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 nine 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.
In an historic judgment, the South African Constitutional Court in mid-November recognized that injury and illness arising from work as a domestic worker in a private home is no different to that occurring in other workplaces and equally deserving of compensation. Beyond recognizing occupational hazards in the home, the decision also recognized the broader harm wrought by the invisibility of gendered, racialized work in the privacy of homes in the context of post-colonial and post-apartheid South Africa.
In the case of Mahlangu and Another v Minister of Labor and Others, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), with support from the Solidarity Center, challenged the constitutionality of provisions of the Compensation for Occupational Injury and Illness Act (COIDA), which precludes domestic workers employed in private homes from making claims to the Compensation Fund in cases of illness, injury, disablement or death at work. The Constitutional Court agreed that this exclusion violates rights to social security, equality and dignity, and it made this finding retroactively applicable from 1994, the date the South African constitution was enacted. In so doing, the court articulated a theory of intersectional discrimination and moved forward its own jurisprudence on indirect discrimination, infusing the right to social security, dignity and retrospective application with an intersectional analysis. It also reframed the narrative on domestic workers: no longer invisible but “unsung heroines in this country and globally”(paragraph 1).
The judgment gives a central role to international law, and establishes that “in assessing discrimination against a group or class of women of this magnitude that a broad national and international approach be adopted in the discourse affecting domestic workers“(Paragraph 42). It continues that, under international law conventions, including the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), the exclusion of domestic workers from COIDA is inexplicable.
The court found that COIDA is a form of social security because the inability to work or the loss of a breadwinner’s support as a result of the COIDA exclusion, traps domestic workers and their dependents in cycles of poverty. According to the court this exclusion is unreasonable because it did not take into account the needs of the most vulnerable members of society, particularly those who experience compounded vulnerabilities arising from intersecting maltreatment based on race, sex, gender and/or class. It concludes that there is no legitimate objective to the exclusion, rather it entrenches patterns of disadvantage.
This case could be easily disposed on grounds of direct discrimination, since the majority found the exclusion irrational and arbitrary, and therefore constitutionally invalid. However, the case provided the court with a unique opportunity to interpret constitutional provisions on indirect discrimination, using an intersectional framework: Domestic workers “are predominantly Black women … and discrimination against them constitutes indirect discrimination on the basis of race, sex and gender” (paragraph 75). It goes on to find that discrimination on the grounds of race, gender and sex are not only presumptively unfair “but the level of discrimination is aggravated”(paragraph 73).
The court took the opportunity to enunciate a theory of intersectionality, which considers the social structures that shape the experience of marginalization, and the convergence of sexism, racism and class stratification. Viewed historically, the racial hierarchy established by apartheid, placed Black women at the bottom of the social hierarchy and relegated them to low-skilled and low-paid sectors of the workforce, such as domestic work. This sector was and is predominated by Black women and remains the third largest employer of women in South Africa. Yet it continues to be characterized by poverty-level salaries and poor living conditions, in which domestic workers are deprived of their own family while caring for that of their employers. As a result, the court found that domestic workers are a “critically vulnerable group of workers,” declaring the COIDA exclusion invalid both at an individual and group level (paragraph 106).
The case centers on Maria Mahlangu, who was employed as a domestic worker in a private house for 22 years. According to her family, she was partially blind and could not swim. In March 2012 while at work, she fell into her employer’s swimming pool and drowned. When Mahlangu’s dependent daughter approached the Department of Labor for compensation, she was told that she was precluded from doing so under COIDA. Then SADSAWU organizer Pinky Mashiane read about the incident in a newspaper and approached the family to see how she could assist.
In 2013, the Solidarity Center embarked on a research project under a USAID grant to examine domestic workers’ socioeconomic rights in South Africa, which culminated in a list of domestic worker issues requiring urgent law reform. At the top of this list was inclusion of domestic workers in COIDA. Indeed, the issue had been on the agenda since 2001, without legislative reform being passed.
At the same time the Solidarity Center was looking for a litigant to challenge COIDA’s constitutionality. Pinky Mashiane—after having been turned down by multiple lawyers and law centers—was looking for a remedy to assist Mahlangu’s family. The Solidarity Center approached lawyers in South Africa as well as SADSAWU leadership with the proposal to litigate this case in constitutional terms, with financial support. Beginning in 2015, the case wound its way through the South African court system, litigated before the Constitutional Court by lawyers from the Social and Economic Rights Institute (SERI).
