Domestic workers in Jordan are set to celebrate the official formation of a worker rights network that includes migrant workers from Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines and Sri Lanka.
The September 19 launch is a first in Jordan and a rare move in the Arab region, where more than 2.4 million migrant domestic workers often toil 12–20 hour days, six or seven days a week cleaning homes, preparing meals and caring for children and the elderly. Migrant workers in Jordan, like in many countries in the Middle East and elsewhere, cannot form unions to improve their working conditions.
“Domestic workers have so many problems” and had no one to assist them until now, says Indrani, who came to Jordan as a domestic worker from Sri Lanka 20 years ago and is now helping build the network by reaching out to domestic workers in the Sri Lankan community.
Fish Ip, Asia regional coordinator for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), is traveling to Jordan for the event. IDWF members and allies, like the Solidarity Center, helped push for the 2011 passage of the International Labor Organization convention on decent work for domestic workers. Officials from the origin country embassies for the migrant domestic workers will also attend.
Through Trainings, Domestic Workers Take Leading Role
The project began early in 2014, when the Solidarity Center approached leaders in migrant worker communities to discuss plans to combat trafficking of vulnerable domestic workers and assist those experiencing worker rights abuses. Forty-two domestic worker leaders from the largest communities in Jordan—Filipino, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan and Indonesian—then took part in trainings covering worker rights, anti-human trafficking, assisting domestic workers in finding legal assistance and building worker networks.
This core group began monthly meetings in August to discuss issues, learn from studies and hear from guest speakers on migrant domestic worker issues. They are also connected with IDWF affiliates in their home countries. Network leaders bring new domestic workers to the meetings—“I bring 15 domestic workers with me,” says Indrani. So far, 268 domestic workers have participated in the training workshops and network meetings.
“We know each other, we know how to help each other,” Indrani says. Now that word has gotten around, domestic workers “know how we are helping, now they are asking to come. This time they are the ones reaching for us.”
A key draw for domestic workers is the legal clinic the Solidarity Center launched in October 2014 in partnership with the Adalah Center for Human Rights Studies. The clinic takes place after each meeting, and more than 85 domestic workers have so far sought assistance.
Domestic Workers Seek out Network
“Everyone is coming to me and asking how to get involved,” says May Joy Guarizo Salapare, a domestic worker who has been in Jordan for six years and is helping support her husband and family in the Philippines. She created a Facebook page for domestic workers in Jordan, where she shares news of the network’s meetings and legal clinics.
Guarizo says she frequently encounters domestic workers who “are asking me for help with their employer.” Domestic workers in Jordan, as in other countries, often report that employers have taken their passports, rendering them virtual prisoners, and do not receive their salary for years, she says.
Earlier this year, Guarizo participated in a U.S. Department of State Professional Fellows exchange program and traveled to the United States to examine international models for overcoming the obstacles of reaching and organizing domestic and migrant workers.
Until now, domestic workers in Jordan rarely met others not from their home countries. The new network has “united domestic workers under one umbrella, says Sara Khatib, Solidarity Center anti-trafficking in persons program officer in Jordan. The network is designed to provide a collective voice for migrant domestic workers in Jordan to ensure that they have access to full workers rights.
“Domestic workers here in Jordan are helping each other, all over the full community,” Guarizo says.
Going forward, the network plans to push for laws protecting migrant domestic workers and will continue to recruit and train domestic workers on their rights. They hope to eventually form a union that will be recognized by the Jordanian government.
The recent firing of a union leader at a Chinese-owned oil refinery in Kyrgyzstan is the company’s latest attempt in the past two years to prevent workers from forming a union, according to the global union IndustriALL and workers.
Zhanaydar Ahmetov, leader of the trade union committee at China Petrol Company Zhongda was fired and locked out of the plant. Credit: IndustriALL
Zhanaydar Ahmetov, leader of the trade union committee at China Petrol Company Zhongda was fired and locked out of the plant on August 29, the second union leader dismissed in two years, factory workers say. Oil refinery workers created a union last December, elected Ahmetov as chairman and joined the Mining and Metallurgy Trade Union of Kyrgyzstan (MMTUK). Some 350 of the 400 Kyrgyz workers in the refinery have joined the union. Although they negotiated a contract with management in January, the company refuses to sign it.
