Thousands of teacher trainees, holding banners reading “Marching for dignity and justice,” and chanting “We’re prepared to go to prison,” marched through the streets of Morocco’s capital, Rabat, this week to denounce two government decrees to cut scholarships and jobs.
Teacher trainees defied government threats barring them from public protest. Credit: Hicham Ahmadouch/UMT
The protest followed a meeting between representatives of the teacher trainees and the government, which refused to annul the two decrees but agreed to recruit an additional 3,000 teacher trainers not covered by the 2016 fiscal year budget.
The workers, who have been on strike for two months, took to the streets despite government threats against unauthorized marches. At a rally earlier this month, several teacher trainees were beaten by police. Primarily in the their 20s and 30s, teacher trainees say the government’s decrees will further fuel the country’s already high youth unemployment rate, which, at more than 20 percent, is double the nation’s overall unemployment rate.
Morocco’s head of government, Abdelilah Benkirane, asserted that he will not “repeal the government decrees,” regarding teacher trainees.
Earlier this month, some 4,000 workers staged a sit-in outside the parliament in Rabat to protest worker cutbacks in pensions and ongoing worker rights violations, including the attacks on the teacher trainees.
Days of economic protests in Kasserine, Tunisia, are the result of “the persistent marginalization” and “the ruling elite’s failure to achieve the hopes and expectations of Tunisians,” especially the young, according to the country’s union federation, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).
“The UGTT supports the legitimate demands of hundred of thousands of marginalized and unemployed,” the federation said in a statement. The UGTT, a Solidarity Center partner, is calling on the government to “take urgent measures to remedy to this situation and to engage in a constructive and serious dialogue.”
Protests began on January 19 after a man committed suicide reportedly because he was denied a government post. Kasserine, with few jobs and a high poverty rate, is among many cities and towns in Tunisia’s central and border areas where workers, especially young people, are unable to support themselves and their families.
The government declared an indefinite nationwide curfew yesterday. Police use of tear gas to disperse the crowds sparked protests in several other towns, including Tunis, the capital, where hundreds took to the streets.
The UGTT is urging people to demonstrate peacefully and avoid violence, and is calling on the government, political parties and civil society organizations to join in national dialogue to address social tension and develop a strategy to fight unemployment.
The events echo the December 2010 suicide of a 23-year-old market vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death sparked protests for jobs and democracy that spread quickly across the country and ignited the Arab uprising.
Tunisian trade unionists, supported by UGTT, played a central role in the 2011–2012 revolution, and public outcry led to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia for 23 years, holding sway over a large percentage of the Tunisian economy, controlling real estate, hotels, airlines, telecommunications and automobiles.
In Lephalale, South Africa, a coal mining town near the Botswana border, more than 70 farm workers, including 19 women, are crowded into a handful of tents in a disaster relief center after fleeing the commercial farm owner who shut off water and electricity in their company-run homes for months after they asked for a wage increase.
The Zimbabwean migrants worked on four vegetable farms operated by Johannesberg Farm, regularly putting in 12-hour days, seven days a week, and forced to toil 17-hour days during the harvest. Yet when the workers, who are paid $120 per month, roughly half the legal minimum wage, requested a 59-cent-per-day pay increase in August, the farm owner waged a months-long battle against them.
Farm workers Edias (second from right) and Thembani (far right) met this week with Catholice Moraba of FAWU and Sikha Magutshwa and Mandla Masuku of MIWUSA at the disaster relief camp. Credit: Solidarity Center
The workers told Solidarity Center staff who traveled to Lephalale this week that in September, a group of men led by the farm owner fired rubber bullets at the workers’ homes and set some of them on fire to drive workers out of their homes so they could assault and club them. One of the workers, Edias, says he and four other workers were then kidnapped, tortured and interrogated for hours before police arrived. (For farm workers’ safety, we are using first names only.)
Now 23, Edias was 12 years old when he first came to South Africa to work. The beating to his back and head was so severe that he suffers from back and body pain and likely will never again be able to work in hard physical labor.
Unable to leave to look for other jobs because the farm owner had confiscated their work papers, Edias and the workers stayed in their camp dwellings near the farm until December. Then, near starvation, they walked miles to the police station at Villa Nora where they camped before they were relocated to Lephalale.
Thousands of Migrant Farm Workers Paid Subminimum Wages, Suffer Physical Abuse
“The farmer only hires Zimbabweans,” says Thembani, a farm worker who fled Johannesberg Farm. “He said he won’t hire South Africans because they know the law.”
The migrant farm workers stranded in Lephalale are only a few of the thousands of farm workers across the country who are paid sub-minimum wages, forced to toil in harsh conditions that are illegal under South African labor law and often being physically abused. The conditions are especially brutal for women.
Women farm workers at the Johannesberg Farm say they cut, sorted and packed produce, often until 11 p.m., when only headlights from a farm truck illuminated their workspace. If they questioned the amount of wages they received in a pay period, farm managers beat them. Children were not allowed to go to school and so were left behind in Zimbabwe with relatives. If the women were injured, they were forced to wait until the end of the day’s work before they were taken to a clinic and were expected to return to work the next day.
