On a hot, damp morning in Hlae Ku Township, Myanmar, Kyin San surveys the rice fields spread below her, as Mg Zaw, knee deep in mud, drives two oxen to plow the remaining plot. For many years, Kyin San, like most of the farmers in the area, worried that her land would be confiscated for large-scale development, as had so many other farms over the years.
Burmese rice farmer Kyin San says by joining a union, farmers can share strategies and techniques to improve their craft. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
But now, Kyin Sun says, farmers are no longer hesitant to negotiate with the government to settle disputes. Along with 10,000 other farmers in the township, Kyin Sun has joined the Agriculture and Farmer Federation of Myanmar (AFFM), part of the Confederation of Trade Unions–Myanmar (CTUM).
“Through CTUM, we have made much progress,” she says, speaking through a translator.
Farmers across Myanmar are the fastest growing group of workers forming unions since 2011, when a new law allowed creation of unions. Within weeks of the law’s passage, farmers, woodworkers, garment workers, hatters, shoemakers and seafarers quickly registered their unions.
Htay Lwin, president of the Hlae Ku Township agricultural union, says farmers also have sought to join unions to learn new technical skills to improve their farming techniques, a goal Kyin San says has been advanced by union membership.
Union President Htay Lwin says many farmers are joining unions to protect their land from being confiscated for large-scale development. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Now we can communicate with farmers across the country and share our experience with others,” she says.
AFFM members are connected with the Asian Farmers Association for Rural Development, a regionwide organization based in the Philippines that provides training on seed production, food safety and other issues, says CTUM President U Maung Maung.
Speaking from CTUM offices in downtown Yangon, Maung Maung discussed how the federation is moving forward with the plan he nurtured for decades during his political exile in Thailand.
“We are doing what we wanted to do for the past 30 years—building unions, getting into negotiations with employers, trying to develop policies with labor and management,” he says.
Rebuilding Worker Power after Decades of Dictatorship
Maung Maung was forced into exile after a violent military crackdown targeted thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators and labor leaders, many of whom were sent to prison. He returned to Burma in 2012 and since then, CTUM has helped some 60,000 workers organize unions. CTUM received official government registration last year.
Now, CTUM is working with policymakers to enact social welfare reforms and drafting recommendations for revising the country’s labor laws, many of which were enacted when the country achieved independence from Britain in 1948. After decades of military rule, Myanmar trails many Asian nations economically, and Maung Maung sees much work ahead in modernizing the workforce and developing a culture of social dialogue among workers, business and government common in other countries.
Fundamental to effecting the change CTUM envisions is educating workers about their rights. Workers for many years had no freedom to improve their working conditions, and unions now are helping them understand that they can stand up for their rights—and how to do so.
Because, as Maung Maung says, it all comes down to the workers.
“The workers have to know what they want—and they have to push for it.”
The World Bank must convey to the Uzbek government that attacks against independent monitors assessing the extent of forced labor in the country’s cotton harvest will not be tolerated. The World Bank must also outline consequences should the attacks continue, according to the Cotton Campaign.
In a July 29 letter to key World Bank officials, the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of dozens of labor and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center, wrote:
“The World Bank should take all reasonable measures to create an enabling environment for independent actors to monitor projects that it finances. We have not seen the bank take such measures in Uzbekistan.”
The World Bank Group is providing more than $500 million in financing to the government of Uzbekistan for its agriculture sector and additional financing to multinational companies processing forced-labor cotton in Uzbekistan.
1 Million in Forced Labor During Cotton Harvests
During each fall cotton harvest, the Uzbekistan government forces more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks, deeply cutting services at schools and medical facilities. Last fall, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing those independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions.
“The Uzbek government’s repression of human rights monitors has made it impossible for essential mitigation measures of monitoring and grievance redress to function,” according to the coalition, which sent the letter in advance of an early August roundtable meeting of the World Bank, the Uzbek government, the International Labor Organization and diplomatic missions in Uzbekistan.
The coalition also is requesting that the World Bank “obtain an enforceable commitment from the Uzbek government to allow independent journalists, organizations and individuals to have access to all World Bank project-affected areas and to monitor, document and report about forced labor without interference or fear of reprisal.”