Hazardous, Even Deadly Workplace Conditions
Following Ahmetov’s dismissal, hundreds of workers rallied at the refinery, demanding his reinstatement and reiterating to management the need for improved safety and health measures, an increase in wages and a collective bargaining agreement. Workers say workplace hazards include plant machinery with instruction and warning signs posted in Chinese, posing serious and even deadly risks to the primarily Kyrgyz-speaking factory workers.
In July, management refused entry to MMWUK’s safety and health inspectors, according to workers.
MMTUK President Eldar Tadjibaev says if management will not negotiate with workers, the union will take the company’s repeated violations of labor and human rights to the Kyrgyz state prosecutor.
Workers Forced to Sign Contract Lowering Their Wages
Zhongda, which began operating in Kyrgyzstan in 2013, employs nearly 1,000 workers, including management staff. Workers first created a union in April 2014, and in May, union leader Nuraev Almazbek was fired and the union disbanded. Almazbek is suing the company over the illegal dismissal.
Last November, managers told workers if they did not sign a contract lowering their wages, their actions would be interpreted as unwillingness to work and they would be fired.
Workers also are seeking compensation for hazardous working conditions, transparency about the hazards posed by specific duties and adherence to government regulations stipulating 90 percent of the workforce be locally based.
Health care workers in Uzbekistan are toiling in cotton fields and third- and fourth-year university students are now on their way as well, forced by the government to labor in the country’s fall harvest, according to stories compiled by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights. The nonprofit organization also is highlighting news that minors again may be forced into picking cotton.
Each harvest season, the government mobilizes more than 1 million residents to pick cotton through systematic coercion, “with profits benefiting the government elite rather than the people,” according to a statement by the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations that includes the Solidarity Center.
During the 2014 harvest, the government mobilized more public employees than in previous years, likely to make up for fewer child laborers, according to a 2015 Uzbek-German Forum report. Uzbekistan has cut back on the use of child labor in the cotton fields following worldwide condemnation.
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.
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.
At least 17 people died and numerous people were injured in last year’s cotton harvest due to poor or unsafe working and living conditions. Workers are forced to toil long hours often without access to clean drinking water and typically work without crucial safety and health gear, exposed to toxic pesticides and dangerous equipment.
“Food is not provided. Everyone must bring their own bread and tomatoes,” says one health care worker. “The cotton is very low. In the sand there are a lot of snakes.”
Many employees are threatened with loss of employment, loss of utilities and other public services, fines and criminal prosecution if they do not participate in the cotton harvest. Those who refuse to participate in the cotton harvest may even see their pensions and other work benefits cut.
Uzbek police twice assaulted human rights monitor Elena Urlaeva this year, once in May for documenting forced labor in the cotton fields and again in August for distributing pamphlets explaining laws that prohibit forced labor.
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.” The designation means the State Department claims Uzbekistan does not fully comply with the U.S. Trafficking Victims and Protection Act (TVPA) standards 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 the 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.
United Nations (UN) Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said during a June visit to Uzbekistan that more must be done now to address “the mobilization of teachers, doctors and others in cotton harvesting, and prevent the maltreatment of prisoners.” Dozens of labor and human rights organizations, including the Solidarity Center, had sent a letter to Ban Ki-moon urging him to raise the issue of forced labor.
Dozens of union members and their allies from across Mexico gathered today to celebrate the official launch of the country’s first domestic workers’ union, SINACTRAHO. The union’s formation culminated a 15-year struggle for rights on the job by those whose work often goes unrecognized, and today’s events marked the union filing for official government recognition.
Earlier this week, the National Union of Workers (UNT) approved SINACTRAHO’s affiliation. Domestic workers from states like Colima, Chiapas, Puebla, Guerrero, Mexico City and elsewhere around the country voted to form the union and elected an executive committee earlier in August.
“I am very excited for today because it is a historical victory for the domestic workers in Mexico,” says Isidra, a domestic worker who took part in today’s events. “From now on, we will have rights and no one will be able to take them away from us. Our rights will be respected, no more low salaries and disrespectful treatment. Our work is valuable.”
