Dozens of congressional lawmakers, policymakers, union leaders, human rights and democracy representatives and other Solidarity Center allies gathered on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., yesterday to mark the launch of the Global Labor Program, a cooperative effort by the Solidarity Center and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote worker rights, gender equality and democracy worldwide.
Rep. Sandy Levin spoke to a packed audience marking the launch of the Global Labor Program. Credit: Solidarity Center/Lauren Stewart
Opening the event, USAID Administrator Gayle E. Smith said, “Development cannot be sustained or inclusive without the availability of decent work. How do we reach workers? Through the Global Labor Program.”
The five-year Global Labor Program will further expand labor rights and strengthen workers’ ability to achieve decent work, lift the voices of disenfranchised workers and broaden gender equality.
Rep. Jim McGovern: The Solidarity Center has stood by workers no matter how difficult the circumstances. Credit: Jessica Benton-Cooney/USAID
Praising the Solidarity Center for ensuring the “voiceless have a voice,” U.S. Labor Secretary Thomas Perez told the packed crowd that “the Global Labor Program is first and foremost about expanding worker voice and enabling workers to have meaningful input in the decisions that impact their lives and the lives of their families.
“When workers obtain their rights, it is almost always a step toward democracy,” said Rep. Sandy Levin (D-Mich.). Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Mass.) and Rep. Nita Lowey (D-N.Y.) also took part in opening the event.
In a letter to the gathering, Sen. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) wrote, “Solidarity Center’s ongoing work with civil society, labor unions and other governments is helping to promote both the universal values of human rights … in countries ranging from Ukraine to Colombia to Bangladesh.”
Following the opening remarks, moderated by David Yang, deputy assistant administrator in USAID’s Bureau for Democracy, Conflict and Humanitarian Assistance, experts from the development community took part in a panel discussion to examine the role of labor rights and civic participation in fostering more just and sustainable development.
Working People Hard-hit by Closing Civic Space
Panel moderator, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau noted how “the effect of closing space is felt acutely by labor.”
Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, USAID Director Gayle Smith and Labor Secretary Thomas Perez at the Global Labor Program launch. Credit: Jessica Benton Cooney/USAID
“A forthcoming global survey by the International Trade Union Confederation is about to show a substantial global rise in documented attacks on worker speech and assembly rights, and specifically anti-union violence,” Bader-Blau said.
InterAction President Lindsay Coates continued the discussion on closing space for civil society, saying that “independent civil society is essential, but in country after country we see a growing crackdown on civil society space making it more difficult or even impossible for civic sector to do what it needs to do to help bring peaceful, sustainable ends to intractable crises and to advocate with governments and the private sector to push for development solutions and economic policies that really work for average people.”
Unions Needed to Secure Good Wages, Conditions for Migrant Workers
Turning the focus to labor migration, Jon Stivers, USAID assistant administrator of the Bureau for Asia, said labor and migration are crucial development issues in Asia—and unions are key to securing good wages and working conditions.
Further, “holding governments accountable is key to worker rights and open civil society,” he said.
Event panelists included (from left): InterAction President Lindsay Coates, Jon Stivers, USAID; Caroline Mugalla, EATUC; Sarah Gammage, ICRW; and Rob Lederer, EICC. Credit: Jessica Benton-Cooney/USAID
Caroline Mugalla, executive secretary of the East African Trade Union Confederation (EATUC), said some 80 percent of workers across East Africa—60 percent of whom are young people—have jobs in the informal economy, meaning they generally are paid low wages, receive no sick leave, pensions or other social protections and labor in often unsafe conditions.
“If the issue of social protections is not talked about, especially for young people, we are not talking about sustainable development,” she said.
Women’s Economic Empowerment Crucial to Development
Discussing how sustainable development requires ensuring gender equality, Sarah Gammage, director of Gender, Economic Empowerment and Livelihoods at the International Center for Research on Women (ICRW), said strong unions bolster gender equality.
“Women’s economic empowerment is crucial to development, but we often neglect the connection between workers’ rights and gender rights,” she said.
