Oct 20, 2021
Some of the most essential workers are also among the most overlooked—the women and men who plant, harvest and transport our fruits and vegetables, ensuring our tables are full every day, and especially during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Worldwide, they also are among workers with the fewest legal protections and rights on the job. On the latest Solidarity Center Podcast, Hamada Abu Nijmeh describes how agricultural workers in Jordan collectively campaigned for—and won—a landmark law that will bring them safer jobs, overtime pay, 14 days annual paid leave and 14 days paid sick leave.
The workers, the majority of whom are women, also won 10 weeks paid maternity leave. Significantly, the legislation also covers migrant agricultural workers, who frequently are not protected by countries’ labor laws.
Abu Nijmeh is director of the Jordan-based Workers’ House for Studies, and with the Agricultural Workers Union, led the campaign for this first-ever legislation.
“So I can proudly say that it is through the efforts of many that we have been able to achieve this landmark achievement,” says Abu Nijmeh. “I can say without a doubt that this is a historic achievement because since Jordan was founded, agricultural workers have not been included in the labor law until now.”
Agricultural workers won this victory despite the legally limited ability of all workers to form unions in Jordan, says Abu Nijmeh. He tells Solidarity Center Podcast host Shawna Bader-Blau that the union’s next steps include winning the fundamental right for workers to freely form unions and bargain collectively.
“The trade union of agricultural workers tried to register [with the government] and, of course, they have been denied and they took it to court,” he says. “The best way to protect the agriculture sector and any future trade union in the agricultural sector is to fix the problem with the entire system.”
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Sep 30, 2021
Where unions establish collective bargaining, they initiate the strongest mechanism for protecting agricultural workers’ rights, health and dignity. Through analysis of five agribusiness sectors—including palm oil in Colombia, bananas in Guatemala, strawberries in Mexico, and grapes, olives and wine in Morocco—this report seeks to understand employment relations in agricultural global supply chains and workers’ struggle for dignity and empowerment.
May 21, 2021
Agricultural workers in Jordan for the first time have fundamental protections on the job, including guarantees for safe and decent working conditions, following a two-year campaign by the Agricultural Workers Union in Jordan and its allies that resulted in passage of a historic regulation covering the agricultural sector.
“This is quite a landmark in Jordan. It’s the first time this type of legislation has passed,” says Hamada Abu Nijmeh, director of the Jordan-based Workers’ House for Studies. Under the regulation, any provision not mentioned falls under purview of national labor code.
The law applies to all workplaces that employ more than three agricultural workers, who now will receive 14 days annual paid leave and 14 days paid sick leave (or more, in cases of serious illness). Women are guaranteed 10 weeks paid maternity leave and there are now first-ever provisions for overtime pay. Significantly, the legislation also covers migrant agricultural workers, who frequently are not protected by countries’ labor laws.
COVID-19 Makes Visible Essential Workers
Agricultural workers in Jordan were key to developing the new labor regulation improving wages and working conditions.
Prior to passage of the regulation this month, there were no mandated safety inspections of farming facilities, leaving workers vulnerable to dangerous and unhealthy working conditions, such as exposure to poisonous pesticides. Agricultural workers, most of whom do not have formal labor contracts and are part of the country’s vast informal economy, were paid extremely low wages with no health insurance or other social protections. Working long hours, they were not guaranteed a day off during the week and not paid overtime. They were denied the freedom to form unions—the Agricultural Workers Union is not recognized by the government. Migrant workers still do not have the right to form unions under the new law.
Although a labor law covering agricultural workers was passed in 2008, the government never moved to put it in place, says Mithqal Zinati, union president. But as the COVID-19 pandemic highlighted essential workers like those who literally feed the world, the government became more receptive to the union’s campaign to ensure decent working conditions in the vineyards and fields.
“The agricultural sector is the food basket, the key source of stability that needs to be given priority to contribute to the stability of Jordanian state itself,” says Abu Nijmeh. “Part and parcel of that is to provide protection of workers. We told [the government] if you want to see this sector successful, you need to provide its protection.”
Abu Nijmeh and Zinati spoke with the Solidarity Center through interpreters.
Danger on the Job and Getting to Work
For Jordan’s 210,000 agricultural workers, more than half of whom are women, the day begins before dawn as they rush to meet the crowded trucks that transport them to the fields in the fertile Jordan Valley. Picking cucumbers, melons and okra in summer, citrus fruits in winter, the workers also weed fields, install water pipes and spray crops. They often are denied breaks, even as they work in the burning sun and harsh cold, and women have no access to toilets, leaving many with serious kidney issues and other illnesses, says Zinati. Just this week, a worker died of sun stroke in the fields, Zinati says.
Before they even arrive at the farms, women are subject to unsafe conditions on the packed vehicles they must use to get to work. Some 86 percent say they were involved in an accident on the commute, and 41percent say they are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence during the journey, according to a study by SADAQA, a nonprofit organization championing the rights of women in Jordan. SADAQA produced the study, “Women Agricultural Workers in the Jordan Valley: Conditions of Work and Commuting Experiences and Challenges,” with Solidarity Center support.
