The garment industry tends to invest where the rule of law is weakest, where there are sizable degrees of poverty and a degree of impunity, said the Solidarity Center’s David Welsh on the podcast, “On the Level with Jeff Hutton,” With the advent of the pandemic, millions of workers are left without wages and economic and job security–and the blame lies with the brands, he said. (Starts at minute 19:30)
“Migrant workers have been left aside by governments who have relied on them to do dangerous jobs that have become even more dangerous during this crisis,” reports David Welsh, Solidarity Center’s Southeast Asia country director.
More than 500 political, civil leaders, Nobel Laureates and pro-democracy institutions—including the Solidarity Center—are calling for the defense of democracy and warning that fundamental freedoms are under threat from governments using the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten their grip on power.
In a letter released today, the signatories from around the world and a broad political spectrum said, “Repression will not help to control the pandemic. Silencing free speech, jailing peaceful dissenters, suppressing legislative oversight and indefinitely canceling elections all do nothing to protect public health. On the contrary, these assaults on freedom, transparency and democracy will make it more difficult for societies to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis through both government and civic action.”
The pandemic and the global movement for racial equality have demonstrated that “democracy is more important than ever,” the group said in a press release. “Democracy allows for civil society to mobilize, for inequalities to be confronted, for policy issues to be openly debated, for trustworthy information to freely flow, and governments to be accountable to citizens—all essential tools for successfully dealing with the current public health emergency and its consequences.”
They added that the key elements of liberal democracy—credible and free flowing information, fact-based debate about policy options, voluntary self-organization of civil society and open engagement between government and society—are vital to combating the pandemic. When voices are suppressed, “the results can be deadly, not for just one country but for the entire world.”
Workers at the Myan Mode garment factory in Myanmar (Burma) are celebrating the return to the job of many recently fired union members.
Following a two-month fight against the factory’s attempt to use COVID-19 to destroy their union, they won an agreement May 30 that immediately reinstates 25 fired union members and brings back within two months 50 workers who joined strikes to protest the employer’s actions. It also guarantees the recall of hundreds of other fired union members when operations return to normal as the pandemic eases.
In March, Myan Mode permanently fired all 520 union members working in the Yangon factory, citing a decrease in orders due to COVID-19. Yet the owners retained more than 700 non-union workers and continued to operate the factory. The workers were fired minutes after union leaders held a contentious meeting with management in which they demanded an end to mandatory overtime due to fear of contracting COVID-19.
The move has been repeated around the world by employers seeking to use the novel coronavirus pandemic as a means to eliminate unions and weaken workplace rights. In a key provision of the new agreement, the employer agrees to not break the union and that “no discrimination against the union shall occur for any reason.”
“This was not an easy fight,” says Mg Moe, general secretary of the factory-level union, which is affiliated to the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM). “We wanted all our unfairly dismissed union brothers and sisters to be immediately reinstated.”
During negotiations with the union, factory management repeatedly resisted retrenchment plans that would not discriminate against union members. Myanmar authorities and global apparel brands doing business with Myan Mode failed to compel the factory to do otherwise, despite the company’s actions having violated labor law and the brands’ ethical codes of conduct.
‘Our Union Members Stood Strong’
“The central factor in our victory was that our members stood strong”, says Moe Sandar Myint, a union leader at FGWM. “Although we could not achieve full justice, the employer and the brands could no longer ignore our demands entirely. Our workplace union fought doggedly to win the survival of our union, and we now live to fight another day.”
The workers conducted ongoing actions to protest the dismissals, initially staging a five-day sit down at the factory gates but switching to creative uses of social media as authorities banned gatherings due to COVID-19 concerns. Their sustained efforts garnered international media attention and solidarity support from worker advocates around the world, including the Solidarity Center.
“We are also fighting against union-busting in other factories that supply clothes to the same brands that do business with Myan Mode,” says Moe Sandar Myint. “These brands promise to uphold worker rights in their contracts with their factory suppliers but we see little action from them to enforce those commitments. We will continue to struggle against injustice using strong unions in the factories and international solidarity, and will not rest until the entire garment industry is humane for workers.”
