Colombian Sugarcane Workers Prevail after Attacks

Colombian Sugarcane Workers Prevail after Attacks

SINTRAINAGRO, affiliated with the global food, farm and hotel union IUF, won direct, permanent contracts for cane cutters at the Risaralda mill in western Colombia’s Cauca Valley. The breakthrough agreement was signed on March 5 after 500 cane cutters launched an indefinite strike on March 2 and were brutally attacked by state anti-riot forces and company guards the following day. The assault resulted in dozens of injured strikers and left local union leader Carlos Ossa Trejos in critical condition.

Agreement was reached following intensive negotiations involving the union, the national executive of the CUT and the Ministry of Labor.

Prior to this agreement, cane cutters with many years of work were being employed on limited fixed-term contracts, and mechanization has further depressed wages.  The agreement commits the company to providing open-ended, permanent employment contracts “in accordance with ILO (International Labor Organization) decent work standards” to all SINTRAINAGRO cutters, who will be employed by a Risaralda subsidiary to be established within 10 weeks. The company cannot fire or refuse to hire strikers, must “ensure the application of the principles of equality and non-discrimination” in assigning work and will establish mechanisms for ensuring payment of social security contributions, among other measures.

“This government wants to create an atmosphere of terror against anyone who dares to raise their head. However, workers and their families are losing their fear and defending their right to employment and decent living conditions” said SINTRAINAGRO’s Mauricio Ramos. “Once again it has been shown that mobilization, pressure and peaceful struggle are the tools for claiming rights.”

Crossposted from the IUF.

How Much Progress for Women in Past 20 Years?

How Much Progress for Women in Past 20 Years?

As more than 8,500 union members and other civil society activists gather at the United Nations in New York for the Commission on the Status of Women meeting, new research shows women have made some gains in the two decades since the landmark global meeting on women in Beijing but continue to suffer from economic insecurity and widespread discrimination and inequality in the workplace.

Fewer women are in the workforce today, according to a report by the International Labor Organization (ILO). In 1995, 52 percent of women and 80 percent of men were in the workforce, the ILO report finds. Today the participation rate for women is 50 percent, compared to 77 percent for men, reflecting in part the effects of the global recession.

Further, ILO research shows that women continue to be overrepresented in low-wage jobs that offer little security and few, if any, benefits. Women are paid 77 cents for every dollar a man makes—a rate that means women will not achieve pay equity with men before 2086. Women also work many hours without pay, a point made by an interactive, online report produced by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Clinton Foundation and Economist Intelligence Unit.

Unions are sponsoring several workshops and events during the CSW meetings, including a March 11 panel discussion, “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Labor Rights: Beijing +20 and Beyond.” Sponsored in part by the Solidarity Center, the panel will discuss how working women are fighting for fair wages and working conditions, equal job opportunities, freedom from sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. Panelists include AFL-CIO International Department Director Cathy Feingold, Bangladesh garment worker activist Kalpona Akter and Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).

This year’s CSW meeting marks 20 years since the fourth women’s world conference in Beijing, when 189 governments identified and signed an agreement to improve 12 areas key to empowering women, including “the persistent and increasing burden of poverty on women.” During the next two weeks, CSW participants will review progress made in implementing the Beijing recommendations. Some 164 countries conducted national reviews of the status of women, and the CSW will review these reports, along with contributions from civil society.

“Governments acknowledge that women’s labor sustains families and nations,” says Lisa McGowan, Solidarity Center senior specialist for gender equality. “It is time that governments step up and devote the full political commitment and resources needed to sustain women, and ensure their labor and human rights.”

Established in 1946, the CSW is the principal global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women

The UN yesterday approved a political declaration on the status of women and girls. Union activists and women’s and human rights groups say that the negotiations leading up to the adoption of the Political Declaration at UNCSW59 were held in advance, and consultation with civil society was kept to a minimum. As a result, the content of the declaration is not as strong and forward-looking as it could have been.

The change in process has been denounced by more than 1,000 organizations, including Public Services International (PSI), Education International (EI), the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Canadian Labour Congress. Historically, the CSW has adopted declarations or “agreed conclusions” after a two-week session that includes robust civil society participation.

