My name is Sultan Mutlag Ahmed, president of Salah Al Din’s branch of the General Federation of Workers’ Unions in Iraq (GFWUI). I participated in a workshop organized by the international Solidarity Center on Iraqi Labor Law, and it was a very valuable workshop. After completing the workshop, I was able to implement strategies discussed at the workshop. Specifically: There was a contractor who hired workers for five months, but only paid them for two months. He refused to pay for the whole period because he didn’t need them for the entire five months.
So we at the workers union intervened and convinced the contractor that he has to pay. He first said that the agreement he had with the workers was verbal and not written so I told him it doesn’t matter if it was verbal or written. I also called the chairperson of court, the labor court in Salah Al Din, and when he called the contractor he decided to pay the workers for the entire five months. I told the contractor that before he pays them, he needs to sign a written contract with them, so he signed a contract and paid them the money, and the issue was resolved, thank God.
Meeting in Togo for the annual African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) forum this month, nearly 20 leaders from key African trade unions joined forces to advance the creation of good jobs and safe workplaces through fair trade.
The forum “is a venue for workers to have their voices heard by officials and politicians all over the world,” says Eliamane Diouf, secretary-general of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Senegal (CSA), who attended the conference.
It offers unions the opportunity to “make sure companies comply with international standards of labor by complying with the rights of workers,” he says.
“Fair trade is where everybody wins” —Georges Koanda, USTB general secretary Credit: Solidarity Center Emily Williams
Also at the August 7–10 conference, Georges Koanda, general secretary of the Workers Trade Union of Burkina Faso (USTB), says unions seek to “make sure that all the businesses and small- and medium-sized enterprises that work with AGOA create decent work.
“To me, fair trade is where everybody wins—the worker wins, the employer wins, the government wins and the public around the world wins,” Koanda says. “But to achieve this, the government has to put up a lot of measures and procedures so as to comply with the norms in their trade with the United States.”
The CSA and USTB were among nine Solidarity Center partners at the event, where union leaders released a statement outlining how AGOA should best achieve fair trade for workers and their communities. The first goal is “strict adherence to international labor standards, respect for human rights, democracy and the rule of law,” as “integral performance benchmarks without exception to all AGOA investments and business practice.”
Signed into law in 2000, AGOA was originally an eight-year trade preferences pact providing sub-Saharan African countries that met certain criteria with access to the U.S. market for goods such as clothing, agricultural products and auto components. It has since been extended to 2025. AGOA’s goals involve encouraging economic growth and development as well as regional and global integration of sub-Saharan Africa.
AGOA Provisions for Worker Rights Hold Countries Accountable
Crucially, the pact includes key worker and human rights protections that countries must meet to enjoy AGOA benefits. In 2014, the United States suspended Swaziland from AGOA for failing to allow worker and civil society groups to freely associate and assemble. The Swazi government’s attacks against workers and their unions have since decreased, says Muzikayise Mhlanga, Deputy Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).
“Even though we are not where we want to be in terms of rights, human rights, political rights … I think in terms of the labor component, we are improving. Through the suspension of AGOA, our labor laws have been amended, the suppression of terrorism act also has been amended, the public order act … also has been amended,” all for the better.
The action shows governments “if you don’t adhere to the benchmarks you’re going to lose AGOA,” says Mhlanga.
Nearly 20 leaders from key Africa trade unions, all Solidarity Center partners, took part in AGOA 2017 in Togo.
In fact, everyone along the supply chain benefits when workers have decent wages and working conditions and the freedom to form unions and associations, says Koanda.
“When we look at the number of Africans in the supply chain, we realize that these workers and their rights are not respected because they can’t make a living in this value chain. In this case, AGOA is very, very important because AGOA has requirements that our countries have to comply with.”
The unions roundly support AGOA, saying in their statement that it “offers an opportunity for African countries to address the decent work deficit, especially for women, youth and migrant workers as well as reduce poverty and inequalities.”
But the key, says Mhlanga, is decent work—employment that provides living wages in workplaces that are safe and healthy, with fairness on the job and social protections for workers when they are sick, injured or retire.
“We should not compromise the conditions of service just for the sake of getting jobs,” he says. “They should be decent jobs.”
Emily Williams, Solidarity Center senior program officer for Africa, conducted interviews for this report.
Talks between Peruvian mineworkers and the Ministry of Labor over proposed labor law reforms came to a standstill after the government began retaliating against workers who took part in a recent nationwide strike, despite promises not to do so, according to the National Federation of Mining, Metallurgical and Steel Workers of Peru (FNTMMSP).