Twenty or more workers are packed in a van licensed for five passengers, sitting on top of each other and in the luggage compartment, says Zinati. The vans take back roads to avoid police because they are not licensed, or licensed only to transport crops and other goods, and workers frequently suffer injuries as the overcrowded vehicles crash on the rough roads. Because most women work in shifts, they must commute two times per day, says Randa Naffa, SADAQA co-founder, speaking through a translator.
Together with the Solidarity Center, SADAQA produced a video on the outcome of the study documenting the hazards women face commuting to the fields. SADAQA, part of the Alliance to End Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in the World of Work, is using the video to campaign for regulations covering agricultural transport. The alliance is pushing the government to ratify International Labor Organization Convention 190 on ending gender-based violence and harassment at work. Convention 190 makes clear that employers and governments must take measures to ensure workers are safe on their work commute as well as in the physical workspace.
Worker Involvement Key to New Regulation
Agricultural workers were key to designing the new regulation. Beginning in 2019, leaders at the union and the Workers’ House met with workers on the farms to determine their needs and priorities. With worker input forming the basis of the draft regulation, campaign leaders applied labor regulations and human rights provisions from international standards and legislation from other countries to create a model regulation. The Workers’ House and the Solidarity Center then organized a meeting of agricultural workers to discuss the draft again and plan campaign steps, including social media outreach.
They formed a coalition with civil society organizations to launch an advocacy campaign that included petitions and public statements to the Ministry of Labor and other government officials which, along with social media outreach to mobilize public support, was key to moving the government to pass the regulation protecting these essential workers.
“I heard from the Ministry of Labor they said they were listening to, keeping abreast of what was spread in the media,” says Abu Nijmeh.
“The regulation that has just been promulgated, we hope it will protect female workers in this sector and it is the opportunity to create the political will to recognize the importance of women’s contributions to the agriculture sector and the importance of women’s contributions to other informal sectors,” says Naffa.
Worker Education Essential for Success
Abu Nijmeh, Zinati and Naffa all emphasized the need to ensure implementation and enforcement of the new regulation, especially workplace inspection, safety and health and child labor. Under the new regulation, children younger than age 16 cannot work in agriculture and those between ages 16 and 18 can only be engaged in non-hazardous work.
The regulation “shall never be enforced without pushing,” says Naffa. “We need to lobby more, engage in campaigns, reach out to the Labor Ministry, the Transport Ministry.” Key to its success is widespread education of agricultural workers about their rights, says Zinati.
A long-time union organizer who began by unionizing court workers in Beirut, Lebanon, Zinati says union committees are now set up in every village, and literacy classes and other education opportunities are offered so workers can better champion their rights.
“If I see people who are done an injustice, who are oppressed, the only way for them to gain their rights is for them to unite,” he says. “This legislation opens the horizon so workers can play a bigger role in pushing their rights,” he says.
May 20, 2021
While most consumers do not think twice when they select tomatoes, grapes or other readily available fresh produce in grocery stores, many of the agricultural workers around the world who spend their days harvesting vegetables, fruits and grains to fill the plates of others often cannot afford enough to eat.
“Sometimes I might have enough money to buy bread from one of the street vendors; sometimes I might not,” says Mabrouka Yahyaoui, 73, who works in Tunisia’s agricultural fields.
Yahyaoui is among nearly 1.5 million agricultural workers in Tunisia, more than 600,000 of them women, who suffer from high heat in summer and cold rains in winter for more than 10 hours a day, for which their daily wages are between $5.50 and $6. They are forced to give a chunk of their pay for daily transport to the fields in rickety vehicles where women say they are packed together unsafely, subject to sexual harassment, injury and even death. Hundreds of agricultural workers are killed in Tunisia each year as they travel to and from the fields.
“On board the vehicle, we are crammed in like sacks of potatoes, and, worse, the men would be riding along with us,” says Afef Fayachi, a Tunisian agricultural worker. “They would touch us, use swear words, and utter obscenities. Men harass women in every way. And all we can do is suck it up and keep quiet.”
But with the support of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), agricultural workers in Tunisia are standing up for their rights to safe transport, fair wages and decent work.
‘Invisible’ Essential Workers Demand Safe Work
Despite lack of protections against COVID-19, agricultural workers like Yasmina Yahyaoui risked their lives to support their families.
While the world became aware of “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, many remain out of the public’s eye, struggling to support themselves with few protections against contracting COVID-19.
“I can’t afford to buy a face mask for four dinars [$1.67] on a daily basis,” says Mayya Fayachi, who, like most agricultural workers, had to risk her health to support her family. As Yasmina Yahyaoui says, “How are we going to make a living if we stay at home?”
In Siliāna, an agricultural town in northern Tunisia, the Federation of Agriculture, a UGTT affiliate, is assisting workers in understanding their right to safe transportation and social protections like safety and health measures to protect against the deadly pandemic. Together with the Solidarity Center, the union worked with the women there to create a video in which they describe the unsafe and dangerous conditions they endure to get to work and home.