Other trade union events during the CSW include a discussion on organizing migrant women and decent work for domestic workers, and an event on “Women and Sustainable Economy from a Human Rights Perspective.” More events here.

Solidarity Center Launches Georgia Worker Rights Project

Solidarity Center Launches Georgia Worker Rights Project

A new Solidarity Center project in Georgia to strengthen respect for worker rights through union, government and employer engagement will ensure the voice of workers is “a critical part of policymaking” so that “the benefits of economic growth are shared,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.

The Georgian Minister of Labor, U.S. and Georgian government officials, diplomats, nongovernmental organization (NGO) representatives and leaders of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) launched the three-year venture, Strengthening Worker Organizations in Georgia, on March 4 in Tbilisi, the country’s capital. The project is funded by the U.S. Department of Labor and will be implemented by the Solidarity Center in cooperation with the GTUC.

The project focuses on improving worker occupational safety and health. Some 273 workers have been killed on the job in the past six years, and many more seriously injured, likely draining Georgia’s ability to boost its stagnant gross domestic product (GDP). Key elements of the project include increasing GTUC job safety and health inspectors and expanding the number of joint union-management occupational safety and health committees.

In addition, the project involves training workers in negotiating contracts and broadening unions’ ability to promote effective labor law enforcement.

Speaking at the launch, GTUC President Irakli Petriashvili said, “​It is very important that the international community keep an eye on any violations aimed at employees.”

“Ultimately, the project, which will build on recent improvements in Georgian labor law, will lead to greater compliance with national labor law and internationally recognized norms and standards,” including the right to form unions, says Stanislaw Cieniuch, Solidarity Center Georgia program director. “Over time, these and other measures will contribute to building a modern, cooperative system of labor-management relations.”

The city’s metro transportation hub, the site of the launch event, was chosen because it is a workplace “where workers and employers have come together in a commitment to decent, safe and productive employment—through collective bargaining,” says Bader-Blau.

In Mexico, Women Join Forces to Improve Jobs, Communities

In Mexico, Women Join Forces to Improve Jobs, Communities

Tonantzin Nava: “As women, we must raise our voices and keep pushing for better opportunities for all of us."

Tonantzin Nava: “As women, we must raise our voices and keep pushing for better opportunities for all of us.”

At an auto parts factory in Piedras Negras, Mexico, women getting off work after midnight board private buses the company pays for to transport them home. But until recently, the bus drivers refused to take the women all the way to their houses, instead letting them off far from their residences and forcing them to walk alone in one of Mexico’s most unsafe areas, especially for women. (El articulo en español aquÍ.)

All that changed after the women joined together and circulated a petition asking their employer to require the bus drivers to take them to their houses, which they now do.

“To me this was important not only because now we can say to our kids that we’ll be back from work safe at night, but also because more women in our neighborhoods will consider working at the factories,” says one worker, Tonantzin Nava. “As women, we must raise our voices and keep pushing for better opportunities for all of us, and to ensure that our jobs provide for our safety.”

The women workers recognized they have the power to stand up for their safety after participating in the Gender and Women’s Empowerment for Action (GEMA) training, a program sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the Border Committee of Women Workers (Comité Fronterizo de Obrer@s, CFO).

Launched in 2013, GEMA (“gemstone” in Spanish), is unique because women workers are at its center. It was designed by and for women workers in the maquilas of Mexico’s northern border, and the workers guide the program facilitators in the types of training, analysis and planning most appropriate and useful for them. GEMA participants tell facilitators they want formal-sector jobs, but with decent working conditions. If maquila jobs—where women predominate—are not decent jobs, they perpetuate gender-based discrimination and violence and do not help families and their communities.

Economic hardship contributes to the daily potential for physical danger, and accentuates the risks that women in particular face. The GEMA program helps women analyze these issues and develop plans of action to address them.

In border areas like Piedras Negras, women make around $1 per hour in the maquiladoras, and most face unsafe and unhealthy conditions in an environment where labor laws are typically not enforced. Chronic injuries such as carpel tunnel and circulation problems from long hours of backbreaking and repetitive work are the norm, yet access to health care and workers’ compensation is sporadic.

