Women and workers from marginalized communities suffered disproportionately from the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and a new survey details the effects on Kyrgyz migrant workers in Russia.
The survey of almost 300 Kyrgyz women who are dependent on precarious, low-wage jobs in Russia finds that the pandemic exacerbated migrant workers’ vulnerability to economic precarity and that women migrant workers reported brutal conditions on the job, including sexual violence. Almost half a million Kyrgyz women were working in Russia in 2021.
The survey compiled data from Kyrgyz women working in Russia in caregiving, catering, domestic and janitorial work and garment manufacturing and retail sectors in 19 Russian cities, including Moscow, Novosibirsk and Yekaterinburg. The survey was conducted by local non-governmental organization Insan-Leilek Public Foundation, a long-time partner of the Solidarity Center in advocating for the rights of migrant workers from Kyrgyzstan.
“The pandemic played such a cruel joke on us,” said a survey respondent. (For their protection, respondents are quoted anonymously.) “They start with migrants; they are the first to be fired.”
Respondents reported increased health precarity during the pandemic due to limited non-resident medical services and higher virus exposure while working service jobs, as well as increased financial precarity following mass service-sector and retail layoffs. Without formal written work agreements—common for migrant workers and a violation of their rights under Russian labor law—many lost their incomes without compensation, which increased their food insecurity and other economic hardships.
Rampant Worker Rights Violations, Including GBVH
Many respondents reported health and safety violations and loss of dignity at work due to migrant status, unregulated use of chemicals and rampant sexual or other gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) by employers, supervisors and customers.
Sexual violence was common. Fourteen percent of those surveyed reported rape; two were victims of gang rape in their workplaces.
Sexual harassment was widely reported. Forty percent of participants said they were subject at work to comments about their bodies, obscene jokes and sexually suggestive gestures. Twenty percent reported violation of their personal boundaries, such as men touching their waist, breasts, buttocks and other parts of the body.
More than half of the respondents were working without contracts, leaving them without legal protection and vulnerable to the whims of employers—many of whom reportedly refused to sign employment contracts at the time of hiring.
More than two thirds of the women reported encountered discrimination at the workplace. Of that number, two thirds attributed it to their migrant status; half said it was because of their gender.
Many respondents reported wage and working conditions in violation of Russia’s labor code, including a quarter of respondents who suffered wage payment delays, half who did not receive overtime pay and four-fifths who were denied paid sick and holiday leave.
Half of respondents reporting rights violations did not know where to turn for help or were afraid to talk about it.
“I don’t want to seek help and it’s impossible to seek help,” said a survey respondent who reported being touched sexually at work but feared deportation if she reported the abuse.
Many Kyrgyz citizens are forced to move to other countries to earn their livelihoods because of limited economic opportunities in Kyrgyzstan, where a third of the population lives below the national poverty line and migrant remittances in 2022 represented 30 percent of the country’s GDP.
Millions of workers—most of them women—face intimidation, humiliation, physical and verbal assault, and worse on the job. A July 27, 2023, international summit in southern Africa gathered representatives from the governments of Argentina, Canada, Germany, Lesotho, Spain and the United States—along with dozens of leaders from unions, business and worker and women’s rights organizations—to highlight and advance efforts to end gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work, with a focus on southern Africa.
Hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER),* Lesotho Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU) and Lesotho Labor Council (LLC), the daylong summit explored how governments, corporations and unions can eliminate GBVH at work, particularly by ratifying and codifying International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) on violence and harassment, and by replicating the negotiated and binding Lesotho Agreements in supply chains elsewhere.
(Photos: Solidarity Center/Institute of Content Engineering)
Kingdom of Lesotho Prime Minister Samuel Ntsokoane Matekane (R) greets U.S. Department of State Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez (L) and United States Embassy Lesotho Deputy Chief of Mission Keisha Toms.
“We are all witness to the ever-increasing instances of gender-based violence and harassment at the workplace, not only in Southern Africa but across our beloved continent,” said Prime Minister Matekane, noting that Lesotho has committed to ethical sourcing through the U.S. African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) and the U.S. Millennium Challenge Compact II.