The case benefited from sustained advocacy at global and local levels. In 2019 , the Solidarity Center and partners brought the issue of domestic workers’ exclusion from COIDA before the United Nations Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which was considering South Africa’s compliance with treaty obligations. In its concluding observations, cited in the Constitutional Court’s decision, the Committee recommended that South Africa include domestic workers in COIDA. Similarly, in the early stages of litigation, the amicus, the Gender Commission of South Africa, expressed frustration at the almost complete absence of information on the types of injuries and illnesses arising in the context of domestic work in private homes. To fill this vacuum, Solidarity Center commissioned qualitative research consisting of in-depth interviews with domestic workers around the country, describing the types of injury and illness occurring in the context of the home. After the COVID-19 pandemic broke out, which had severe consequences for domestic workers, domestic worker unions and partners also put together a petition to try and propel the legislature to include domestic workers in COIDA. Most significantly, at each of the numerous court hearings, the domestic worker unions and groups maintained a constant presence at the court, and in the media, insisting that the death of Maria Mahlangu not be in vain.
When Solidarity Center initially proposed constitutional impact litigation on COIDA, it was with the hope that a successful outcome in this case would serve three purposes: obtain much-needed relief for domestic workers who were outside of COIDA’s purview; strengthen domestic worker unions; and create an important precedent that would lay the foundation for jurisprudence on domestic workers that could serve as a global marker.
The Mahlangu decision will clearly achieve the first as it removes the legal obstacle to domestic workers claiming compensation, with immediate and retrospective effect. Meanwhile, the long road to Mahlangu has also strengthened a growing coalition of unions and NGOs that have articulated their claims effectively in all forms of media. The fact that after 26 years of democracy, Mahlangu is the first case brought by the domestic worker union to the apex court of South Africa and guardian of constitutional values is a significant milestone.
Yet, perhaps the greatest import of Mahlangu might lie both in its precedent and in the paradigm it establishes to conceptualize domestic work. Using international human rights norms as a reference point, the court sets up an approach on domestic workers as a category, which stands to benefit domestic workers in South Africa and beyond. It also reasserts the goals of transformative constitutionalism as “undoing gendered and racialized poverty” and insists that an intersectional and historic lens is essential to the achievement of structural and systematic transformation. Indeed, the adoption of a historical lens allows the Court to reframe the narrative of domestic workers and their place in South Africa’s constitutional democracy: no longer powerless and invisible, but foundational toSouth Africa’s constitutional project. This reframing is captured eloquently in the concurring judgment of Justice Mhlantla who asserts that these Black women are smart, creative and survivors; who frequently work in environments that are emotionally and physically challenging, and which carry vestiges of South Africa’s colonial and apartheid past. She concludes: “On the contrary, they have a voice,” and according to Justice Mhlanthla J (paragraph 195) as well as the substance of majority judgment, the Constitutional Court is “listening.”
- Carl Gershman, President National Endowment for Democracy
- Derek Mitchell, President, National Democratic Institute
- Dan Twining, President, International Republican Institutes
- Shawna Bader-Blau, Ex. Director, Solidarity Center
- Andrew Wilson, Ex. Director, Ctr. For International Private Enterprise
“We are appalled by the violent and seditious assault at the United States Capitol today. Nonetheless, we are confident in the enduring strength of American institutions, and that any attempts to subvert our democracy will not succeed. Those involved in illegal activity today must be held to account.”
“A fundamental tenet of democracy is the peaceful contest of ideas among fellow citizens under law. After a free and fair election, when incumbents are defeated, a peaceful transfer of power must result. It is through such democratic processes that fundamental freedoms are protected, and opportunity and justice are possible for all. We know from decades of experience that the job of democracy is never done, and that democracy is fragile. But we also know it is resilient.”
“We have faith that our country will soon begin a period of national healing that will renew our democracy. As Americans continue on their difficult but historic journey to form a “more perfect union” at home, we want to reaffirm our commitment to stand in solidarity with all those around the world who share democratic values and who continue to fight against all those who would subvert them.”
As union activists around the world urge their governments to ratify International Labor Organization Convention 190, the first global standard to address gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work, they also are educating and mobilizing members, allies and public to take action to end GBVH.
