Fearing for his life and liberty, pro-democracy activist and Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU) General Secretary Sticks Nkambule remains trapped in exile while his union campaigns to bring him home safely.
The murder last month of human and worker rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Thulani Maseko—whom Nkambule describes as “friend, colleague, personal attorney and man of peace”—demonstrates that Eswatini is unsafe for rights defenders, says Nkambule.
“We are being visited by killing squads,” he says.
While he was out of the country, on December 28, 2022, Nkambule’s home was raided and his family harassed by heavily armed members of the police and military. In January—after police published Nkambule’s name as a wanted person for alleged criminal conduct associated with a SWATCAWU December 13 –14 job “stay away” announcement—Nkambule began receiving reports of dozens of armed state and military members searching for him and other SWATCAWU leaders in multiple locations.
Under such circumstances, Nkambule says his return is impossible and, even in his new location, he cannot live freely for fear of mercenaries.
“The regime is clear to say that certain figures and faces need to go,” says Nkambule, referring to a “list of terrorists” publicly cited by the leader of a South African company that has a contract to train Eswatini security personnel, per news reports.
Eswatini state harassment of unions and other rights defenders is a decades-long pattern which, reports Nkambule, last year included stepped-up police and military harassment of SWATCAWU leadership, and surveillance by unknown persons in unmarked cars. Growing state repression and fear have led many rights defenders to flee, he says—including Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) President Mbongwa Dlamini, who left the country after state security forces fired live ammunition at his home last year.
Harassment of union leaders ramped up after SWATCAWU began announcing job actions, reports the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The union began a series of “stay aways” last year, says Nkambule, to sidestep the state’s brutal repression of peaceful protests, which in 2021 included police and military members beating rally goers and firing live ammunition into crowds during popular uprisings against the king’s government.
“[The October stay away] worked,” says Nkambule. “When protestors stay in their homes, they don’t get shot.”
However, the threat of a series of transport worker “stay aways”—which brings the economy to a standstill because workers cannot travel to their jobs—presents an unwelcome, and escalating, challenge to the state and employers.
“And that is why I have been singled out,” says Nkambule.
SWATCAWU has been embroiled for almost three years in a lawful and peaceful effort to encourage the state to improve transport workers’ wages and conditions—including a $233 monthly minimum wage, better access to social security and health care, repair of dilapidated roads and an end to police harassment—and to release from prison pro-democracy Eswatini Parliament Members Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube.
Meanwhile, Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, controls all three branches of government, chooses the prime minister, can dissolve Parliament and appoints judges. Under his control, Eswatini has conducted a two-decades-long anti-union and anti-democracy campaign with impunity, reports the ITUC.
Human Rights Watch last month called on the South African government to investigate allegations that South African mercenaries and private military personnel who are allegedly operating in Eswatini are targeting pro-democracy activists. UN and African Union experts condemned Maseko’s murder and demanded an impartial investigation into his death, reiterating UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk’s call for the authorities to ensure the safety of all human rights defenders, civil society actors and lawyers in Eswatini.
In the context of shrinking civic space and a global crackdown on human and worker rights, the Solidarity Center continues to support and partner with pro-democracy union activists across the globe, and has long supported beleaguered unions in Eswatini.
Only a worker rights-based approach can ensure that Europe’s growing numbers of teleworkers can fully exercise their fundamental labor rights—including to decent work, which includes safe working conditions—said International Lawyers Assisting Workers Network (ILAW) members Mihail Cebotari, Inna Kudinska, George Sandul and ILAW Europe and Central Asia Regional Coordinator Tamar Gabisonia during the launch of three new ILAW telework reports last week.
The webinar, centered on three new ILAW reports, surveyed the regulatory environment impacting teleworkers in Moldova, Poland and Ukraine. Poorly regulated telework tends to shifts financial and labor rights risks onto workers, who can experience longer work hours and burnout, unsafe working conditions, and constant employer surveillance. Isolation, meanwhile, can increase workers’ vulnerability to exploitation, discrimination, harassment and other abuse, including domestic violence. And, say unions, without proactive measures teleworkers will likely have fewer opportunities to participate in union activities and develop the sense of solidarity that builds and supports collective power.
