering conversation and listening instills participants with the value they deserve, she says.
Lahrech describes how women who initially sat in the back of the room too fearful to speak, have gone on after the trainings to take the microphone at massive rallies on Women’s Day and in CDT meetings where they articulated their rights.
The contract, reached with agro-industry employer, Les Domaines Brahim Zniber, includes first-ever maternity leave, a key demand of the women workers. The contract also is especially important for women because they now have equality with men, says Lahrech. Equality with men means women, who previously were blocked from “male” jobs, like truck driving, now have access to these generally higher paying jobs. “When women can drive trucks, they earn more pay and that is better for everyone,” she says.
Further, the agreement provides employment security for all workers, who had been classified as seasonal and so not eligible for social protections like pensions and health care. The precariousness of agricultural work is compounded by informal employment arrangements driven by the seasons when cash crops are planted and harvested.
Unions Key to Social and Economic Improvements
Lahrech, who also serves as a member of the ITUC’s Women’s Committee and the Arab Trade Union Confederation Women’s Committee, is a long-time union advocate who began working with agricultural workers after she discovered how women in the sector are “at the mercy of the employer, with no social security, no retirement, and in general, not many rights due to the lack of contract.”
Sparked by her participation in student protests, Lahrech made it her life’s goal to effect positive societal change—and soon realized the most effective means to do so is through unions.
“We can’t make the social and economic system change without union involvement,” she says. “When I saw the divide in social classes, I revolted, but I found the frame to challenge this anger—through trade unions.
“Together with others in the union, we share, through solidarity, because things can change with solidarity.”
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