Uzbekistan Downgraded in US Trafficking in Persons Report
In June, an Uzbek victim of forced labor in cotton production and three human rights defenders filed a complaint against the World Bank’s private lending arm, the International Finance Corporation (IFC). They seek an investigation into forced labor connected to a $40 million loan to Indorama Kokand Textile, which operates in Uzbekistan. The complaint presents evidence that the loan to expand the company’s cotton manufacturing facilities in Uzbekistan allows it to profit from forced labor and sell illicit goods.
Also in June, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, where forced labor in cotton harvests also is rampant, were downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report.
Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, two countries where forced labor in cotton harvests is rampant, have been downgraded to the lowest ranking in the U.S. State Department’s 2016 Trafficking in Persons Report released this morning. The report also downgraded Myanmar (Burma) but boosted the ranking of Thailand, which a coalition of labor and human rights groups says has not meaningfully addressed human trafficking and should not have been upgraded.
The report, which ranks countries based on their efforts to fight forced labor and human trafficking, downgraded Myanmar, Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan to the lowest level (Tier 3), meaning their governments do not comply with minimum U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards and are not making significant efforts to become compliant.
Each year, the Uzbek government forces more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others to pick cotton for weeks during last fall’s harvest. Last year, the government went to extreme measures—including jailing and physically abusing researchers independently monitoring the process—to cover up its actions.
In 2015, the State Department boosted Uzbekistan from Tier 3 to the “Tier 2 Watchlist,” saying the country was making efforts to become compliant with the TVPA, a move rejected by human rights activists who each year risk their lives to document widespread forced labor during cotton harvests.
Thailand Should Not Be Upgraded
Moving Thailand from the report’s lowest ranking is not warranted, according to a 13-member coalition, the Alliance to End Slavery and Trafficking (ATEST), which includes the Solidarity Center.
“Thailand’s lack of policy implementation and meaningful change on the ground calls for the lowest Tier 3 ranking,” says Kristen Abrams, ATEST acting director.
In June 2014, the State Department downgraded Thailand to the lowest ranking, due to reports of migrant workers, primarily from Burma and Cambodia, working in slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats, fueling the country’s $7.3 billion seafood export industry and making it the world’s third-largest exporter. Today, many migrant workers still toil in forced labor and are held against their will on the boats where they are beaten and even killed. Thailand’s estimated 3 million migrants make up 10 percent of its workforce, but in seafood processing the make up 90 percent.
In releasing the report, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry highlighted the plight of domestic workers, many of whom are working in countries far from their homes and are especially vulnerable to exploitation and abuse. Kerry announced the creation of a model contract for domestic workers based on international standards and a memorandum of understanding for origin and destination countries that sets clear standards designed to prevent the abuses of domestic work.
‘Malaysia Has Done Little to Address Trafficking’
This year’s report also fails to fix last year’s controversial upgrade of Malaysia, according to the coalition.
“More than a year after the discovery of mass graves of trafficking victims along the Malaysia-Thailand border, there is little evidence that Malaysia has taken anything more than meager steps to address its troublesome human trafficking situation,” Abrams says.
Among the 27 countries on Tier 3, the lowest ranking, are Algeria, Burundi, Haiti, Russia, Venezuela and Zimbabwe.
Profits from forced labor account for $150 billion per year, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO).
The report organizes countries into tiers based on trafficking records: Tier 1 for nations that meet minimum U.S. standards; Tier 2 for those making significant efforts to meet those standards; Tier 2 “Watch List” for those that deserve special scrutiny; and Tier 3 for countries that are not making significant efforts.
The Trafficking in Persons report, which has been issued annually for 16 years, covers 188 countries and is required by the 2000 TVPA law.
The murder of Brenda Marleni Estrada Tambito, deputy coordinator of the Legal Advisory Committee of the Trade Union of Workers of Guatemala (UNSITRAGUA / HISTORICA), was a “cowardly criminal attack” according to the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) union leaders, who strongly condemned her murder in a letter to Guatemala President Jimmy Morales Cabrera.
