Migrant Workers, Unions Fight for Decent Work in Latin America

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Construction unions and migrant workers met this week in Costa Rica. Photo coursesy of BWI.

This week, eight construction union federation from six South and Central American countries came together in Costa Rica to focus on migrant workers and the issues they face in order to help migrants working in construction to organize and to improve union capacity to expand worker rights for migrant and native workers alike.

The seminar, jointly assembled by the Solidarity Center and Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), allowed union representatives the opportunity to present best practices for organizing migrant workers and to speak directly with Nicaraguan day laborers who also are active members of the Costa Rican BWI affiliate, SUNTRACS.  Union leaders heard firsthand accounts of the daily challenges that Nicaraguan migrants face on the job and in Costa Rican society in general, where discrimination—including denial of treatment by the national health service for work-related injuries and receiving salaries that are below the national minimum wage—is a fact of life.

According to the International Labor Organization (ILO), more than 5 million people currently live and work in Latin American countries other than those in which they were born. Once a phenomenon almost exclusively restricted to developed countries in the Northern Hemisphere, positive trends in economic growth and job creation have converted numerous Latin American countries—such as Brazil, Chile, Argentina and Costa Rica—into attractive destinations for migrant workers over the last decade. Nonetheless, the promise of decent employment in these countries in sectors including construction, domestic work and agroindustry has remained elusive, particularly for workers without solid knowledge of their own labor rights enshrined by national law and international norms.

On a regional level, BWI and its affiliates have helped migrant workers obtain legal migratory status and advocated for more transparent national immigration policies. Most importantly, they have organized protest actions against insecure work environments, long working hours and wage irregularities for migrant workers.

BWI has seen positive results from its outreach efforts to migrant workers. “Objective economic conditions in Latin America have given new life to construction unions in the Southern Cone. The current construction boom in Brazil, for example, parallels what we saw in countries like the United States and Spain before the 2008 economic crisis,” said Nilton Freitas, BWI regional representative for Latin America and the Caribbean. “Using this new leverage and employing better forms of cooperation among our affiliates, we now are in a more advantageous position to prevent migrant workers from being treated as second-class citizens in the construction sector in those countries.”

The Solidarity Center and Building and Woodworkers International (BWI) have been working together over the last three years to promote innovative policies to improve union outreach and organization of migrant workers in the civil construction sector in Latin America.  BWI’s pioneering role in the defense of immigrants who have sacrificed all to construct soccer stadiums in Brazil, skyscrapers in Singapore and offshore oil rigs in the Arabian Gulf was recently recognized by the AFL-CIO as the 2014 recipient of its prestigious George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award.

Dominican Ruling Creates Stateless Underclass

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Haitian migrant worker in the Dominican Republic. Credit: Solidarity Center.

This week the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights is meeting in Washington, D.C. One of the cases the commission will hear regards the Dominican Republic’s September 2014 Constitutional Court ruling that retroactively strips individuals who are unable to prove their parents’ regular migration status of their citizenship.

A new AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center report describes what this could mean for the people who will be disproportionately affected—individuals of Haitian descent living and working in the Dominican Republic, including those born in the country.

Those targeted by the court’s ruling will be excluded from any activity that requires official identification, including working in the formal sector, attending school, opening a bank account, paying into retirement or social security funds, accessing health services, getting married, traveling or voting. For many women, men and children born in the Dominican Republic, the ruling means being barred from participating in the only society they have ever known.

In the report, Dominicans of Haitian descent describe their struggle to maintain their status, pursue higher education, seek opportunities for meaningful work and career advancement, obtain justice against abusive employers and ensure their children are recognized as citizens and have access to critical services.

This deliberate creation of a stateless underclass is an egregious abuse of fundamental human rights and a clear violation of international law.

The AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center are committed to working with their union partners in the Dominican Republic, Haiti and overseas to ensure that all workers and their families in the Dominican Republic have full protection of their human and labor rights. The organizations call on the Dominican Republic to comply with its international obligations and ensure that Dominicans of foreign descent can fully and freely participate in society.