Rob Lederer, executive director of the Electronic Industry Citizenship Coalition (EICC), also took part in the panel. The EICC is a nonprofit coalition of electronics companies committed to supporting the rights and well-being of workers and communities worldwide affected by the global electronics supply chain.
Closing the event, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre described the difficult conditions for workers he has witnessed first-hand in countries like Colombia and Ethiopia, saying, “worker rights are under attack in far too many countries.
“Our economies are inextricably connected, and we—as workers—are either going to be pitted against each other in a race to the bottom or we are going to be rising together creating shared prosperity for everyone.”
Women workers made important gains under Iraq’s new labor law, the country’s first ever to prohibit sexual harassment at the workplace. The law clearly defines sexual harassment and specifies penalties for perpetrators. Women union activists led their unions in fighting for this protection.
“The law also addresses the arbitrary dismissal of workers and other issues that will serve the interests of working women, which should encourage more women to work and enjoy those protections and rights,” says Saba Qasim Yousef, an officer in the women’s affairs department of the Iraqi Federation of Oil Unions (IFOU). Yousef was among many women taking an active role in the union movement’s labor law campaign.
Crucially, the law aims for gender equality, specifically regarding wages, hiring and working conditions. It requires employers to provide onsite child care, and increases paid maternity leave to 14 weeks, with the option of additional unpaid leave for up to a year. Employers must allow woman workers to return to their jobs or equivalent positions.
In effect on February 1, the law was a massive victory for Iraq workers and their unions and followed the Iraq union movement’s three-year campaign for passage of a labor law in line with International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions. The Solidarity Center provided essential support to the union movement throughout the campaign.
Iraq’s labor law includes protection against workplace sexual harassment. Credit: GFITU
Women Union Members Took Key Role in Drafting Labor Law
The labor law’s provisions addressing gender equality came about because women union activists and leaders participated in all aspects of the campaign—drafting amendments, taking part in conferences and meetings with parliament and the Ministry of Labor and Social Affairs (MoLSA) and advocating for its passage.
“Women had a leading role in the campaign to restructure the law draft by participating in the workshops and seminars,” says Ilham Abdul Ma’boud Majid, president of the Telecommunications Union, General Federation of Workers and Unions in Iraq (GFWUI), Basra Branch.
“Also, they were watching the developments in the process, despite their obligations as employees and mothers at home and the long distances they needed to travel to attend those activities,” she said. “They were motivated by the idea of having a modern labor law that will protect them from all kinds of discrimination.”
Labor Law Will Encourage Women to Join Workforce
The law’s new protections “will have a positive impact in increasing the number of women workers and guaranteeing their strong presence in the labor market, by treating them fairly at their workplaces with equality in terms of assignments and jobs,” says Alya’a Hussien Mahood, women’s affairs officer for the General Federation of Iraqi Trade Unions (GFITU).
The final draft, passed late last year, retained the unions’ input and is a significant victory for all workers because it expands coverage to workers not included in the civil service law. This means that workers in the public sector who are not civil servants have the chance to join and establish their own unions.
The law allows for collective bargaining, including for workers without a union, and provides a good frame for freedom of association and protections for unions and their members. It further limits child labor, improves rights for migrant workers, provides better protections against discrimination at work and is the country’s first legislation to address sexual harassment at work. The law also enshrines the right to strike, banned since 1987. (Highlights of the law’s improvements.)
Anju Begum, a garment worker and factory-level union leader in Bangladesh, describes how she became empowered through her union—and how she seeks to help other workers, especially women, advance their rights at work.
“I want everyone, here and abroad, all workers, especially women, to know their rights and bring them to the forefront.”
Union support goes beyond the workplace, as Anju explains in this video. When Anju was abused by her husband, her union stepped in to assist her. Gender-based violence is one of the most widespread human rights violations in the world and extends to the workplace, where gender-based violence often typifies unequal economic and social power relations between women and men.
The Solidarity Center is among many unions and other civil society organizations worldwide calling for the International Labor Organization to establish a standard covering gender-based violence at the workplace, an action that moved forward last fall when the ILO announced that a debate on the topic will be on its 2018 agenda.
Now president of a factory-level union affiliated with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), Anju says in factories where there is no union, “I want women workers like me to take a leadership role and try to become president of the union.”
