Kymbat Sherimbayeva was born in Naryn Oblast, a mountainous and very cold region of Kyrgyzstan where most people support themselves through cattle breeding. Seven years ago, 18-year-old Sherimbayeva left her village for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, seeking work.
Youth un- and underemployment stands at 55 percent in Kyrgyzstan. Most young people feel forced to migrate to Kazakhstan, Korea, Russia, Turkey or other countries in search of work, but some young people like Sherimbayeva hope to build their futures closer to home.
After arriving in Bishkek, Sherimbayeva found a job as a knitter at a hosiery factory, where she was soon promoted to head of quality control.
While working at the factory, Sherimbayeva says, she and her some 200 coworkers—of whom 90 percent are between the ages of 18 and 25—became increasingly concerned about inadequate wages and poor safety and health conditions.
With the help of trainings provided by the Garment Workers’ Union of Kyrgyzstan, with Solidarity Center support, workers at the factory realized they could negotiate improvements with management much more effectively as a group than as individuals. “We are stronger when we are together,” says Sherimbayeva.
Workers identified several activist leaders, including Sherimbayeva, who helped organize their coworkers into a union local. This year, workers are negotiating their first agreement with their employer, focusing on better wages and benefits. Sherimbayeva says that workers’ need higher wages because the average monthly salary of $200 does not cover basic expenses. She also hopes to help achieve for her co-workers paid sick leave and a year-end bonus, which are common to workers in Kyrgyzstan but not available to workers at their factory.
Since she and her co-workers organized, Sherimbayeva says they have found it much easier to negotiate improvements with factory management, even before a formal agreement is in effect. For example, in consultation with the union, factory management developed safety instructions for all departments and trained workers on those procedures; hired a local occupational safety and health service; provided protective clothing and other personal safety equipment; and now displays occupational safety and health information in prominent places throughout the factory building.
“Our position is much stronger concerning our labor as well as human rights. Together, we are able to defend workers in a much more effective way,” she says.
Nearly 200 railway construction workers in three villages in west Georgia won significant health and safety gains through two agreements with state-owned company China Railway 23rd Bureau Group, according to interviews with several workers in a new Georgian-language video. The company is under contract with the government to modernize Georgia’s Tbilisi-Rikoti railway route, including construction of seven tunnels.
Before the agreements took effect, workers at the construction site in Zvare referred to their section of the project as, “the hell tunnel.” In interviews, they describe how company managers ordered them to enter the tunnel before smoke and dust had cleared from rock-clearing blasts, and how they had not received protective masks and clothing, clean water on the job or paid sick leave.
“There was so much smoke that you cannot see a person in a [three foot] radius, but the attitude of employers is, ’work or go home,’”says one Zvare tunnel worker. “Working there [was] dangerous for life,” confirms Vitali Giorgadze, president of Georgia’s national independent union for railway workers, GRWNTU.
After the agreements took effect, workers reported significant health and safety improvements. “Current conditions are much better than they were before the trade union,” says welder Paata Kiknadze. The agreements committed the company to union-run health and safety monitoring and reporting systems at Zvare, Bezhatubani and Dzirula construction sites, which workers say is key to maintaining the health and safety measures.
With GRWNTU’s assistance, the settlements were reached last fall after workers walked off the job, first in Zvare and later at other construction sites along the route, to protest the firing of two Zvare workers who refused to enter a tunnel filled with scorching dust. Workers walked out again in November, after company representatives allegedly beat five workers in Zvare for, alleges company representatives, gathering firewood on company property.
Assisted by GRWNTU, workers at the Zvare, Bezhatubani and Dzirula construction sites organized into bargaining units, elected leaders and petitioned the Georgian government for assistance to ensure the company ceased violating Georgia labor law. Workers held protest rallies in September in the Georgian capital, Tbilisi, outside the offices of the Georgian Railway department and the Ministry of Labor, Health and Social Affairs of Georgia.
The agreements include additional benefits beyond health and safety improvements. “Before the strike, they did not have the right to [overtime pay and paid] leave,” says Paata Ninua, GRWNTU chief of staff and safety specialist trained under Solidarity Center’s Georgia program, funded by the U.S. Department of Labor. After the strike and the negotiations that followed, Ninua says, these problems were solved.
Tamar Barisashvili, Georgian language teacher and ESFTUG member, in the classroom. Credit: Lela Mepharishvili
In a precedent-setting move, the union representing teachers in Georgia signed a pact with the education ministry last month, signaling the new government’s willingness to partner with teachers—although unions in other sectors, including the railways and postal sector remain under attack. Unions in Georgia have struggled for their right to organize for more than a decade now, including under former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
“The decision of the Minister of Education and Science to sign the sectoral agreement shows clearly how democratic processes are developing and the democratic management in the education sector is being established,” said the president of the ESFTUG education union, Maia Kobakhidze, representing teachers.