Domestic workers cast their vote on whether to form a union. Credit: CACEH
“This union was created to make the difference for domestic workers in this country. It is an historic moment for the more than 2 million domestic workers in Mexico,” says Marcelina Bautista, a former domestic worker who founded the Center for Support and Training of Domestic Workers (CACEH). CACEH’s outreach efforts among domestic workers led to the formation of SINACTRAHO, which launches with 60 members and plans to continue reaching out to domestic workers across the country.
Domestic Workers’ Union: A Dream Come True
The struggle by Mexico’s domestic workers for rights on the job is documented in the film, “Day Off” (Día de Descanso), which premiered yesterday, with SINACTRAHO executive board members taking part. Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) and Jill Shenker, IDWF North America Regional Coordinator and international organizing director for the U.S.-based National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) also joined the event.
Bautista says when CACEH was formed 15 years ago, she dreamed of creating a trade union, but the conditions were not favorable. “Today that dream will come true,” she says. Bautista is the IDWF regional coordinator for Latin America and from 2006 to 2012, served as general secretary of CONLACTRAHO, the confederation of Latin American and Caribbean domestic workers.
“Through this struggle, we’ve come to realize that we’re wise.”
Domestic workers celebrate with a green glove, the campaign’s symbol of rights and respect on the job. Credit: Adriana Paz
Domestic Workers Raising Awareness among Public, Lawmakers
In addition to organizing domestic workers, CACEH conducts training and education programs, with train-the-trainer workshops expanding CACEH’s network of domestic workers. CACEH has taken part in labor legislation advocacy at multiple levels of government and has spearheaded campaigns to raise public awareness about the value of domestic work and the rights of domestic workers.
“All the positioning work has been very successful, and today the Senate and Congress are aware of the issue,” Bautista says.
Going forward, domestic workers will ramp up efforts to push Mexico to ratify the International Labor Organization Convention (ILO) Convention 189 covering domestic workers.
“We didn’t know how to shout the first time we went on a march,” Bautista says. “Now they listen to us!”
A second Honduran union leader and participant in the Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras has been threatened with death if he does not stop his union-related work, according to the human rights group Aci Participa.
Tomás Membreño Pérez, president of the agricultural workers union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria (STAS), received death threats by phone and on Facebook in recent days and was followed as he traveled to the Santa Rita banana plantation where he is helping workers get a voice on the job.
One Honduran union leader has been murdered this year who also was a member of the anti-violence network and another union leader disappeared and is presumed dead. In July, the president of the health care union reported receiving death threats. (ACI Participa has documented more such cases.)
The network, comprised of union activists and ACI-Participa, was launched late last year to combat government corruption and stand up to increasing violence and threats against union activists. Among them, José Maria Martinez, an active union member who hosted a popular pro-worker radio show, was forced to flee Honduras twice because of death threats in 2013 and 2014.
Honduras: No Progress in Addressing Worker Rights
Pérez also is active on the Honduran labor movement’s Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) Complaint Commission, which has received numerous documented cases of worker rights abuse in the banana and agricultural sectors in Honduras.
The United States passed the CAFTA agreement in 2005. In 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed a complaint under CAFTA’s labor chapter with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs alleging the Honduran government failed to enforce labor rights under its labor laws. The trade and labor affairs office accepted the complaint in 2014, and the United States is waiting for the Honduran government to present its corrective plan of action. In a February 2015 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office says Honduras has made virtually no progress since 2012.
‘Overwhelmed’ by Violence, Attacks on Worker Rights The Santa Rita banana plantation is included in the 2012 complaint under its previous name, Tres Hermanas. As the AFL-CIO points out, Santa Rita, now a subsidiary of Chiquita, owes full-time and temporary workers nearly $50,000 for unpaid overtime and other wages.
In addition, Honduran unions reported that the Labor Ministry selected an employer-controlled union to represent workers at the plantation, even though it is documented that STAS is supported by 136 workers out of 145. In a July 2015 letter, the AFL-CIO asked the Honduran secretary of Labor and Social Security to address the issue.
Last October, a delegation of U.S. union leaders to Honduras reported that they were “overwhelmed” with the information they received from union activists about widespread noncompliance with laws, including attacks against labor leaders, a lack of compliance with minimum wage laws and an unresponsive government. The delegation issued a scathing report on the conditions.
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