“The pains, the grief and privations of these wonderful, hardworking women can be channeled, transformed, into a fabulous resistance and an overwhelming will to overcome,” says Kalthoum Barkallah, Solidarity Center senior program manager for North Africa, who has led the Solidarity Center’s outreach among agricultural workers.
The Tunisian government is taking action in response to the union campaign to improve transportation for agricultural workers.
The video is part of the union’s campaign to build public support for improving the working conditions of agricultural workers and to urge the government ensure decent transportation—for instance, by providing small business loans to local entrepreneurs to operate vehicles that meet safety standards. The new International Labor Organization (ILO) regulation (Convention 190), which covers gender-based violence and harassment at work, makes clear that employers and governments must take measures to ensure workers are safe on their work commute as well as in the physical workspace.
Since the campaign launched, the Minister of Transportation has begun work on formalizing agricultural worker transport and called on governors to form a regional advisory commission to create a new category of license permits for the agricultural sector.
The government and unions also met in March for a first-ever regional symposium organized by the Ministry of Social Affairs on social dialogue and employment relations in the agricultural sector.
Wage, Equity and Respect
The campaign builds on surveys of, and discussions with agricultural workers in Jandouba, Kasserine, Manouba, Sidi Bouzid, Siliāna and Sousse about the conditions they face on the job, including sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence.
Workers also have helped formulate bargaining proposals around wages and working conditions, mechanisms for dispute resolution, promotion of workplaces free of violence and harassment, as well as mechanisms for ongoing social dialogue at workplace level.
At the national level, UGTT and its civil society partners are pushing for enforcement of workplace safety inspections laws, which employers are legally obliged to undertake.
Women agriculture workers also point to the need to address disparate treatment in wages and job opportunities between men and women. “The number of daily hours a woman worker is supposed to work must be clear, and how much she gets paid for that work must be clear as well,” says one agricultural worker.”
“Why are men getting paid at least 25 dinars ($9-$10) while I get paid 15 dinars ($5.50), of which I have yet to pay for transportation?” asks Aziza Guesmi.
The bottom line, says Fayachi, is about respect: “I ask for nothing but my rights.”
Jan 17, 2020
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras are urging the government to drop all charges against Moisés Sánchez, safeguard his protection as a human rights defender under threat, and ensure he can freely exercise his union activities without violence or reprisal.
Sánchez, secretary general of the melon export branch of the Honduran agricultural workers’ union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS), is on trial January 22 for criminal charges without the right to appeal. He is charged with four counts related to “usurpation” for his community’s construction of an access road and faces a possible 30-year prison sentence.
In the southern community of La Permuta, 450 community members voted in 2018 to build a road allowing residents regular access to nearby towns after government officials documented that the land was publicly owned. Previously, La Permuta residents were unable to cross rivers during heavy rains to Choluteca, where many work in the melon fields.
More than a year after the road was built, a land owner claimed the land as her property and pressed criminal charges. Five elected community leaders have been charged. Sánchez is the only grassroots community member not part of the elected leadership who was charged for the road construction. The Network believes Sánchez is being targeted for his role in seeking decent wages and working conditions for agricultural workers, moves often violently opposed by their multinational employers. The Network fears he would face violence and possible death if imprisoned.
In 2017, Sánchez and his brother, union member Misael Sánchez, were attacked by six men wielding machetes as they left the union office in Choluteca. The company later fired him in what union leaders say is retaliation for his efforts to improve working conditions through a union. Sánchez is among those listed by the International Labor Organization (ILO) as requiring protection from the Honduran government, and as a documented victim of anti-union violence, the Network says that the state has an obligation to protect human rights defenders and should not permit these attacks on their lives and liberty.
Violence Against Union Leaders Frequent Yet Unpunished
The Network’s most recent report on union violence, released in August, finds agricultural worker activists represented three quarters of the victims of anti-union violence in Honduras between February 2018 and February 2019. Yet according to the Network, no arrests were made in 60 cases of anti-union violence in the past three years.
Melon workers on plantations across the Choluteca region have long endured worker rights abuses. After they sought to improve their working conditions by forming unions in 2016 with STAS, a FESTAGRO affiliate, employers intimidated and illegally fired many workers, despite Honduran law and international conventions making it illegal to retaliate against workers for organizing unions to protect their rights on the job.
The ILO held back-to-back hearings at the International Labor Conferences (ILC) in 2018 and 2019 on Honduras’s failure to abide by its international commitments. The ILC report in 2018, which expressed “deep concern at the large number of anti-union crimes, including many murders and death threats, committed since 2010,” urged the Honduran government to protect vulnerable unionists, investigate more than a decade of unsolved murders of union leaders and prosecute those responsible for the crimes.
In 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed a complaint under the labor chapter of Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The complaint, filed with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs, alleges the Honduran government failed to enforce worker rights under its labor laws. In an October 2018 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office said Honduras had made no progress on any of the emblematic cases since 2012.