The government and FNTMMSP agreed to a monthlong series of negotiations after mine workers from 56 unions in Peru went out on an indefinite, nationwide strike July 19 to protest the government’s proposed reforms to loosen workplace safety rules, make it easier to fire workers and shift the burden of paying into an unemployment fund to workers from employers.
The director of the Peruvian Labor Ministry contacted each company where workers went on strike to clarify that the strike was illegal, a move that could result in discipline or dismissal of the workers involved—and could send a warning that “workers do not dare in the future to exercise our right to strike,” according to the union.
“We call out the mining employers who, seeking to intimidate miners throughout Peru, have sent notarized letters to workers who participated in the struggle challenging their inalienable labor rights to do so. We respond with firmness: We know our rights—such as the right to strike, and we know when the employer violates labor laws, does not comply with collective bargaining agreements, and excessively abuses the labor rights of its workers,” FNTMMSP says in a statement.
Although the right to strike is protected under Peruvian law, the freedom to strike is restricted. The government declared the mineworkers’ strike out of compliance with legal requirements, as it does for most major strikes. The Mineworkers Federation has appealed the determination.
“If the dialogue is not resumed and the signed agreements are not fulfilled, we will take measures necessary to enforce our rights, which are also the rights of all the workers of the country,” FNTMMSP says.
As the global community gets set to mark International Youth Day August 12, young workers around the world faced with a lack of decent jobs increasingly are joining with union movements and worker associations to challenge policies that do not promote an economy that works for all.
An estimated 290 million young people are jobless and another 150 million are working but impoverished. Many of these 150 million workers are employed in the informal economy, with no guarantee of steady income or access to the benefits of stable employment. As a result, generations of young people are at risk of lifelong poverty and little hope of social mobility. In fact, the ILO identifies precarious employment in the informal economy as the number one impediment to solving global poverty.
But young workers like Kymbat Sherimbayeva are standing up for their rights to decent work and collective bargaining. The Kyrgyzstan garment worker recently joined with some 200 co-workers, most of whom are between the ages of 18 and 25, to improve wages and safety conditions. With the help of trainings provided by the Garment Workers’ Union of Kyrgyzstan, with Solidarity Center support, workers at the factory formed a union, recognizing they could negotiate improvements with management much more effectively as a group than as individuals.
“We are stronger when we are together,” says Sherimbayeva.
Unions also are reaching out to young workers to develop the next generation of leaders. From Kenya, Jane Njoki Muthoni works to enable young women advance to union leadership positions through her roles as president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)-Africa Young Workers Committee and youth leader for the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU)-Kenya.
Njoki helps lead COTU Queens, which represents women union members between ages 18 and 35 who are in leadership and aspire to leadership. “As we all know, in trade unions, women are not represented well,” says Njoki.
Because young women are especially likely to work in low-wage, precarious and hazardous jobs, Njoki and the Young Workers Committee also are campaigning for Kenya to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions covering maternity leave and domestic workers.
“Domestic workers are primarily women, young women, who are frustrated at workplace, are intimidated, face sexual harassment. Our agenda is to make sure that our voices are heard. This movement makes sure that it protects the rights of young women, the rights of young workers in society,” says Njoki.
Elsewhere, young workers are mobilizing in vast numbers to challenge laws and policies that would deny them the ability to attain good wages and stable jobs. For instance in Peru, after lawmakers in 2015 rammed through a law that reduced salaries and benefits for workers under age 25, tens of thousands of young workers and their allies organized meetings with workers across industries and marched in a series of massive protests. Their efforts resulted in the law’s nearly immediate repeal.
Just as unions recognize that young workers represent the single most effective bulwark against economic and social inequality, more and more young workers are standing up for their rights, joining with unions and worker associations to achieve fundamental workplace rights.
As Njoki says, “We are the voice of today and we are the voice of tomorrow.”
Kailash Satyarthi, a Solidarity Center ally, won the Nobel Prize in 2014 for his lifelong efforts to end child labor. He began this work much earlier, in 1986 in Jharkand province—one of India’s poorest regions at the time, a place where child labor was common across a variety of industries.
Recently, Satyarthi was in Washington, D.C., to address congressional lawmakers on the situation of child labor globally. The Solidarity Center spoke with him about his Foundation’s work and the role of the labor movement in combating child exploitation.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You’ve been fighting child exploitation since the 1980s. How has child labor changed in this time?
Kailash Satyarthi Credit: Global March Against Child Labor
Satyarthi: The world has grown rapidly, but despite technological advancements and accumulating vast global wealth, we have not been able to safeguard our children’s freedom. Today, 168 million languish in labor while 5.5 million are enslaved. Two hundred and thirty million children are caught in conflict-prone environments. Approximately 21 million children today have been displaced and face poverty, violence and inhumane conditions. Globalization has presented new challenges: increased cyber-crime and violence against women and children perpetrated online.
