The effort to secure decent work in Pakistan’s brick kiln industry took a step forward in recent weeks when 18 women parliamentarians vowed to take up the issue in the Punjab Legislature. The move followed their participation in a discussion organized by the Solidarity Center for the Trade Union Female Forum (TUFF). TUFF, a program the Solidarity Center piloted to bring together female labor activists, comprises women union leaders and members of Pakistan Workers Federation and Muttahida Labor Federation.
The late February meeting centered on the proposed Decent Work Brick Kiln–Framework, which provides an inspection checklist to monitor work at kilns along with other comprehensive tools and resources for district labor departments that have not had the mechanisms to systematically inspect and report on labor law violations or the status of brick kiln compliance.
TUFF members outlined steps the Punjab government can take to ensure decent working conditions in brick kilns. Credit: Solidarity Center/Roshan
The Solidarity Center, together with allies in the country, developed the detailed framework as a roadmap for local labor departments to address bonded labor and unsafe working conditions. The program also includes incentives for employers to ensure their facilities meet decent work standards.
Meeting with the parliamentarians, some 30 women trade union leaders and 10 senior male leaders from the two federations highlighted the absence of labor inspections at brick kilns, the lack of formal contracts for brick kiln workers, non-payment of minimum wages to brick kiln workers and the prevalence of debt bondage and other worker exploitation.
The MPs and union leaders discussed options for ensuring decent working conditions for brick kiln workers, including:
- Increasing enforcement powers of labor inspectors in Punjab province, and adding women inspectors.
- Organizing extensive training for labor inspectors around the decent work framework.
- Ensuring transportation for labor inspections to verify compliance with the framework.
- Demanding the government procure bricks for infrastructure projects only from decent work compliance brick kilns.
Punjab MPs told members of Tuff they will pursue the issue of decent work in the legislature. Credit: Solidarity Center/Roshan
The MPs also suggested organizing more dialogue and workshops to educate MPs on worker issues, especially when such meetings are centered on results-oriented solutions like DWBK framework.
The Punjab provincial government recently passed a regulation prohibiting child labor at brick kilns, which covers those under age 15. The Pakistan Senate also unanimously passed a bill last week that would give domestic workers protections on the job. While the domestic worker legislation needs to be passed by the full National Assembly and further passed by individual provinces, the action is a big step forward for the rights of domestic workers.
The murder of a second Honduran rights activist, Nelson Noé García this week, days after the assassination of Berta Cáceres, a globally recognized leader for indigenous rights and environmental justice, has widened international outrage and amplified demands for justice, security, respect for basic rights and an end to impunity for perpetrators.
The Center for International Justice and Rights strongly condemned Nelson’s murder. Marcia Aguiluz, CIJR director for Central America and Mexico, said it “proves that the spiral of violence against indigenous peoples fighting for their territories in Honduras remains with impunity.”
García, 38, a father of five, was a member of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), co-founded by Cáceres. Local media report that García received four gun shots to the face and suggest the attack followed the forceful eviction of at least 150 families in the village of Tilapia by military police.
Berta Cáceres (center), murdered March 3, won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her opposition to one of the region’s biggest hydroelectric projects. Credit: Democracy Now!
The same day as García’s murder, the president of Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán, another indigenous group, was briefly arrested on questionable charges; Cristián Alegría, a campesino activist, was shot at; and David Romero, a journalist critical of the government, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In addition, Gustavo Castro, a Mexican activist who witnessed Cáceres’s murder, has been prevented from leaving the country.
Targeted murders of human rights activists and union members have helped make Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders.
Union activists are targeted to silence demands for economic justice, freedom of association and other basic rights. Over the past 12 months, the Solidarity Center has documented 13 cases of threats or violence against union activists, including the disappearance of Donatilo Jiménez in April 2015, the murder of Héctor Martínez Motiño in June, and repeated death threats against longtime Solidarity Center allies Tomas Membreno and Nelson Geovanni Nuñez Chávez, both of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS) industrial agricultural workers’ union.
In the United States, more than 60 Congress members yesterday asked Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to suspend aid to Honduras security until an international investigation into the murder of Cáceres.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had mandated “precautionary measures” to protect Cáceres, Motiño and Jiménez—which were not borne out in practice. This week, 23 U.S. Congress members sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urging the State Department to take concrete action to address the situation of activists in Honduras.
The AFL-CIO has expressed deep concern with human rights and sustainable development in Honduras based on the findings of an October 2014 labor delegation that met with labor and community organizations, the Honduran government and the U.S. embassy.
In Georgia, coal miners in Tkibuli and glass factory workers in Ksani recently made big gains at the workplace with the assistance of the Metal Workers, Miners and Chemical Industry Workers’ Trade Union (MMCIWTU) and the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC).
Despite tough opposition from their employers, both groups of workers waged successful strikes and won significant wage increases, with miners also gaining key job safety and health improvements.
Miners in Georgia won key contract demands, including a wage increase and improved job safety and health. Credit: MMCIWTU
Some 750 miners went on strike in February, seeking wage increases promised during their last strike in 2011. The workers, employed by the Georgian Industrial Group (GIG), which operates two mines in Tkibuli, walked out before notifying union leadership of their intention.
But with GTUC President Irakli Petriashvili and MMCIWTU President Tamazi Dolaberidze at the bargaining table, miners returned to work in 16 days with a new contract that includes a 7 percent pay increase starting March 1 and an additional 3 percent hike beginning April 1—and will be paid for half of the days they spent on the strike with no punishment for strike leaders. The company also has agreed to address salary imbalances.
