Daw Tin Tin Thein, 43, works in a factory just outside Yangon, Myanmar’s capital, where workers ground and mold clay for building materials like floor and roof tiles. Thien, a janitor, beams with pride when she describe how she is responsible for “keeping the factory clean and tidy.”
As a member of the Confederation of Trade Unions-Myanmar (CTUM), she says workers receive social security benefits and have access to educational opportunities.
Thein is among workers whose unions and associations the Solidarity Center works with around the world—and she tells her story at the Solidarity Center Workers Equality Forum.
At the Workers Equality Forum, domestic workers from Kenya, garment workers from Cambodia, factory workers in Honduras and many others share their struggles on the job and often, how they are winning rights on the job through their unions.
In Mombasa, Kenya, a labor broker offered Frank Wetindi a job in Dubai as a driver. Wetindi went into debt to pay the broker, but was given a job unloading planes in brutal heat, for a salary far less than he was promised.
Living with eight men crammed in one room, Wetinidi says the experience overall “was not good.” When he became sick and went to the hospital, the employer deducted the cost from his salary, leaving him with nothing in his account. He says he was denied “freedom of workshop, freedom of movement and freedom of communication.”
Labor agencies “lie to [migrant workers about] the job they are going to do, the good salaries and all that. On arrival, you find something else,” he says.
In Cambodia’s booming construction industry, where up to 250,000 workers toil on building projects during peak season, laborers wear sandals or flip-flops and cloth gloves, if they have gloves at all, their heads covered only with towels or soft hats they bring to work.
One-third are women, who receive lower wages and are limited to the least skilled tasks that offer no opportunities for training and advancement. These construction workers risk their lives each day on the job, scaling tall structures without harnesses, helmets or other safety equipment and often are not paid for weeks. Their wages are disproportionately lower than the wages of foreign workers. At one site, for instance, a foreign worker receives $1,000 per month with a $300 allowance while his Cambodian colleagues receive between $160 and $240 a month.
Cambodia’s construction industry is one of the fastest growing sources of employment. In 2015, construction became the most dynamic driver of the country’s gross domestic product (GDP), outpacing the country’s garment and footwear industries. Corporations from China, South Korea, Japan, and Thailand—at least 18 countries in all—have directed 284 projects, a construction area nearly five square miles worth $4.3 billion, between 2000 and August 2016.
Cambodia Workers Have Little Freedom to Form Unions
The country’s lack of a labor inspection system to ensure compliance with national labor law allows employers to avoid receiving fines or other punitive measures when workers are injured on the job or are paid subminimum wages. As a result, construction workers do not have access to fundamental workplace rights like safety equipment, as stipulated in the country’s labor laws. Workers also receive little or no safety training.
“Based on a report we conducted in 2015, we discovered that more than 2,000 construction workers have been injured on construction sites,” says Yann Thy, secretary-general of Building and Wood Workers Trade Union Federation of Cambodia (BWTUC). “Out of this figure, 36 died.”
Yet when they seek to form unions and improve their working conditions, they often suffer retaliation, violence and imprisonment, as do garment workers and other workers across Cambodia, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
A 2016 trade union law further limits workers’ ability to negotiate over their working conditions and pay. Cambodia is now one of 10 countries ranked the worst for working people, according to the ITUC’s annual Global Rights Index.
Despite the obstacles, BWTUC, assisted by the global union, Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), the Solidarity Center and other international rights organizations, assist construction workers across Cambodia to form unions, enabling workers to break the cycle of poverty perpetuated by low-wage, dangerous jobs.
From $1 a Day to $15 a Day with a Union
Angkor Archaeological Park generates $63.6 million in ticket sales but reconstruction workers are paid as little as $1 a day. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jennifer Bogar
When tourists enter Cambodia’s massive Angkor Archaeological Park, they are greeted by stunning temples carved with intricate sculptures built for the Khmer Empire, ruler of a large portion of Southeast Asia between the ninth and 15th centuries. Spreading over 154 square miles, the complex contains hundreds of buildings and monuments that had long decayed in disrepair.
Many buildings have now been restored, and while tourists encounter ancient structures resembling their original state, they are less likely to notice the construction workers laboring in often brutally hot conditions to make tourists’ trips Facebook friendly.
As a World Heritage site, Angkor is covered by United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) restoration and conservation guidelines which provide for architectural and environmental safeguards—but include no such protections for workers.
Chhen Sophal worked for years on the massive Baphuon Temple, eating little for lunch and dinner so he would have enough money to support his family.