Committing the ministry to work in partnership with the ESFTUG, the agreement sets a path for cooperation on laws and regulations affecting teachers, collective agreements with the union regarding teachers’ compensation, work conditions and benefits, as well as any new education initiatives.
The agreement reverses more than a decade of an anti-union campaign by the former administration, as a result of which the country’s labor federation, GTUC, lost more than 100,000 members, and the teachers’ union came close to collapse.
In recognition of the significance of the agreement, the signing ceremony in Tblisi on March 16, 2017, by ESFTUG’s Kobakhidze and Education Minister Aleksandre Jejelava was widely covered by media, and gathered together 300 guests. Attendees included representatives of the teachers, ministry officials, members of the diplomatic corps, including the U.S. Embassy, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the global union federation Education International (EI) and several nongovernmental organizations.
Jejelava thanked ESFTUG during his speech for giving his ministry the opportunity to work with the union to create better conditions for teachers and defend their rights, so they may better serve Georgia’s children.
The Solidarity Center has partnered with Georgian trade unions for almost two decades, providing programs that support legislative research and training in defense of worker and union rights, promote activities designed to increase union integration and coordination, help unions represent their members and reach out to unorganized workers, and educate workers about principles of democratic trade unionism.
Gender-based violence at work is far more prevalent than reported and ending it will require women coming together to challenge male-dominated structures—whether in corporations, governments or their own unions, according to leaders and experts from a variety of unions and nongovernmental associations (NGOs) speaking yesterday in New York City.
“As prevalent as gender-based violence is in workplace, it goes unrecognized—Solidarity Center Policy Director Molly McCoy. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“As prevalent as gender-based violence is in workplace, it goes unrecognized,” said Solidarity Center Policy Director Molly McCoy.
McCoy was among participants on two panels Monday that focused on gender-based violence at work, part of events the Solidarity Center and its partners are holding in conjunction with the March 13–24 meeting of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (CSW).
Hundreds of high-level government delegates at the CSW will for the first time discuss women’s economic empowerment and the role of labor unions as core to achieving women’s rights—a huge milestone for working women around the globe in achieving recognition of their workplace struggles by the world’s human rights body—and one that worker rights organizations like the ITUC and Solidarity Center have long championed.
Gender-Based Violence Worse without Freedom to Form Unions
Panelists at the Solidarity Center session, “Eliminating Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work,” explored how unions enable workers, especially women workers, to speak up when experiencing sexual harassment and other violence on the job by providing a network of peer support.
“The absolute most important thing is that we organize for worker power”—Julia Rybak. New York Hotel Trades Council. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Workers having the resources and the community of support is something most workers don’t have,” said Julia Rybak, director of the New York Hotel Trades Council. “The absolute most important thing is that we organize for worker power.”
“Gender-based violence is always worse when there is no freedom of association,” said McCoy, who moderated the panel. “When workers are not organized (in unions), they don’t have resources to tackle gender-based violence.”
Conversely, McCoy said, “the persistence and prevalence of gender-based violence has an impact on freedom of association. Gender-based violence is very much a tool used to repress worker rights, to silence workers and to isolate workers so they can’t stand up for themselves and fight gender-based violence.”
“There are extraordinarily high rates of gender-based violence against women at the workplace,” said Robin Runge, a lawyer who represented survivors of violence and abuse for more than 20 years. Runge is author of the new report, “Ending Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work in the United States,” written with support from the AFL-CIO and Solidarity Center.
Women Empowering Themselves through Unions
“Only by organizing can we get out of situations I faced when I was 12 and protect other domestic worker”—Ernestina Ochoa Lujan, IDWF. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Several panelists recounted their own experiences with workplace-based violence. Ernestina Ochoa Lujan, a domestic worker and vice president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), began work as a domestic worker in Peru at age 11. At age 12, she was attacked by her employer.
“I couldn’t call my parents because I didn’t have parents, I couldn’t call authorities because we are not believed. I cry not because I have no hope but because I went on to organize with my union,” she said through a translator.
“Only by organizing can we get out of situations I faced when I was 12 and protect other domestic workers.”
“We have to think about all those workers whose voice is not here”—Kazi Fouzia, DRUM. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Panelists and some of the several dozen audience members who spoke during a question and answer period described widespread violence against women workers—in Algeria, Argentina, Colombia and wherever women work and in whatever sector they are employed.
“We have to think about all those workers whose voice is not here,” said Kazi Fouzia, director of organizing at the New York-based Desis Rising Up and Moving (DRUM) organization, a 4,000-member worker association that includes primarily women in the informal economy.
Join the Stop Gender-Based Violence Campaign
Earlier in the day, 75 participants discussed steps involved in building support for an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention on ending gender-based violence.
