The Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT), a longtime Solidarity Center partner, was at the forefront of the four organizations that recently won the Nobel Peace Prize, AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler said today. In a ceremony at the AFL-CIO honoring UGTT Secretary-General Houcine Abassi, Shuler praised Abassi’s courage and tenacity and called the UGTT’s work “inspirational to us in the United States.”
AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler welcomed UGTT Secretary-General Houcine Abassi in a ceremony honoring his work. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Conradt
In his remarks, Abassi said “the Nobel Prize is not given just to us, but to all the labor movements in the world.” The award “sends a message that unions can play an equal role in government, in social dialogue … and many times can provide critical leadership.” Abassi is in Washington, D.C., this week to receive the Fairness Award presented by the Global Fairness Initiative. Solidarity Center ally Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union, is a co-recipient of the award.
In October, the Nobel Committee recognized the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—comprised of the (UGTT); the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers—for establishing “an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”
Abassi described the many hours of dialogue in the months after the 2011 Arab uprising deposed longtime dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali and ushered in a period of economic and political uncertainty. As a key participant in the discussions, the UGTT succeeded in including collective bargaining rights and the right to strike in the country’s new constitution, which Tunisians approved in 2014. Through the UGTT’s efforts, the constitution also enshrines many more fundamental social and economic rights for Tunisians.
The Tunisian union movement has been in the forefront of the struggle for democracy and social equality since its formation in 1946. Following the country’s independence from colonial rule in 1956, the organization played a key role in establishing a road map for national development that made Tunisia the most advanced economy in the Arab Maghreb.
In the months after the 2011 uprising, the UGTT employed direct action when mass mobilization was needed to shore up democratic principles like women’s rights and freedom of speech, all top priorities for Tunisian unions.
“Ever since its founding, the UGTT went very much beyond the traditional role of labor unions,” pushing for freedom and democracy and inclusive participation of all civil society in governance, Abassi said.
This is the second consecutive year that worker rights activists and Solidarity Center allies have been honored with a Nobel Peace Prize. Last year Kailash Satyarthi, head of the Global March against Child Labor, shared the prize with girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai.
In 2012, the UGTT received the AFL-CIO’s 2012 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award along with the labor federation of Bahrain, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, for their mobilization of thousands of people in their countries to carry forward a message of social justice during the 2011 uprisings.
Nhlanhla Mabizela says he first truly grasped the meaning of gender inequality on a winter day in the dusty streets of Alexandra Township in post-apartheid South Africa.
Cutting through an alley surrounded by houses made of iron scrap and plastic sheets, Mabizela and a friend came across a group of children playing. All were barefoot in the cold, with a single layer of clothes he assumed were the only ones they owned.
“Guess the first thing that popped in our minds?” asks Mabizela, Solidarity Center program officer for gender. “Where are the mothers of these children?” Seconds later, he and his friend encountered groups of men sitting around a fire, drinking and laughing. Nearby, they also saw a woman doing laundry in a large corrugated bathtub, her hands immersed in icy water.
“There and then we had the answer to our question and a new one was born and it was, ‘What is happening in the mens’ minds?’ That was the day when it dawned on me that gender inequality is alive and some of us are quite comfortable with it.”
Solidarity Center Helps Unions Put Gender Equality into Practice
Solidarity Center programs around the world address gender inequality at the workplace and within unions and society. In South Africa, Mabizela holds trainings to empower women to join unions and take leadership roles and advocate for themselves and their families. Crucially, his workshops also focus on helping men understand cultural expectations and how those assumptions shape male leadership roles that are based on excluding women.
Mabizela’s work highlights a frequent dichotomy. Unions are key drivers in advancing gender equality. Yet in many countries around the world, there is a disconnect between labor union policy and practice in transforming gender inequalities within their own structures. Through the lens of the South African union movement, a new report commissioned by the Solidarity Center explores the disconnect and examines new strategies for closing the gap between policy and practice.