Estrada Tambito was shot five times and killed in Guatemala City June 19. She was followed from a bus terminal after dropping off her father, UNISTRAGUA leader Jorge Estrada y Estrada, who has been advising the negotiation of collective agreements in some of the banana plantations in the Department of Izabal. Several banana union leaders in Izabal have been murdered in Guatemala in recent years, and in 2014, 11 leaders from the UNSITRAGUA-affiliated banana workers’ union were fired on while at the plantation.
“This cowardly murder has again pushed families and the labor movement into mourning and reflects the climate and culture of fear of persecution and violent silencing that lingers in Guatemala and is suffered by workers, leaders and union officials,” TUCA (the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas) and its parent organization, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), wrote.
“This situation is intolerable.”
Union activists are frequent targets for violence and harassment in Guatemala. In the first quarter of 2016, one union member was murdered, another physically attacked and 12 instances occurred in which union activists were threatened or harassed, according to the Red de Defensores de Derechos Laborales (Labor Rights Defenders Network) in Guatemala.
Last year, the Network, a coalition of trade union confederations and human rights monitors, documented 14 incidents of anti-union violence in Guatemala, including the October 2015 murder of Mynor Rolando Ramos Castillo, a municipal worker in southeastern Guatemala.
62 Unionists Murdered in Guatemala in Eight Years
Some 62 union members and leaders in Guatemala have been murdered since the U.S. government pursued an April 2008 complaint against Guatemala for violating the labor chapter of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The government acted after six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO submitted a complaint with the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA).
In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government last year agreed to take Guatemala to international arbitration for violating worker rights under CAFTA. The action was the first time that a country has sought international arbitration against another for a violation of labor standards and followed Guatemala’s failure to implement an 18-point enforcement plan to address worker rights violations. More than eight years since filing the complaint, labor rights violations and attacks continue, as the arbitration panel has announced another delay.
TUCA and the ITUC are urging the government to take steps to ensure the safety of trade unionists and to investigate and punish those responsible for Estrada Tambito’s murder. Despite ongoing violence against union members—murder, torture, kidnappings, break-ins and death threats—few perpetrators are brought to justice.
Some 70 countries around the world have taken action to advance decent work for domestic workers in the five years since the International Labor Organization (ILO) adopted Convention 189, the standard covering domestic worker rights.
The ILO passed Convention 189 on June 16, 2011, after a global coalition of domestic workers, led by the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), mobilized tens of thousands of workers in a campaign for recognition of the workplace rights of domestic workers. Following passage of the standard, workers mark June 16 as International Domestic Workers Day.
Most recently, Morocco passed a law covering gaps in coverage for domestic workers. The bill, approved May 31 by the country’s House of Representatives, sets the minimum age for domestic work at 18 years and raises salaries to 60 percent of the minimum wage provided in other employment sectors. The bill allows for a five-year transitional period in which those between ages 16 years and 18 years can perform domestic work, providing they have written and signed permission from their legal guardians.
Both the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) and the Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) praised the law for ending child labor, which they called a form of slavery.
‘I Work from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m. Six Days a Week’
Some 53 million workers labor in households around the world, often in isolation and at risk of exploitation and abuse. Guire, an Ivory Coast migrant domestic worker in Rabat, Morocco, is among them. Guire, a mother of four children who has worked two years for her employer, toils long hours for low pay and says her employer treats her poorly. (We are using first names only to protect the workers.)
“I work from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., six days week,” says Guire, a domestic worker in Morocco. Credit: Solidarity Center/Imane Zaghloul
“I work from 6 a.m. to 11:30 p.m., six days week,” says Guire, 41, in an interview with Solidarity Center staff in Morocco. “The work is really hard and I sleep in the living room on a sofa.” Guire says when she became sick, her employer did not provide her with medicine and she has no way to protest her treatment.
Amma, 32, a domestic worker from the Ivory Coast who also traveled to Morocco for domestic work, says employer requires her to “do everything.”
“I do housework, cooking, gardening, take care of the children,” says Amma. She says she is forced to sleep in the garage, is given little to eat and is regularly disparaged. “I receive insults like, ‘You are an animal,’” she says.
Since 2011, 22 countries have ratified the convention on domestic workers, although Morocco is not one of them. Neither Guire nor Amma were aware of the new legislation covering domestic workers, but as Amma says: “I demand respect because we are human beings, and if we come here it is to work, not beg.”