Achieving Decent Work through Unions

Achieving Decent Work through Unions

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.

Make Every Job a Good Job: Workers Achieve Decent Work Together

Make Every Job a Good Job: Workers Achieve Decent Work Together

Around the world, workers, their unions and other associations are striving to promote the rights of working people at their jobs and in their everyday lives.

While every job has value, not all jobs are “good jobs.” Millions of jobs around the world do not offer the social protections or the sense of dignity that allow workers to enjoy the benefits of their own hard work.

The Solidarity Center works with unions and other allies to empower workers around the world to achieve decent work together.


WHAT MAKES A “GOOD JOB”?

In Thailand, Burmese migrant workers and their families learn about their rights on the job through training programs organized by the Human Rights Development Foundation (HRDF), a Solidarity Center ally.

But what are those rights? What makes a job a “good job”?

At the Pae Pla Pier in Mahachai, Thailand, Burmese dockworkers cart barrels of fish. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jeanne Hallacy

GOOD JOBS ARE SAFE

At the Gldani Metro Depot in Tbilisi, Georgia, employees work with dangerous chemicals and face constant danger from high voltage electrical wires. Their union, the Metro Workers’ Trade Union of Georgia (MWTUG), is addressing these safety and health risks with assistance from the Solidarity Center.

Georgia, metro, unions, job safety, decent work, Solidarity Center

At the Gldani Metro Depot in Tbilisi, Georgia, employees like repairman Tamaz Simonishvili work with dangerous chemicals and face constant danger from high voltage electrical wires—safety and health risks his union, Metro Workers’ Trade Union of Georgia, is addressing with the assistance of the Solidarity Center. Credit: Solidarity Center/Lela Mepharishvili

The Solidarity Center also partners with numerous unions and worker associations in Bangladesh to train garment workers in fire safety and other measures to improve their working conditions.

Bangladesh, fire safety, job safety, garment workers, unions, decent work, Solidarity Center

The Solidarity Center partners with numerous unions and worker associations in Bangladesh to train garment workers in fire safety and other measures to improve their working conditions. Credit: Solidarity Center

GOOD JOBS PAY LIVING WAGES

At the Palmas del César palm oil extraction plant in Minas, Colombia, workers are represented by Solidarity Center union ally Sintrapalmas-Monterrey. The union organized subcontracted workers into its bargaining unit, significantly improving their wages, benefits and job conditions.

Colombia, palm oil workers, unions, decent work, Solidarity Center

At the Palmas del César palm oil extraction plant in Minas, Colombia, workers are represented by Solidarity Center union ally Sintrapalmas-Monterrey. The union organized subcontracted workers into its bargaining unit, significantly improving their wages, benefits and job conditions. Credit: Solidarity Center/Carlos Villalon

In Sri Lanka, where jobs are shifting from the industrial to service sector, workers like members of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Industry Employees’ Union (FBTIEU) are forming unions in the hotel and tourism sectors to ensure that the new jobs pay living wages and offer social benefits.

Sri Lanka, tourism, hotels, unions, decent work, Solidarity Center

In Sri Lanka, where jobs are shifting from the industrial to service sector, workers like members of Food Beverage and Tobacco Industry Employees’ Union are forming unions in the hotel and tourism sectors to ensure the new jobs pay living wages and offer social benefits. Credit: Solidarity Center/Pushpa Kumara

GOOD JOBS TAKE CARE OF WORKERS

The National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Allied Workers of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSSRM, known as “Los Mineros”) has won many bargaining pacts that include significant economic benefits and essential safety and health protections for workers.

Mexico, miners, mine workers, unions, decent work, job safety, Solidarity Center

A miner in Mexico’s Baja California Sur, Ruth Rivera also is a shop steward for her union, SNTMMSSRM (Los Mineros), which has won bargaining pacts that include significant economic benefits and essential safety and health protections. Credit: Solidarity Center/Roberto Armocida

Agricultural workers in Rustenburg, South Africa, are members of the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), a Solidarity Center partner, which represents migrant farm workers in Mpumalanga Province and assists them in gaining access to health care and other services.

