In the wake of Colombia’s narrow rejection of a peace accord and the subsequent bestowing of the Nobel Peace Prize on the country’s president last weekend, Colombian trade unions vowed to remain part of the process to end the Western Hemisphere’s longest war and work toward a more inclusive society.
On October 2 and to the disappointment of the Colombian labor movement, citizens narrowly rejected a deal that would have ended 52 years of war. The three national trade union centers—the Central Workers’ Union (CUT), Confederation of Colombian Workers (CTC), General Labor Confederation (CGT)—issued a joint statement reaffirming their “commitment to the peace process” and said the labor movement would continue efforts “to bring about an end to the armed conflict” in the country.
The agreement between the Colombian government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) took more than four years to negotiate. The accord addressed victim rights and reparations, marking a breakthrough for trade unionists, who were officially recognized as victims of the conflict.
Colombia Unions Praise Decision to Award Santos Nobel Peace Prize
In statements, the CGT, CTC and CUT also lauded the decision to award Colombian President Juan Manuel Santos the Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts to end the conflict last weekend. They expressed continued support for, and participation in, an inclusive process that will eventually lead to a sustainable peace.
In addition to ending the war, the accord could pave the way for a national decent work policy, create jobs, expand protections for union action in public spaces and bolster freedom of association rights.
Colombia was long the most dangerous country in the world for worker rights activists. Since 1977, 3,100 union activists and members were murdered, with many cases going unsolved, according to the National Union School (ENS), a Solidarity Center ally.
Workers rights—and the freedom to form unions and freely assemble—are key to achieving human rights, according to a new report by UN Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association Maina Kiai. The Solidarity Center is among organizations contributing to the research.
“This report is a clear call to action to governments and employers to immediately recognize worker rights, and for the broader human rights community to advocate for them,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.
As the report finds: “The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are … key to the realization of both democracy and dignity, since they enable people to voice and represent their interests, to hold governments accountable and to empower human agency.”
The report, which will be presented to the UN General Assembly on October 20, highlights how the vast majority of the world’s workers are disenfranchised from their rights to assembly and association—rights that are fundamental to all other human rights—either by exclusion or outright oppression.
Among the findings:
- Without assembly and association rights, workers have little leverage to change the conditions that entrench poverty, fuel inequality and limit democracy.
- Millions of informal workers labor in global supply chains, where some of the worst abuses of freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are found—and where migrant workers are often concentrated.
- Discrimination, abuse and relegation to jobs at the bottom of the global economy undermine women workers’ ability to join and form organizations that defend their interests.
October 21 UN Report Launch Event in New York
On October 21, following the official presentation of the report, human rights activists, trade unionists, representatives of UN agencies and other members of civil society from around the world will gather at UN headquarters in New York to discuss this seminal report with Kiai.
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Panelists at the launch event at the UN will discuss freedom of association in the global economy against the backdrop of government and employer repression of trade union rights and freedoms, attacks on the right to strike and the disenfranchisement of the vast majority of the world’s workers from their fundamental human rights to organize—with a special focus on women workers, migrant workers, the business and human rights agenda and governance in an era of global supply chains.
Kiai will keynote the event, which will include speakers from unions in Swaziland, Honduras, Mexico and beyond, along with representatives from Human Rights Watch, ITUC, the ILO, UN Women, and members of the business and human rights communities.
The event is co-sponsored by the AFL-CIO, Ford Foundation, Human Rights Watch, International Trade Union Confederation and the Solidarity Center, among others.
Read the full report.
More than 80 countries have demonstrated they are “upholding their commitments to abolish forced labor and the worst forms of child labor,” according to U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez, in the Findings on the Worst Forms of Child Labor report released today.
More than 168 million children are toiling under harsh conditions, with more than half of them—85 million—engaged in hazardous work such as mining and construction, which puts their health and safety at risk. The report finds that 16 countries—half of them in Latin America and the Caribbean—made “significant advancements” in combatting child labor. Sixty-eight other countries made “moderate advancements,” including 30 in sub-Saharan Africa and 16 in Asia and the Pacific.
