Four South African unions took part in a unique process with the South Africa Gender Action Learning Program and Labour Research Service to challenge male–dominated, hierarchical cultures. This report describes the step-by-step journey that led to more women joining unions and taking on leadership positions—and ultimately becoming inspired to carry on the hard work of ensuring gender equality remains an integral part of their unions.
Around the world, workers and their labor unions and have joined in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter protesters in the United States, demonstrating support for peaceful marches, and decrying racism, police brutality and inequality—in the United States and in their own countries.
In South Africa, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) expressed outrage “at the extent to which racism is deeply entrenched and vicious in the U.S., particularly against blacks and other minority groups in a country purporting to be the world’s leading democracy.” COSATU also is one of the organizers of “Black Friday,” a campaign calling on South Africans to wear black every Friday to show solidarity in the fight against racism.
The South African Federation of Trade Unions wrote: “Saying ‘Black Lives Matter!’ is not just about opposing police brutality though. It is also about the structure of society: the political and economic systems that devalue black lives, black land, black culture and blackness.”
In a letter, the Nigerian Labor Congress condemned the murder of George Floyd and demanded justice for his killing, and demanded that world governments and institutions “take very strong and stern steps to stamp out racism in all its shades on the streets, in the workplace, and on play grounds.” And the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers took to Twitter, calling George Floyd’s murder “unacceptable in this modern day.”
Meanwhile, the Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions said, “We recognize that anti-blackness is an injustice that must continue to be addressed fearlessly in the United States and around the world. We strongly believe that labor unions have a crucial role to play in this fight.”
In a letter of support, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions said, “Racism has no place in the modern-day world,” adding that it “supports the fight of the American people to dismantle racism and establish equality and social justice.”
Africans also marched in Ghana, Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and Senegal.
Union activists support rally in support of Black Lives Matter in Thailand, Nigeria, Brazil and Tunisia.
Across Brazil, unions have organized rallies and panel discussions, and have sent letters in support of the U.S. protest movement. The CUT, which also participated in #BlackoutTuesday, said, “There have been centuries of oppression, inequalities and social injustices. Especially in this pandemic moment, the working class is the one who suffers the consequences both for the defense of lives as well as for the defense of jobs and rights, in addition to ensuring survival for many who can no longer guarantee their income in the informal economy.”
Brazil’s National Confederation of Workers in the Financial Sector (CONTRAF) repudiated all police violence against black people—especially in Brazil, where “75.4% of victims by Brazilian police were black” in 2019. And Brazil’s UGT, garment-sector federation CNTRV and the Center for Human Rights and Immigrant Citizenship conducted an online anti-racism campaign.
Tunisia’s UGTT called on all the unions around the globe to “build an international united front against racism and hatred, and to build social justice and equality in the USA and all over the world.”
On the other side of the world in Bangkok, about 50 Thai trade union leaders, staff and members gathered for the rally at the U.S. embassy to call on the U.S. government to stop police violence, racism and discrimination against black people. Garment unions in Bangladesh and Myanmar—in their own difficult fight for survival during the COVID-19 pandemic—posted photos of solidarity. To protesters in U.S. streets, the Bangladesh Sommolito Garment Sramik Federation tweeted, “What you are doing is necessary and vital to dismantle the oppression that saturates our world and deliver a future where justice prevails.”
All are Solidarity Center partners.
See the Solidarity Center’s statement on Black Lives Matter and the fight for social justice here.
Workers in health care and other sectors are demanding that governments and employers take steps to protect workers, including recognition of severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) as an occupational hazard and COVID-19 as an occupational disease. The ITUC, on UN World Day for Safety and Health at Work, said that recognition will ensure for workers the right to representation and occupational safety and health (OSH) rights and the application of agreed-upon measures to reduce risk, including the right to refuse to work under unsafe working conditions.
Healthcare workers are particularly imperiled on the front lines of the COVID-19 outbreak, given their vulnerability to pathogen exposure, long working hours, psychological distress, fatigue, occupational burnout, stigma and physical and psychological violence. On April 28, UN World Day for Safety and Health at Work, the World Health Organization (WHO) called upon governments, employers and the global community to take urgent measures to strengthen their capacity to protect the health and safety of health workers and emergency responders, and to respect workers’ right to decent working conditions especially during the pandemic.
