Labor leaders, policymakers and stakeholders from around the world discussed efforts to prevent gender-based violence and harassment at the workplace at a panel discussion, “Ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work” on Thursday, April 7. The panel was part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Global Deal conference, “A Better Future for Essential Workers.”
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Sabina Dewan, president and executive director of the JustJobs Network moderated the panel. Speakers included: Philippe Symons, Sodexo chief ethics officer; Claudio Moroni, Argentina Minister of labor, employment and social security; Sandra Hassan, Canada deputy minister of labor; Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director; Frances Onokpe, Federation of Informal Workers Organization of Nigeria program officer; and Joaquin Pérez Rey, Spain’s vice minister for employment and social security.
Moroni began the discussion by describing Argentina’s efforts to address workplace violence and harassment. “Argentina has a long history of confronting violence and harassment in the workplace,” Moroni said. “The labor ministry believes there’s no such thing as an effective standard unless it includes behavioral results.”
To that end, Moroni said the ministry is working with female union leaders to include language in collective bargaining agreements to counter violence and develop a law to regulate the implementation of International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) in Argentina. Moroni closed his remarks by re-emphasizing the importance of concrete results. “Laws are not effective unless they are translated into concrete action. We are working to make sure these efforts are translated into specific conduct.”
Hassan said that Canada is in the process of C190, “One of our priorities is to continue making sure workplaces are safe and inclusive for everyone,” she said. “The ratification of C190 is a top priority of the government of Canada.” A year ago, Canada brought forth groundbreaking legislation to prevent violence and harassment in federal workplaces. “We also developed a fund that supports partner organization projects that develop sector-specific tools and practices to prevent violence and harassment in the workplace,” Hassan said.
Bader-Blau described the Solidarity Center’s partnership with Lesotho-based trade unions and women’s rights groups, global fashion brands and international rights organizations to secure a safe and dignified workplace for women employed in the country’s predominantly female garment sector. The partnership resulted in a precedent-setting program to comprehensively address rampant gender-based violence and harassment in garment factories. The program was established by two negotiated and enforceable agreements to mandate education and awareness trainings for all employees and managers, an independent reporting and monitoring system, and remedies for abusive behavior.
“These agreements were signed among apparel brands to combat violence and harassment in Lesotho’s garment sector,” Bader-Blau said. “The agreements link businesses to a commitment to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment.
“The program is also focused on culture change,” Bader-Blau said. “Thousands of workers have participated in two-day training sessions about gender-based violence and harassment.” As part of the program, Workers Rights Watch “trains intake counselors who listen with empathy and are empowered to take action.” As a result, “workers are starting to believe that employers are committed to ending gender-based violence and harassment. “The lesson we learned is that worker-led solutions matter.”
Bader-Blau also described what’s needed to replicate the success in Lesotho. “We need to move from good global framework agreements to negotiated solutions that hold suppliers and buyers accountable, not voluntary codes of conduct. We need to hear from global brands if that’s what they want to do. We need to invest in systems that recognize that abuse is common, and we need to invest in systems that establish third-party interventions.”
The Global Deal is a multi-stakeholder initiative for social dialogue and inclusive growth–a partnership of governments, businesses and employers’ organizations, trade unions, civil society and other organizations. The aim of the Global Deal partnership is to benefit from and contribute to, a platform that highlights the value of social dialogue and strengthens existing cooperation structures.
Unions in Mexico and throughout Latin America are speaking out against anti-union violence in the wake of threats made against two women leading efforts to win a historic union election. Voting began yesterday and continues today at a pickup truck plant in Silao, Mexico. Over 6,000 workers have the chance to elect an independent union and enjoy real collective bargaining for the first time ever. Labor leaders and activists from Mexico, Brazil, the United States and Canada demonstrated outside the plant in support of the democratic union. Other unions in the region sent solidarity messages and letters to the Mexican government denouncing the threats.