Piedras Negras, in Coahuila state, across from Eagle Pass, Texas, is in the heart of northeastern Mexico, where the number of women murdered jumped more than 500 percent between 2001 and 2010. While the cause of these deaths varies, the deterioration of the social fabric, which has enabled such violence to surge unimpeded, stems in large part from the economic marginalization of women and their families.

Across Mexico, some 4,000 women disappeared in 2011–2012, part of a pandemic of violence against women at a time when 10 million workers were unable to provide the basic needs of their families, and when the number of women entering precarious jobs grew faster than the rate at which they were entering well-paid formal sector jobs.

To reach and empower as many women as possible, GEMA participants go on to share their insights and training with other women, meeting with them in their homes, where these “safe” environments provide them the social space to get to know one another and develop bonds of solidarity, figure out their most pressing problems and devise courses of action to address them. The women say GEMA gives them the tools to rebuild the social fabric of their communities.

“In GEMA, we have developed our self-confidence as well as skills and talents that we didn´t even know we had,” says Yohanna Esparza. “I am now facilitating discussion groups with other women and we are starting to walk steadfastly together, with our heads held high, on the path toward our dreams of a better future.”

Other women who have taken part in GEMA have gone on to participate in weekly roundtable meetings with management at an auto parts factory, to channel concerns and develop solutions.

GEMA is now expanding its reach. In 2014, the CFO and Solidarity Center began jointly facilitating a women’s empowerment and leadership program for women mineworkers with the National Union of Mine, Metal, Steel and Similar Workers of the Mexican Republic (SNTMMSSRM) and United Steelworkers. The union leadership is unanimous in declaring that when women are strong, and make their voices heard, unions are strong and everyone benefits from improved living and working conditions—workers, employers and society.




Citing ‘Democracy,’ Swazi Police Break up Union Meeting

Citing ‘Democracy,’ Swazi Police Break up Union Meeting

Accusing workers of discussing democracy, Swazi police broke up a national union meeting over the weekend in Manzini, according to Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) Secretary-General Vincent Ncongwane.

“The police said they would crush our meeting if we do not remove any discussion on multiparty democracy because according to the police, and their supervisors, that is not a workers’ agenda,” Ncongwane told Radio France Internationale. “And we said we are not going to remove that.”

Ncongwane said more than 100 police were at the site, and they erected roadblocks to prevent TUCOSWA members from entering the building. When union leaders cited the country’s constitution as allowing freedom of assembly, the police “said to us we are not going to be bothered about us quoting sections of the law,” Ncongwane recounted. “They are going to be interested in applying their discretion.”

The police action is the latest move against worker and human rights in Swaziland.  Swaziland authorities continue their nearly three-year refusal to grant legal registration to TUCOSWA, despite the federation making another application in December 2014 under the country’s recently amended Industrial Relations Act. In August 2014, some in the Swazi government falsely accused Ncongwane and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze of taking a stand against trade benefits for Swaziland when they were in Washington, D.C., to attend the U.S. Africa Leaders Summit Civil Society Forum.

Earlier in June 2014 the U.S. took the rare step of suspending African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade benefits for Swaziland, citing the Swazi government’s systematic violations of fundamental worker rights, including refusal to legally recognize TUCOSWA. Swaziland’s trade unions support AGOA, but maintain that the country must meet benchmarks of the agreement, which include respecting human rights and labor rights.

The 2014 U.S. State Department human rights report cited serious human rights violations in Swaziland, including arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents; severely restricted freedom of assembly, including violence against protestors; jailing of trade union leaders; the deregistration of TUCOSWA and the banning of strikes.

AGOA had been on the union’s meeting agenda.  Garment workers, 90 percent of whom are women, have been especially hard hit.  Ncongwane noted that the loss of AGOA has cost many jobs, with 2,000 garment workers already laid off. “We think that there’s going to be a flood of workers that are going to lose jobs just because of the loss of AGOA.”

In addition to non-registration of TUCOSWA and AGOA, trade union leaders also had planned to discuss the increasing casualization of labor, in which more and more workers getting hired on three month-contracts that provide no job stability or living wages. Ncongwane said these issues will be on the agenda for the union’s next meeting, March 14, a date that coincides with the TUCOSWA’s creation in 2012.

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