The Supreme Court of Zimbabwe upheld a decision late last week stating that companies can now terminate workers’ contracts at any time, without offering them layoff benefits, by giving them three months’ notice.
The unanimous decision “has grave consequences for anyone under formal employment,” according to one news source and comes “at time when business is crying for flexible labor laws in order to improve industrial competitiveness,” according to another analysis. Employers often use the term “flexible” as a euphemism to describe workplace policies that benefit management at the expense of working people.
Noting that many jobs already have been lost in the days after the court ruling, the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) said in a statement that the judicial action is the latest in a series to “casualize” workers—that is, create an environment in which formal-sector workers, like those working in the informal economy, have few workplace rights
“The ruling will have an adverse effect of destroying the gains achieved over the past 35 years, with far-reaching economic” consequences, ZCTU said. Zimbabwe’s union movement is planning street protests until the government takes action to resolve the issue.
The case was brought by Kingstone Donga and Don Nyamande, who cited unfair dismissal and contract termination by their former employer, Zuva Petroleum. The employees argued that the Labor Relations Act had abolished the employer’s common law right to terminate an employment contract on notice. The court agreed with the employer.
More than 72 percent of Zimbabweans live in poverty, and the vast majority of the country’s nearly 15 million people are not employed in the formal economy. Rather than creating opportunities for stable, decent jobs in the formal sector, the ruling creates further economic destabilization.
Under Zimbabwe’s Labor Act, “every employee has the right not to be unfairly dismissed,” and the law details the process employers must follow when seeking to terminate an employee.
One analyst notes that employers will still need to exercise caution when they terminate employment on notice because there is still scope for them to be challenged on grounds of unfair dismissal. For example, a group of employees fired when pregnant would have cause to bring a discrimination suit for unfair dismissal.
Swazi human rights leader Mario Masuku was released from prison today. Credit: Links
Imprisoned Swazi human rights leader Mario Masuku and student activist Maxwell Dlamini were granted bail today by the Supreme Court of Swaziland, according to the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA). The two were charged with terrorism and jailed in May 2014 for slogans they allegedly shouted at a May Day rally.
Masuku and Dlamini were awaiting trial, and if found guilty, each could have faced up to 15 years of hard labor. Masuku, who became seriously ill in prison, was twice denied bail and prison officials would not allow his doctor to see him. In a statement, TUCOSWA praised the release of the two men, noting, “these are but a few steps, which though appreciated, must tell all of us not to lessen our resolve for change in Swaziland.”
The action follows the acquittal and release early this month of Thulani Maseko and Bheki Makhubu. Maseko, a human rights lawyer, and Makhubu, a newspaper editor, were arrested in March 2014 for writing about government corruption and judicial independence and were serving two-year prison terms.
TUCOSWA continues to be a consistent leader in support of union leaders, journalists and human rights activists who have been threatened with violence, arrest, prosecution for their human rights advocacy. Swazi police have harassed members of TUCOSWA, a Solidarity Center ally, breaking up their union meetings and banning rallies.
In May, an international delegation of union leaders traveled to Swaziland, calling on the government to guarantee the rights of workers to freely form unions and exercise freedom of speech and assembly. Led by Wellington Chibebe, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) deputy general secretary, and joined by Jos Williams from the AFL-CIO Metropolitan Washington Labor Council and Richard Hall from the Solidarity Center, the fact-finding group found that repressive legislation used by police against union activities had not been addressed by Parliament, even as the government continues to imprison human rights activists for exercising their right to freedom of speech.
Just days before the delegation arrived on May 14, the Swaziland government announced it had registered TUCOSWA after a three-year delay since the federation’s founding.
At a two-acre confectionary manufacturing complex in Malaysia, workers make chocolates, biscuits and other treats. But behind the pretty packaging and its candied contents, say some of the 60 Nepali migrant workers employed at the firm, is a work environment that includes physical abuse to force workers to produce sweets.
The confectionary company is no outlier. Since January, the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC), and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), both Solidarity Center allies, have documented hundreds of cases of employer abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia, often rising to the level of forced labor. Many of these workers, from India, Nepal, Sri Lanka, China and elsewhere, report that their employer has not paid them, or has given them wages far below what they had been promised before leaving their home countries. If they are injured on the job, the employer does not pay for their medical care.
A significant number of the migrant workers say they have been physically abused by their employer and forced to live and sleep in unsanitary conditions with no electricity, running water or even mattresses to sleep on. Most are virtually held hostage by their employer, who in nearly all cases, confiscates their passports, rendering them unable to flee desperate and deplorable conditions, potentially making them victims of human trafficking.
The widespread abuse reported across industries and the number of workers involved demonstrate that these cases are not isolated incidents involving rogue employers, but workplace practices condoned within an officially sanctioned environment that denies fundamental human rights. A few examples include:
- Arjunan, who came from India to Malaysia in 2014, was promised a salary of RM 1,200 ($316) a month, but his employer, a road contractor, paid him only RM 150 ($39) per month for food. When Arjunan protested, the employer called Arjunan’s wife and threatened to cut off her husband’s leg and hand. She pawned her jewelry and sent the money to the employer so the employer would return Arjunan’s passport, enabling him to travel home. The employer took the money, RM 4,500 ($1,188), but did not return Arjunan’s passport.