GIG supplies coal from Tkibuli primarily to cement-producing factories in Georgia and is one of the country’s largest corporations, with operations in energy generation, natural gas and real estate.
JSC Mina factory workers received wide international support for their strike. Credit: MMCIWTU
At the JSC “Mina” glass container factory, 170 workers—80 percent of the workforce—went on strike February 5 after months of contract negotiations which stalled when the company did not address workers’ key issues, including a wage increase.
Throughout the 30-day strike, glass workers won wide international support, with employees of the JSC Mina Turkey-based parent company, Sisecam, holding a solidarity action backing striking workers. The Sisecam workers also sent their Georgian brothers and sisters a message: “Workers of “Mina” are symbol of fight for just cause, wherever human rights are violated we should be there and fight together!”
The global union federation IndustriALL, the Eurasian Metal Workers Federation, the Turkish union DISK and unions in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan sent protest letters to the company and support letters to the glass workers. GTUC affiliate organizations and non-governmental organizations also backed the workers.
Petriashvili and Dolaberidze ultimately negotiated a 7.5 percent pay increase beginning January 1, 2017, and the company agreed to the workers’ demand for a location to hold union activities.
Even as trade union representatives from Tunisia and other trade unionists were barred from entering Bahrain to attend the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) Congress, hundreds of union members participated in open, spirited discussions and held free elections, capped by the secretary-general’s call for continuing the democratic process.
“It is time for the democracy you and I believe in, and are called to implement, to take its course—the democracy that we have made a symbol and principle,” said GFBTU General Secretary Sayed Salman Al-Mahfood.
Mahfood, who stepped down along with three leaders who helped found the federation in 2004, said democracy means “leaving while enjoying the capacity to give.”
Four women are among the 15 newly elected members of GFBTU’s secretariat.
The democratic elections took place in a difficult environment. Just this week, Bahraini human rights activist Zainab Al Khawaja was arrested, along with her 15-month-old son, Abdul-Hadi. The arrest follows the fifth anniversary of pro-democracy uprising in February 2011.
Although Bahrain still lacks democratic practices, GFBTU has presented an alternative with its March 5-7 Congress as an example.
“What I saw was a living example of democratic practices that included thousands of workers in Bahrain,” says Nader Tadros, Solidarity Center Regional Program Director for the Middle East and North Africa.
The Uzbekistan government again forced more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks during last fall’s harvest. But this time, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing those independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions, according to a new report.
“The government unleashed an unprecedented campaign of harassment and persecution against independent monitors to attempt to cover up its use of forced labor while taking pains to make widespread, massive forced mobilization appear voluntary,” according to The Cover-Up: Whitewashing Uzbekistan’s White Gold.
Further, Uzbek officials in some cases forced teachers, students and medical workers to sign statements attesting that they picked cotton of their own will and agreeing to disciplinary measures, including being fired or expelled, if they failed to pick cotton. It instructed people to lie to monitors saying they came to pick cotton of their own volition.
Roughly 1 million teachers, nurses and other workers are forced each year to toil in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields. Credit: Uzbek-German Foundation
Covering Up for Cash
Uzbekistan, which gets an estimated $1 billion per year in revenue from cotton sales, faced high penalties for not addressing its ongoing forced labor. But rather than end the practice, the government sought to cover it up, according to the report, produced by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
The World Bank has invested more than $500 million in Uzbekistan’s agricultural sector. Following a complaint from Uzbek civil society, the bank attached loan covenants stipulating that the loans could be stopped and subject to repayment if forced or child labor was detected in project areas by monitors from the International Labor Organization (ILO), contracted by the World Bank to carry out labor monitoring during the harvest.
Last week, the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of labor and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center, presented a petition signed by more than 140,000 people from around the world to World Bank President Dr. Jim Yong Kim, calling on the bank to suspend lending to the agriculture sector in Uzbekistan until the Uzbek government changes its policy of forced labor in the cotton industry.
Farmers and business owners also were coerced by the government, the report found. Farmers are forced to plant state-ordered acreage of cotton and wheat or face the loss of their land. In 2015 the government relied on law enforcement to monitor and control the agricultural process and instill fear in farmers. Police regularly patrolled cotton fields, inspected farms and monitored workers and the harvest progress.
Officials and business owners, under pressure to support the national cotton harvest plan, ordered 40 percent or more of their employees to pick cotton, often in written directives.
Elena Urlaeva (right), was arrested at least four times and physically abused in prison for her work monitoring forced labor practices in Uzbekistan. Credit: Uzbek-German Forum
Physically Abused in Prison
Among independent monitors harassed by the Uzbek government, long-time human rights and civic activist, Elena Urlaeva, was arrested at least four times during the 2015 cotton harvest as well as twice during the spring planting and weeding season.
The head of the Tashkent-based Human Rights Alliance of Uzbekistan, Urlaeva reported that she was injected with sedatives, stripped searched and forced to go without sanitation facilities during one incarceration last year. Another time, Urlaeva, her husband, their 11-year-old son and a family friend and farmer who had invited them to stay on his land were arrested because Urlaeva “photographed the fields without permission.”
For years, the Uzbekistan government has forced health care workers, teachers and others to pick cotton for 15 to 40 days, working long hours and enduring abysmal living conditions, including overcrowding and insufficient access to safe drinking water and hygiene facilities.