McIan, 50, is among the exiled farm workers. After 15 years of hard work on the Johannesberg Farm, he put his livelihood on the line to join his co-workers in Lephalale. Even though the farm owner offered him two weeks’ pay to return to work—among the highest offers—he refused. McIan says he acted in solidarity with the other workers because “this farmer is cruel, and this is not right. Let me stand with my brothers.”
McIan said the farm owner regularly beat workers, accusing them of not working hard. Like Edias, McIan crossed the border from Zimbabwe into South Africa at age 12, and eventually was hired at the Johannesberg Farm where he helped grow and harvest potatoes, tomatoes, maize and onions.
Solidarity Center and Allies Seeking Justice for the Zimbabwe 70
Now, McIan and the other farm workers at the disaster relief camp are housed in tents so thin they would not withstand a strong storm. The camp has one toilet and no sewer drainage, and the workers subsist on a diet of rice and pap, a ground meal staple prevalent across Africa.
The vast majority of Zimbabwe’s 15 million people are forced to eke out a living in the informal economy or in subsistence farming, with many migrating to South Africa in the hope of supporting themselves and their families.
The Solidarity Center, in coalition with our allies the South African Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), the Migrant Workers Union of South Africa and other organizations, is asking South African government agencies and the Zimbabwean consulate to provide temporary work permits to allow them work and stay in the country until their legal claims have been resolved and to be returned to their jobs with back pay.
Further, the coalition is asking the South African government to comprehensively inspect the conditions of farm workers; properly investigate reports of human rights abuses; ensure farm workers receive wages in line with the country’s minimum wage laws and penalize repeated violators.
Union leaders are asking the Cambodia Royal Government and National Assembly to suspend adoption of a pending trade union law because of restrictions it would place on the freedom to form unions, collectively bargain and strike.
Following a strategy meeting today chaired by the International Trade Union Confederation Cambodia Coordinating Council, a dozen union leaders issued a joint statement calling on parliament to accept the group’s 17 previously submitted proposals. Unions want to see the draft labor law expanded to cover domestic workers, civil servants, state employees and informal economy workers, and seek more protections for the right to form unions and bargain collectively, in accordance with international labor standards.
The law “visibly restricts” worker rights that are recognized by the International Labor Organization (ILO), including the freedoms to form unions and bargain collectively, the unions said in a statement released at a press conference following their meeting.
The unions added that is essential to align Cambodian law with the international conventions it has ratified, including ILO conventions, as well as for promoting “the interests of all the workers and society, as well as our next generation.”
Union leaders have met several times with members of the Special Committee of the Parliament in charge of drafting the law, but say their detailed responses and recommendations have not been seriously considered.
Five leaders of the Collective Union of Movement of Workers (CUMW) in Cambodia were released from detention today after spending nearly a week in prison for seeking to assist striking garment factory workers who sought their support. The Solidarity Center legal team in Phnom Penh was instrumental in securing the five men’s freedom.
CUMW President Pav Sina said without support from the Solidarity Center, the union would have been unable to secure justice for the five organizers. Credit: Solidarity Center
Speaking at a gathering this evening to mark the release of the five union leaders, CUMW President Pav Sina said without support from the Solidarity Center, the union would have been unable to secure justice for the five organizers.
The organizers say they were beaten and arrested on January 12 when they sought to meet with the workers at the factory. Five other workers were beaten, with four suffering serious injuries to their eyes, heads and hands. The workers, who make sweaters, had sought the union’s assistance in helping them achieve workplace improvements that include lengthening work contracts from three months to a year; doubling daily pay for holiday work; and providing additional piece work pay.
At a rally in early January, the five CUMW leaders joined workers outside the factory in a solidarity rally which was disrupted when the president of the employer-controlled union ordered his group of workers to destroy CUMW materials and loud speakers. Several days later, more than 400 workers protested outside buildings housing the Prime Minister and National Assembly to further press for their rights at work and the next day, more than 500 workers gathered at the factory and at the court to demand release of the union organizers.
Short-term Contracts Make It Hard for Workers to Win Better Wages
Cambodia’s garment workers “often experience discriminatory and exploitative labor conditions” according to a Human Rights Watch report last year, which cited short-term contracts as contributing to the often abusive conditions.
“The combination of short-term contracts that make it easier to fire and control workers, poor government labor inspection and enforcement, and aggressive tactics against independent unions make it difficult for workers, the vast majority of whom are young women, to assert their rights,” the report stated.
An estimated 700,000 workers in Cambodia sew and package more than $5 billion worth of clothing, textiles and shoes every year, making up at least one-third of the country’s gross domestic product. Yet workers currently earn far less than they need to cover expenses, according to a study of garment workers and their expenditures, conducted by labor rights groups, including the Solidarity Center.
Garment workers across Cambodia have waged a series of rallies and strikes to protest low wages, most recently in October, when some 21,000 garment workers from six unions at more than 60 factories rallied for a higher minimum wage. In 2014, tens of thousands of garment workers took part in a series of mass protests demanding a living wage. At one rally, Cambodian security forces killed five workers and injured more than 60 and resulting in the arrests and dismissals of dozens of workers and union leaders.