Now, Solidarity Center union activists and partners have a new tool for their campaign: An educational video that explains gender-based violence at work, describes how C190 can address it and how union activists can take the next steps to ensure it is ratified by countries around the world.
The whiteboard animation video—which shows the viewer images being drawn on the screen accompanied by narration—points out that GBVH is one of the most common human rights violations in the world that can affect any worker, but women most of all due to unequal power relations. It highlights how C190 is the first global standard to outline how governments, employers and unions must prevent GBVH—and makes clear that C190 is effective only if governments formally endorse it and pass laws implementing it.
The video updates the Solidarity Center’s popular GBVH whiteboard video for the global campaign to adopt a convention covering gender-based violence and harassment at work. That video was translated into Spanish, Russian, Georgian, Sinhala and Tamil.
Watch the video, share it widely and spread the word. As the video says: “Violence should not be part of the job for any of us.”
As garment factories shut down in Bangladesh during the novel coronavirus pandemic, leaving workers without wages or access to support services, unions and Worker Community Associations (WCAs) around the country rapidly shifted to address the crisis, with Worker Community Centers (WCC) serving as a lifeline for workers, their families and their communities.
The community associations and centers are part of an ongoing USAID-funded Solidarity Center Workers’ Empowerment and Participation project (WEP) launched in 2019 to improve working conditions for workers in the ready-made garment and shrimp and fish processing sectors in Bangladesh. The project builds on the strong foundation WEP established between 2015 and 2019.
In July, the Solidarity Center delivered 30,000 COVID-19 awareness leaflets to its partners in Dhaka and nearby Ashulia, Gazipur, Narayanganj and Savar; as well as Chattogram, Jashore and Khulna. The pamphlets, distributed to thousands of workers and community members by WCC coordinators and union federation organizers, highlight key safety measures during the COVID-19 pandemic, such as proper hand washing, social distancing and wearing masks at all times when outside the home.
“It’s important for us to do our part to get accurate information to everyone in the community to help stop the spread of this deadly virus,” says Rita Saha, WCC coordinator in Rupsha. “Our WCC leaders and members have extensive networks, and we love raising awareness and helping our community.”
Ensuring Fair Wages, Decent Working Conditions
When AFCO garment factory closed during COVID-19, workers received unpaid wages due to their union’s efforts. Credit: Solidarity Center
Even as WCCs and unions distributed resources, including food baskets to families of furloughed garment workers during Ramadan, they carried on the crucial work of ensuring workers receive fair pay during factory shutdowns.
As AFCO Abedin Garments Ltd. got set to permanently close in April without paying workers’ back wages, the Garments Workers Solidarity Federation (GWSF) launched negotiations with management and encouraged the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments and the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association to intervene. Ultimately, factory management agreed to pay the workers 60 percent of their April salary, one month’s base salary and 60 percent of the base wage for each full year of service. Eligible workers also will receive seven days’ annual leave.
In June, Hop Lun Apparels Ltd., Sammilito Sramik Union (HLALSSU) successfully negotiated a 24-point collective bargaining agreement with factory management covering more than 2,000 workers.
Union members at Hop Lun garment factory negotiated a contract that addresses gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center
“When we submitted demands and negotiated with management, we gave special emphasis on the issues of women,” says Aklima, factory union president. “The guarantee of promotion of women to higher posts and the establishment of sexual harassment committee will empower the women and provide safeguards against sexual abuse and harassment in our factory.”
Training, Legal Support
The Workers’ Empowerment and Participation program also carried out leadership training and legal support that included advising more than 450 workers and winning $10,835 in court for 41 workers. Additional accomplishments over the past year include:
- 27,213 workers covered by unions in more than 200 factories
- 104 women elected to leadership positions
- 2,209 new community members actively participating in Worker Community Associations
- 21 new unions and worker-driven organizations in the garment and shrimp processing sectors and 12 new garment unions registered
- 39 worker-leaders trained in achieving gender equality or women’s empowerment at public and private organizations
“The WCC training sessions helped make me more confident and brave, and have helped me understand gender-based violence and harassment,” says one woman garment worker. “This has made it easier for me to handle tough situations at my workplace and in the community.”
Find out more about the Workers Empowerment Project.
Globally, marginalized workers have been especially hard hit by the novel coronavirus. Migrant workers in particular have experienced some of the harshest effects of COVID-19 and the related lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions.
