When Joe Montisetse came to South Africa from Botswana to work in gold mines in the early 1980s, he saw a black pool of water deep in a mine that signified deadly methane. Yet after he brought up the issue to supervisors, they insisted he continue working. Montisetse refused.
Two co-workers were killed a few hours later when the methane exploded.
Millions of jobs around the world do not offer safe and healthy workplaces—nor do they provide wages that enable workers to support themselves and their families or social protections and the sense of dignity that allow workers to enjoy the benefits of their own hard work.
To highlight the lack of decent work, each year on October 7, unions and their allies mark World Day for Decent Work. This year, they are calling for minimum wage-floors sufficient to ensure a decent standard of living and the right of all workers to join a union and bargain collectively.
Today, Montisetse is newly elected president of the National Union of Mineworkers, a position he achieved after helping form a local union at the gold mine soon after his co-workers’ deaths. After they formed the union, workers were safer, he says.
“We formed a union as mine workers to defend against oppression and exploitation.”
This year, the 10th anniversary of the World Day for Decent Work, workers like Montisete highlight the importance of the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively—fundamental human rights that enable workers to achieve decent work by joining together and successfully challenging global corporate practices that too often, risk lives and livelihoods.
Hundreds of domestic workers rallied in front of the Kenya Parliament in Nairobi today, lobbying legislators to ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 189, Decent Work for Domestic Workers. The effort is part of a larger campaign to improve wages and working conditions for the country’s domestic workers by the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) as well as to help build momentum for a global movement for domestic workers.
“It is amazing. It shows [the] power of the domestic workers in Kenya,” said Africa Regional Coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), Vicky Kanyoka.
Convention 189 established the first global standards for the more than 50 million domestic workers worldwide, addressing wages, working conditions, benefits, labor brokers and child labor. Although the convention went into force in 2013, it has been ratified by only 23 countries. Of these, only two African countries have ratified the convention: South Africa and Mauritius.
Domestic workers are some of the world’s most vulnerable workers, comprising a significant part of the global workforce in informal employment. In Kenya, domestic workers have suffered pay below minimum wage, long working hours, physical abuse, discrimination and lack of job security. More recently, domestic workers migrating to jobs in the Middle East from the Mombasa area, in an effort to escape poverty wages at home, have been preyed upon by unscrupulous labor brokers and employers.
KUDHEIHA—a Solidarity Center partner—has stepped up its political advocacy on behalf of domestic workers with the support of the Solidarity Center in recent years. Legislative changes favorable to domestic workers included an increase in their minimum wage in 2015 as well as an increase last year in the minimum wage from 10,955 to 12,825.72 Kenyan shillings ($108 to $126) per month.
KUDHEIHA’s current push for government ratification of Convention 189 is an effort to secure additional recognition, rights and standards for Kenyan domestic workers working inside and outside the country.
The Solidarity Center works with domestic workers and other organizations that represent them around the world, including in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Costa Rica, Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Indonesia, Jordan, Kenya, Liberia, Mexico, South Africa and Sri Lanka.
Worker rights advocates from across the Middle East and North Africa strategized and networked over three days in Casablanca, Morocco. Caption: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Ending human trafficking. Ensuring all employers treat workers fairly. Giving voice to migrant workers around the world. Creating a world in which women are treated equally to men.
These are some of the broad goals participants at the Solidarity Center Forum on Decent Work Forum for Agricultural Women and Domestic Workers identified in a morning ice breaker on the final day of the November 29–December 1 conference in Casablanca.
“If I had a magic wand, I would do away with all oppression. I would do away with all inequalities,” says Farah Abdallah, with the National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL).
Some 30 participants at the conference then explored how to put their hopes and dreams into action, building on two days’ discussions in which they shared their challenges and successes in winning worker rights on farms and in households throughout the Middle East and North Africa.
Sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) in Morocco, the Forum includes representatives of unions and worker associations from Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco.
Creating Positive Change Takes Collective Action
Making positive change takes the kind of collective strength workers gain in unions—Kalthoum Barkallah. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Participants proposed lobbying government and advocating for national laws covering worker rights as key steps forward. For instance, several participants discussed the need to press for an end to the kefala sponsorship system in Arab Gulf countries which ties migrant workers to their employers, effectively denying them all fundamental rights.
Campaigning for ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions like those covering domestic worker rights also is key, participants say, as is regulating labor brokers who often charge migrant workers exorbitant fees and give them false information on wages and working conditions.
Yet as Kalthoum Barkallah pointed out, it takes collective action to successfully press for laws and create broad change. And collective action means workers joining together in unions or associations—and connecting with other kindred groups.
“One association cannot achieve a lot. You must have a network of people and organizations for our lobbying efforts to be strong enough to change the mind of decision makers,” says Barkallah, Solidarity Center senior program officer in Tunisia, who led the day’s sessions.
Bouhaya Adiabdelali, a farm worker and union steward from Morocco, joined more than two dozen worker rights advocates for a Solidarity Center forum in Casablanca. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“We have seen throughout our conference that the conditions for decent work do not exist in many places. It is incumbent upon us as civil society to address that.”
“No worker is an unorganizable,” says Elizabeth Tang, general secretary for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), sharing her experiences working with domestic workers in Hong Kong, SAR and around the world. “Women, men, migrant, old, young—they all can join unions, they can all be organized.”
Tang gave the example of Malaysia, where it is not legal for migrant workers to form unions. Yet domestic workers “take great risk to win their rights” and have now formed an organization and are the newest IDWF affiliate.
Farm workers in Meknes El Hajeb, Morocco, described how they improved their working conditions through collective bargaining, and domestic workers from across the region shared how the abuse they endured in employer households ended when they joined unions and became covered by contracts.
The bottom line, says Marie Constant, a domestic worker from Madagascar working in Lebanon: “Within a union one may fight together.”
Adoracion Salvador Bunag plans to share with other domestic workers the strategies she learned at the Solidarity Center Decent Work Forum. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
For forum participants, the conference served as a springboard for moving forward with strategies for carrying out campaigns to improve the rights of domestic workers and farm workers.
“This dialogue is not going to stop here,” says Saida Ouaid, CDT executive board member and coordinator for programs covering women and migration. “It will be further conveyed here through our institutions.”
“I have learned a lot from this forum and I will able to share it with my fellow domestic workers in Jordan,” says Adoracion Salvador Bunag, a domestic worker from the Philippines working in Morocco.
“As we move forward we will implement what we learned here,” says Hanan Laawina, a Morocco farm worker in Meknes El Hajeb.
“What is being talked about here is kind of stuff that is real and when I go back to work, I can speak from a position of strength when advocating for our rights,” she says.