With support of a union federation that later merged into BWTUC, and the global union movement, the workers held an official union election and ultimately negotiated with their employer, raising wages to $15 a day and securing payment in dollars, which are more easily exchangeable than the Cambodian riel. Through ongoing pressure, they also ensured their employer keep its commitments to provide health care, workplace safety improvements and full implementation of 18 days paid annual leave.
Yet Chhen Sophal, who was a union leader at the site, knows that hundreds of thousands of construction workers across Cambodia still receive below-poverty wages, and he seeks to improve conditions beyond his workplace.
“In the future, I hope that we will be able to push for a sector minimum wage for the restoration workers,” he said through a translator. “I want to stand up for wages for next generation—even outside of restoration and construction sector.” Chhen Sophal says he wants to ensure that if his children become construction or restoration workers, they will receive decent wages and their workplaces will be safe.
Construction workers in Peru are celebrating a new contract that significantly improves wages and benefits, and are hailing a new legislative order, which in part addresses ongoing violence against union members in the building and construction trades.
The new one-year contract gives workers up to a 5 percent wage increase and includes education benefits for workers’ children up to age 22. Construction workers also will receive bonuses for hazardous work, time off when working more than 27 consecutive days on a project, and an additional 25 percent of their wage when working at night.
The FTCCP also negotiated an agreement with the Peruvian Chamber of Construction to conduct free professional training courses at the federation’s training and recreation centers in conjunction with the National Training System for the Construction Sector Ministry of Labor and Employment Promotion.
“The collective bargaining agreement benefits the workers, democracy and the country,” La Federación de Trabajadores en Construcción Civil de Perú (Federation of Civil Construction Workers of Peru, FTCCP) said in a statement.
With the new contract, FTCCP members’ average base pay will be $750 per month, and up to $1,250 per month with overtime. The vast majority of Peru’s workers, 70 percent, are employed in small and micro enterprises where workers generally earn a $250 per month minimum wage. Approximately half of workers in the construction sector are union members. Non-union workers can request “me too” clauses for their individual contracts that bring them up to the union wage scale.
In another sign of construction workers’ growing influence, Peru’s executive branch published a legislative decree in mid-August that charges police special units with preventing violence against construction workers.
More than a dozen construction union leaders have been murdered in the past five years, most recently last month, when Miguel Cotelo Villanueva was murdered leaving a union organizing meeting in Casma, Peru.
In addition, the decree takes steps to ensure safety and health on construction sites by requiring local governments to notify the police when construction permits have been filed, enabling timely workplace inspection and enforcement of labor and safety standards.
The decree also mandates that union dues must be paid by the employer into the union’s financial institution.
The FTCCP is a member of the Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú (General Confederation of Workers in Peru, CGTP), both Solidarity Center allies.
One construction union leader was killed and another injured as the men left a union organizing meeting in Casma, Peru, this week.
Miguel Cotelo Villanueva, a member of the Federación de Trabajadores en Construcción Civil de Perú (Federation of Civil Construction Workers of Peru, FTCCP), Peru’s largest construction union, is the most recent of 14 construction union leaders murdered in the past five years. Victor Rodas, another FTCCP union leader, was murdered on July 10 in similar circumstances.
Union leaders say the violence stems from groups that have set up fake construction unions and are waging attacks on FTCCP leaders and members if they do not participate in their extortion schemes. According to FTCCP Social Security Secretary Félix Rosales, Cotelo and FTCCP General Secretary Silvestre José Mota, who was injured in the attack with Cotelo, received death threats by phone and text after they refused to take part in extortion activities.
STCCLB leaders are sworn in to office after a union election. Credit: Solidarity Center/Samantha Tate
The FTCCP is a member of the Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú (General Confederation of Workers in Peru, CGTP), and both are calling for a meeting with government officials and employers to address the issue of fake unions, and are asking the Ministry of Labor to remove the fake unions from its records.
Buenaventura Vera Perez, secretary-general of the Lima and Environs union (STCCLB), says the violence is in part a campaign to eliminate collective bargaining rights, because the FTCCP and its affiliates are the only unions that negotiate collectively.
“There is no political will to end the violence,” Buenaventura says. “Authorities say that they don’t know where the guilty parties are, which is ridiculous. We have given the police names. Until when do we have to live with this constant threat?”
Perez made his remarks yesterday at a swearing-in ceremony for STCCLB leaders, who were elected after 4,370 construction workers cast their votes in democratic elections
Also speaking at the ceremony, CGTP Vice President Juan José Gorritti says that while the government sends police to target and even assault anti-mining protestors, the government does not dispatch the officers to address the violence in the construction industry and ensure safety for the workers.