Essential Workers Summit: Building a Just Future for All

Essential Workers Summit: Building a Just Future for All

Workers who risked their health to provide essential services during the pandemic joined with actors, global union leaders and policymakers in a first-of-its-kind worldwide gathering to share their experiences and demand a response that urgently and effectively protects all people, and especially the most marginalized.

Essential Worker summit, Yalitza Aparico, Solidarity Center

Yalitza Aparicio spoke in support of government action to ensure essential workers have decent wages and safe work.

“COVID-19 has taught us about the importance of workers in all sectors and recognize that they deserve dignified work and they are important in the world economy,” said actor Yalitza Aparicio. “Governments know about this. But, what are they doing about it?” Aparicio was among dozens of speakers during the September 8–10 Essential For Recovery virtual summit who pointed to the need for action to ensure decent wages, rights and social protections like paid sick leave so workers deemed “essential” during the pandemic will not be left behind after the crisis passes.

As the Summit made clear, essential workers often work in the informal economy. “They have no rights, no minimum wages, no rule of law, no social protection,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). “We have to get a minimum living wage to all essential workers. We have to afford them collective bargaining rights. And we have to put in place universal social protection in safe workplaces.”

Organized by the Open Society Foundations and hosted by actor Sophia Bush, Essential For Recovery focused on four themes: increased income and improved working conditions; healthy and safe workplaces and access to health care; social protection benefits and support for vulnerable workers; and ending gender-based violence and harassment at work.

The Solidarity Center co-sponsored the event, along with HomeNet International, ITUC, StreetNet International Alliance of Street Vendors, UNI Global union and WIEGO.

Catch the full three one-hour sessions:

Unions, Collective Action Key to Building Back Better
Essential Workers, COVID-19, Jordan, agriculture workers, worker rights, Solidarity Center

Mithqal Zinati (right), a coordinator for Jordan’s agricultural sector, says workers need the right to form unions to ensure safe workplaces.

In Jordan, where workers have limited rights to form unions, Mithqal Zinati, a coordinator for the country’s agricultural sector, says the government’s action “keeps thousands and tens of thousands of workers from being part of providing solutions to the problems facing the agriculture sector. This eliminates the role of workers to defend their rights and protect their interests and to see beneficial gains.

“For everyone, having a union is very beneficial. For farmers and for workers at the same time.”

As the pandemic highlighted, workers with unions often more readily had access to personal protective equipment (PPE) and decent wages. Summit participants discussed the power of grassroots organizing to improve workers’ lives, and described how, over the last year, essential workers in the formal and informal economies went on strike to win access to PPE and vaccines. They took to the streets and to social media to demand more democratic societies and governments.

Maria do Carmo, a Brazilian street vendor, organized street vendors into a nationwide organization, the National Union of Hawkers, Street and Market Vendor Workers of Brazil (UNICAB), and through their collective power, raised awareness of their issues with politicians. “Today we have respect from City Hall,” she said.

“Over the past two days, we’ve seen proof of the effectiveness of collective action, and of the importance of eliminating gender inequities. But at the heart of it all is power,” said Bush, at the start of the third and final session.

Women Targets of Gender-Based Violence, Burdened with Carework

The pandemic also forced many to work from home where women disproportionately engaged in care work. Globally, women lost $800 billion in income due to COVID-19.

Mercedes D’Alessandro, the first national director of Economy, Equality and Gender in Argentina, described a study in which she found that during the pandemic, three-quarters of women did unpaid care work, amounting to 22 percent of GDP—up from 16 percent of GDP before COVID-19.

“The truth is that the increase in time that women dedicate to care activities means also a smaller opportunity to go out and look for a job, continue with their jobs, develop their careers or study, graduate from university,” she said.

Essential workers, domestic workers, informal economy, COVID-19, building back better, Solidarity Center

Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers Union, urges governments to ratify a treaty ending gender-based violence at work.

Women also experienced high levels of violence during lockdowns, further highlighting the need for governments to ratify an International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty (Convention 190) to end gender-based violence at work.

“Violence and harassment can happen anywhere, and it can happen to anyone,” said Shirley Pryce, president of the Jamaica Household Workers Union. “But this must not be tolerated. It must stop. Let us push together for governments to ratify this very important convention.”

C190 covers wherever work is performed, such as where workers take a rest break or meal or use sanitary, washing or changing facilities, and includes commuting to and from work.

“We are seeing a new normal. Home has become a workplace,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers, a Solidarity Center partner. Employers must ensure workers have what they need to work from home, including safe workplaces, she said.

Building to a Better, More Equitable Tomorrow
Essential Workers, Sinkane, Solidarity Center

Artists like Sinkane performed during the Essential Worker Summit.

Omamo was in conversation with Rosa Pavanelli, general secretary of Public Services International. The summit provided opportunities for shared discussion, “lightening rounds” featuring workers telling their stories and urging action, and videos showcasing worker issues such as the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT)’s documentary on women agricultural workers seeking safer transportation.

Essential for Recovery also featured multimedia presentations by performance artists such as Khansa, a singer, songwriter and dancer from Lebanon; U.S. actor Martin Sheen; Sonam Kalra of the Sufi Gospel Project; and Ahmed Abdullahi Gallab Sinkane, a Sudanese-American musician.