“ILAW’s research findings allow all of us the opportunity to pursue better protection of teleworkers in our own countries and, through our participation in the network, to work on similar issues collectively,” says Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC) Deputy Chairman and founding ILAW Board member Raisa Liparteliani.
“Telework is not a separate form of employment relations and, therefore, all workers should enjoy all labor rights equally.”
Due to the COVID-19 pandemic—and, in Europe, the war in Ukraine—the share of the employed population working from home has increased exponentially. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that approximately one in six jobs at the global level, and just over one in four jobs in advanced countries, could be done at home, including telework. By the end of 2022, an estimated 31 percent of all workers worldwide were to be fully remote or hybrid.
Report recommendations include:
In Moldova, to bring national regulations on remote work into line with the European Union Framework Agreement on Telework, ensure that telework is voluntary and reversible, and that teleworkers be adequately protected by effectively enforced health and safety regulations.
In Poland, to prevent the misuse of civil law contracts to deny teleworkers their rights under law, adopt clearer health and safety protections that balance the employer obligation to ensure worker safety with the privacy rights of workers, adopt provisions to address overtime work and ensure the right to disconnect, and institute mechanisms to tackle the systemic discrimination, violence and harassment often directed at remote workers.
In Ukraine, to implement and enforce regulations in conformity with the best European and world legislative practices on telework and remote work—including fully incorporating the principle of voluntariness in remote and home-based work, adequately addressing discrimination and health and safety risks, and protecting workers’ right to privacy.
The new reports are part of an ongoing ILAW research series on telework and worker rights, which includes a regional report on telework in the Americas, along with ten national reports on Brazil, Colombia, Costa Rica, Ecuador, Mexico, Panama, Peru and Uruguay, released in 2022. Research on telework in Mauritius and South Africa is forthcoming this year. The ILAW Network’s Future of Labor Law Wiki also contains model legislative language and analysis of how to regulate telework.
The Solidarity Center’s ILAW Network is a forum for labor and employment law practitioners who grapple with the legal and practical issues that directly affect workers and their organizations.
On Thursday, December 22, the global labor movement lost a giant.
Moussa El Jeries, affectionately known as Abu George, was a Palestinian refugee who was forced to leave his small village Al Bassah in 1948 at the age of 4. He fled with his family to Lebanon and later joined the Palestinian trade union movement in the diaspora. Mirroring the story of so many Palestinian refugees, he moved again with his family in the 1980s before finally settling in Norway with his family—his wife, son and five daughters.
Abu George was a tireless champion of working people around the world and a committed trade unionist. In the 1990s he focused his efforts on encouraging European unions, the International Labor Organization (ILO) and global union federations to support trade union programs aimed at promoting women’s equality and leadership in the labor movement. He also became the global labor movement’s leading voice advocating outreach and support and connection to the Palestinian labor movement in the West Bank and Gaza Strip.
Said Abla Masrujeh, country program director for the Solidarity Center in Palestine and former Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) activist: “I met Abu George for the first time in 1995 when he visited his homeland for the first time as an ILO Norway staff person and respected Arab leader, to discuss how he could help the women’s movement within the PGFTU. Within a few weeks, he came back with a generous grant that enabled unions to build women’s structures that soon became a model for unions to emulate across the region.”
Abu George worked relentlessly in solidarity with women’s movements and for women’s equality. Among other good works, in 1996 he brought labor leaders from Norway to an important women’s conference in Nablus, Palestine, where nearly 130 women trade unionists from across Palestine gathered to discuss and advance women’s rights in the movement. He was often found in conversations with feminists and women’s rights advocates, listening and learning and helping plan for change, even where it was not “acceptable” for men to do so. Masrujeh recalled this time: “I traveled with him to help sister unions across the Arab world establish women’s committees and departments and advance women’s voices. He was a courageous colleague and a great mentor for many union brothers and sisters, including me. I will always remember him.”