In August, workers at the Silao plant voted to throw out the contract held by the Confederation of Mexican Workers (CTM) for the last 25 years. The National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA), supported by the Solidarity Center, emerged from a popular movement urging workers to reject the CTM contract. In a three-year struggle, SINTTIA built a sizable following, leading efforts to throw out the sham contract and increasing its chances of winning today’s election.
However, independent labor activists face threats of violence. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened SINTTIA leader María Alejandra Morales Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote.
“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.
Later, Claudia Juárez López, SINTTIA secretary, and her family received threats through Facebook and WhatsApp.
Argentina’s Women’s Council of Union Power issued a statement calling on the Mexican government to take measures to protect the safety of union activists and their families; conduct a “comprehensive, exhaustive and impartial investigation” into the threats and identify those responsible; and take steps to ensure the integrity of the election and prevent harassment, threats and intimidation of union workers voting in the election.
In Honduras, the Network Against Anti-Union Violence sent a letter to the Mexico Consulate in San Pedro Sula, requesting that the government guarantee the integrity of the election and the lives and safety of labor activists.
The Network of Labor Rights Defenders of Guatemala issued a statement that read in part, “We call on Mexican authorities to guarantee a favorable environment for workers to freely express their choice of union representative without fear.”
#SomosSINTTIA | All our solidarity with the @SINTTIA (Mexico) and the companions Alejandra and Claudia, leading women who together with their families have been death threats in the framework of a process for the choice of representation.
The Nicaragua Domestic Workers Federation posted a statement in support labor activists, saying, “We position ourselves against all kinds of violence suffered by the members of the Union, we request that the will of the workers of the plant be respected.”
Brazil’s Central Única Dos Trabalhadores (CUT) issued a statement demanding protective measures from the government, stating, “an independent union that obtains its power from workers is necessary to build a future for their families and all Mexican workers.”
Clément Voule, UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of association and peaceful assembly, tweeted in response to reports of threats against union activists in Mexico.
1/2 #Mexico I received disturbing reports of death threats against ind. trade union leaders, both women, and their families in connection to an imminent vote at the GM assembly plant in #Silao following 3 yrs of struggle for an independent union & collective bargaining agreement.
2/2 #Mexico An election for union representation cannot be carried out in the context of threats and intimidation. I call on the Mexican authorities to ensure an environment conducive for the 6,000 workers to freely express their choice of union rep without fear. @STPS_mx
This is the first high-stakes union election brought about after Mexican workers rejected a sham contract. A 2019 Mexican labor law reform required by a trade deal with Canada and the United States aims to challenge the power of labor organizations that have long signed deals without workers’ knowledge or consent. The reform requires contract “legitimation” votes to occur before May 2023, creating an opening for representative unions.
For decades, Mexican workers have had little to no say in which unions represented them. “Protection unions” have drawn their power from alliances with politicians and employers, whom they placated by keeping wages low, while collecting dues and accumulating wealth and power. The CTM formed part of Mexico’s ruling party. Its leaders signed contracts with companies before plants were even opened, and kept workers in the dark about the union and its negotiations.
Mexican auto workers earn a fraction of what their American, Argentine, Brazilian or Canadian counterparts make. They earn much less than the few Mexican autoworkers who are members of independent unions. Low wages spurred an exodus of investment, auto plants and jobs from other countries in the Americas to Mexico. A victory for SINTTIA could mark the beginning of a fundamental shift, keeping wages from bottoming out for workers in many countries in the region.
Informal workers are routinely excluded from economic and political decision-making, and their work is systematically devalued and made invisible. The COVID-19 pandemic has only intensified these dynamics and has resulted in skyrocketing rates of domestic violence, bringing a renewed urgency to address poverty, exclusion and precarious work.
Labor leaders, organizers and advocates from around the world gathered on December 2 for a virtual panel discussion of the impact of gender-based violence and harassment (GVBH) on workers in the informal economy. The discussion was sponsored by the Global 16 Days Campaign (coordinated by Center for Women’s Global Leadership), Global Alliance of Wastepickers, HomeNet International, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), Solidarity Center, StreetNet International and Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO).