“I stand with all essential workers around the globe. The domestic and agricultural workers, waste pickers, street vendors, caregivers and home-based workers who make our world run,” said Sinkane, before performing U’Huh.

“During the pandemic, we saw how essential they really are. They deserve a living wage, proper employment conditions and a safe and healthy workplace,” he said. “Let’s build forward to a better, more equitable tomorrow.”

Key participants in Essential For Recovery also included Christy Hoffman, UNI Global Union general secretary; Maina Kiai, former United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association; Guy Ryder, ILO director general and Ai-jen Poo, National Domestic Workers Alliance executive director.

Women Agricultural Workers Push for Safe Transport in Tunisia

Women Agricultural Workers Push for Safe Transport in Tunisia

While most consumers do not think twice when they select tomatoes, grapes or other readily available fresh produce in grocery stores, many of the agricultural workers around the world who spend their days harvesting vegetables, fruits and grains to fill the plates of others often cannot afford enough to eat.

“Sometimes I might have enough money to buy bread from one of the street vendors; sometimes I might not,” says Mabrouka Yahyaoui, 73, who works in Tunisia’s agricultural fields.

Yahyaoui is among nearly 1.5 million agricultural workers in Tunisia, more than 600,000 of them women, who suffer from high heat in summer and cold rains in winter for more than 10 hours a day, for which their daily wages are between $5.50 and $6. They are forced to give a chunk of their pay for daily transport to the fields in rickety vehicles where women say they are packed together unsafely, subject to sexual harassment, injury and even death. Hundreds of agricultural workers are killed in Tunisia each year as they travel to and from the fields.

“On board the vehicle, we are crammed in like sacks of potatoes, and, worse, the men would be riding along with us,” says Afef Fayachi, a Tunisian agricultural worker. “They would touch us, use swear words, and utter obscenities. Men harass women in every way. And all we can do is suck it up and keep quiet.”

But with the support of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), agricultural workers in Tunisia are standing up for their rights to safe transport, fair wages and decent work.

‘Invisible’ Essential Workers Demand Safe Work
Tunisia, agricultural workers, safe transport, gender-based-violence and harassment at work, worker rights, Solidarity Center

Despite lack of protections against COVID-19, agricultural workers like Yasmina Yahyaoui risked their lives to support their families.

While the world became aware of “essential workers” during the COVID-19 pandemic, many remain out of the public’s eye, struggling to support themselves with few protections against contracting COVID-19.

“I can’t afford to buy a face mask for four dinars [$1.67] on a daily basis,” says Mayya Fayachi, who, like most agricultural workers, had to risk her health to support her family. As Yasmina Yahyaoui says, “How are we going to make a living if we stay at home?”

In Siliāna, an agricultural town in northern Tunisia, the Federation of Agriculture, a UGTT affiliate, is assisting workers in understanding their right to safe transportation and social protections like safety and health measures to protect against the deadly pandemic. Together with the Solidarity Center, the union worked with the women there to create a video in which they describe the unsafe and dangerous conditions they endure to get to work and home.

“The pains, the grief and privations of these wonderful, hardworking women can be channeled, transformed, into a fabulous resistance and an overwhelming will to overcome,” says Kalthoum Barkallah, Solidarity Center senior program manager for North Africa, who has led the Solidarity Center’s outreach among agricultural workers.

Tunisia, agricultural workers, safe transport, gender-based-violence and harassment at work, worker rights, Solidarity Center

The Tunisian government is taking action in response to the union campaign to improve transportation for agricultural workers.

The video is part of the union’s campaign to build public support for improving the working conditions of agricultural workers and to urge the government ensure decent transportation—for instance, by providing small business loans to local entrepreneurs to operate vehicles that meet safety standards. The new International Labor Organization (ILO) regulation (Convention 190), which covers gender-based violence and harassment at work, makes clear that employers and governments must take measures to ensure workers are safe on their work commute as well as in the physical workspace.

Since the campaign launched, the Minister of Transportation has begun work on formalizing agricultural worker transport and called on governors to form a regional advisory commission to create a new category of license permits for the agricultural sector.

The government and unions also met in March for a first-ever regional symposium organized by the Ministry of Social Affairs on social dialogue and employment relations in the agricultural sector.

Wage, Equity and Respect

The campaign builds on surveys of, and discussions with agricultural workers in Jandouba, Kasserine, Manouba, Sidi Bouzid, Siliāna and Sousse about the conditions they face on the job, including sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence.

Workers also have helped formulate bargaining proposals around wages and working conditions, mechanisms for dispute resolution, promotion of workplaces free of violence and harassment, as well as mechanisms for ongoing social dialogue at workplace level.

At the national level, UGTT and its civil society partners are pushing for enforcement of workplace safety inspections laws, which employers are legally obliged to undertake.

Women agriculture workers also point to the need to address disparate treatment in wages and job opportunities between men and women. “The number of daily hours a woman worker is supposed to work must be clear, and how much she gets paid for that work must be clear as well,” says one agricultural worker.”

“Why are men getting paid at least 25 dinars ($9-$10) while I get paid 15 dinars ($5.50), of which I have yet to pay for transportation?” asks Aziza Guesmi.

The bottom line, says Fayachi, is about respect: “I ask for nothing but my rights.”

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