Peru: Striking Workers Detained, One Beaten

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Camposol employees at a company assembly. Credit: Solidarity Center

Eighteen agricultural workers in Peru were detained during a work stoppage as they protested an agro-industrial company’s failure to uphold its collective bargaining agreement, according to the Camposol Workers’ Union (SITECASA). One union leader, Carmen Silvestre Rodríguez, was beaten by the national police, and the union’s general secretary, Felipé Arteaga, has been arrested, the union said.

SITECASA members began a peaceful work stoppage March 12 at the company’s facilities in Chao, a town in the country’s northern region. They are seeking the company’s compliance with several provisions in the region–wide collective bargaining agreement reached in July 2013, including resolution of daily production quotas for field workers, payment of annual profit sharing and provision of proper uniforms, footwear and meals for workers.

Field workers, who harvest avocados, mandarin oranges, mangoes and blueberries for export, currently must harvest 60 pallets before they receive their minimum daily wage of $11. According to the union, Camposol has conditioned its willingness to negotiate these points on the union’s retraction of an article in the collective bargaining agreement that provides employment stability (an indefinite contract) for workers with four years working for the company.

Camposol S.A. is Peru’s largest producer and exporter of non-traditional horticultural products like asparagus. Approximately 14,000 workers labor on Camposol’s vast plantations throughout the country. In 2012, the U.S. Department of State’s Human Rights Report cited Camposol for interfering with workers’ right to strike after the company failed to reinstate 250 workers dismissed for participating in a strike during collective bargaining.

Read the union’s full statement (Spanish).

Peru: Women Farm Workers Build Empowerment Network

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Violeta co-facilitated a workshop after learning skills from a Solidarity Center-sponsiored training. Credit: Samantha Tate

Rosa Pérez was brought to Lima, Peru, from the country’s Northern Sierra when she was a child to work as a domestic worker. As a young adult, she moved to the farming region of La Libertad to make her own way as an agricultural laborer. Thirty years, four children and five grandkids later, Perez has become a bold advocate for her co-workers. She encourages them to document and speak out about problems such as sexual harassment and inadequate safety and protection equipment and training.

Pérez, secretary of Women’s, Child and Adolescent Affairs of the Camposal Workers’ Union (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Camposal), is a leader in a Solidarity Center program to empower women farm workers in Peru. Since 2009, the program, which includes the National Federation of Farm Workers (Federación Nacional de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Afines, FENTAGRO), has involved training and advocacy activities with unions representing workers in export-oriented agriculture.

The initiative gained momentum after Pérez traveled to São Paulo, Brazil, last year to participate in the Solidarity Center conference, “Women’s Empowerment, Gender Equality and Labor Rights: Transforming the Terrain.” There, she addressed more than 100 women from around the world and described working conditions for women farm workers in Peru and the actions that her union and FENTAGRO are taking to build a better life for women like her daughter, who works alongside her.

Pérez took the strategies she learned from activists at the conference to the farm worker federation’s leadership Friday, the eve of International Women’s Day. Along with the Solidarity Center, Pérez is recommending that La Libertad’s three unions meet with regional government officials and possibly employers to advocate for literacy programs targeting working women. She also plans to propose an awareness-raising campaign for men and women about sharing domestic and family care. The Solidarity Center has also been working with unions to strengthen their arguments for collective bargaining with employers in support of maternity and breastfeeding benefits that are codified in Peruvian law but not generally enforced.

Following the Women’s Empowerment conference, Perez worked with the Solidarity Center to identify 12 dynamic women from three export-oriented agriculture farms to take part in a Solidarity Center training this year geared toward building women’s confidence and strengthening their leadership skills so they can effectively advocate for women workers’ issues within their unions, their workplaces and their communities.

One of the workers who joined the training, Apolonia, is an elected officer in the Union of Agrícola Viru Workers (Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Empresa Sociedad Agrícola Virú, SITESAV). She grows and harvest fruits and vegetables as part of Peru’s export-agriculture industry, which, in 2013, generated $33 million in exports to the United States. She advises her fellow co-workers, especially young women, about how to stay healthy and build strong families while working between 12 hours and 14 hours a day and earning an average daily wage of $12.