Robin Runge, Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Department co-director, moderated the panel, which included: Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO); Carmen Britez, vice president, International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF); Janhavi Dave, international coordinator, HomeNet International; Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA) and a SEWA homeworker; and Saraswati Rijal, central committee member, Independent Transport Workers Association of Nepal (ITWAN).
Chidi King, branch chief, Gender, Equality, Diversity and Inclusion, International Labor Organization (ILO)
Chidi King framed the discussion, citing the themes and issues to be addressed. “As we all know, violence and harassment in the world of work is a manifestation of the societal issue that has deep roots in the continued tolerance of violence and harassment,” King said, “particularly towards women and population groups that too often find themselves on the margins of society.”
Women workers, who make up the majority of informal economy workers in many countries, are disproportionately affected. “Violence and harassment have deep roots in social norms and stereotypes,” King said, “especially around the roles assigned to men and women.
“And as a connection to inequality and discrimination suggests,” King added, “violence and harassment is also deeply rooted in unequal power relations, and the abuse thereof, in our societies, as in the world of work.” Thus workers play an important role in addressing and remedying violence and harassment, including addressing the impacts of domestic violence in the world of work.
ILO Convention 190 (C190) protects all workers and recognizes that for many the workplace is not an office or factory setting, but can be a public space or private. C190 protects informal economy workers, who work in their own homes or the homes of others, and recognizes the impact of domestic violence in their workplaces.
However, many countries’ laws do not recognize homes as workplaces, leaving many workers in the informal economy lacking protection against violence and harassment and without access to social safety nets. During the COVID-19 pandemic, informal workers have experienced high rates of domestic violence and difficulty accessing social support services that have been put on hold.
Saraswati Rijal spoke about working with women tuk-tuk drivers in Nepal to build support for women workers during the pandemic and supporting victims of domestic violence. COVID-19 has only made conditions worse, as women workers are forced to choose between their and their families’ health or earning an income and risking being subjected to unnecessary hazards.
Workers in the informal sector “do not have any economic security,” Rijal said. “And moreover, due to COVID-19, they are deprived of their daily wages, and they are also unable to earn their living and sustain their livelihood.”
Carmen Britez spoke of IDWF’s work with the Ministry of Labor in Argentina to develop exclusive protection for domestic workers around domestic violence. Domestic workers suffer not just from not having registered employment, but from also having no protection against violence. Britez said that lockdowns during the COVID-19 pandemic have forced many domestic workers to be shut in with their abusers.
Argentina ratified C190 in November 2020. Britez emphasized C190’s role as a tool to push for national legislation: “We were pushing for this convention so that it could become another tool in changing national law. If we have laws that protect us around violence, we want something that would not only include specific sectors but all sectors at a national level. Because that’s really important for us as women workers.”
“It’s also important to say this is not just an issue facing women. “We do account for the majority of those who are suffering from this kind of violence,” Britez added. “But it also is important for us to let our [union] leadership, who are often men, to let them know that it’s also their responsibility to push for a national law on this topic.”
To underscore the urgency of the issue, Britez shared that during her remarks her center received news of a woman whose employer broke her wrist.
Janhavi Dave spoke of the scale of the problem of domestic violence and its impact on women workers. “According to one of the recent ILO studies, there are over 260 million home-based workers, which is around 8 percent of global employment. This was prior to the pandemic, and this number has only increased,” Dave said. “According to the same study, 56 percent of home-based workers are women. So we’re actually talking about a huge section of women workers.”
HomeNet South Asia, a regional organization, conducted a study on the impact of domestic violence on home-based workers in Nepal, and is conducting similar studies in Bangladesh, India and Pakistan. “One of the key findings was that home-based workers faced rampant domestic violence,” Dave said, “which has a direct impact not only on physical and emotional health but also on productivity.”
