Hundreds of thousands of workers and their unions around the world marked International Workers Day May 1. For many, the day provided a time to push for living wages and safe workplaces. Yet this year, governments in some countries like Bahrain and Swaziland banned May Day celebrations or threatened workers with retaliation if they turned out—and some brave workers defied these edicts to exercise their freedom to gather in public spaces.
Elsewhere, workers like those in Bangladesh who often are prevented from forming unions or exercising their fundamental worker rights, called for the freedom to join unions and correct workplace injustices.
Sumi Begum, 25, a Bangladeshi garment worker, says that she and other workers at her factory have not received salaries or overtime pay for the past two months, but they cannot raise the issue with the manager because they fear they would be terminated if they did so.
“Garment factories that have union are not facing these kinds of problems,” she says. “The condition of those garment industries is much better than ours.”
One year after the General Autonomous Confederation for Algerian Workers (Confédération Générale Autonome des Travailleurs Algériens, CGATA), submitted a registration application to the government, the national federation of autonomous unions still is waiting for its application to be confirmed. According to Algerian law, CGATA should have been granted full legal status within 30 days.
The International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF) is campaigning in support of CGATA and calling for activists around the world to send a message to the Algerian Labor Minister and other government officials: Register CGATA without delay and stop violating the human rights of Algerian workers. The message is in French, followed by English.
“Workers in Algeria are stymied at every turn when they try to form independent unions and act collectively,” according to a recent Human Rights Watch report. “The government punishes peaceful protesters and strikers, including with retaliatory suspensions or dismissals from public service jobs, and arbitrarily arrests and prosecutes union activists on politically motivated charges.”
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In Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, women are taking concrete steps through unions to achieve social and economic justice and decent work, achievements possible when women are substantively involved in decision-making in their unions, their community and civil society.
In Algeria, the Women’s Committee of the Syndicat National Autonome des Personnels de l’Administration Publique (SNAPAP) has reached out to 600 marginalized and vulnerable women across 11 provinces through educational outreach and study circles. SNAPAP leadership recognizes that despite women’s active social and economic participation, they still face blatant discrimination in their workplaces and communities, harassment, violence, and exploitation on the job.
The Women’s Committee runs study circles with the Regional Algerian Women’s Legal Empowerment Network and with support from the Solidarity Center. During study sessions, the women learn their legal rights under national laws and international conventions. They also are supported in overcoming fears that keep them from challenging repression and violations of their rights, even those often condoned by their societies.
Amid ongoing global economic insecurity, millions of workers are struggling to find jobs that pay a living wage—and the most vulnerable are women, who are more likely to toil in jobs without coverage under formal labor law or social protections, leaving them open to discrimination and exploitation.
The study circles provide a safe place where women can freely talk about their experiences. In recent months, they have described ongoing exploitation in the workplace and at home. All have detailed low wages, long working hours, abusive transfers and dismissals, discrimination, sexual harassment, physical violence and a lack of social protection.
A woman union activist from Adrar, in southwest Algeria, describes how women workers struggle economically in the region, despite the country’s oil and gas wealth. To survive in Adrar, some women work in stone quarries using their bare hands to fill trucks with rocks and gravel for private sellers. Three women recently died from dehydration.
“Surprisingly, all the basic rights that women should enjoy, such as health coverage and decent living wages, are not being enjoyed by women of the south. Some women tried to change their situation through training, but their certificate of completion was rejected by all the businesses and enterprises in the south, which led women to be marginalized,” said the activist. She added that the women, “work in an unsafe environment and are vulnerable to harassment.”
In Tunisia, where women are playing a key role in enshrining articles in the constitution that guarantee equality and parity, women in the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (General Union of Tunisian Workers, UGTT) are now working to advance women’s roles in their union. They are uniting under the theme, “Partners in social activism, partners in decision-making,” to highlight their essential role in the country’s 2010–2011 uprising and the subsequent democratic transition. UGTT women are campaigning for creation of a quota that would ensure women comprise a minimum percentage of elected officers and members of UGTT decision-making bodies.
Women union members also have been active in UGTT’s push to remove all of the country’s reservations to the United Nations on the Convention on the Elimination on all Forms of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW). These reservations had enabled Tunisia to opt out of certain provisions, including women’s rights within the family, even though the country had ratified the treaty.
The Confederation Democratique du Travail (Democratic Labor Confederation, CDT) in Morocco is laying the groundwork for a gender advocacy campaign to ensure the consistent application and enforcement of women’s rights. The CDT’s Women’s Committee is laying the groundwork to “give more visibility to the demands of women workers.” The CDT released a memorandum, “Work is a right, with guaranteed dignity and equality,” at a well-attended press conference last month and plans a coordinated workers’ advocacy campaign for women workers.
Seventeen workers who were suspended from their jobs in November 2013 at a cement plant in Oggaz, Algeria, have started a hunger strike to campaign for their rights.
In late 2013, the French Lafarge cement group took over the cement factory in Oggaz, in Western Algeria, and the company immediately set about restructuring and downsizing the operation. Workers attempted to resolve the matter through collective negotiation but were not successful. Then, despite record productivity, when the company unilaterally decided to reduce the bonus payments, the workers designated six workers to represent their grievances to management and staged a protest action. These six workers were immediately suspended. A collective work stoppage ensued, and company management retaliated by suspending an additional 11 workers.
The provisions of the cement workers collective agreement covering the application of the disciplinary process for suspended workers have been ignored. Despite repeated assurances, public authorities have so far refused to engage and resolve the matter.
The Lafarge cement workers reached out to the autonomous union SNAPAP for support, and their case has been documented by the Algerian press. On March 9, 2014, the 17 suspended workers started a hunger strike to bring attention to their illegal suspension and the gross violation of their human rights. “We are calling on the solidarity of workers everywhere and especially the global union federations IndustriALL and Building and Wood Workers International (BWI) to denounce both the silence and the indifference of the Algerian authorities in this matter” said Salim Mechri, a member of SNAPAP’s Executive Bureau.
The autonomous Algerian Trade Union Confederation—the Confédération Générale Autonome des Travailleurs en Algerie (CGATA), or Autonomous General Algerian Workers Confederation—filed a complaint with the International Labor Organization (ILO).
The complaint says the Algerian government’s failure to recognize the union in accordance with the 30-day window as provided for by Algerian law is a violation of the country’s obligations under ILO Convention 87, the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize.
The IUF, the global union of food, farm and hotel workers, is hosting an online campaign condemning “acts of intimidation and harassment regularly experienced by independent unionists because of their activities aimed at defending trade union rights in Algeria.”
You can show solidarity with the autonomous Algerian trades’ union movement by sending a message of support through the IUF.