“We just want to be able to do our job safely,’ says a Hussein University hospital doctor in Cairo, Egypt.
Amid continuing shortages of protective equipment, at least 90,000 healthcare workers worldwide are believed to have been infected with COVID-19, and perhaps twice that, said the International Council of Nurses (ICN) earlier this month. Health workers around the world are at risk from preventable infections and other job-related dangers during the crisis. For example:
Algeria doctor Wafa Boudissa—denied early maternity leave three times by hospital management in contradiction of a presidential decree protecting pregnant women–died at age 28 last month, at eight months pregnant.
In Brazil, nurses are dying as the pandemic overwhelms hospital, even while the government downplays the contagion.
Medical staff in Cameroon are asking for additional security at hospitals following a series of attacks by people upset that they or their loved ones were diagnosed with the coronavirus.
In the impoverished North Caucasus republic Daghestan, more than 40 healthcare workers are reportedly dead of COVID-19, although officials claim they did not all die from coronavirus.
Medical workers in Egypt are describing dangerous workplaces in which personal protective equipment (PPE) is in short supply and too few COVID-19 tests are available to workers and patients. About 13 percent of those infected in Egypt are medical professionals, according to the UN’s World Health Organization (WHO). 19 doctors have reportedly died so far from the disease.
Doctors, nurses and laboratory technicians among others in Lesotho deemed themselves unable to work following multiple failed attempts to engage authorities on how to obtain protective gear, provide payments for health care workers contracting COVID-19 and providing a risk allowance for those treating COVID-19 patients.
In Mexico, health care workers are facing violent attacks by members of the public who fear contagion as well as by family members angered by news of a loved one’s infection or COVID-19–related death. Medical workers have been chased from their homes, doused in bleach and beaten. Following false reports of intentional transmission of the coronavirus by medical personnel, citizens blocked highways and roads in the municipalities of Ciudad Hidalgo, Tuxpan and Zitácuaro.
27 doctors and 20 nurses are reported dead in Indonesia. With 3,293 infections and 280 deaths, Indonesia has the highest death toll in Asia after China, although health experts fear it could be much higher.
In Kaduna State, Nigeria, government threatened mass dismissals of health workers who choose not to report for work during the pandemic, even though they report inadequate PPE and the government recently cut their salaries by 25 percent.
In Pakistan, after police arrested more than 50 doctors demanding PPE, dozens of doctors and nurses went on a hunger strike to demand safety equipment and protest the infection of 150 medical workers and deaths of several, including that of a 26-year-old doctor who had just begun his medical career.
Medical workers in Russia are dying 16 times more often than in countries with comparable coronavirus outbreaks; health care workers there comprise 7 percent of COVID-19 fatalities, according to Russian media outlet Mediazona; medical workers’ own list numbers healthcare-worker fatalities at 240.
In Bangladesh, against Ministry of Health advice and during the country’s coronavirus lockdown, tens of thousands of garment workers returned in late April from far-flung homes to crowded, factory-based dormitories to jobs in factories that mostly lack adequate infection control measures. In an attempt to deliver pending orders to global clothing brands, about half of Bangladesh’s 4,000 garment factories have reopened.
After exposure to a single infected worker in Ghana,533 factory workers at a fish-processing plant in the port city of Tema tested positive for the coronavirus, representing more than 11 percent of Ghana’s total COVID-19 infections to date.
More than 200 textile workers at an export-focused plant in Guatemala tested positive last week for the novel coronavirus, with more results pending; testing was forced on the employer after reports surfaced that infected workers were continuing to work and the company was not taking protective measures.
At some apparel factories in Honduras workers were expected to continue to work in violation of the government’s lockdown order, including at a plant where 2,400 workers make T-shirts and sweatshirts for export.
Mexico oil company Pemex and the country’s Federal Electricity Commission (CFE) together had 1,245 confirmed cases by mid-May. Pemex alone reported 1,092 cases and 141 deaths as of last week: an average rate of infection of 20.7 people per day and 2.5 daily deaths.
A number of firms in Mexico continue to produce goods for the U.S. market despite coronavirus lockdown rules, putting their workers in grave danger of contracting COVID-19.