“Putting Union Gender Equality into Practice: The Role of Transformational Leadership” describes how “feminist leadership” can be encouraged within the South African trade union context in part by creating a democratic organizational culture and an environment that supports women workers in their struggle for emancipation and assists men to free themselves from patriarchal forms of power.
“We have internalized and institutionalized gender roles and the division of labor,” says Mabizela. “We have failed as a country to interrogate patriarchy and hence we will move four steps forward and six steps backwards. We are so immersed in the debates about political power at the expense of all the other oppressions in sexism.”
‘Everything Is Structured around Men’
South African unions and federations long have sought to redefine and reshape patriarchal structures, cultures and practices to better inhere gender equality. Beginning in 2005, several South African unions sought to develop alternative models of power after recognizing that male-dominated, hierarchical, union culture does not easily address such issues as violence against women and sexual harassment of women within the union. They took part in Gender at Work’s South African Gender Action Learning Program to employ gender-inclusive and accountable power building and power sharing.
Authors of the new study interviewed the men who took part, and reported that they expressed an appreciation of how, by challenging male stereotyped behaviors and aspects of patriarchal power relations, they have enriched their private and public relationships and strengthened their commitment to gender equality.
“The much broader question is the need to look at how male culture influences everything—how everything is structured around men,” says John Apollis, a leader from the General Industrial Workers Union (GIWUSA) who is quoted in the report. “We need a fundamental reorganization of the union otherwise we are not going to get far with breaking male dominance.”
Some of the men also noted they struggle with alienation by their peers, who see their efforts to incorporate gender equality in the union and at home as setting them apart from traditional male roles.
‘I Would Not Like to Rehash What Our Fathers Did’
Mabizela says he was aware of gender inequality even in childhood, when the girls would “disappear” after school to wash dishes or clean house, while the boys played outside.
But the winter day in Alexandria Township spurred him to “reflect on how easy it was for us (me and my friend) both men, to put the burden of care squarely on women’s shoulders and be oblivious to the effects of gender-based violence. That day still exists in many parts of this world and not only in shanty towns of South Africa, but also in the leafy suburbs of the affluent.”
As Solidarity Center gender program officer, Mabizela also works with other organizations to campaign for passage of national laws, like a minimum wage for South Africa’s 1 million domestic workers which became law last December. Parliament currently is considering an expanded maternity leave law that incorporates significant input by the Solidarity Center.
He works with four South African union federations on the International Trade Union Confederation’s Labor Rights for Women Campaign and assists federations in developing sexual harassment policies and gender policies. He brings to his work experience as a peer educator for me at Planned Parenthood of South Africa and as a program officer for EngenderHealth’s Men as Partners Program.
In striving to embody the change essential for advancing gender equality in South Africa, Mabizela is blazing a trail for others. When describing the influences that motivate his work, Mabizela says he often thinks about how much he yearned to have a father in his life when he was a child—an experience he later learned was not uncommon.
Now, as the father of an 11-year-old son, Mabizela says, “the thought that I would not like to rehash what our fathers did, motivates me to do the work that I do. Observing my son grow, and developing confidence and not being afraid to show his emotions—it is enough motivation to carry on for his sake and the betterment of our societies.”
Uzbek labor rights activist Dimitry Tikhonov says his home office has been burned and all the equipment and documentation he collected on Uzbekistan’s use of forced labor in the country’s cotton harvests has been destroyed. No other room in his home was touched by the fire, he says.
Labor rights activist Dimitry Tikhonov says his home office was burned, destroying all his documentation on forced labor in Uzbekistan. Credit: Human Rights Watch
“All papers and files containing materials from my human rights work, including forced labor, were completely burned,” he says. “My entire legal library, which I have collected over years, is completely destroyed.”
Tikhonov says the fire occurred October 20, when he was away from his home in Angren, a city near the capital, Tashkent. He reported the incident after he returned. A metal box in which he kept a backup computer hard drive was intact, but the hard drive was missing from the case. Some 100 copies of a legal guide on child labor and forced labor that he created also disappeared, although they were in a room untouched by the fire.