Fifteen countries made “no advancements” in the fight against child labor or were even “complicit in forced child labor,” among them Eritrea, South Sudan, Swaziland and Uzbekistan.
The report, issued annually by the U.S. Department of Labor, evaluated the efforts of nearly 140 countries to eradicate child labor and forced labor through implementing and enforcing laws, increasing labor inspection efforts and creating social programs to assist vulnerable children.
The report is available in a downloadable app, Sweat & Toil: Child Labor, Forced Labor and Human Trafficking around the World.
27 New Industries Implicated in Child Labor
Also released today, the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor found child labor and forced labor in supply chains for 139 different goods in 75 countries. Some 27 new industries have been implicated since the 2014 list, including the fishing industry in Indonesia and the silk industry in Uzbekistan.
The garment industry in Jordan, on the other hand, was removed from the list, after investigations showed a significant reduction in forced labor in the industry.
The list reveals how child labor contributes to the global supply chains that produce everyday goods—from sugarcane to bricks, coffee to tobacco, diamonds to gold, and electronics, carpets, clothing and footwear.
Eliminating Child Labor Part of UN’s Decent Work Goal
Both reports explain their findings in the context of the United Nation’s new Sustainable Development Goals, an ambitious project to eliminate poverty and increase global prosperity. Goal 8: Decent Work and Economic Growth calls for the eradication of forced labor, human trafficking and child labor in all its forms by 2025.
“Conscious capitalism recognizes that by working collaboratively, governments, businesses, workers, and civil society can do well by doing good,” says Perez.
The “Worst Forms of Child Labor” report is required under the 2000 Trade and Development Act (TDA), and the List of Goods Produced by Child Labor or Forced Labor was first published in 2008, as mandated by the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. Both acts aim to promote global economic growth and build strong international trade partnerships that hinge upon the reduction of child labor, forced labor and human trafficking.
At least one person has died in Uzbekistan cotton fields so far this season, part of the country’s massive mobilization of compulsory labor in which nurses, teachers, students and state employees are forced from clinics and classrooms to toil for weeks picking cotton.
Komiljon Asimov, 20, a biology student at Abduhab State University, died September 11, days after university students were the first group mobilized by the Uzbek government for the fall cotton harvest. In another incident, Dilarom Juraev, 28, suffered a miscarriage in the fields.
Each harvest, Uzbekistan mobilizes more than 1 million residents to pick cotton through systematic coercion. From September through October, many classrooms shut down because teachers are among those forced to pick cotton. Health clinics and hospitals are unable to function fully with so many health care workers also toiling in the fields.
‘You Work Like a Slave from Morning to Night’
“Dinner takes place in the field again. For the dinner we are normally given watery soup,” writes one university economics student from the Andijan Agricultural Institute, who is now picking cotton. “I have no strength left. You work like a slave from morning till night, not enough food, and should sleep and wake up hungry again.”
The student, whose story was collected by the Uzbek-German Forum (UGF), describes being forced from her studies with other classmates to take part in the government-led mobilization. They are housed in a local school building emptied of students, where they sleep on a cold floor, with no showers and limited sanitary facilities.
The student says she spent hundreds of dollars of her family’s money buying food and warm clothing to prepare for working some two months in the cotton fields. Nearly 10,000 students from the four universities in the Andijan region were forcibly sent to work starting September 8.
Uzbeks Coerced into Signing ‘Voluntary Participation’ Letters
Last year, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing researchers independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions. This year, the tactic appears to be widespread coercion of students, health care workers and others to sign letters indicating they are “voluntarily” participating in the cotton harvest, according to UGF. Employees are told they will lose their jobs and students threatened that they will be expelled from the university if they do not pick cotton or agree to gathering a set weight of cotton each day.