Apolonia and other participants in the two-day training discussed how they can improve workplace safety and other issues and shared their dreams about bettering their workplaces, unions and households.

Two weeks after the leadership training, nearly all of the women who participated in the workshop, including Violeta and María Luna, who had been reluctant to speak in public, co-facilitated small workshops with groups of their peers using the new techniques they learned from the Solidarity Center training, including public speaking and one-on-one-contact to encourage self-confidence and participation.

The La Libertad network of women farm workers now has a compact disk with the stories of 32 Peruvian women leaders they can share in small study circles or at worker assemblies and when training other groups of women. It is the beginning of a much longer process that already has helped a group of powerful women to find their voice and begin to use it.

Oretha Tarnue: Mobilizing, Empowering Liberian Domestic Workers

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Oretha Tarnue, vice president of the United Workers Union of Liberia (UWUL). Credit: Tula Connell/Solidarity Center

Each day this week leading up to International Women’s Day March 8, the Solidarity Center will highlight an example of how women and their unions are taking action to improve women’s lives on the job, in their unions and in their communities.

Oretha Tarnue, vice president of the United Workers Union of Liberia (UWUL) and a former domestic worker, is spearheading a drive in her country to organize domestic workers who, like their counterparts elsewhere, are routinely exploited by their employers.

In Liberia and in other countries, the overwhelming majority of domestic workers are young women who view the work as an opportunity to earn a living, but too often find themselves vulnerable to abuses—from low wages and long hours to physical and sexual abuse and human trafficking.

Tarnue, who is also a lead coordinator for the Domestic Workers Union of Liberia (DOWUL), says the workers, mostly women, are paid between $21 and $50 per month, which is barely enough to buy a bag of rice. The country’s minimum wage is $2 a day.

Solidarity Center staff spoke with Tarnue about the challenges involved in connecting with domestic workers to help them understand their rights as workers, join together to improve their working conditions and convey to lawmakers and the public that domestic workers perform real work, and have the same rights as and deserve labor law coverage equal to all other wage earners.

Solidarity Center: How did you get involved with the domestic worker union?

Tarnue: I thought there was a need to organize domestic workers. I have worked as a domestic worker and in our labor laws, domestic workers are not (recognized). We went from home to home and other places, like hotels, where domestic workers are not recognized, and we began to talk to people. (With) the Solidarity Center and the United Steelworkers (USW), we had a training where we selected domestic workers from different communities. We had a good training that led those coordinators to go out and organize and recruit members.

Solidarity Center: What was your experience as a domestic worker?

Tarnue: There’s no scope of work, there’s no term of reference. Domestic workers’ contract is a verbal contract and domestic workers are not (recognized) under the labor law so they are at the discretion of the boss.

Solidarity Center: How do you reach out to domestic workers?

Tarnue: We go out and speak to workers at their workplaces or meet them during their breaks of off hours. We are able to teach them at the level they’ll understand. Teach them their human rights, their physical rights, their moral rights. The basis of our training to domestic workers is to know their rights as human beings. They are entitled to their human rights, and we teach these things to them.

Solidarity Center: Has all this made a difference?

Tarnue: It has made a difference because, as we speak, our 30 coordinators (who are domestic workers) have been able to (challenge) their own bosses.

Solidarity Center: Really?

Tarnue: Yes. Their own bosses! This comes from the Solidarity Center and USW training! We tell them to not be violent, not be rude, but you can peacefully engage your boss. Access the boss’s’ leisure time and discuss issues relating to work time, to terms of reference, scope of work, wages. Lay them down one at a time and go into discussion. These 30 coordinators have been able to increase their wages just by having a discussion with their bosses. This lets us know that the training has been working.

Solidarity Center: In the next five years, what do you envision for DOWUL?

Tarnue: We are 100 percent optimistic that domestic workers are going to be fully unionized and (added) into Liberia labor law and a collective bargaining agreement is going to be done for the domestic workers. That’s our hope because domestic workers are like any other workers. They should be treated like any other worker on Liberian soil.

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