Bangladesh Laundry Workers Strike, Win Wage Boost

Bangladesh Laundry Workers Strike, Win Wage Boost

Laundry workers affiliated with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) at the Jeans Express Ltd. Washing Division factory in Chittagong, Bangladesh, successfully negotiated a collective bargaining agreement following a two-day strike in May.

As a result of the strike, the 70 laundry workers won a 6 percent wage increase, improvements in leave, access to purified water, a union office, a prayer space and an area where workers can eat meals. The union and management also committed to a dispute resolution process.

Law Makes Legal Strikes Nearly Impossible

The strike action—which, as a legal strike, is extremely rare due to onerous legal requirements—prompted management to bargain a contract with the union.

The union had sought to begin the collective bargaining process in December 2015, but management refused to meet with the union. As per Bangladesh labor law, the union filed complaints with the government, which made several attempts at conciliation without success. On May 2, all but one union member who voted in a secret ballot election overseen by the government’s Joint Director of Labor (JDL) voted in favor of a strike.

“This has been a great success following a six-month-long struggle,” says BIGUF Organizing Secretary Chandon Kumar Dey. “Now we must now ensure implementation of the agreement and help the union build a constructive relationship with the management.”

Celebrating Solidarity Center’s Global Labor Program!

Celebrating Solidarity Center’s Global Labor Program!

Solidarity Center allies—congressional lawmakers, policymakers, union leaders, human rights and democracy representatives and others—gathered on Capitol Hill to mark the launch of the Global Labor Program, a five-year cooperative effort by the Solidarity Center and the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) to promote worker rights, gender equality and democracy worldwide.

“Development cannot be sustained or inclusive without the availability of decent work,” said USAID Administrator Gayle E. Smith. “How do we reach workers? Through the Global Labor Program.

The following are photo highlights from the June 7, 2016, Washington, D.C., event.
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Solidarity Center Marks Launch of Global Labor Program

Solidarity Center Marks Launch of Global Labor Program

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.

global labor program, Solidarity Center, Sandy Levin, human rights

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, Solidarity Center, global labor program, human rights

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.

Nita Lowey, Solidarity Center, human rights, global labor program

Rep. Nita Lowey: “Labor justice remains essential.” Credit: Jessica Benton-Cooney/USAID

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.”

Shawna Bader-Blau, USAID Director Gayle Smith, Labor Secretary Tom Perez, global labor program, human rights

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.

InterAction Lindsay Coates, USAID Jon Stivers, EATUC Caroline Mugalla, ICRW Sarah Grammage, EICC Rob Lederer

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.”

Human Rights Defender Elena Urlaeva Released

Human Rights Defender Elena Urlaeva Released

Uzbek human rights defender Elena Urlaeva was released last week from a psychiatric hospital in Tashkent where she was detained against her will for more than a month, according to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of worker rights and human rights groups that includes the Solidarity Center.

While expressing relief at Urlaeva’s release, Umida Niyazova, director of the Uzbek-German Human Rights Forum says, “We continue to be alarmed at the heightened repression campaign the Uzbek government is carrying out against those who monitor forced labor in the cotton harvest.”

For 16 years, Urlaeva has documented forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields, where some 1 million teachers, medical professionals and others are forced to toil during harvest seasons. She has been credited with helping significantly reduce child labor in cotton fields, and this year was among human rights defenders in Uzbekistan to receive the International Labor Rights Forum 2016 Labor Rights Defenders Award.

Urlaeva was arrested five times last year as she spoke with those forced by the government to labor in the country’s cotton fields, and says that she was physically assaulted during the subsequent interrogation.

Uzbek Government Crackdown on Human Rights Activists

The International Labor Organization (ILO) has pushed the Uzbek government to end forced labor. Following a complaint by Uzbek civil society, the World Bank attached covenants stipulating its loans to Uzbekistan could be stopped and subject to repayment if forced or child labor was detected in project areas by ILO monitors contracted by the World Bank to carry out labor monitoring during the harvest. In March, members of the Cotton Campaign urged the World Bank to make good on its promise.

The Uzbek government has responded to global pressure to end forced labor by cracking down on Uzbek labor rights activists who monitor cotton harvests.

Share Your Views on Worker Rights with the United Nations

Share Your Views on Worker Rights with the United Nations

Update: The survey is now available in Spanish and French.

La encuesta está disponible en francés y español.

L’enquête est disponible en français et espagnol.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur is partnering with the Solidarity Center to research a report on the links between the political, social, and economic exclusion of workers, their associations and trade unions. The following article from the UN Special Rapporteur website describes how you can participate.

The globalization of the world economy in the past half-century has contributed to a dramatic rise in the power of large multinational corporations and has concentrated wealth in fewer hands. State power to regulate these business entities, meanwhile, has been simultaneously eroded and co-opted by elite economic actors themselves.

Unconstrained power – whether public or private in origin – is now, more than ever, a critical threat to the protection of human rights. This power shift has created a challenging environment for the enforcement of human rights, as Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai has documented in his two most recent reports on natural resource exploitation and the imbalance between how States treat businesses and civil society.

For his next report to the UN General Assembly (October 2016), the Special Rapporteur plans to explore a new dimension of this power shift: its effect on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association of workers – specifically the most marginalized portions of the world’s labor force, such as global supply chain workers, informal workers, migrant workers and domestic workers. He will also examine the gender and racial dimensions of the issue.

The Special Rapporteur is particularly interested in the links between the political, social, and economic exclusion of workers, their associations and trade unions, as expressed in:

  1. The limitation and/or criminalization of assembly and association rights in law and in practice (and acquiescence of the State when these rights are breached by state or private actors);
  2. The exclusion of workers in the informal economy from legal frameworks recognizing assembly and association rights;
  3. The strategy to informalize more work for the purpose of limiting or excluding workers from exercising their assembly and association rights;
  4. The lack of effective global governance of migration, which has led to the exploitation of migrant workers

The Special Rapporteur will also explore the interplay between the lack of assembly and association rights for workers and the health of these rights within a society as a whole.

What’s your opinion and experience?
The Special Rapporteur convened an expert consultation to discuss this subject in May 2016. But he would also like to hear your views. He is particularly interested in specific, real-world examples of how the assembly and association rights of workers are being both eroded and bolstered. These examples may be included in the report.

How to submit information for the report
For more details on the report, please see our concept note. For specific questions that the Special Rapporteur is looking to answer, please see the following questionnaires. Note that each file has three separate questionnaires: One for UN member states, one for businesses and one for civil society/unions/workers. Please answer only the questionnaire that corresponds to your position:

Questionnaires in English

Questionnaires in Spanish (coming soon)

Questionnaires in French (coming soon)

In responding to the questionnaire, please be sure to provide as much detail as possible and to specify which countries you are referring to.

Completed questionnaires should be e-mailed to freeassembly@ohchr.org. We will be accepting submissions until June 30, 2016. You may submit your responses in English, French or Spanish.

The Solidarity Center will assist with researching the report. Responses to the questionnaires will be shared with select Solidarity Center staff prior to the publication of the report.

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