In a win for gender and pay equity in the former Soviet region of Kazakhstan, last month the country abolished a list of jobs from which women have been legally barred since 1932. Such discriminatory lists—which force women away from higher-paid work in traditionally male-dominated sectors toward lower-paid, female-dominated occupations—are common in the region, including in Belarus, Kyrgyzstan, Russia and Uzbekistan.
Abolition of Kazakhstan’s list came about after years of advocacy efforts by Solidarity Center partner Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights (KIBHR) in meetings, conferences and other fora with policy makers and government representatives, including the Ministry of Labor and Social Protection of the Republic of Kazakhstan, and the Commission on Human Rights under the President of the Republic of Kazakhstan.
“In the modern world there should not be discriminatory restrictions on access to work and all people themselves have the right to choose where and how to work,” said KIBHR Deputy Director Denis Jivaga.
Among the jobs previously denied to women were relatively well-paid jobs in construction, metalwork, mining and oil extraction sectors including: jobs performed at-height or underground; skilled construction, road and metal-working jobs including masonry, ground-moving machine operation, ore smelting, pipe fitting and welding; and specialized work in exploration and surveying such as borehole drilling, derrick installation and pipe pressing.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) has long called on states to abolish lists of professions prohibited for women given their discriminatory impact. Women in Kazakhstan, for example, earn 32 percent less than men on average.
Kazakhstan’s list—which restricted women from more than 200 jobs on the grounds that the work was too physically demanding or dangerous—was abolished after the Kazakhstan government acknowledged to the UN Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination Against Women (CEDAW) that job prohibitions have contributed to gender-pay inequity. The UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (CESR) recommended that Kazakhstan consider other forms of legal protection for women to keep them safe at work rather than a total ban on access to certain professions.
“Gender and pay equity require that men and women have equal access to all types of work, and that all jobs be made safe for all workers,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter.
Read in Russian.
A hidden video-surveillance camera discovered on Monday was recording the entrance of the central office of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU)—an act described by the organization as illegal and a possible attempt to interfere with trade union activity.
“The KVPU is deeply concerned about possible negative consequences for people, especially for activists and whistleblowers who visited our [Kyiv] office,” says KVPU Chairperson Mykhailo Volynets. Visiting diplomats and politicians may also have been illegally surveilled.
Describing the discovery as “alarming,” KVPU International Secretary Olesia Briazgunova says the organization is demanding a thorough police investigation and the opening of a criminal case.
“A lot of people come here to get legal assistance, discuss trade union activities or inform about corruption,” says Volynets, who fears for those helping KVPU prevent the adoption of draft laws that narrow worker rights in contradiction of international labor standards and those who are highlighting corruption in the coal industry and state-owned transport enterprises.
The recording of people without their consent, except in specific cases established by law, is prohibited by Article 307 of the Civil Code of Ukraine, says KVPU.
LGBTQ workers in Southeastern Europe face daunting barriers to attaining equality and safety on the job, among them exclusion, discrimination in obtaining employment, harassment and violence on the job, and poverty.
In the region, two-thirds of workers who identify as LGBTQ hide their identity due to fear of losing their job, fear of alienation and discrimination from other colleagues, fear of violence and fear of exploitation, according to research by LGBTQ Equal Rights Association for Western Balkans and Turkey (ERA), an umbrella organization for more than 60 LGBTQ groups in the region. ERA also reports that 16 percent of workers surveyed have experienced unfair treatment with respect to employment conditions, and 41 percent of workers have witnessed negative conduct toward their colleagues who identify as LGBTQ.
“This is where unions come in. These are workers who are being harassed simply for showing up and doing their job. That is definitely a trade union issue,” says Steven McCloud, country program director for Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia.
This year, the Solidarity Center launched a program with Southeast Europe regional trade union network Solidarnost, participating unions in Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Montenegro and Serbia, and Pride at Work, which represents LGBTQ union members in the United States, to take on LGBTQ worker issues and build solidarity by addressing LGBTQ discrimination and harassment at work as part of larger efforts tied to improving occupational safety and health and eradicating gender-based violence and harassment on the job. The program focuses on the intersection of LGBTQ rights with workers’ rights to safe and healthy workplaces free from violence and harassment.
Countries in Southeastern Europe have some laws that protect LGBTQ people from basic discrimination. However, the struggle often lies in creating a safe space where LGBTQ workers who experience discrimination can come forward, exercise their rights and be supported, McCloud says.
“This can be done through promoting practices that strengthen their visibility, representation and capacity in trade unions in those countries,” says McCloud. “LGBTQ rights are worker rights, and unions need to ensure that LGBTQ workers are meaningfully included and represented.”
A police crackdown against Lesotho garment workers protesting a two-year delay in scheduled minimum wage increases resulted in two fatalities in Maseru, the capital, last week. Pitso Mothala and Motselisi Ramasa died as police fired into the crowd. Many more workers were injured.
The deaths come after two weeks of escalating state-sponsored attempts to use shootings, beatings and arrests to force thousands of the country’s 50,000 garment workers to return to their factories. Meanwhile, government ministries have rejected union attempts to negotiate an end to protests and are still refusing to provide garment workers with the wage increases they need to sustain themselves and their families through the COVID-19 pandemic, reports United Textile Employees (UNITE).
“We want justice for our brutal[ally] killed comrades and we shall forever make sure that their blood is not in vain,” says a UNITE media release that identifies the two slain garment workers by name. Garment workers remain at home this week while the country’s armed forces continue to patrol the industry, reports the union.