The International Trade Union Confederation sent a letter to Uzbekistan President Islam Karimov condemning the attack.
In late September, Tikhonov was arrested and beaten by police as he took photos of some 20 busloads of teachers and school employees forced into the cotton fields for the annual harvest.
Doctors brought in to examine Tikhonov said he had no injuries, and police officers told Tikhonov to sign a statement attesting that he had no complaints about the police. Tikhonov refused and eventually was released.
Elena Urlaeva, head of the Uzbek Human Rights Defenders’ Alliance, another labor rights activist, has been arrested, interrogated and beaten several times this year.
Each harvest season, the Uzbek government mobilizes more than 1 million residents to pick cotton through systematic coercion. From September through October, many classrooms close because teachers are among those forced to pick cotton. Health clinics and hospitals are unable to function fully as their health workers are toiling in the fields.
This year, the government of Uzbekistan is expected to make $1 billion in profit from cotton sales, money that disappears into an extra-budgetary fund in the Finance Ministry to which only the highest-level officials have access, according to the Uzbek-German Forum report
The World Bank has pledged more than $450 million to Uzbekistan, mostly for modernization of agriculture, and has committed to pull out the loans if forced labor is used in project areas. But despite widespread detailed reports of ongoing forced labor in this year’s cotton harvest, the World Bank has not withdrawn its extensive funding.
In July, the U.S. State Department boosted the ranking of Uzbekistan in its Trafficking in Persons report, moving it up to the “Tier 2 Watchlist” from its previous “Tier 3” ranking. According to the State Department, Uzbekistan does not fully comply with the U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) but is making significant efforts to become compliant. In its 2014 report, the State Department ranked Uzbekistan as “Tier 3,” the lowest designation that means it does not fully comply with minimum TVPA standards.
Earlier this year, the Solidarity Center was among 30 global unions, business associations and nonprofit networks urging the U.S. State Department to ensure its Trafficking in Persons report accurately reflect the serious, ongoing and government-sponsored forced labor in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan.
The “Made in Jordan” label is familiar to U.S. consumers shopping for shirts, jeans and other clothes. Mervat Jumhawi, a Jordanian union organizer, is actively ensuring the largely migrant workforce that cuts and sews these garments does so in safe conditions, receives fair wages and is treated with respect on the job.
Mervat Jumhawi in a selfie wih Indian textile workers. Photo courtesy Mervat Jumhawi
“I was a garment worker and I know what exploitation is, I knows what that means,” says Jumhawi. After working 13 years in textile factories, Jumhawi spent six years on the board of the General Trade Union of Workers in Textile, Garment and Clothing Industries, where she served until recently. The union represents all 55,000 textile workers throughout Jordan, including migrant workers who comprise 71 percent of the country’s garment factory workforce.
Garment exports, produced primarily for the United States, account for some 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product, with factories located in the Sahab, Dulail and Ramtha industrial zones.
“In the beginning, I was not familiar with migrant worker issues,” Jumhawi says, speaking through a translator. “But after I worked with migrant workers, I was more interested in their issues because they are more marginalized and vulnerable.”
Migrant Worker Exploitation Begins in the Home Country
Exploitation of migrant workers in Jordan and other countries around the world often begins in their home countries, where they typically pay huge fees to labor brokers for a job. Indebted when they start their employment, migrant workers often endure abusive conditions to pay off their loans. Employers also may confiscate passports, effectively holding migrant workers hostage and unable to leave if they are not paid or if they experience verbal or physical abuse. Jumhawi helps raise workers’ awareness of their rights under the law and assists workers who are not receiving health care, who have been abused or otherwise need assistance making their way through the legal system.
More than 70 percent of migrant textile workers in Jordan are women. Credit: Solidarity Center
More than 70 percent of migrant textile workers in Jordan are women, primarily from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Myanmar. Jumhawi’s one-on-one assistance with garment workers and her dedication to improving their working conditions—she spent 40 days and nights with 1,300 striking Burmese garment workers—has generated tremendous trust among the workers.