Below: Harry Nkhetse, senior facilitator and leadership coach, Tobaka Consultants, Mountain Peak Business Solutions, and summit co-emcee, with Marieke Koning, co-emcee and ITUC policy adviser.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS IN ELIMINATING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT AT WORK: C190
Eradication of GBVH is an urgent, compelling global challenge that will only be resolved when workers have the power to bring about change, for which they need rights to freedom of association and of collective bargaining, said Marieke Koning. The panel included government representatives from Argentina, Germany and Lesotho.
Collective bargaining agreements are the most effective mechanism for implementing progressive laws in Argentina’s experience, said Cecilia Cross, Argentina’s undersecretary for inclusion policies in the world of work (below left). “For Germany, the reason to ratify is that C190 sends such a strong global signal—that it really defines globally what is harassment at work,” said Dr. Anna Montén-Küchel, first secretary, labor and social affairs, German missions in South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini.
“Efforts must be made at the global level as national efforts alone are not enough to tack this issue, which knows no borders,” said Joaquín Perez Rey, Spain’s secretary of state for employment and social economy, by video. “Gender-based violence and harassment have no place in our workplace,” he added.
U.S. GLOBAL LABOR PRIORITIES
Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez described the Lesotho Agreements as a model for other employers in Lesotho and beyond, and M-POWER as a vehicle for mobilizing like-minded governments to participate. “Culture change is required to create the conditions that allow workers, their families and their communities to thrive,” she said.
HOW WORKERS AND COMPANIES ARE ADDRESSING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT IN A GLOBAL SUPPLY CHAIN: FOCUS ON THE LESOTHO AGREEMENT
“I experienced so much harassment at the factory before the program at Nien Hsing was established,” said Popoti Ntebe, a UNITE member and factory worker. “Because of the high level of unemployment in our country, workers tend to be harassed because of poverty.”
THE ROLE OF TRADE UNIONS IN CREATING SAFER, FAIR AND HEALTHY WORKPLACES FREE FROM HARASSMENT AND VIOLENCE
To protect rights better, unions and other activists must maximize pressure on government, said Teboho Tolo (R), LFTU president, presenting with Zingiswa Losi, president, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). “We must mobilize support!” he said.
WOMEN WORKERS’ PARTICIPATION IN DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
Sethelile Ntlhakana, Lesotho field representative for Worker Rights Consortium, moderates the session.
Gloria Kente, an organizer with the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), in yellow, leads fellow panelists Mathekiso Tseote, NACTWU shop steward (left); Leboela Moteban, LFTU gender focal person; Thato Sebeko, LLC member; and Puleng Selebeli, United Textile Employees (UNITE) member, in song.
“No struggle can be won without women’s participation,” said Mathekiso Tseote.
CLOSING STATEMENTS AND COMMITMENTS
“The world is watching; this is a precedent,” said Laura Gutierrez, AFL-CIO global worker rights coordinator, about the Lesotho Agreements. The AFL-CIO in partnership with its M-POWER colleagues wants to replicate this kind of program in the region and around the world, she said, because “M-POWER partners together recognize that in order to advance worker rights, ALL workers must have the power and ability to organize freely.”
“We must highlight [C190’s] importance as a key instrument in bringing an end to violence and harassment at work and in particular ensuring that women have a safe place to work,” said Chris Cooter, high commissioner for Canada in South Africa, by video.
The M-POWER GBVH project’s launch in Lesotho marks the milestone that Lesotho has committed to upholding worker rights through promotion of decent work for all workers in all economic sectors, said Richard Ramoeletsi, Lesotho minister of public service, labor and employment, in closing remarks.
MORE FROM THE EVENT
* M-POWER is a historic global initiative focused on ensuring working families thrive in the global economy and elevating the role of trade unions and organized workers as essential to advancing democracy. The government of the UnitedStates and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) co-chair M-POWER, joined by steering committee members: the governments of Argentina, Canada and Spain; the International Domestic Worker Federation; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); the AFL-CIO; and Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE). Additional partners include the governments of France, Germany and South Africa, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, ProDESC, Solidarity Center and Worker Rights Consortium.