“It’s important we go to the governments to make sure they support an ILO convention. We need a critical number of governments to move it forward,” said Marieke Koning from the Equality department at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The ITUC sponsored the panel, “Stop Gender-Based Violence (GBV) in the World of Work Campaign: How to Support an ILO Convention.”
Amrita Sietaram, ILO ACTRAV section, described the process of creating and passing a convention to end gender-based violence at work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Koning was joined by Amrita Sietaram from the ILO ACTRAV section, who described the process of creating and passing a convention to end gender-based violence at work, which she says has moved forward because of the efforts of the ITUC and global union federations. The ILO will discuss a draft text in June 2018 and unions, employers and others have from May to September this year to comment on the draft text.
Sietaram also described significant “employer resistance to a gender-based violence at work convention,” and noted that discussions will determine whether the final product is a “convention”—which governments agree to follow, or a “recommendation,” a weaker outcome that provides direction.
Speaking from the audience, IDWF General Secretary Elizabeth Tang described how domestic workers around the world worked for years to achieve 2011 passage of ILO Convention 189 covering domestic workers—and how the union has begun to reproduce those steps to move passage of a convention to end gender-based violence at work.
Join the ITUC campaign to end gender-based violence at work.
Follow us here, on Facebook and on Twitter @SolidarityCntr for coverage of the following Solidarity Center and partner events:
- March 15, 12:30 ET: “Building Power for Women Workers in the Changing World of Work”—AFL-CIO
- March 16, 12:30 ET: “Impact of Corporate Power to Women’s Economic Empowerment”—Association for Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) & Solidarity Center
In mid-December, a strike in Ashulia, an industrial suburb of Bangladesh’s capital, Dhaka, and a ready-made garment sector hub, quickly snowballed into widespread unrest. Garment workers abandoned their factories to call for a living wage in response to ever-rising costs. Mass arrests and firings ensued.
The minimum wage for a Bangladeshi garment worker is $68 a month, an amount last fixed in 2013. When they took to the streets in December, workers were demanding the minimum be increased to $191 a month. Dhaka is the 71st costliest city in the world, in line with Montreal, Canada.
The strike started in Windy Apparels and rapidly spread to other units resulting in 60 factories suspending operations. On December 20, the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association (BGMEA) ordered owners to reopen factories and resume operations after a five-day break. However, upon their return, more than 1,600 workers were notified that they had been laid off due to their alleged involvement in the unrest. Labor leaders and activists collectively demanded the reinstatement of all workers but received no response.
Windy Apparels is the same factory that denied a worker sick leave in October despite a very serious illness. She collapsed on the factory floor and died upon reaching the hospital. Her body was left at the factory gate for her husband to retrieve.
Since the factories reopened, union leaders and worker rights advocates have been detained or arrested on charges related to their alleged involvement in the strike. Union activists from different federations and from different areas of Dhaka—and unrelated to the Ashulia unrest—also have been swept up by police. Many have been charged under the Special Powers Act, 1974, which provides police with sweeping power to detain individuals. The act has been used to suppress political opposition and peaceful demonstrations, as well as to retaliate against individuals engaged in personal disputes with people in positions of authority.
Journalists and nongovernmental organizations that focus on worker rights are also being targeted and intimidated by security services. Ekushey Television Journalist Nazmul Huda, was arrested on December 23 and held in police custody for two days−during which time he was allegedly tortured−on charges of inaccurate reporting on the strike.
Last week, police arrived at a community center operated by the Bangladesh Center for Workers Solidarity, an ally of the Solidarity Center, and ordered its closure.
As a result of this and the arrests of union leaders who had no role in the unrest, a chilling effect has taken hold with some other union federations closing offices even though they have not been ordered to.
International worker rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, are monitoring the situation, and the Solidarity Center continues to track the registration of garment-sector unions in the country.
Your tax-deductible contribution to the Bangladesh Worker Rights Defense Fund will support Bangladesh garment organizers and worker-activists as they help workers who toil in unsafe factories for unfair—or unpaid—wages and who, without a union, cannot exercise their rights.
Activities your donation may support include:
• Medical care following an attack
• Safe spaces for organizers and their families who must go into hiding
• Legal assistance
• Awareness-raising activities regarding attacks on worker rights
• Replacement of belongings stolen during assaults
Your receipt for supporting Bangladesh organizers and activists will indicate The Solidarity Center Education Fund. The Fund is a tax-exempt charitable organization under section 501(c)(3) of the Internal Revenue Code. Your contribution is tax deductible to the extent allowed by governing laws. In addition, pursuant to the Internal Revenue Code requirement stated in Internal Revenue Service publication 1771, no goods or services were provided in return for this contribution.