El Jeries struggled with illness in his retirement but never stopped championing the causes of equality, justice and humanity for the Palestinians and for all people. He was known for his wonderful sense of humor and capacity for love, friendship, poetry and storytelling. He leaves behind his wife, children and grandchildren, and thousands upon thousands touched by his leadership and his friendship across the trade union movement. The Solidarity Center joins in commemorating the life and legacy of Moussa El Jeries, Abu George.
Workers in the informal waste and recovery sector (IWRS)—such as collectors, traders and waste pickers—help recycle almost 60 percent of the world’s plastic waste and, in some countries, provide the only form of municipal solid waste collection. This service financially supports millions of workers who are already facing social marginalization, poverty, appalling working conditions and minimal local government support. The rights of these workers, who contribute significantly to their communities and the environment, must be protected under the proposed new global plastics treaty, say worker rights advocates—including just transition policies that enable IWRS workers to upskill or shift to alternative livelihoods.
Policymakers, civil society and industry representatives met in Uruguay last week for the first of five meetings through 2024 to prepare a treaty that aims to eliminate plastics pollution by 2040—stopping the conveyor belt of what the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says is a garbage truck of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every minute.
Elements under discussion included global, collaborative measures to reduce hazardous chemicals in plastics production, transitioning to plastics that are more easily recyclable, reducing the supply of plastics by capping plastics production—thus making recycling more economically viable—and fairly addressing the fate of waste pickers and others informal workers associated with the waste and recovery sector.
“Climate and labor justice requires that all workers impacted by climate change mitigation measures have a meaningful say in the process to ensure that a greener economy is also one that protects worker rights and advances decent work,” says Solidarity Center Climate Change and Just Transition Global Lead Sonia Mistry, who helped review a UN-Habitat global plastics treaty report, “Leaving No One Behind.” Other report reviewers included Solidarity Center allies Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and WIEGO network partner International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAW), which represents thousands of waste picker organizations in more than 28 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Recognition and inclusion of IWRS voices in the development of solutions to end plastics pollution are key to ensuring that such solutions align with UN Sustainable Development Goal 8 promoting labor rights, safe and secure working environments, productive employment, decent work and equal pay for work of equal value, concluded the report.
“Fairness demands that the needs of all workers and their communities be at the center of climate-responsive policies and practices, including those negotiated through a global treaty to reduce plastics pollution,” says Mistry.
Climate justice grassroots organizations and their advocates globally are demanding together that nations, governments and companies enriched by practices leading to climate degradation do not shift the costs of climate change mitigation policies to the most vulnerable, most of whom live in countries subjected to the worst forms of historical and contemporary racial and ethnic subordination.
Flagging a high number of work-related deaths and life-altering injuries in the country during the first ten months of this year, Solidarity Center partners Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) and Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) are educating their members and leadership on how to better protect themselves at work despite an erosion of worker rights under martial law—and monitoring and pushing back on any further deterioration of the country’s labor legislation. While the increase in work-related deaths and injuries endangers all workers, those charged with restoring or rebuilding essential infrastructure destroyed during Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine are especially at risk.
“We support the Ukrainian government and people as they defend against Russian attacks, but weakening worker rights will not make that defense stronger,“ says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter. “If workplace safety standards are ignored or not enforced, the increase in unnecessary workplace deaths and injuries will make defending the country more difficult.”
ILO member states, including Ukraine, are required to respect and promote all five ILO fundamental principles and rights at work, regardless of their level of economic development and whether they have ratified relevant conventions.
In the first nine months of 2022, 474 workers died in the workplace—half in war-related incidents—and 4,426 workers were injured in work-related accidents, according to data from Ukraine’s Social Insurance Fund. Even before the war, Ukraine had a high number of occupational injuries: On average, 4 000 employees suffer from work-related accidents in Ukraine each year, of which almost one in 10 dies.