Sonia George, general secretary, Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA)
SEWA’s Sonia George introduced a traditional bamboo worker, who shared her experience as the sole earner for her family, which included her husband and their two children. Her husband, she said, was supportive in the beginning of the marriage, but became physically violent after he was out of work. Sibimol was forced to leave her traditional job and go to work in a latex factory in order to earn a livelihood and escape domestic violence at home.
“This is the experience of most of the women in India,” George said after Sibimol shared her story. “We know that most of these women have experienced domestic violence. One of the statistics states that during the time of COVID, domestic violence has increased 2.5 times. That means women in India are suffering that much more violence.”
Lorraine Sibanda shared how COVID-19 also worsened conditions for women workers in Zimbabwe. “The pandemic exposed adverse challenges for women,” Sibanda said, “because they are performing unpaid care work, domestic care work, on top of providing for their families.” Measures to control the spread of COVID-19 compromised livelihoods and increased economic strain on families supported by the informal economy.
Lockdowns and restrictions also increased rates of domestic violence. “It meant that women and girls were locked down in their homes,” Sibanda said. “They were forced to spend time enclosed with families, and possibly many were trapped at home with their abusers.”
Married and partnered women also faced physical violence from husbands and male partners for refusing to hand over their earnings. “They would be abused physically because they refused to hand over money, which they’ve been working for, to their partners, so that their partners could either go for a drink or use that money,” Sibanda said. She also suggested that Zimbabwe had seen an increase in child marriage. ”There was this rampant trait of people marrying off children in order to gain economically.
“All in all, the pandemic amplified the vulnerability of women and girls,” Sibanda concluded.
Construction unions and migrant workers met this week in Costa Rica. Photo coursesy of BWI.
This week, eight construction union federation from six South and Central American countries came together in Costa Rica to focus on migrant workers and the issues they face in order to help migrants working in construction to organize and to improve union capacity to expand worker rights for migrant and native workers alike.
The seminar, jointly assembled by the Solidarity Center and Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), allowed union representatives the opportunity to present best practices for organizing migrant workers and to speak directly with Nicaraguan day laborers who also are active members of the Costa Rican BWI affiliate, SUNTRACS. Union leaders heard firsthand accounts of the daily challenges that Nicaraguan migrants face on the job and in Costa Rican society in general, where discrimination—including denial of treatment by the national health service for work-related injuries and receiving salaries that are below the national minimum wage—is a fact of life.
According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than 5 million people currently live and work in Latin American countries other than those in which they were born. Once a phenomenon almost exclusively restricted to developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere, positive trends in economic growth and job creation have converted numerous Latin American countries—such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica—into attractive destinations for migrant workers over the last decade. Nonetheless, the promise of decent employment in these countries in sectors including construction, domestic work and agroindustry has remained elusive, particularly for workers without solid knowledge of their own labor rights enshrined by national law and international norms.
On a regional level, BWI and its affiliates have helped migrant workers obtain legal migratory status and advocated for more transparent national immigration policies. Most importantly, they have organized protest actions against insecure work environments, long working hours and wage irregularities for migrant workers.
BWI has seen positive results from its outreach efforts to migrant workers. “Objective economic conditions in Latin America have given new life to construction unions in the Southern Cone. The current construction boom in Brazil, for example, parallels what we saw in countries like the United States and Spain before the 2008 economic crisis,” said Nilton Freitas, BWI regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Using this new leverage and employing better forms of cooperation among our affiliates, we now are in a more advantageous position to prevent migrant workers from being treated as second-class citizens in the construction sector in those countries.”
The Solidarity Center and Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) have been working together over the last three years to promote innovative policies to improve union outreach and organization of migrant workers in the civil construction sector in Latin America. BWI’s pioneering role in the defense of immigrants who have sacrificed all to construct soccer stadiums in Brazil, skyscrapers in Singapore and offshore oil rigs in the Arabian Gulf was recently recognized by the AFL-CIO as the 2014 recipient of its prestigious George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.
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