Leonila Murillo, a decades-long leader in Buenaventura, Colombia, and Angel Miguel Conde Tapia, a Colombian palm oil worker and union vice president are among the extraordinary leaders and activists who will be honored for their dedication to improving the lives of workers and their communities during the Solidarity Center 20th Anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C., tomorrow.
The evening event features AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and also will honor U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown for his leadership to protect worker rights, and the Honduran labor movement for its dedication to achieving rights for workers in difficult and sometimes deadly conditions. Special guest U.S. Rep. Karen Bass will deliver remarks. (There’s still time to sponsor the event or buy tickets to attend!)
The day begins with a launch of the Solidarity Center-supported book, Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective, and panel discussions featuring U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and international worker rights activists. (Find out more about the free book event and RSVP here.)
On the Frontlines of Social Justice Unionism
Murillo, 81, has long been on frontlines to achieve social justice in her community. Most recently the mother of six children, 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren was among tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in Buenaventura who took to the streets for 22 days in May demanding peace and dignity after years of neglect by leaders in Bogota, the capital. Many of the port city’s 400,000 predominately Afro-Colombian inhabitants live in abject poverty without access to proper hospitals, schools, roads and other basic services.
On June 6, the government agreed to invest more than $500 million in the long-neglected city over the next decade. Buenaventura’s thriving port accounts for 60 percent of the country’s maritime trade and in 2014, generated $2 billion in tax revenue. Only 3 percent of that revenue is reinvested in the city, where residents are primarily Afro-Colombians.
Murillo, who leads 1,000 women in the organization Women in Black of the Pacific Route, and served as president of her neighborhood district’s Council of Community Action, also has worked for 29 years as a child caregiver, known as “community mother.” She was among leaders of the struggle by community mothers to gain pension benefits, going on strike in 2013 and winning promises from the government to give the women, who work as “independent contractors” the same benefits as directly employed caregivers. So far, the community mothers have seen no pension benefits.
“That’s why I’m here [in the United States]—to denounce that, to say that there are women who are dying and never getting their pensions,” Murillo says, speaking through a translator.
Palm Oil Workers Stand Strong in Face of Danger
As a palm oil worker in Colombia, Conde Tapia, hacks through the fruit with a machete, cleans branches and performs field maintenance on one of the country’s large agricultural plantations. A 29-year union member and now vice president of the palm oil union SINTRAINAGRO, he has sacrificed much to improve working conditions. Conde Tapia says he nearly lost his life when a gunman targeted him for his union work. Luckily, the gun pointed at him did not fire. But Conde Tapia has sent some of his children out of the area for their safety. Other union activists have had similar experiences.
Like the Buenaventura community, where workers say unfair job subcontracting is taking away family sustaining wages and social protections, palm oil workers in Colombia are regularly hired as subcontractors, enabling employers to avoid paying living wages and benefits granted in union contracts. In 2011, 15,000 subcontracted palm oil workers went on strike, and union leaders from four palm companies successfully initiated a process by which workers would gain formal employment status—success that vastly increased union affiliation.
In recognizing the incredible sacrifices of Murillo and Conde Tapia, the Solidarity Center honors the struggles of all Colombians in Buenaventura and across palm oil plantations who strive to improve their lives and their families’ future.
In Honduras, union leaders are on their way to successfully negotiating eight collective bargaining agreements covering 21,000 garment workers who have joined unions in the past few years. Contracts negotiated so far include 23 percent wage increases, free transportation to and from work, free lunch, additional severance pay for workers recovering from ergonomic-related illnesses, and educational funds for workers and their children.
Five of those agreements will be first-ever pacts for 17,350 workers, says Evangelina Argüeta Chinchilla, coordinator of organizing maquila workers in the northern Choloma region for the General Workers Central (CGT) union confederation.
The evening event features AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and also will honor U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown for his leadership to protect worker rights and the brave Colombian union and community activists for their frontline-efforts to achieve social justice in their country. And special guest U.S. Rep. Karen Bass will deliver remarks. (There’s still time to sponsor the event or buy tickets to attend!)
The day begins with a launch of the Solidarity Center-support book, Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective, and panel discussions featuring U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and international worker rights activists. (Find out more about the free book event and RSVP here.)