- Dozens of primarily Indian and Nepali workers at one worksite say they were locked in the company dormitory each night with no beds or mattresses and forced to sleep on the floor. They were required to stand for 12 hours at work each day with only a 15-minute break for lunch. Their weekly day off was split into two half days.
- After a machine sliced three of his fingers, Dhurba, 21, a migrant worker from Nepal, says his employer told him the company had no insurance to pay for his workplace injuries.
- Ram, 28, who began working for his employer in 2012, says after two years in an abusive workplace, where he was physically beaten, the employer refused to let him return to his home in Nepal when his work contract expired. Some 18 Nepali migrant workers are employed at the worksite.
- Workers at a global construction company, which employs more than 600 Nepalese workers, 200 Malaysian workers and 100 Bangladeshi workers, say they are forced to toil 16 hours a day, are regularly threatened with physical abuse, and are not paid the minimum wage.
The Asia-Pacific region has the greatest number of forced laborers in the world, accounting for more than 50 percent of all forced labor victims. Globally, forced labor generates $51 billion per year in illegal profits, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Thailand and Malaysia were among countries cited last year by the U.S. State Department as failing to comply with the minimum standards to address human trafficking over the past year.
“Our problem is that since we are the residents of [the] riverside and known as ‘Boat People,’ our children are suffering,” says a man who lives along the Indus River in Pakistan. The residents of his community make baskets and sell fish, and transport people along the river with boats they spend months making by hand.
“We are living a difficult life here because we neither have any school here nor any education facility provided by the government,” says another community member.
Some people say “these sailors are self-dependent, they are not a burden on the Pakistan economy,” explains politician Zartaj Gul. But in reality, she says, “we have cornered them and made them the untouchables of Pakistan.”
These excerpts from ”Life of Sailors,” one of 20 short films created by students at the Interactive Resource Center (IRC) in Lahore, Pakistan, highlight the economic and social struggles of a little-known community. Like ”Life of Sailors,” each video seeks to tell the story of a marginalized group within Pakistani society—and in less than 10 minutes each, say IRC Director Mohammad Waseem and Risham Waseem, IRC media project officer and Mohammad’s daughter.
Life of Sailors by maatitv
Waseem says the IRC, a Solidarity Center ally, aims to promote social justice, relying on the talent and enthusiasm of students, many of them from Islamia University Bahawalpur and Bahauddin Zakariya University.
The IRC specializes in citizen journalism, in which members of the public play an active role in collecting, reporting and disseminating news and information. The organization provides workshops for students not only on how to make documentaries but also on the importance of human rights advocacy. The 20 short films are just some of the final products of this interdisciplinary training.
In making these films, students were encouraged to uncover human stories that do not reach mainstream media, such as the story of the riverside residents. Another documentary shares the voices of street-side makers of khussas, traditional leather footwear in Pakistan and North India.
The videos do not just remain in the classroom—the IRC ensures they are seen by a broad spectrum of Pakistanis. For instance, the IRC organized a festival to showcase the films, followed by an open discussion.
Further, through creative and cultural tools, including radio, film and theater, the IRC encourages community mobilization and human rights advocacy. Waseem says citizen journalism is the most effective way to raise awareness for people who are denied their rights.
He cites the example of a student who filmed a report on a hospital in her community that she believed was not addressing people’s needs. Just “one minute of this video,” he says, was more effective “than a six-month U.N. (United Nations) investigation.”
The IRC’s message to marginalized groups in Pakistan, says Waseem, is that “they should have space in their country too.”
There is some good news for domestic workers in Kuwait: The National Assembly adopted a new law in June that will grant them unprecedented legal rights. The law applies to family maids, baby sitters, cooks and drivers.
More than 660,000 domestic workers are currently employed in Kuwait, most of them migrant workers from Asia and Africa. Human Rights Watch researcher Rothna Begum says this is a “major step forward” for Kuwait because for the first time it provides domestic workers with “enforceable labor rights.”
“Now those rights need to be made a reality,” she says, “and other Gulf states should follow Kuwait’s lead.”
Under the law, which brings Kuwait closer to compliance with internationally recognized labor standards, employers must grant domestic workers a maximum 12-hour workday with one day off per week and 30 days paid leave per year. The law also establishes a minimum wage of 45 Kuwaiti Dinar (around $150), guarantees end-of-service benefits—one month’s wage for every year worked—and bans employing domestic workers who are below age 20 or more than 50 years of age.
The National Assembly also voted to establish a shareholding company for recruiting domestic workers. The company would replace more than 300 independent offices, streamlining the recruitment process and limiting potential abuse of domestic workers. The assembly also voted to create Kuwait’s first National Human Rights Commission.
Begum, however, pointed out that some legal gaps remain. For example, it is not yet clear how the law will be enforced, and domestic workers still are not allowed to join unions to protect their rights.
Abdulrahman al-Ghanim, a migrant worker advocate at the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF), says the law should only be the beginning. Migrant workers especially are in need of further protection, he says. In Kuwait and other Gulf countries, the current Kafala system—in which recruitment agencies sponsor migrant visas—makes it easy for employers to abuse domestic workers and then charges workers as criminals when they try to escape. Kafala is “a system of slavery,” he says.
“The new legislation is a start,” says Begum, pointing out that the law still does not match the standards for domestic workers established by the International Labor Organization (ILO). “Kuwait should continue improving protections for domestic workers,” she says.