Recognizing that increased numbers help unions better advocate for worker rights and negotiate wages and working conditions with Kyrgyzstan’s employers and government, 28 union activists joined the Solidarity Center’s Organizing School, a four-part program that began in March. The school drew participants from construction, informal trading, public service, taxi and textile sectors, many of whom are already successfully putting their new skills into practice.
“By emphasizing practical skills, fostering authentic communication and providing ongoing support, this initiative is contributing to a stronger labor movement and empowered organizers who can bring about positive change in their workplaces and communities,” says Solidarity Center Program Officer Elena Rubtsova.
Early successes of the program include establishment of a union savings’ program, “Zymyryk-Invest,” by the union representing construction workers, which has already attracted dozens of new members, and expansion of the taxi drivers’ union, Kabylan, into Kyrgyzstan’s fourth largest city, Karakol, through use of a new, dedicated WhatsApp chat group. Although Kyrgyzstan’s labor law does not specifically protect the rights of workers on digital platforms, it allows self-employed taxi drivers to unite within pre-existing trade unions.
Between training sessions, organizing school participants practiced their new skills, including strategic communications, and benefited from group and Solidarity Center support.
“This training helped me understand that speaking from the heart and using our own words resonates more effectively with others,” says Kabylan President Ulan Cholponbaev.
A quarter century since joining the fight for worker rights in Mexico, the Solidarity Center celebrated the progress made amid reflections on the historic moment workers and their allies face in the country.
“The most important and promising independent union organizing in the world is happening right here, right now in Mexico,” Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director, told those gathered in Mexico City for the anniversary celebration.
To mark the occasion, the Solidarity Center organized a week of activities to honor the work of partners from the independent Mexican trade union movement, strengthen transnational solidarity, examine the challenges that lie ahead and build a path toward a more just Mexico. From May 29 to June 1, trade union leaders and workers from across the country joined scholars and activists from Mexico and the United States, as well as representatives from both countries’ governments, to continue the collective work to ensure that recent labor law reforms and trade agreements put workers’ interests at the forefront.
After three years of historic change since the reforms, the emergence of a new generation of labor leaders demonstrates that Mexican workers hold it within themselves to build an inclusive and responsive labor movement. The Solidarity Center proudly recognized their achievements.
“It’s an honor to join together with so many brothers and sisters, with so many organizations that just a year ago did not exist and who are now working to strengthen freedom of association and collective bargaining in Mexico,” said Paolo Marinaro, Mexico country program director, speaking to allies as he introduced an international forum on the labor reforms held during the week.
Over its 25 years of work in Mexico, the Solidarity Center has supported grassroots organizing and lifted authentic worker voices to help dismantle a system that for too long ignored the plight of workers and catered to the interests of the rich and powerful. Today, more so than any time in the country’s history, the Mexican labor movement represents the full spectrum of Mexican workers. Over the course of the week, the diversity of Mexico’s new labor leaders did not go unnoticed.
“The Solidarity Center is honored to work with young workers, women-led unions, emerging and established democratic leadership, organizations formed by migrant and indigenous workers, and others who are revitalizing the Mexican labor movement and inspiring the global labor movement,” Bader-Blau said.
Mexico’s new and more representative labor unions have won path-breaking victories that have inspired a new wave of labor organizing in the country. With Solidarity Center support, in just the last year over 20,000 Mexican workers have negotiated strong contracts with historic wage increases and workplace protections. From St. Gobain workers in Cuautla, Morelos, to 3M workers in San Luis Potosí, the new independent labor movement continues to bring tangible benefits to a workforce long held in check through collusion between employers, the government and corrupt unions.
Despite these important victories, the promise of the labor reforms has not been fully realized. For that reason, the Solidarity Center begins its 26th year in Mexico committed to helping Mexican workers build the power necessary to create a more just economy and a more prosperous country.