Honduran Unions ‘Persevere on Behalf of Workers and Their Families’
In a country where in recent years union leaders have been harassed, attacked and even murdered, and where employers utilize hardball tactics to prevent workers from forming unions and bargaining contracts, the stunning success of the garment workers in achieving fundamental workplace rights is a “testament to the determination of the Honduran union movement to persevere on behalf of workers and their families,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Together, they are helping to ensure that workers have living wages, just and fair workplaces and the opportunity to improve the future of their children.”
Argüeta Chinchilla is emblematic of these dedicated activists. She began work in a maquila at age 15, where she toiled for nine years and was a founder of the union at her factory before becoming a full-time organizer for the CGT. With Argueta’s leadership, Honduran garment-sector unions have negotiated historic worker rights agreements with two major U.S. clothing brands, Fruit of the Loom (2009) and Nike (2010), that laid the groundwork for successive organizing and collective bargaining achievements.
She and other women unionists hold leadership trainings with assistance from women’s rights organizations and the Solidarity Center. Argüeta Chinchilla hopes to see women “exercising power proportional to the numbers we represent in the world, in the labor movement.”
Empowered women now ensure their concerns are reflected in bargaining agreements. Some of the contracts garment workers have negotiated so far grant women who have just given birth additional paid leave beyond the 12-week maternity leave they receive under Honduran law.
“This is important, because a lot of times women workers must resign because they don’t have anyone to take care of their baby, especially in the early weeks, and this will help them get through that period,” says Argüeta Chinchilla, speaking through a translator.
Expanding Democracy Through the Freedom to Form Unions
International solidarity with Honduran workers has been key to furthering their efforts to achieve decent jobs. In November 2009, Russell Athletic agreed to rehire 1,200 workers in Honduras who lost their jobs when the company closed the factory in an attempt to bust the union, after the union—with support from the Solidarity Center and the United Students Against Sweatshops—convinced 110 U.S. universities to cut their apparel contracts with Russell.
Since then, says Argüeta Chinchilla, “it is very evident that significant protections have been made—workers are more educated about their rights, there is more respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining, and improvements such as health and safety for workers.
“There is always the fear of losing your job, but less now than what happened in past.”
Earlier this year, a four-year campaign by Honduran labor unions to improve workplaces and strengthen the rights of workers culminated with the Honduran National Congress approving a new labor inspection law. The law promotes, monitors and is designed to ensure that workplace standards, safety and health provisions, and social security requirements are upheld. It includes financial penalties for violations of worker rights, including the right to form unions.
Argüeta Chinchilla knows that such success begins through empowering workers, especially women workers, to take active roles in their unions.
“The internal democracy of unions has improved,” says Argüeta Chinchilla. “Many more women are active in union leadership, and this has translated into civil society: Workers are more participative in democracy and government and the country in general.”
“Trade unions and NGOs must work together” to end child labor, asserted Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi as he summed up a two-day gathering of more than 40 child labor activist organizations from around the world in Seville, Spain. Participants at “Forum Spain-Americas: Civil Society for the Sustained Elimination of Child Labor” met last week to discuss United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 8.7, which aims in part at the eradication of child labor.
Satyarthi, founder of the Global March Against Child Labor, a worldwide network of trade unions, civil society organizations and education associations working to end child labor, launched the organization 20 years ago to press for adoption of International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 138 on eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
“The Global March started out as a movement, which became an organization,” said Solidarity Center Asia Region Director Tim Ryan. “You can identify an issue and create an organization, but you need a vision to create a movement.” Ryan, who serves as chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labor, participated in a panel examining how the Global March’s international work over the years could inform renewed efforts to address child labor in the Western hemisphere.
Ending Child Labor, Ensuring Children Receive Quality Education
The connection of trade unions and civil society organizations in a close partnership has been a unique and important aspect from the inception of Global March, Ryan said. Currently, representatives from Education International, the global union federation of teachers, and trade union activists from Ghana and the United States are Global March Board members.
“It’s no surprise teachers’ unions around the world are part of the Global March,” Ryan said. “A key value underpinning the elimination of child labor has to be the opportunity for children to have a quality education.”
Satyarthi said that education philosophy around the world must be aimed at something greater than turning out consumers.