In one video, Alia Madalieva, the head nurse at Clinic No. 8 in Kokand City, dictates to employees the text for their “letter of commitment.” Seated next to a clinic employee in the cotton fields, she dictates: “If I do not collect 50 kg (kilograms) of cotton a day, I will voluntarily hand in my letter of resignation. I wrote this on my own.”
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, another country where forced labor in cotton harvests is rampant, this year were downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report. Uzbekistan, which gets an estimated $1 billion per year in revenue from cotton sales, also forces farmers to plant state-ordered acreage of cotton and wheat or face the loss of their land.
More personal stories from those forced to pick cotton and other documentation are available at UGF’s new microsite. The UGF is a member of the Cotton Campaign, as is the Solidarity Center, The campaign works to end the injustice of forced labor in cotton harvesting in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
Globally, women are paid 30 percent less than men—but “imagine instead of corporations making 30 percent more off women’s labor, imagine if that 30 percent were coming back to our communities in the form of wages,” says Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director.
Speaking on the panel, “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Workers Rights,” a Solidarity Center-sponsored session at the 2016 Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) Forum, Bader-Blau said challenging such wide-reaching corporate power means “we need to partner across social movements.”
Cross-movement building is a goal and theme of the September 8–11 AWID Forum, where more than 1,800 participants from 120 countries are gathering to find strategies for mobilizing greater solidarity and collective power across diverse movements.
Union and worker association leaders from Brazil, Morocco and the United States taking part in the panel shared how unions are helping empower women to achieve economic justice.
Seventy million women around the world are in labor unions or worker associations, says Bader- Blau. “The labor movement is by definition the broadest movement for women on earth that is membership based.”
“In the frontlines of this battle we have women who are fighting for labor rights”—Saida Bentahar, CDT Morocco.
In Morocco, the Democratic Confederation of Labor (CDT) in Morocco is helping agricultural workers win bargaining rights with their employers. Most of the workers are women, who live in difficult, fragile conditions, says Saida Bentahar, a member of the CDT Secretariat.
“They sometimes cannot read or write, they live in extreme poverty, they are not paid good wages,” she said, speaking through a translator.
Together with the Solidarity Center, the CDT is training women on their workplace rights, including standing up against sexual harassment.
“Some women wouldn’t even speak at first when we would hold sessions but now they really stand up for what they believe,” says Bentahar. “Together they have written a declaration to guarantee stable labor rights. They will now have equal pay, certificates to assure their skills and capacities. They will have equal opportunities for work and training as well.”
Junéia Batista, CUT national secretary in Brazil, describes union women’s efforts to negotiate day care and other key issues in bargaining with employers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Junéia Batista, national secretary of the Confederation of Workers Union (CUT) in Brazil, described how women in the confederation have worked to be part of contract negotiations to ensure issues like day care are included, and to achieve leadership since the confederation formed in 1983.
“We want more,” says Batista, speaking through a translator. “It has been 33 years with men, men, men presiding in the presidency,” she says, and women members are working to establish gender equality measures throughout their union structures.
In Mississippi, a state in the southern United States, the Mississippi Worker’s Center for Human Rights (MWCHR) is helping empower working people in Oxford, an impoverished area with a history of racial violence.
“Wages are not the only point of resistance and struggle we need to be dealing with,” says Jaribu Hill, MWCHR executive director.
Panelists also discussed the increasing attacks throughout the world on workers’ ability to form unions.
“Our broader labor movement is suffering from a closing of democratic space,” says Bader-Blau, citing a 30 percent rise in attacks on worker rights around the world. “Our governments, aided by corporate power, are defining worker rights in narrower and narrower terms.”
“In this environment, in this context, we feel it is so important that women’s work be respected and valued … and dignified and that we fight for this,” she says. “The primarily vehicle for fighting for women’s rights at work is trade unionism.”
As Bentahar says, “In the frontlines of this battle we have women who are fighting for labor rights.”