Podcast: Now Imprisoned, Belarus Union Leader Spoke of Hopes for Democracy

Podcast: Now Imprisoned, Belarus Union Leader Spoke of Hopes for Democracy

In April, at least 18 union leaders were recently arrested in Belarus, where an autocracy has run the country since the fall of the Soviet Union. Among those arrested was Sergey Antusevich, vice president of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions, who was a guest on The Solidarity Center Podcast in 2021. On the show, re-aired here, Antusevich spoke passionately about how Belarusian workers took to the streets to protest fraudulent elections in 2020 that meant the country’s autocrat would continue in power. ”

“My inspiration is the people, people who stand and fight,” Antusevich told Solidarity Center Executive Director and podcast host Shawna Bader-Blau. “I have neighbors, have workers at several enterprises, a lot of enterprises in Belarus, who want to live in a free and democratic Belarus and in a European country.”

(You can support jailed Belarusian union leaders—take action here.)

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Governments Must Listen to Migrant Perspectives

Governments Must Listen to Migrant Perspectives

When addressing migration, governments must focus on human rights: “When you prioritize human rights, you naturally shift from criminalization and focus on rights-based approaches,” says Mishka Pillay, a migration and lived experience advocate and campaigner.

“Migration is historical, it’s natural it’s been here for centuries—and it needs to be normalized by countries.”

Pillay spoke today at a launch event for the “Migration,” which includes six articles targeted at decision-makers in the context of the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration.

Approved by United Nations member states in 2018, the Global Compact for Migration reaffirms countries’ commitment to respecting, protecting and fulfilling human rights for all migrants. In May, the International Migration Review Forum (IMRF) will assess progress on the compact and the Spotlight Report seeks to ensure that grassroots migrant perspectives on progress and challenges are central to the discussions.

“Morally and ethically it is imperative to listen to people’s lived experiences. Government needs to listen and learn how migration is affecting real people,” says Pillay, an author in the report.

The Global Coalition on Migration, which includes the Solidarity Center, and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung institute, released the report. Today’s launch emphasized the importance of migrants’ agency, including the agency of migrant workers, in the policy and process decisions that affect their lives, including in their workplaces.

Decent Work Key to Addressing Migration

A focus on decent work in origin countries “is necessary to break cycles of exploitation and prevent labor migration pathways from perpetuating global power and wealth imbalances,” writes Neha Misra, Solidarity Center global lead for migration and human trafficking. Misra co-authored the Spotlight Report article, “People Not Profit: Coherent Migration Pathways Centered in Human Rights and Decent Work for All.”

“For too long, failed foreign and trade policies have prioritized the interests of corporations and low-wage, export-oriented growth while actively undermining democracy and accountability, contributing to the push factors driving people to migrate,” the article states.

Shannon Lederer, AFL-CIO director of immigration policy and Yanira Merino, president of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement (LCLAA), are co-authors.

Among the report’s recommendations:

  • Migrant workers, regardless of status, must have rights in line with international labor standards for all workers
  • Migrants must have rights at international borders
  • There must be alternatives to detention of migrants
  • Migrants must have access to public services and social protections, regardless of status
  • Coherent policies must be developed for those migrating due to climate related factors
  • Countries must adopt regularization policies and rights-based regular migration channels—that allow migrants the freedom to move, settle, work and fully participate in society—over expanding temporary or circular work programs. Countries should promote regular migration pathways that ensure full worker rights, facilitate social and family cohesion, and provide options for permanent residence and meaningful participation in civic life.

Commenting on the report during the panel discussion, Fernando de la Mora, who is part of IMRF discussions through the Economic, Social, Human Rights and Humanitarian Section of Mexico’s UN mission, reiterated his government’s support for a commitment to decent work in origin and destination countries, and summed up the report’s goals this way:

“Borders divide—but they also unite.”

AFL-CIO CALLS FOR RELEASE OF 17 DETAINED BELARUS UNION LEADERS

AFL-CIO CALLS FOR RELEASE OF 17 DETAINED BELARUS UNION LEADERS

In a letter to Belarus Prime Minister Roman Golovchenko and Head of the Administration of the President Igor Sergeyenko, the AFL-CIO condemned the recent detention of 17 trade union leaders who represent their country’s independent labor movement and the shuttering of union offices there.