Should workers be injured or killed, they and their families will struggle to access compensation from Ukraine’s Social Insurance Fund due to significant delays in the investigative process required to trigger payouts, say Ukraine’s unions. Although the State Labor Service (SLS) has proposed remedial measures to speed up such investigations, martial law provisions this year have reduced the SLS to an advisory-only entity that cannot effectively require employers to comply with remaining occupational health and safety protections, such as provision of adequate safety training and personal protective equipment. Under martial law, for example, and by order of the Ukraine Cabinet of Ministers starting in March, the SLS was required to suspend all unscheduled occupational safety and health inspections.
In heroic acts, especially on the front lines, Ukraine’s workers are risking life and limb to restore infrastructure such as electricity, roads, buildings and bridges. For example, last month a team of five repairmen in Ukrenergo reportedly worked more than six hours while suspended at a height of more than 300 feet in freezing cold, while risking artillery fire, to repair damage to a high-voltage overhead line.
To achieve European Union (EU)membership, which Ukraine is currently seeking, the country’s EU association agreement requires that the country fulfill several obligations, including occupational safety and health reform to ensure compliance with International Labor Organization (ILO) health and safety conventions 81 and 129.
In the wake of a new wave of prison sentences against union leaders and other activists arrested earlier this year, new Belarus worker rights organization Salidarnast is tracking and disseminating updates on union political prisoners’ legal cases, and providing other worker rights news.
Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) President Aliaksandr Yarashuk, jailed since April and facing 14 years in prison, was elected in absentia to an ITUC vice-presidency at the organization’s 5th World Congress last month, reports Salidarnast.
Extraordinary mistreatment of two jailed union leaders, Leanid Sudalenka and Volha Brytsikava, for which Brytsikava reportedly started a hunger strike on November 8 and was released last week after having spent more than 105 days behind bars this year–including 75 consecutive days in the spring
Continuation of a ten-person trial associated with worker organization Rabochy Rukh for which the accused are facing prison sentences of up to 15 years for high treason, among other charges
Grodno Azot fertilizer factory worker and chairperson of the independent trade union there, Andrei Khanevich, whose phone was tapped by Belarusian special service, sentenced to five years in prison for speaking with a BelSat TV reporter
Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP) Vice Chairperson and Chairperson of the Local Trade Union at Belaruskali fertilizer factory, Aliaksandr Mishuk—detained since May—sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment
Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM) Deputy for Organizational Work Yanina Malash—mother of a minor child and detained since April—sentenced to one and a half years’ imprisonment
Vital Chychmarou, a former engineer fired in 2020 for trade union activities and manager of an SPM organization, sentenced to three years of home confinement
Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM) Trade Union Council Secretary Mikhail Hromau—detained since April—sentenced to two and a half years of home confinement
Genadz Bedzeneu, who attempted to start a local union for Polotsk stall market workers, arrested.
Salidarnast is filling an information void created after the Lukashenko government in July forcibly shut down the BDKP and its affiliates, compounded by the detention of dozens of journalists and media workers with other civil society defenders. The number of political prisoners in Belarus stood at almost 1,500 in November, reports the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ); up from 1,000 in February. The Belarus Supreme Court in July dissolved the BKDP and its four affiliates: BNP, the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP), Free Trade Union of Belarus (SPB) and SPM.
Salidarnast on December 1 flagged the arrest of at least five people at the Miory steel plant, warning of imprisonment risk for up to ten thousand people who contributed to the “Black Book of Belarus” which identified riot police.
“Despite the destruction of the independent trade union movement, workers in Belarus remain the force which can resist the dictatorship,” says Salidarnast.
The repression and eventual dismantling of the independent Belarus union movement began after hundreds of thousands of people, often led by union members , many of them women, took to the streets in 2020 to protest elections in which President Alexander Lukashenko declared himself winner in a landslide victory amid widespread allegations of fraud. The BKDP—the first Belarus union to be independent of government influence in the post-Soviet era—was founded 29 years ago and has been a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) since 2003.
Hear more about workers’ fight for freedom by listening to a Solidarity Center podcast interview in which now-imprisoned BDKP Vice President Sergey Antusevich in 2021 spoke passionately about workers taking to the streets in defense of democracy. Antusevich has been jailed pending trial since April 2022.
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