Prexedes, a domestic worker from Zimbabwe in South Africa, says migrant workers in South Africa often are paid lower wages and suffer harsher working conditions than their South African counterparts. Supporting her three children on her own, Prexedes struggled to pay for transportation to work and food for her family, and often worked overtime for no pay.
But now that she joined the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), a Solidarity Center partner, she says “a lot has changed.”
“Since I have joined a union, my life has improved, with the hours I am working and the salary I am getting,” she says.
Some 25 million people toiled in forced labor around the world in 2016, and 18 percent were children, according to two new reports by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the Walk Free Foundation.
Far more women and girls experience forced labor, making up 58 percent—9.2 million—of the 16 million in forced labor in the private economy. Some 50 percent of women and men in forced labor also were in debt bondage, in which personal debt is used to forcibly obtain labor. This proportion rises above 70 percent for adults forced to work in agriculture, domestic work or manufacturing.
While forced labor occurs all around the world, it is most prevalent in Asia and the Pacific, where the proportion of those trapped in forced labor is four per a population of 1,000. The European and Central Asian region has the second highest proportion, with 3.6 people in forced labor per 1,000, followed by Africa (2.8), the Arab States (2.2) and the Americas (1.3).
152 Million Children Involved in Child Labor
According to the ILO report, children make up 18 percent of victims of forced labor exploitation, 7 percent of those in state-enforced forced labor, and 21 percent of victims of commercial sexual exploitation. Overall, the reports estimate that there are 152 million children involved in child labor globally, with 73 million of them in hazardous work that is dangerous to their health and safety. This overall figure represents a decline from 2012, part of a larger trend in lowering the amount of children involved in labor in the 21st century. However, this decline has slowed dramatically in recent years.
Many experts suggest the reports’ estimates could understate the extent of forced labor. Fiona David, executive director of Global Research at Walk Free told the Washington Post the estimate could be conservative because of the challenges of doing research in conflict areas like Syria or Nigeria.
The ILO reports include strategies for ending forced labor that center on achieving the United Nation’s 2030 Agenda and include studying root causes of modern slavery like debt bondage, and developing policies that specifically address the gender imbalances of modern slavery.
Gunmen on a motorcycle assassinated another Guatemalan union leader on Friday, bringing to 87 the number of labor leaders murdered in the country since November 2004.
Tomás Francisco Ochoa Salazar, disputes secretary for the Bremen Union (SITRABREMEN), was leaving the meat-processing plant where he worked in Guatemala City when he was shot. Andy Noel Godinez, also a union member, suffered non-life-threatening injuries in the incident. Ochoa Salazar leaves behind a wife and three children.
SITRABREMEN is a young union. It filed for official recognition in July 2016, finally receiving notice of its acceptance by the Labor Ministry in February of this year. What followed, according to the union, was a campaign of retaliation, suspensions and harassment of union leaders and members. Its secretary general abruptly resigned in August shortly before the union submitted its collective bargaining proposal to the Labor Inspectorate.
Guatemala is one of the most dangerous places in the world for worker rights activists. While the country, as a member of the International Labor Organization, is obligated to uphold and respect freedom of association, union activists are often illegally fired, threatened, attacked and murdered, and the perpetrators of the crimes go unpunished. The government denies the murders of union members and leaders are connected to their worker rights activism.
“Union repression in Guatemala is intense, and fledgling unions are often harassed out of existence,” said Joell Molina, Solidarity Center Americas director. “The result is that workers suffer—from unsafe job sites to wage theft, from harassment to physical threats if they complain.”
In April 2008, the U.S. government pursued a complaint against Guatemala for violating the labor chapter of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The government acted after six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO submitted a complaint with the U.S. Office of Trade and Labor Affairs. The labor dispute was settled in June 2017, against the workers, after the panel hearing the case decided the documented violations of worker rights were not affecting trade.
Also in June, retired farmworker Eugenio López, 72, was killed when gunmen fired on a peaceful gathering of mostly senior citizens who have been unable to receive health and pension benefits from the Guatemalan Social Security Institute (IGSS) because their employer, San Gregorio, had failed to pay into the system despite deducting from their wages for years.
After a nine-year struggle to achieve union recognition and their first contract in the Dominican Republic, “it is undeniable that today we are stronger,” says Ramón Mosquea, secretary general of the union, SINTRALAYDO.
“I have worked 12 years for this company [Frito Lay/PepsiCo], and I want to tell you how important it was for us to have become organized in our trade union,” says Mosquea.
Mosquea and Jésus Lora, SINTRALAYDO national secretary for education, spoke at the Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C., last week, where they shared their experiences in the long struggle for workplace justice. (Jésus Lora tells his story at the Solidarity Center Workers Equality Forum).
Thirty-one workers first formed the union in June 2008, registering it with the Ministry of Labor, but struggled for years to maintain membership in the face of harassment and intimidation. After they sought to achieve majority recognition for a union at the company in 2012, management derailed the process by challenging the eligibility status of dozens of workers, which reduced support for the union to less than 50 percent, according to SINTRALAYDO leaders. Dominican law requires that more than 50 percent of eligible workers support a union at a worksite before it can be officially recognized.
Yet the workers persisted, joining with the union to recruit supporters, develop greater leadership among its executive committee and engage management in ongoing dialogue to resolve worksite problems, says Mosquea.
Lora urges workers in countries around the world to not lose hope in the face of difficult struggles.
“Don’t give up, keep your heads high and always fight for what you want, because if you do that, you will always achieve what you want as we did in the Dominican Republic,” he says.
“It’s been a success, a great achievement, this collective agreement. We have gained the confidence of the workers, women and men, through social media and the community. This has allowed us to be accepted, trusted by the workers and their families as well.”
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