Calling for an immediate release of all those detained and resumption of the activities of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) and its affiliate unions, the AFL-CIO letter cites “a troubling increase in anti-union harassment” in the country and points to an international labor movement protest against anti-union repression in Belarus.

Those arrested and detained include BKDP President Aleksandr Yarashuk and Vice-President Sergei Antusevich, as well as other activists, independent journalists and legal experts. The offices of the BKDP have been closed, as have the offices of its four affiliated unions.

The government of Belarus has been repeatedly called out by the International Labor Organization (ILO) for its systematic violations of freedom of association and core labor standards.

Read the full letter.

Myanmar Union Activists Assaulted, Detained by Military

Myanmar Union Activists Assaulted, Detained by Military

Two women unionist activists in Myanmar were assaulted and arrested late last week after the taxi they were traveling in was rammed by a military vehicle in eastern Yangon. According to eyewitnesses at the scene, six soldiers exited a military vehicle after ramming the taxi and assaulted the unionists before loading them and the taxi driver into their vehicle and driving away.

Along with 18 others, the two union activists had participated in a march to protest the ongoing assault on civic freedoms by the military junta, which seized power from the elected government in February 2021. The Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), the Myanmar Labor Alliance (MLA) and the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM) organized the protest. (Support Myanmar workers under attack here.)

Khaing Thinzar, CTUM communications director, and Ei Phyu Phyu Myint, a member of the Glory Fashion Factory Union, were arrested and taken to an interrogation center in Shwepyithar, according to CTUM. Under the junta, physical torture, including sexual assault, is widespread weapon against dissent.

Military authorities are pressuring landlords to evict the families of those arrested by the end of the month. CTUM is calling on international partners to protest the arrests and assist in providing them legal representation.

Thousands of people have been killed and many more imprisoned since the coup. The military has especially targeted union leaders, arresting dozens, and many have fled the country or are in hiding. The military has pledged to “annihilate” those who oppose the regime.

Workers–women in particular–took an early lead in the protests, with the country’s 450,000 garment workers especially active in organizing civil disobedience actions and shutting down factories. They have asked multinational fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.

Since the coup, workers have risked their lives and livelihoods to stand up for a return to democratic governance.

“We are facing a bloody crackdown, but all people protect each other,” says CTUM Assistant General Secretary Phyo Sandar Soe.

“We are finding solutions to fight back.”

(Listen as Phyo Sandar Soe, speaking on The Solidarity Center Podcast from a safe house, describes what’s it like for workers and their unions on the front-lines of the fight for democracy.)

Kill a River, Kill Our Livelihoods: A Brazilian Community’s Fight for Survival

Kill a River, Kill Our Livelihoods: A Brazilian Community’s Fight for Survival

A community that makes its livelihood from the Amazon is standing up to the Brazilian government that, without consulting the people most affected, is on the verge of undertaking a blasting and dredging project along a river waterway that would destroy their livelihoods.

On this episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast, Carmen Foro, a rural activist and secretary-general of the Central Union of Workers in Brazil (CUT), describes how the community where she was born is demanding the government honor international treaties respecting Indigenous and Tribal People’s right to safeguard and manage the natural resources on their lands.

(Listen in English or Portuguese.)

“We know that if this hydro way is constructed, then it will bring with it agribusiness interests, monoculture, land conflicts, pollution, a lack of respect for the populations who live there,” Foro says.

“Unchecked greed—by governments and corporations—has fueled environmental destruction and climate change, worsened inequality and eroded worker rights,” says podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.

Foro describes how a diverse coalition that includes representatives from the Quilombolo community, fishers, family farmers, youth, women and a range of grassroots groups formed the Caravan in Defense of the Tocantins River to raise awareness about the negative impacts of the waterway construction.

“We want public policies to preserve the river. And we believe this is the democratic way to build and preserve our rights. This is the way to ensure our future and our life.”