A FAWU member plants cabbage seedlings on a farm in Rustenburg, South Africa. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jemal Countess

GOOD JOBS GIVE WORKERS A BREAK

Across the Arab Gulf, more than 2.4 million migrant domestic workers often toil 12–20 hour days, six or seven days a week. Domestic workers in Jordan recently formed a worker rights network that advocates for better working conditions and includes migrant workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.

Sri Lankan domestic workers in Jordan defend their rights. Credit: Solidarity Center/Francesca Ricciardone

The Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), a Solidarity Center partner, has been at the forefront of championing the rights of domestic workers at the national level and working locally to organize workers into the union and educate them about their rights.

Kenya, unions, domestic workers, decent work, Solidarity Center

The Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers union, a Solidarity Center partner, has been at the forefront of championing the rights of domestic workers at the national level and working locally to organize workers into the union and educate them about their rights. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Holt

GOOD JOBS EMPOWER WOMEN

Dozens of journalists and media professionals have taken part in the Solidarity Center’s ongoing Gender Equity and Physical Safety training in Pakistan, identifying priority gender equality issues at their workplaces and in their unions, and outlining strategies for addressing those issues.

Journalists in Pakistan participate in Solidarity Center-sponsored gender equality workshops. Credit: Solidarity Center/Immad Ashraf

Through her union, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions Workers Union (PGFTU) and the Solidarity Center, kindergarten teacher Khadeja Othman says she has gained new skills in workshops, training courses and hands-on experience.

Khadeja Othman, a Palestinian kindergarten teacher in Ramallah’s Bet Our Al Tahta village. Credit: Solidarity Center/Alaa T. Badarneh

ORGANIZED WORKERS HELP CREATE GOOD JOBS

Workers and their families on the Firestone rubber plantation used their union, the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL), to negotiate work quotas that could be met without the need for children to assist their parents. Children also now receive free education as a result of union negotiations.

Liberia, rubber plantation, Firestone, unions, decent work, Solidarity Center

Opa Johnson, a rubber tapper on the Firestone plantation, is a member of the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia, which negotiated work quotas that could be met without the need for children to assist their parents. Children also now receive free education as a result of union negotiations. Credit: Solidarity Center/B.E. Diggs

Even self-employed workers have organized to defend their right to decent work. The Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA), a Solidarity Center partner, trains negotiators in collective bargaining with municipalities to provide adequate space for vendors and other informal workers throughout their cities.

Nyaradzo Tavariwisa makes and sells peanut butter to support her family. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jemal Countess

UNIONS HELP MAKE JOBS BETTER

Working people time and again have proven that when they are free to form and join unions and bargain for better working conditions, they can achieve decent work, improve their lives and benefit their families and communities.

In Peru, two unions, both Solidarity Center allies, represent palm workers on plantations and in processing factories. These unions have helped improve dangerous working conditions, access to healthcare and job stability through collective bargaining and labor inspections.

Peruvian palm oil workers travel across the plantation where they live and work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Oscar Durand

THE SOLIDARITY CENTER HELPS WORKING PEOPLE ATTAIN DECENT WORK

Decent work means employment that provides living wages in workplaces that are safe and healthy. Decent work is about fairness on the job and social protections for workers when they are sick, when they get injured or when they retire.

Kenya Domestic Workers Push for Convention Ratification

Kenya Domestic Workers Push for Convention Ratification

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.

Decent Work Forum: ‘With a Union, We May Fight Together’

Decent Work Forum: ‘With a Union, We May Fight Together’

Morocco, decent work, domestic workers, migrant workers, Solidarity Center

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

Tunisia, domestic workers, migrant workers, human rights, Solidarity Center

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.

Morocco, farm workers, Solidarity Center

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.”

Going Forward

Morocco, domestic workers, Solidarity Center

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.

Farm Workers’ Global Struggle for Rights on the Job

Farm Workers’ Global Struggle for Rights on the Job

Agriculture employs nearly half of the world’s workforce. Low-paying and seasonal, it also is one of the three most hazardous sectors for workers (along with construction and mining), according to the International Labor Organization.