In South Africa, which has the most cases of coronavirus in Africa, an outbreak closed Mponeng gold mine after 164 cases of coronavirus were detected there last week despite working at 50 percent capacity. The South African Human Rights Commission (the SAHRC) warned employers that failure to failure to implement precautionary measures to protect workers from contracting COVID-19 would constitute a human rights violation under the South African constitution, and be pursued as such by the Commission with other statutory regulatory bodies.
Worldwide, migrant workers clustered in low-wage, informal sector jobs in high-density living conditions or engaged in care work in close quarters with their employers are succumbing in higher numbers to infection as compared to local populations. Last month, Saudi Arabia sent home nearly 3,000 of the estimated 200,000 Ethiopians living there before the United Nations called for a halt.
There were at least 5,546,000 cases and 347,000 deaths reported in at least 180 countries worldwide in the COVID-19 pandemic as of May 26, 2020, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University.
As the COVID-19 crisis deepens in Ukraine and scandals are alleged regarding state procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), worker rights activists are leveraging trade unions’ collective power to advocate for better pay and conditions for working people and help provide emergency relief during quarantine. The country’s trade unions are persisting in delivering help and calling out injustices—no small task given that Ukraine last year was awarded the worst labor rights score in Central and Eastern Europe.
Ukraine’s construction workers’ union began a collective bargaining process to minimize the negative effects of the pandemic on the construction sector and initiated a criminal case against construction company Prosco for wage theft.
Trade union activists are speaking out on behalf of an emerging small entrepreneurs’ movement that is protesting disproportionate government support for larger, mostly oligarchy-owned, businesses during the lock down, and demanding equal support for small and micro-businesses, including small-scale farms.
Workers at Ukraine’s postal and delivery service Nova Poshta successfully lobbied their employer to provide all 30,000 Nova Poshta employees with PPE when needed and preserve the wages and benefits of those required to stop working during quarantine.
The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine, FPU, on April 29 provided a live-streamed question-and-answer forum for labor leaders from Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, Poltava, Lviv, Zaporizzhya, Ternopil, and Kamyanske to consult with FPU experts about worker’s legal rights under Ukraine’s labor law during the pandemic, and to share their members’ most commonly reported violations—including overwork, employer pressure to take unpaid leave and issues around telework.
Leaders of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, KVPU, on April 30 held a live-streamed conference with representatives of the medical workers’ union, rail workers’ union, independent unions of Donetsk region, the LEONI Wiring Systems union and others to catalog and discuss challenges reported by workers at home and on the job due to the pandemic—including job losses at shuttered mines in the Donetsk region, lack of PPE for medical workers and the uneven impact of quarantine on women.
Trade unions in the Dnipro region successfully lobbied employers, local government and volunteers for increased support of medical workers at the frontline of the COVID-19 fight.
Tower crane operators in Lviv held a wildcat strike, refusing to work until they receive their February and March wages and employer-provided PPE.
Following an appeal from workers at the Kremenchuk machine-building plant, the local government in Poltava province allocated an additional $14,600 for medical worker needs, including face masks.
Worker-initiated relief measures include:
Labor Initiatives (LI), a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian non-profit organization, is providing legal assistance to workers by distributing COVID-related information through its phone hotline, website, Facebook page and other social media. LI’s hotline provided some 100 consultations during the country’s first week of quarantine; its website FAQ on labor rights during the quarantine was viewed more than 60,000 times in March.
Trade union members at Nova Poshta launched a COVID-19 email help line, provided disinfectants and children’s educational materials to all its members, and distributed 1,000 face mask vouchers to members deemed most at risk from COVID-19.
The trade union representing workers employed by the Naftogaz state energy enterprise collected $300,000 for local healthcare worker needs, which was distributed to workers at 21 hospitals and 26 urgent-care centers.
Also to support medical workers, the trade union representing workers employed by Ukraine’s Rivne Department of Culture collected $2,000 while the Rivne province union solidarity fund donated $50,000.
Members of the trade union representing workers at oil-transporting company Ukrtransnafta distributed 2,256 food baskets to elders in need at a cost of $31,500.
Unions in Pavlograd purchased 20 medical ventilators for hospitals in Pavlograd, Pershotravensk and Ternivka, and purchased $112,000 of PPE.