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‘THE FACTORY IS GREEN, THE JOB IS NOT’—BANGLADESH GARMENT WORKER

‘THE FACTORY IS GREEN, THE JOB IS NOT’—BANGLADESH GARMENT WORKER

A new Solidarity Center study finds that, although Bangladesh claims the global lead in eco-friendly ready-made garment (RMG) manufacturing, government officials, factory owners and global fashion brands are not adequately addressing unhealthy working conditions, dangerous pollutants in the factory-adjacent communities in which garment workers are trapped by poverty wages, long working hours, or the negative effects of garment manufacturing on the environment.

Even in so-called green factories, “different stages of garments production may have serious impact on the physical and mental health and safety of the workers—emanating from yarn dust, excessive heat, use of chemicals, accidents, communicable diseases, lack of basic amenities and excessive workload,” says report author University of Dhaka International Relations Professor Dr. Syeda Rozana Rashid Rashid.

Bangladesh is the world’s top global sourcing location for international fashion brands. Of the country’s estimated 5,000 garment factories, in 2022 only 155 were certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green factories.

A comprehensive green solution, finds the report, requires engagement with workers and their unions as social partners in the design and implementation of environmental practices that also improve conditions for workers through collective bargaining and policy development. Partnership with workers and their unions will promote properly implemented climate-protection laws, policies and processes that better protect RMG workers from unhealthy and unsafe workplaces, factory-adjacent community members from garment production pollutants, and all citizens from climate change impacts, such as flooding and drought.

Also, to protect their health and well-being, garment workers must earn wages sufficient to pay for housing located away from their jobs, and work hours that make transportation from greater distance possible. More than 4 million people work in the RMG sector, most of whom are young women living near the factory where they work.

“The area is full of odorous waste and chemicals,” says a union leader about workers’ living conditions in her community.

“Even local drinking water takes different colors due to the nature of different chemicals disposed of in the river. Situations become intolerable during the rainy season when roads are overflown by the toxic water under heavy rain. Workers get infected by skin diseases.”

The Bangladesh government has declared three Dhaka rivers biologically “dead” due to the untreated effluent flowing into them.

Interviews with 20 union members and leaders, and other experts from Dhaka and Gazipur, Savar and Chattogram regions also found that:

  • Not all green factories are labor rights compliant.
  • Garment workers’ vulnerability to environmental degradation and climate change will increase until their basic rights and needs are addressed by government and employers.
  • The communities surrounding RMG facilities are significantly impacted in terms of health, quality of life and, in many cases, by associated impacts on their livelihoods from farming and fishing.
  • Suffering due to excessive heat has become pervasive in RMG factories due to climate change, especially in the hot summer season, where lack of ventilation increases workers’ risk of being infected with communicable diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Many factories will not allow workers to organize, impeding their education on how production, climate change impacts and environmental degradation are linked to their health and well-being.
  • Global fashion brands largely do not take responsibility or accountability for environmental degradation, instead putting the responsibility on suppliers.
  • Although global fashion brands use their code of conduct as a voluntary policy tool to focus on international standards, they mostly ignore climate issues and their impact on workers and their communities.
  • The impact of climate change on factory workers is overlooked by formal inspection and monitoring mechanisms.
  • Union respondents cannot engage global buyers in pressuring local producers to implement measures to improve workers’ living conditions.
  • Without implementation demands and effective implementation processes, global brands’ prescribed eco-friendly standards appear to exist for appearances only in a process known as “greenwashing.

“The factory is not green for the workers. We see a rosy picture; we hear nice stories. In reality, you would hardly hear workers’ voices in a green factory,” reports a union leader.

Bangladesh’s RMG sector accounts for 84 percent of the country’s exports. RMG exports more than doubled from 2011 through 2019—from $14.6 billion to $33.1 billion.

With long-term experience in people-centered policy and legislative rights-based advocacy, workers and their unions in Bangladesh are uniquely positioned to push forward a rights-based climate agenda as well as participate in a global climate justice movement.

“Without a union to safeguard workers’ interests and freedom of expression, no factory can properly be considered green,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center climate change and just transition global lead.

 

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