But the internet has made activism more sustainable. People are more inclined to support this fight because of increased awareness and ease of access. With the advent of technology, we have been able to make significant progress. I believe if the power of the internet and young people are channeled properly, we will be able to bring justice into the lives of many children.
What role does the labor movement play in the fight against child labor?
Satyarthi: To fully realize the SDGs, the fulfillment and protection of the rights of children is central. Trade unions are indispensable to this mission in two ways.
First, while workers in developed nations often receive their fair and just share, their counterparts in poor nations or emerging economies are denied what is theirs by right. This creates formidable challenges, like struggling to meet daily nutrition requirements. Poor laborers then seek another pair of working hands; in most cases, it is their child’s. A strong trade union can deliver the promise of decent work and income to families and so protect the development of these children.
Second, while 168 million children labor globally, 200 million adults are unemployed. Labor unions can help organize legal employment for these adults, as there is clearly no dearth of jobs. There are no easy solutions, but we know by experience that with the strength and resilience of labor unions, we can reach many who are voiceless working in illegitimate parallel economies.
As you noted, stable, well-paying jobs are hard to find for workers of all ages. What is the relationship between the ongoing flexibilization of work and the prevalence of child labor?
Satyarthi: Unfortunately, the concept of a fixed job is being wiped out by the relentless pressures of globalization while the movement of labor remains tightly restricted. Until the 1980s, in a country like the United States, people expected to work in a factory or office, in semi-skilled or skilled jobs until retirement. That is no longer true. It has been replaced by a concept of labor which takes us back, in some ways, to the 19th century when workers lacked job security. In this situation, it’s difficult to send children to schools and colleges. Rather, children end up working to help supplement uncertain family incomes.
What can be done to ensure that children, especially those in rural areas, are protected?
Satyarthi: Traditionally, the prevalence of child labor in farms has been widespread, meaning from children helping their families to bonded labor. Today, in relatively poor countries like India, where 50 percent of the population depends on agriculture for a livelihood, the most common form of child labor is found in farms. Until recently, it was rare to find a functional school in rural India. Some children were forced to walk over 10 kilometers (about 6 miles) to attend schools where teacher absenteeism was rampant. Here, government intervention is necessary. Education is a fundamental right and a public good and cannot be left at the mercy of market forces and private players. We have seen welfare schemes that guarantee employment to poor rural Indians and free meals to children attending school lead to a dramatic improvement in school enrollment. Much more needs to be done.
Over your career, you’ve used many strategies to fight child labor. What initiatives stand out to you as you look back on your career?
Satyarthi: During the first phase of my fight in the 1980s, the world remained ignorant as 250 million children labored globally. In the South Asian carpet industry alone, the number of child slaves working as carpet weavers was slightly over a million. Despite conducting many on-the-ground raid and rescue operations, we were not making desirable progress.
In 1995, I started discussions with carpet manufacturers, middlemen, exporters, NGOs in India and elsewhere, and leading carpet importers in Germany and the United States. This became the inspiration behind GoodWeave. The idea was to eradicate child labor in the carpet manufacturing industry with well-placed interventions in the supply and demand chains. I believed that after sparking the will for change, the industry could help social development by disrupting the circle of poverty, illiteracy, poor health and illegal employment.
What do you say to skeptics of GoodWeave and other consumer-based approaches to promoting human rights?
Satyarthi: GoodWeave effected a decline in child labor in the carpet industries, from over a million in the 1990s to less than 200,000 today. The most remarkable fact is that there was no decline in rug exports. Optimism among stakeholders brought about a remarkable change channeled through the power and reach of the corporate sector. If corporate and civil society can learn from our experiences with consumer-based human rights advocacy, then we can usher in a new era of globalization.
What about arguments that socially progressive policies, like compulsory universal primary education or a living wage, place an unfair economic burden on developing countries?
Satyarthi: The positive effect of placing children at the heart of policy and action is evident. If all students in low income countries acquired basic reading skills, 171 million people could be lifted out of poverty, equivalent to a 12 percent cut in world poverty. Moreover, an investment of one dollar in the eradication of child labor gives you the return of $10 to $15 in 10 years. The same applies to investment in education: Every additional year of schooling a young person receives increases their average future earnings by 10 percent, and can boost countries’ average annual GDP (gross domestic product) growth by 0.37 percent.
So, I humbly appeal to the naysayers to focus on what is measurable. Child labor never did any family or any child any good. It has to go.
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