Yet while the world has recognized “the bravery of frontline workers,” many of whom are migrants, “we must now turn that celebration into something that is meaningful and not just ephemeral,” says United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
We must ensure “fair and ethical recruitment, decent work, and access to health care and social protection without discrimination. It is also critical we promote financial inclusion of migrants and their families. We must address discrimination … migrants must not be stigmatized or denied access to medical treatment and other public services.”
Guterres spoke during release of the first UN Secretary General’s report on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Adopted in December 2018, the Global Compact sets out a cooperative framework for achieving safe, orderly and regular migration within a rights-based framework, and includes a process for implementation and review.
The report, part of the UN review process, focuses extensively on the effects of COVID-19 on the world’s 272 million migrants and the guidance the Global Compact offers in addressing the adverse effects on migrant workers.
Fewer Protections for Migrant Workers Under COVID-19
As borders and worksites were shut early this year, millions of migrant workers were stranded around the world, many trapped in crowded housing with no access to support, including access to food and other life-sustaining provisions. Many migrant workers were systematically denied social safety net protections like unemployment benefits or other forms of income support.
Others were forced to work in unsafe conditions, suffered from wage theft, and retaliation for speaking out about abuse. Origin countries frequently lack adequate health infrastructure, exposing those who returned to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, or making it difficult for those who were infected to find care. Migrants returning in these conditions are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation, violence, stigma, discrimination and, without jobs, may be unable to support themselves or their families.
Although some governments took positive steps to voluntarily return migrant workers, according to the Global Compact report, many imposed even harsher restrictions. “The pandemic has been used by some [countries] to justify the increased and discriminatory use of immigration detention and to deport migrants without due process,” the report said.
The COVID-19 crisis also has worsened the situation for migrants in countries where they work. In Central Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic “exposed structural and institutional flaws in the way migration is managed in the region,” making conditions for migrant workers dire, according to a shadow report on implementation of the Global Compact in the Central Asian region. The shadow report cites such structural flaws as lack of work contracts that result in wage theft, no regulation of work hours and little or no access to health care or other social and legal protections. It was submitted to the UN by the Solidarity Center, the International Labor Initiatives (ILI), Insan Leilek and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights.
The pandemic is especially hard on women, including the 8.5 million migrant women in domestic work, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex migrants, the Global Compact report finds. Even as domestic violence is increasing during the pandemic, resources are being redirected away from sexual and reproductive health services. The Global Compact report points to the need for a gender-responsive, rights-based approach to migration all the more necessary.
Remove Barriers that Repress Migrant Workers’ Full Potential
Rooted in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and internationally agreed standards and frameworks, the Global Compact is grounded in rights-based policies and is a “call to build comprehensive, rights-based policies to ensure that migrants and their communities can thrive,” according to the report.
As such, “legislation should provide for ensuring the rights of migrants in accordance with international human rights standards, including fair and safe working conditions, the right to good rest, the right to access jobs without discriminatory procedures for obtaining the right to work,” according to a shadow report from Russian unions to the UN. “We believe that receiving countries should provide regulatory and visa flexibility for workers, especially during a pandemic.”
Noting the urgency for greater cooperation across borders during the COVID-19 crisis, including the integration of public health concerns into rights-based border governance, the Global Compact report recommends that member countries implement measures and practices in response to COVID-19 that ensure an inclusive public health response to suppress the virus and restart economies, protect migrants’ human rights and ensure the availability of lifesaving humanitarian assistance.
The report’s recommendations support the UN’s June 2020 Policy Brief: COVID-19 and People on the Move, which states that “the best way to recognize the important contribution made by people on the move to our societies during this crisis is to remove barriers that inhibit their full potential.
“This means facilitating the recognition and accreditation of their qualifications, exploring various models of regularization pathways for migrants in irregular situations and reducing transaction costs for remittances.”
Ultimately, as the report states: “The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to reimagine human mobility for the benefit of all while advancing the central commitment of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind.” The report is in line with calls from the global labor movement, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, for a new social contract “between workers, government and business, which should include a floor of a universal labor guarantee for all workers.
“Implementing a New Social Contract would make sure that that rights are respected, jobs are decent with minimum living wages and collective bargaining, social protection is universal, due diligence and accountability are driving business operations, and that social dialogue ensures just transition measures for climate and technology.”
In short: A new social contract must include all workers, including migrants.