A milestone convening in Tashkent last week brought together stakeholders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan government ministries and agencies, non-governmental and civil society sectors, and international organizations as a first step in developing a joint action plan to combat forced labor and advance worker rights in the region. Worldwide, 28 million people were reportedly trapped in forced labor in 2021.
The May 22 conference highlighted labor inspectorates’ role in protecting worker rights and combating forced labor in the region. Solidarity Center supported the event, which was organized in collaboration with “Partnership in Action,” an international NGO network of more than 30 Central Asian organizations, Kyrgyzstan’s Migrant Workers Union’s partner organization “Insan-Leylek” and Uzbekistan’s Istiqbolli Avlod.
“There is a crucial need for regional cooperation in labor inspections, because migration patterns are constantly changing,” says “Insan-Leylek” leader Gulnara Derbisheva.
Recognizing the importance of collective action, the conference hosts provided a forum for representatives of labor inspectorates from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to share their expertise and experiences within their respective countries. Government representatives from each of those countries reiterated their commitment to labor inspectorates working cooperatively with one another and with the region’s worker rights defenders to fight labor exploitation and promote safer working environments and dignified work for all.
Topics included international standards related to the work of inspectorates, issues surrounding forced labor in Central Asia and the importance of labor inspections given the region’s unique challenges. Participants identified a severe shortage of labor inspectors—Solidarity Center research finds that 250 labor inspectors oversee 280,000 legal entities employing 6.5 million people in Kazakhstan, 30 inspectors oversee thousands of enterprises in Kyrgyzstan and 315 inspectors oversee 578,000 registered entities in Uzbekistan—and discussed restrictions on inspectorates’ effectiveness. Although the International Labor Organization (ILO) standards specify that inspections be conducted without prior notification, all three countries require prior consent and advance notice for inspections and exclude small businesses from inspection mandates. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are currently considering legislative changes to rectify such loopholes.
“The outcomes of the conference have the potential to transform labor protection, ensuring safer and fairer working conditions for everyone in the region,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter.
According to ILO data, some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year, including 340 million victims of occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses. The ILO reports 11,0000 fatal occupational accidents annually in the 12-member states comprising the Commonwealth of Independent States—Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—but points to “gross underreporting” of occupational accidents and diseases in the region.
To raise awareness of the Kyrgyzstan’s responsibility to improve workplace safety and strengthen workplace inspections, the Solidarity Center last year launched a program to increase the visibility of the country’s Labor Inspectorate among workers and employers through education seminars and other consultative fora.
Significant progress has been made. Kyrgyzstan’s Labor Inspectorate is reporting that in 2022, as compared to the year prior:
The number of identified violations increased from 18 to 1,402
The value of fines imposed on employers increased from $598 to $13,126
The amount of compensation paid to workers killed or injured in workplace accidents increased from $176,723 to $380,501
The value of wages collected by sickened or injured workers increased from $4,023 to $103,039
The number of employers trained on Kyrgyzstan’s safety standards increased from none to 74.
The right to a safe and healthy work environment place is a fundamental right of every worker. Developing partnership between Kyrgyzstan’s unions, government and employers is yielding results by better capturing and addressing safety violations, and ensuring compensation and wages to those who are sickened or injured on the job.
“The tripartite platform proved to be an exceedingly effective tool in ensuring that the voices of workers were heard by both employers and the government,” says Trade Union of Construction and Building Materials Workers Republican Committee Chair Eldiyar Karachalov.
To mark April 28, World Day for Safety and Health at Work, and in collaboration with unions, the Labor Inspectorate conducted a high-profile campaign to educate the public about issues surrounding safety at work and publicize the Labor Inspectorate’s new website and online form for reporting worker rights violations. Unions, with Solidarity Center support, contributed success stories, including on video for state television and social network distribution.
“[The Labor Inspectorate] helped me get the pay I was owed,” reports primary school teacher N.A. Usubalieva.
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