Chumtoli Huq, created this video for unions to use in their meetings as part of a Law@theMargins documentary project and urges organizations and individuals to share it on Facebook. To help with the project, you can contribute to the project’s Gofund me campaign: https://www.gofundme.com/mzjx0w
From domestic workers in New York City to garment workers in Bangladesh, women coming together to organize, demand fair treatment and address gender discrimination is critical to realizing women’s rights and economic justice. A new report from the AFL-CIO, the Rutgers Center for Women’s Global Leadership and the AFL-CIO Solidarity Center, Transforming Women’s Work: Policies for an Inclusive Economic Agenda, discusses the critical need to create an enabling environment for worker and community organizing, including inclusive macroeconomic and trade policies that promote decent work in the market and realign gender inequities in unpaid work in the home.
Economic policy is a critical tool that can promote or hinder gender equality and broadly shared growth. Traditional macroeconomic and trade policies have ignored or reinforced the structural barriers that impact women’s ability to compete fairly in the labor market, including the gender wage gap, occupational segregation and the disproportionate burden of unpaid work. While gender inequality is linked to reduced, less sustainable growth in the long term, the myopic focus on short-term growth—and the assumption that human rights will naturally follow—carries an inherent gender bias, as certain forms of gender inequality, particularly wage gaps between men and women driven by stereotypes of women workers as a cheap, expendable labor force, can temporarily create higher growth.
Gender-based violence at the workplace takes many forms—and for journalists, such abuse can mean sexual harassment at the office or assault in the field where they report stories.
In Pakistan, journalists and media professionals are learning how to prevent and address gender-based violence as part of Solidarity Center-sponsored trainings designed to assist media professionals in achieving gender equality at the workplace and in the stories they report.
“Journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkwa (in northwest Pakistan) are facing a lot of problems and specially female journalists face many issues in the field as well as in their offices,” says Samina Naz, a workshop participant and reporter at Radio Pakistan.
Harassment at the Workplace: Physical and Online Launched in October, the ongoing Gender Equity and Physical Safety series has involved dozens of journalists and media professionals, many of whom are members of the Pakistan Federal Union of Journalists (PFUJ) or the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation (APNEC). Participants learn about the range of issues involved in gender equality, identify priority gender equality issues at their workplaces and in their unions, and outline strategies for addressing the issues.
Journalists engaged in role play during gender quality training. Credit: Solidarity Center/Immad Ashraf
Workshops are filling a critical void. Some 35 percent of female journalists said they had experienced workplace-related intimidation, threats or abuse, according to a Solidarity Center-Civic Action Resources survey conducted before the trainings among 214 women journalists. More than one-quarter of women journalists (27 percent) said they had been targeted by a digital security threat. Yet only 8 percent of female journalists said they had received training for physical security and 5 percent for digital security. (The Solidarity Center and the Pakistan-based Journalists for Democracy and Human Rights also are holding workshops for journalists focusing solely on physical safety and digital security.)
Women Journalists Paid Less, Lack Job Security Although the number of women in journalism has grown along with the explosion of media professionals since 2002, when Pakistan legalized private media ownership, they are far more likely than men to experience job precariousness and harassment on the job, and generally are paid less than men for performing the same job.
Participants mark completion of the Solidarity Center’s first gender equality training in October. Credit: Solidarity Center/Immad Ashraf
Some 39 percent of women journalists surveyed said they are working without a contract, making it far more difficult for them to seek redress for job-related issues like pay discrimination. Further, more than one third said they were paid less than their male counterparts, and 80 percent said they were not paid for working overtime.
Promoting the work and advancing the role of women in the news media across the globe is critical to transparency and the diversity of voices, and workshop participants plan to expand upon what they learned in part by training other workers, assisted with a train-the-trainer manual the Solidarity Center developed with IFJ. In a post-training survey, all participants also indicated they would ask for a gender policy at work, and a mechanism to address sexual harassment.
“Me and my affiliates have learned a lot from this training and will try to replicate the contents to the best of our knowledge and abilities,” said Syed Ikram Bukhari, APNEC secretary general who works at Group Editor Daily Janch.
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