Agriculture workers are often denied decent wages. This is especially true for women, who, despite their predominance in the sector (50 percent to 70 percent of informal agriculture workers are women), are paid up to 50 percent less than their male co-workers for doing the same job. The precariousness of this work is compounded by informal employment arrangements or agreements with labor brokers, violence and harassment on the job and the unpredictability of the seasons when cash crops are planted and harvested.

Despite the hardships, agricultural workers—cacao harvesters in the Dominican Republic, vegetable farmers in South Africa and Moroccan vineyard and olive grove laborers in Meknes—are joining with unions and worker associations to improve their workplaces and win rights on the job.

South Africa, farm worker, Solidarity Center, unions

A South Africa farm worker, a member of the Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), clears brush on a farm near Krugersdorp. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jemal Countess

Peru, palm oil workers, families, plantation

Vilda López, with her daughter, Celestina, is among Peruvian plantation workers represented by two unions, both Solidarity Center allies. Credit: Solidarity Center/Oscar Durand

Dominican Republic, plantation workers, cocoa, farm workers, Solidarity Center

Tomas Reyes cuts cacao fruit in the Los Chepitos organic tree farm of Villa Altagracia. Cacao workers are members of Solidarity Center union ally Movimiento Campesino Dominicano (MCD). Solidarity Center /Ricardo Rojas.

Morocco, agricultural workers, Meknes, Solidarity Center

Agriculture workers in Meknes, Morocco, head to work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Hind Cherrouk

Mexico, child labor, harvesting scallions in Mexicali, Solidarity Center

Some 168 million children are forced to work around the world, such a this girl picking scallions in Mexico. When adults are not paid a living wage, children often work to help support the family. Credit: US State Department

Liberia, student, 17 year old girl, Firestone Junior High, Solidarity Center

Sorbor S. Tarnue, 17, attends school at the Firestone rubber plantation because her parents’ union, FAWUL, a Solidarity Center ally, negotiated a reduction in the high daily production quota of latex. Parents had been forced to bring their children to work to meet the high quotas.

Peru, palm oil workers, families, plantation, unions, Solidarity Center

Palm oil workers at Grupo Romero’s Grupo Palmas company live and work on the plantation with their families. The Solidarity Center works with their union to provide training and education for worker support on the job. Credit: Solidarity Center/Oscar Durand

Tashkent, Uzbekistan, cotton picking, forced labor, unions, Solidarity Center

Each year in Uzbekistan, teachers and health care workers are among those forced to work for weeks picking cotton during the annual harvest. Credit: AHRU Cotton Campaign

Morocco, women, agriculture workers, union, bargaining agreement, Solidarity Center

Some 1,000 agricultural workers on five large farms in Morocco’s fertile Meknes region recently won their first collective bargaining agreement. Workers now receive bonuses if their work exceeds the norm and are provided with safety equipment and social benefits. Solidarity Center ally Confédération Démocratique du Travail signed the pact with the agro-industry employer Les Domaines Brahim Zniber in January. Credit: Solidarity Center/Hind Cherrouk

Dominican Republic, cocoa plantation worker, unions, Solidarity Center

Rafael Do–e Vi–a grafts cacao trees in the Los Chepitos organic tree farm of Villa Altagracia, Dominican Republic. Credit: Solidarity Center/Ricardo Rojas

Peru, palm oil workers, plantation, woman worker, Solidarity Center

Workers of Palma del Espino arrive at Fray Martin camp, in San Martin, Peru, at the end of a work day. Credit: Solidarity Center/Oscar Durante

South Africa, cabbage farmers, unions, Solidarity Center

Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU) members plant cabbage seedlings on a farm in Rustenburg, South Africa. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jemal Countess

Peru, farm workers, unions, Solidarity Center

Using new techniques she learned from Solidarity Center training, including public speaking and one-on-one-contact to encourage self-confidence and participation, Violeta, a farm worker in Peru, leads workshops to empower women farm workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Samantha Tate

South Africa cabbage planters. Credit: Solidarity Center/Jemal Countess

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