In one instance, when Bangladesh and Sri Lankan workers went on strike in 2013, Jumhawi tried to speak with managers, but they would not let her in the factory. As she left, she looked back, and saw hundreds of workers following her. Her challenge to management gave the workers strength, she said. Seeing the workers take off with Jumhawi in the lead, managers ultimately negotiated—but not until Jumhawi had talked with each worker to hear specific grievances.
Solidarity Center Support Assists Migrant Workers
The Solidarity Center provided support over the past year for the migrant outreach project among textile workers, holding trainings on combating labor trafficking and exploitation through collective worker action. Workers were encouraged to form committees to monitor labor rights violations and refer them to the union resolution.
Of the 55,000 textile workers in Jordan, 71 percent are migrant workers. Credit: Solidarity Center
Over the years, the Solidarity Center also has worked closely with the garment workers union, and in May 2013, the union negotiated a contract with employers that covers all textile workers, including migrant workers. The contract set up health and safety committees, requires employer pay for transportation and food and prohibits labor recruiters in origin countries from charging fees to workers.
“Our union is keen on migrant worker issues from the moment they arrive in Jordan,” says Fathalla Al Omrani, garment workers’ union president.
Migrant workers are housed in employer-owned dormitories, which often fail to meet safety and health standards, according to Sara Khatib, a Jordan-based Solidarity Center program office for anti-trafficking initiatives. The contract requires employers follow Ministry of Health standards for living conditions, such as not overcrowding workers in a room.
“We were 10 to 12 women living in one room,” says one garment worker. “After the inspectors visit, the numbers decreased to six or seven.”
‘I Will Struggle for Migrant Workers to the End’
Supervisors yell at the workers if they don’t reach the production target and may deduct pay or even deport them, says Jumhawi. Such actions violate Jordan’s labor laws and the union contract.
Mervat (center), joins women from Bangladesh, the largest group of migrant workers in Jordan’s textile industry. Photo courtesy Mervat Jumhawi
Jumhawi has been instrumental in helping workers enforce the contract and seek justice under Jordan’s labor laws. She also recently assisted with production of a video documenting migrant workers’ struggles in Jordan and the role of union strength in helping workers achieve their goals. When asked about her most important victories, she says she counts “every single and small achievement,” as a major success, “even helping a worker with a small thing.”
“Mervat is very close to the workers and they all trust her,” says Khatib, who works closely with Jumhawi. “She follows up on the workers’ cases seriously and she deeply cares about them. She’s a hard working woman and a real unionist.”
Jumhawi works 12 hour days, seven days a week, unless she is too tired or sick, she says. Sometimes the long hours and tough demands make her want to leave the job. But she changes her mind when she thinks of the workers.
“I will struggle for migrant workers to the end, and I encourage all workers, especially women, to become unionists. When I became member of the union, I became stronger.”
For its role in brokering a peaceful path to democracy, Tunisia’s labor movement today was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel Committee recognized the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—comprised of longtime Solidarity Center ally the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers—for establishing “an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”
The Quartet, formed in 2013, was “instrumental in enabling Tunisia, in the space of a few years, to establish a constitutional system of government guaranteeing fundamental rights for the entire population, irrespective of gender, political conviction or religious belief,” Nobel Committee Chairman Kaci Kullmann Five said at the presentation ceremony.
“This is a great joy and pride for Tunisia, but also a hope for the Arab World,” UGTT chief Houcine Abassi told Reuters. “It’s a message that dialogue can lead us on the right path. This prize is a message for our region to put down arms and sit and talk at the negotiation table.”
In 2012, the UGTT received the AFL-CIO’s 2012 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award along with the labor federation of Bahrain, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, for their mobilization of thousands of people in their countries to carry forward a message of social justice during the popular uprisings that swept the Middle East in 2010 and 2011.
This is the second year in a row that worker rights activists have been honored with a Nobel Peace Prize. Last year Kailash Satyarthi, head of the Global March against Child Labor, also a Solidarity Center ally, shared the prize with girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai.