Myrtle Witbooi accepts ALF-CIO George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award for IDWF.
Myrtle began her career in the 1960s as a domestic worker in apartheid South Africa. A newspaper article about domestic workers moved her to write a letter to the editor. Myrtle was just 18 when, with the help of a local journalist, she convened the first meeting of domestic workers in Cape Town in 1965.
“And I went up to the stage and I said, ‘Good evening. I am a domestic worker, just like you. I think we need to do something for ourselves because nobody is going to do anything for us.’ And they all started clapping and said, ‘You are going to lead us.’”
It was the beginning of a lifelong fight to secure rights and protections for domestic workers.
At that time, domestic workers in South Africa were not allowed to move freely and needed identification to enter the White neighborhoods where they worked.
“We needed an ID to identify that we were allowed to come to the White area to work. But we could go to church,” Myrtle said. The workers formed a committee in 1979 because they could not form a union. Their church meetings served as cover for committee meetings, even after the government banned all labor organizations in 1986 for fear they were ANC-affiliated.
As general secretary of SADSAWU, Myrtle fought for a national minimum wage increase and compensation for domestic workers injured on the job. In 2011, she helped lead an international coalition of domestic workers to secure passage of the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C 189), which ensured domestic workers the same basic rights as other workers. The convention marked the unprecedented involvement of informal women workers in setting ILO standards.
Myrtle became the first chair of the International Domestic Workers’ Network—and when the network formalized as a federation, Myrtle was elected the first president of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation, the only global union founded and led by women of color.
Myrtle was serving her second term as IDWF president when she passed. Under her leadership, the federation expanded to 87 affiliates in 67 countries, representing 670,000 domestic workers. Their “nothing about us without us” motto that achieved ILO Convention 189 served as the clear model for the fight to eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work, resulting in the passage of ILO Convention 190 in 2019—an effort led by affected workers, largely women workers and informal workers.
Upon news of her passing, tributes came in from domestic workers around the world, sharing stories of how Myrtle inspired courage among workers who have been made invisible by employers and governments to raise their voices and stand firm together in their demands for dignity and respect.
“Myrtle was bold, had a clear moral vision and was relentless in building up alliances to see a vision of equal rights for domestic workers to fruition. Myrtle’s legacy of courage, justice and sisterhood will live on for generations,” said Alexis De Simone, global lead for domestic worker rights at the Solidarity Center.
More than a hundred Grab food delivery riders launched the Iloilo Grab Riders Union (IGRU) in Iloilo City, Philippines, on November 24, then staged a unity ride around the city, located on Panay Island. Some 200 drivers joined in the ride, with more riders taking part from the streets, organizers said. The newly formed union’s demand is for just fares, paid sick leave and other social protections, and union recognition.
“The increasing price of gasoline and of commodities and the decrease in base fare delivery fees makes Grab riders work twice their normal hours to get the same wage they earned before the pandemic,”Archie, one of the Grab drivers who helped organize IGRU, said on the local radio show DZRH News. Archie is also a member of the Partido ng Manggagawa (Labor Party).
Photo Credit: Solidarity Center/Andreanna Garcia
Preceding the launch of IGRU, gig drivers from Grab and other platforms such as Food Panda and Maxim had begun to form unions across the Philippines. On August 15, some 300 delivery riders from General Santos City organized under the union, United Delivery Riders of the Philippines (RIDERS). RIDERS is composed of delivery riders from Food Panda, Maxim and Grab. Unity rides have also been conducted in the cities of General Santos and Cebu. Elsewhere in the country, local chapters of RIDERS also have begun to organize.
Their aim is to formally establish the United Delivery Riders of the Philippines (RIDERS) as the national union for the riders. “During the pandemic, when Grab suspended the GrabCar service, Grab food delivery drivers became the lifeline of the company. Is it wrong to ask them to be fair?” asked John Jay, a multi-app driver and organizer from Metro Manila. He attended the IGRU launch to express support for his fellow Grab drivers.
In addition to the decrease in earnings, delivery drivers in the Philippines have little or no job security or basic benefits as they are part of the gig economy. Under Philippine labor laws, delivery riders are classified as “independent contractors,” which does not provide an employee-employer relationship. As gig economy workers, delivery riders are not entitled to social protections such as health insurance and income security, among other basic protections.
“Our interests will be protected only through the passing of laws,” said Mark, a driver and organizer from Pampanga. Like John Jay, he also traveled to Iloilo to share a message of solidarity for his fellow riders.
Philippine Senator Risa Hontiveros proposed the Protektadong Online Workers, Entrepreneurs, Riders at Raketera (POWERR) Act, which would protect workers in the gig economy. A committee currently is working on the bill.
The IGRU launch was supported by the Solidarity Center, the global union IUF, RIDERS, the Center of United and Progressive Workers (SENTRO), Partido ng Manggagawa (Labor Party) and the Brotherhood of Two Wheels (Kagulong).
A new Labor Center in Mexico will advise workers about their rights and how to mobilize and organize unions and collectively bargain. The Labor Center, at the Autonomous University of Querétaro in central Mexico, is supported by the Solidarity Center and the UCLA Labor Center.
“The aim is to strengthen and promote the full recognition of labor rights, freedom of association and organization, and the democratic participation of workers through research, linkage and accompaniment,” said Labor Center Director Dr. Javier Salinas García. Salinas spoke at a recent Solidarity Center event in Mexico to announce the opening.
The Labor Center comes three years after Mexico’s government announced a series of comprehensive labor reforms to establish a democratic unionization process, address corruption in the labor adjudication system and eradicate employer protection (“charro”) unions prevalent in the country.
The Labor Center is “a way to respond to the needs of the situation,” said Beatriz García, Solidarity Center Mexico deputy program director.
“I think we all agree that Mexico is going through a historic moment. The labor reform responds to the demands that have been the objectives of the struggle of many workers for years, for decades, and reflects some positive practices of the independent unions,” she said.
The event featured a panel of independent union members and leaders who discussed the future of the labor movement in Mexico in the wake of historic labor law reforms.
Panelists explored the role that democratic and independent trade unions in promoting labor reform implementation in Mexico three years after the 2019 Labor Reform and negotiations of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (UMSCA/T-MEC).
Speakers shared how they are using the tools of labor reform to organize on their worksites.
“We are the delegates, and we call our colleagues to share information about the Union League,” said Sonia Cristina García Bernal. “We have helped colleagues who were told they were going to be fired without severance pay. We have been able to get them severance pay. We have been able to get them rehired.”
“After these three years, the tool that we use the most is fast response mechanisms,” said Imelda Guadalupe Jiménez Méndez. “This has been a very important tool.”
In addition to Beatriz García, speakers included: Imelda Guadalupe Jiménez Méndez, Secretary for Political Affairs, the Miners Union (Los Mineros); Julieta Mónica Morales, General Secretary, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana); Rita Guadalupe Lozano Tristán, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana); Alejandra Morales, General Secretary, Independent Union of National Workers in the Automotive Industry; and Sonia Cristina García Bernal, Special Delegate, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana).
Haitian garment workers scored a huge victory as a coalition of unions negotiated an agreement with the government to provide garment workers in Port-Au-Prince with transportation and food stipends.
“In our struggle for a better working environment and fair wages we have always emphasized that the government should provide social support to workers, especially those in the textile sector. And here it is for the first time that our demands have been heard, even if it is not yet in effect, but the government has planned to accompany the workers by offering them transportation and food costs for an amount of 135,000,000 gourdes ($1,116,595),” said Telemarque Pierre, coordinator of SOTA- Batay Ouvriye.
“From now on, we would like the government to take care to include these accompaniments in the annual budgets so that the workers can always benefit from these advantages.”
The government will distribute the funds via a mobile app. The stipend will cover the cost of travel to and from the factory, and include a lunch stipend. Inflation and gang violence have led to skyrocketing prices for food and fuel such that workers cannot afford travel to and from work or food at lunchtime.
The agreement underscores the importance and effectiveness of unions in improving the lives of workers.
“We can say now that every time there is a problem, the workers come to the union because they always find that the unions are a real help,” said Eliacin Wilner, GOSTTRA organizer.
Unions are working to ensure that workers are aware of the program and able to access their benefits.
The agreement is the result of minimum wage protests by garment workers in January 2022. Fueled by frustration over three years without a minimum wage increase and the rising cost of basic necessities and services, workers at the SONAPI industrial park in Port-Au-Prince held a spontaneous protest to call for a wage increase.
The protests led to negotiations between the government and a coalition of nine textile unions. The coalition’s advocacy resulted in an increase of the minimum wage from 500 gourdes ($4.82) per day to 685 gourdes ($5.85) per day.
Solidarity Center studies repeatedly have demonstrated the daily minimum wage is far less than the estimated cost of living in Haiti. Significant job losses due to supply chain disruptions have left most garment workers facing diminished working hours or layoffs, threatening their ability to provide for their families. These periods of income precarity are especially dire given that most low-wage garment workers lack savings.
The trafficking of agriculture workers, including children, is widespread globally, and “practices of exceptionalism” limit workers’ rights to freedom of association, organizing and collective bargaining, according to a new report on trafficking in persons in agriculture from United Nations Special Rapporteur Siobhán Mullally.
“Characterized by high levels of informality, lack of oversight and protection, trafficking in persons remains a serious concern within the agricultural sector, affecting both adults and children,” she writes.
The report notes that while the COVID-19 pandemic saw agricultural workers designated as “essential,” worker protections did not follow. Indeed, temporary, seasonal and migrant workers are provided limited legal coverage, and restrictive migration policies persist despite the demand for agricultural workers.
Discrimination on the grounds of race, ethnicity, migration status, gender and disability creates conditions within which trafficking occurs with impunity.
Land inequality, particularly affecting women and girls, drives exploitation, including trafficking for forced labor.
The agriculture sector employs an estimated 28 percent of the total global labor force and an estimated 60 percent of the labor force in low-income countries. Because it is characterized by high levels of informal and seasonal employment, the risks of exploitation are also high.
Discrimination based on migration status leaves workers vulnerable to trafficking.
Gender inequality in land ownership and tenure contributes to poverty, dependency and risks of violence, including trafficking of women and girls. Women are estimated to make up 20 percent of the world’s landholders but account for 43 percent of agricultural workers.
Indigenous women and girls may experience increased risks of trafficking due to the intersection of discrimination and violence, based on gender, race, ethnicity, indigenous origin and poverty.
People with disabilities may be particularly at risk of trafficking in agricultural work, where there is limited oversight and monitoring of worker rights.
Agriculture is the entry point for child labor, accounting for 76.6 percent in child laborers ages 5-11 and 75.8 percent in children ages 12-14. Children who travel with parents migrating for work often miss out on their education, as well.
The Special Rapporteur also highlighted that recruitment practices for the sector–particularly of seasonal, temporary and migrant workers–increase risks of trafficking for forced labor. Recruitment processes and substantial recruitment and other fees often lead to debt bondage.
Meanwhile, “intensive agriculture and agribusinesses contribute negatively to climate change, reflecting the wider nexus between trafficking in persons, environmental degradation, loss of biodiversity and the climate crisis,” she writes.
The protection of all workers and their families “is essential to prevent trafficking,” she says, urging governments to, among other urgent actions: “Strengthen the capacity of trade unions, civil society organizations and human rights defenders to support agricultural workers, including through effective protection of rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly and to collective organizing and collective bargaining, without discrimination.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report was bolstered by a submission from the Solidarity Center related to the conditions for migrant workers in Jordan’s agriculture sector. The submission noted:
Migrant workers work very long hours in hazardous conditions that lack occupational, safety and health (OSH) standards, medical care and overtime compensation. Forced overtime is an indicator of forced labor under ILO standards. The agricultural sector in general is an informal economy sector, and the work is usually temporary or seasonal. Agricultural areas are isolated and far from service centers; therefore, agricultural workers who suffer from labor and human rights violations do not have access to justice. Forced labor and wage theft are common violations, although usually not reported because of limited access to justice, absence of labor inspection and fears of retaliation and other threats workers face, especially undocumented or irregular workers. Because these workers were not recognized as workers under Jordanian labor law until May 2021, they lacked access to labor courts and were forced to file complaints through civil courts, which do not exempt court fees, making this an inaccessible complaint process for agricultural workers.
The kafala system requires migrant workers to be fully reliant on their employers for legal status. In the case that an employer does not renew a work permit, the worker is punished with deportation and a ban from returning to Jordan for three years. Workers are often deported without receiving their owed wages and other compensation–a form of wage theft, which is also an ILO indicator of forced labor. In cases where agricultural workers leave a workplace to escape harassment, rights violations and forced labor without reporting such violations, they are subject to an overstay fine, which is 1.5 Jordanian dinars per day (approximately $2) and they are subject to detention and false or retaliatory theft accusations by their employers, essentially becoming undocumented workers. Migrant workers rarely if ever report violations, fearing employer harassment or retaliation. Undocumented workers are victims of exploitation by brokers and fixers who charge excessive fees for work permits. A Syrian woman worker said, “Syrian agricultural workers’ wages are the lowest not because they accept to work for low wages but because the shaweesh (the middleman) takes a percentage of their wages.”
The Special Rapporteur’s report cited these examples and supported the Solidarity Center’s conclusion in its submission: “Trade unions are important to combat forced labor and other forms of labor trafficking and exploitation, and to raise workers’ awareness about their rights and the available services and access to justice channels.
“The explicit exclusion of both migrant workers and workers in the agricultural sector is a violation of these workers’ fundamental right to freedom of association under the Constitution of Jordan and international human and labor rights as enshrined in the ICCPR, ICESCR and ILO Conventions 87 and 98. The right to freedom of association is fundamental in a workers’ ability to advocate for her/his own rights, protect themselves from forced labor, and ensure protections from GBVH, and other occupational hazards.”
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