“Education that just produces makers and lubricators of the global economy is a disaster,” he said. But “there is no dearth of good people and good work who can strengthen our alliances with hope and resolve” to eliminate child labor with committed people and their organizations working for it.
As the number of workers in the informal economy increase around the world, the result is that more and more workers are low paid, with few or no social benefits or job security. In the Dominican Republic, where many in the informal economy are Haitian migrants, the union movement successfully organized those who work in construction and, in the case of domestic workers, played a key role in pushing for passage of the International Labor Organization Domestic Worker Rights Convention 189.
The Dominican Republic labor movement’s strategies for success will be among the examples discussed November 15 during the Solidarity Center launch of the new book, Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective. (The event in Washington, D.C., is free. RSVP here.) The book collects case studies from union campaigns in such countries as Brazil, Cambodia and Colombia, bringing together in one volume a compendium of academic field research and concrete grassroots examples
U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-Wash.), AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau and international worker rights advocates will explore how unions are using social and economic justice tools to organize workers and share their successes with others seeking dignity on the job, justice in their communities and greater equality in the global economy.
In recent years, Uzbekistan has increased the number of public-sector workers required to pick cotton, because the country nearly ended child labor in 2014 after pressure from the international community, including the Solidarity Center. Recent reports, however, indicate that the practice of forcing children to pick cotton has not ended in all parts of the country, with children sent to the fields.
The return of child labor is one of many examples showing that Uzbekistan’s promised reforms have not yet fully become reality, and the Uzbek cotton fields remain full of abusive practices, even resulting in death. Najmiddin Sarimsoqov, 58, became the first victim to lose his life in the Uzbekistan cotton fields this harvest season when he died of a brain hemorrhage as he prepared to pick cotton in Jizzakh Region’s Zafarobod District on October 8.
Each year, the Uzbekistan government forces approximately 1 million people to work in the country’s cotton fields, picking a crop that makes up nearly a quarter of the nation’s GDP. The Walk Free Foundation, a group committed to ending forced labor, estimates that 4 percent of the country’s population is sent to the fields.
According to experts, the situation in Uzbekistan is unique, since the work is mandated by the government, a practice that dates back to the Soviet era. This makes monitoring and addressing the situation in Uzbekistan even more difficult, because monitoring must be conducted in tandem with Uzbekistan officials.
According to the Cotton Campaign, a coalition of organizations “dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in cotton production,” of which the Solidarity Center is a member, the Uzbek government’s practice of forcing doctors, nurses, and teachers to work in the fields is extremely detrimental to the nation’s health and education services.
This year, however, the Uzbek government claims to have sent many of these public-sector employees out of the fields and back to their schools and jobs. The decision, made by President Shavkat Miriziyoyev, presumably comes after Jim Yong Kim, president of the World Bank, put pressure on the country to end the horrific practice. However, this situation has not been remedied.
Many of the public employees no longer forced to work are instead required to pay their replacements at costs that are unaffordable. Some teachers, who had been sent back to their classrooms from the fields, were forced to pay $40 to local officials, half of their monthly salary.
Praise for Uzbekistan Liberalized Labor Laws ‘Premature’
Steve Swerdlow, a Central Asia researcher at Human Rights Watch, called praise of the news regarding Uzbekistan’s supposedly liberalized labor laws “premature,” as long as activists face threats of violence and detention. “President Mirziyoyev’s government should send an unambiguous message to independent activists and cotton monitors that their work is valued and that they will be free to monitor this cotton harvest without retaliation or interference,” he adds.
The Solidarity Center and its partners have long been involved in the fight against forced labor in Uzbekistan. A report released earliert this year highlighted worker rights abuse in areas with World Bank investments. Even more recently, the Uzbek-German Forum published a report on forced labor in these areas, highlighting the World Bank’s failures to stop the practice in areas where it invests, such as Karakalpakstan, a region in the western area of the country. Together with its partners in the Cotton Campaign, the Solidarity Center has joined in calling on the World Bank to live up to its promises in Uzbekistan.
Despite government claims to the contrary, it is clear that Uzbekistan’s cotton fields are still rife with forced labor and child labor, and the Solidarity Center and its allies will continue the struggle for decent work in Central Asia and beyond.
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