To ensure the agreement at Myan Mode is honored, the company has agreed to form a monitoring committee with a third party that is neither the company nor the union. The committee, created in consultation with nongovernmental organizations that include the Solidarity Center, will assess whether laws and company regulations are being followed as dismissed workers are rehired, and it will operate until at least the end of 2020.
Among the world’s most vulnerable workers are those marginalized within their economies and societies, namely the women and labor migrants who predominate in the informal economy, where they perform valuable work in low-wage jobs as janitors, domestic workers, agricultural workers, home healthcare workers, market vendors, day laborers and others. Today, many of these workers are on the coronavirus front lines, risking their health without benefit of paid sick leave, COVID-19 relief programs or personal savings. Others are working where they can, if they can, to survive.
Although more than 2 billion workers globally make their living in the informal economy and can create up to half of a country’s GDP, they have limited power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work, and never more so than during the current pandemic when informal-sector workers are disproportionately falling through the cracks. Due to the failure of governments to build systems of universal social protection, the world is facing the pandemic with 70 percent of all people lacking a safety net, says International Confederation of Trade Unions (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow. Also, despite their vast numbers—61 percent of the world’s workers work in the informal economy and, in developing countries, that number can rise to 90 percent of a country’s workforce—informal-sector workers are consistently overlooked by legislators and policy makers for economic assistance and legal protections during the current crisis.
A new brief from the UN’s International Labor Organization (ILO) warns that workers earning their livelihoods in the informal economy in 2020 are being forced “to die from hunger or from the virus” and offers a raft of immediate, medium- and long-term recommendations for governments and employers’ organizations to address the crisis. Without urgent action, quarantine threatens to increase relative poverty levels in low-income countries by as much as 56 percentage points, according to the brief.
The far-reaching effects of the coronavirus pandemic have expanded global calls for a new social contract by worker rights organizations that are championing a “build back better” campaign as well as by some businesses that recognize the unsustainability of economic and social structures in which workers absorb the burdens of our economies but not the benefits.
Unions and worker rights activists are stepping into the breach, giving voice to workers’ struggles during lockdown, providing relief where resources allow and banding together to urge governments to provide financial and other social support for informally employed workers, as well as protection from harassment.
- The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer to workers before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce.
- In Zimbabwe, informal economy association ZCIEA is giving voice to vendors’ struggle for survival under quarantine and advocating for their right to operate. In Harare, even though markets are legally open and deemed essential for citizens to secure food, ZCIEA Chitungwiza Territorial President Ratidzo Mfanechiya says that ZCIEA has had to intervene with the town manager, town council and local police to protect Jambanja market vendors’ right to operate free of harassment and forced removal during the five-week lockdown. She is also speaking out against gender-based violence, given that many women are reporting incidents of abuse while trapped at home with partners during lockdown.
- The Alliance Against Violence & Harassment in Jordan, a Solidarity Center partner, is urging the government to grant assistance to migrant workers, who have little or no pay but cannot return to their country of origin. The Alliance also asks for safety gear for migrant workers still on the job. The domestic workers solidarity network in Jordan shares information on COVID-19 and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page.
- Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) activists are speaking out on behalf of an emerging small entrepreneurs’ movement that is protesting disproportionate government support for larger, mostly oligarchy-owned, businesses during the lock down, and demanding equal support for small and micro-businesses including small-scale farms.
- Leaders of multiple women’s worker rights movements banded together in May to make a joint call on the world’s governments to collaborate at all levels with domestic workers, street vendors, waste pickers and home-based workers during the COVID-19 crisis so that some of the world’s most important systems traditionally propped up by informally-employed women—including food supply, the care economy and waste management—are preserved.
- In India, where an estimated 415 million workers, or 90 percent of the country’s total workforce, toiled in informal-sector jobs in 2017–18, trade unions lobbied Labor Minister Santosh Gangawar for income support and eviction support for more than 40 categories of informal workers hit by the coronavirus pandemic.
In 2018, the workforce in informal employment in Africa was 86 percent; in Asia and the Pacific and the Arab states, 70 percent; in the Americas, 40 percent; and in Europe and Central Asia, 25 percent.