KVPU-affiliated trade union activists at Antonov aircraft company helped ensure the safety of workers who are transporting medical equipment and PPE globally, including to COVID-19 hotspots.
The trade union representing nuclear sector workers in Ukraine donated its entire reserve fund of $38,500 toward the purchase of PPE and relief for medical workers.
Nuclear sector workers in Mykolaiv province collected $7,300 for medical workers at Yuzhnoukrayinsk hospital.
The local chapter of the industrial workers’ union in the city of Kryvyi Rih organized self-manufacture of face masks for its members and others, producing more than 1,000 masks through March.
In Honduras, where nearly all 19 union organizations in the garment sector have negotiated collective bargaining agreements that significantly boost wages and provide benefits like free transportation to and from work and educational funds for workers and their children, these successes were achieved “with active women’s participation and leadership,” says Eva Argueta, coordinator of organizing maquila workers for the General Workers Central (CGT) union confederation.
But ensuring women have the skills and opportunities to take active and leading roles in their unions has required 10 years of intensive training, with programs designed to fit women’s schedules that include up to 11 hours of factory work per day in addition to second full-time jobs at home, she says.
Argueta was one of three panelists who shared how union women are leading, building power and cultivating values of feminism, inclusion and equality in the April 2 online discussion, “Unions Leading the Creation of a Feminist World of Work.” Hosted by the Solidarity Center, the discussion was originally set to take place as a parallel event in conjunction with the 64th session of the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) last month in New York City. The panel, featuring Solidarity Center partners from Bahrain, Cambodia, Honduras and South Africa was rescheduled online when the conference was cancelled to prevent spread of COVID-19.
Across Bahrain, members of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GBFTU) are urging the government to ratify a new landmark International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty (Convention 190) addressing violence and harassment in the work of work, including sexual harassment and gender-based violence, says GBFTU Assistant General Secretary Suad Mohamed. C190 must be ratified by individual governments before it becomes effective.
Raising Awareness About the Right to Safe Workplaces
As in Bahrain, women and their union allies around the world are mobilizing to ratify ILO Convention 190, crafting a feminist world of work centered on achieving equality and inclusion for all workers and creating new models of leadership. In campaigning for ratification, union women leaders also are advocating for changes in law and policy to address and prevent gender-based violence and harassment.
But “Convention 190 cannot be successful without our extended efforts to raise awareness of all women in society” about their rights to workplaces free of violence and abuse, Mohamed said in the panel discussion.
Although Bahrain recently amended its labor law to penalize sexual harassment and abuse at the workplace, women in Bahrain fear reporting such incidents because their family may force them to leave their jobs and remain isolated at home. “We also are trying to raise awareness that a woman who is a victim of harassment is not the perpetrator, she is a victim. These are small steps we can take to actually reduce level of fear of women,” Mohamed said, speaking through a translator.
“Educating women to understand violence is not part of the job” also is a key focus in Cambodia, where many of the country’s 800,000 garment workers face bullying, sexual harassment and verbal and physical abuse on the job, said Sar Mora. Mora is full-time adviser to the Cambodia Alliance of Trade Unions (CATU), the only female-led garment worker union in the country.
In Honduras, Argueta says raising awareness of women’s right to safe workplaces must be part of all labor trainings. “What we think is important is that any time there is a training it should mainstream women’s rights,” she said. With 342 women graduates who have gone on to take leadership roles in their unions and communities, “we are really satisfied with the success and growth of unions thanks to our very deep investment in women as leaders.”
The Solidarity Center has worked in close coordination with Argueta’s union federation, FESITRATEMASH, for more than 12 years, training organizers, building collective bargaining capacity, and educating workers on addressing worker rights violations through international bodies. The Solidarity Center also has supported FESITRATEMASH’s intensive women’s leadership courses since 2011, including mainstreaming women workers’ concerns in organizing, collective bargaining and union capacity building, and direct support for women organizers.
Also among the panelists, Gertrude Mtsweni, gender coordinator for the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), was unable to participate due to technical issues.
As the novel coronavirus spreads, unions and worker associations around the world are demanding safe and healthy conditions for workers who must remain on the job, and that they be compensated during forced work site closures and not laid off to ensure high returns for corporate shareholders.
The following is a small sample of union actions around the globe, reported in large part from Solidarity Center staff in close contact with union partners.
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