The country’s unions are refusing to return to work until the government makes good on two missed incremental minimum wage increases—for 2020/2021 and 2021/2022—that have been delayed indefinitely.
Lesotho has a long history of human rights violations against political and labor activists, including police violence against peacefully striking factory workers rallying for fair wages last year. The 45th annual U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Human Rights report on Lesotho found that members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service and Lesotho Defense Force last year committed numerous human rights abuses, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions [and] arbitrary arrest or detention.”
Unionized workers on Guatemala banana plantations earn more, work fewer hours, face less sexual harassment, and have safer workplaces, including during the Covid-19 pandemic, according to a Solidarity Center report. (The report also is available in Spanish.)
“What Difference Does a Union Make? Banana Plantations in the North and South of Guatemala” finds that non-unionized workers in the country’s south earn less than half the hourly pay of unionized workers in the north, while working 12 hours per week more. Thirty-nine percent of all bananas sold in the United States are produced in Guatemala.
Working conditions are very similar to modern slavery at the two-thirds of Guatemalan banana plantations not unionized, said César Humberto Guerra López, national secretary of labor and conflicts for SITRABI (Union of Banana Workers of Izabal). “The Labor Ministry and the courts are guardians of business interests, they are not on the side of the workers.” Guerra spoke at a Solidarity Center panel event yesterday to discuss the report’s findings. (Watch the full event here.)
While plantation workers in the North on average are paid $2.52 an hour, those along the Pacific Coast in the south are paid $1.05 an hour, said Mark Anner, director of the Center for Global Workers’ Rights and professor of labor and employment relations at Pennsylvania State University. Anner is author of the report, which surveyed 210 workers between September 2019 and March 2020.
“Workers without trade unions around the world, and Guatemala in particular, have lower paying jobs, more dangerous jobs, jobs with abuse and fewer rights,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau in the panel’s opening remarks. “So what difference does a union make? It makes all the difference to workers in Guatemala.”
Far More Sexual Harassment at Nonunion Banana Plantations
Irís Munguía discussed the challenges women on banana plantations face when they don’t have a union to advocate for their rights. Credit: Solidarity Center
In one of the report’s most notable findings, 59 percent of women surveyed in non-union banana packing plants say they face sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence at work compared with 9 percent of women at unionized packing plants. Non-union workers are 81 percent more likely to face verbal abuse than union workers.
“If a woman reports someone who is harassing her, that woman could be fired. Because he’s the boss and we are the workers,” Irís Munguía said, speaking through a translator. Munguía, women’s coordinator of the Honduran Federation of Agro-industrial Unions-FESTAGRO, was the first woman coordinator of COLSIBA, the Latin American coordinating body of agricultural unions.
The report cites Carmen, a SITRABI union leader, who says sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are much lower in unionized facilities because unions hold employers accountable. “If a man touches me, I can inform the company. Managers have been fired [for sexual harassment]. There is more respect now. And if someone doesn’t respect us, the issue goes to the union-management committee.”
Banana Workers Killed for Seeking to Form Unions
Workers have not formed unions in the south because “there is fear, panic to organize in a union,” according to Guerra. He said that when workers in the southern region last attempted to form a union in 2007, one union leader was killed and the daughter of another union leader raped, while other union activists received threats. “The consequences of fear continue to be very palpable for the workers,” he said.
Anner said his research found that between 2004 and 2018, 101 union activists were killed in Guatemala for trying to form unions and achieve decent work. The majority of those murders took place in the Southern part of Guatemala, in the regions where non-union banana plantations have expanded in the last two decades.
With no unions to champion worker rights, banana plantations and packing plants in the south do not comply with laws limiting working hours, regulating wages or ensuring safety, Guerra said. Workers labor 12 hours a day, Monday through Saturday.
Agricultural and production facilities have moved work to the south to pay the lowest wages. As the report makes clear, the root causes for the push for low wages goes to the top of the supply chain. “Fruit companies no longer wield power in the production process, that power is slowly being displaced by mega supermarkets that constantly look for ways to squeeze prices,” the report says.
“Wal-Mart requires such low prices that multinational corporations are pushing the directly owned facilities in the north to outsource to the south,” Anner said. And that means seeking out plantations in a nonunion region where wages are brutally low.
The report also finds that all production facilities that engage in worker rights violations have been inspected by private certification programs, including by Global G.A.P. and Rain Forest Alliance. “Management tells workers what to say to the certification inspectors before the inspectors arrive,” the report finds.
The Union Difference
Guerra and Munguía, long-time union leaders who began working on banana plantations in their teens, shared their successes in helping workers achieve their rights through unions.
In the north, SITRABI has 17 negotiated collective agreements, and wages at one plantation, a Del Monte subsidiary, are three to four times higher than at non-union facilities, Guerra said.
Munguía described a landmark regional agreement COLSIBA negotiated with Chiquita that ensures zero tolerance for sexual harassment and gender-based violence at work. The agreement covers banana workers in Costa Rica, Guatemala, Honduras and Panama. The agreement shows “the importance and the great difference in belonging to the union and not being unionized.”
“Dignity on the job and just livelihoods—this is something we can reach only through union organizations,” Munguía said.
Joell Molina, Solidarity Center trade union strengthening director, moderated the panel. The report was commissioned by the Solidarity Center under the USAID-funded Global Labor Program and written by Center for Global Workers’ Rights/School of Labor and Employment Relations at Penn State University, is co-published by the Center for Global Workers’ Rights.