Worker Rights Lawyers Connect with Allies, Map Next Steps

Worker Rights Lawyers Connect with Allies, Map Next Steps

“There is a human rights crisis around the world—that’s why we are intensifying our work in recognizing the role labor plays in holding government’s accountable and promoting dignity and equality at work,” said Sandra Coliver from the Open Society Foundation, opening the second day of the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) Conference in Mexico City.

ILAW, worker rights advocates, Solidarity Center, Sandra Coliver, OSF

Labor is key to addressing the global crisis in human rights—Sandra Coliver, OSF. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Coliver moderated a panel plenary with representatives from the American Bar Association, the Business and Human Rights Resource Center (BHRRC), Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists (ICJ) who discussed how their efforts as independent monitors and lawyers provide a key tool for worker rights advocates around the world.

More than 100 worker rights lawyers from around the world are discussing strategies to facilitate innovative litigation, help spread the adoption of pro-worker legislation and defeat anti-worker laws at the first ILAW conference. Participants yesterday discussed identified common challenges, share successes, plan strategic partnerships and more.

Key Allies: Independent Legal & Human Rights Groups  

Carlos Lopez, ILAW, International Lawyers Assisting Workers, Solidarity Center, worker rights lawyers

Carlos Lopez says ICJ offers an international lens on human rights abuses. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

In Zimbabwe, where ongoing protests against the nation’s economic meltdown have been met with death threats and a sustained government crackdown on union leaders and other civil society members, the ICJ this year documented 800 human rights violations, murders and hundreds of arrests and detentions, many included trade unionists.

ICJ created an emergency fund to provide protection for human rights violations in Zimbabwe, and relocated to safe places people whose houses were targeted and other assistance, said Carlos Lopez at ICJ.

The organization’s fact-finding mission with South African lawyers and others resulted in magistrate courts, made presentations before authorities and prepared a report—and in doing so, “signaled a strong message to labor lawyers activists that there is an international eye on what’s happening—solidarity,” he said.

ILAW, International Lawyers Assisting Workers, Solidarity Center, worker rights lawyers

BHRRC investigates up to 100 worker right violations a year, says Bobbi Sta. Maria. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

At BHRRC, the organization investigates up to 500 allegations of worker rights and human rights abuses each year and seeks to get companies to respond to the allegations, said Bobbie Sta. Maria.

“We create a public record of allegations against companies, work with unions, using information from the media and push the information out to investors, governments, non-governmental organizations, academics, companies,” and more, she said.

The ABA’s involvement in addressing worker rights and human rights abuses results in “fewer violations and shorter periods of confinement and creates documentation” that the ABA takes to brands to engage local suppliers, said Brittany Benowitz at the ABA.

“Having a bar association as outside observer helps in the larger effort” of achieving worker rights, she said.

ILAW Going Forward

ILAW, worker rights advocates, Solidarity CenterDuring regional breakouts—Africa, Asia, Europe and Latin America—participants built on discussions over the past day and a half to map out recommendations for ILAW and its members to further craft a network that achieves its founding goals: a global hub for worker rights lawyers to facilitate innovative litigation, help spread the adoption of pro-worker legislation and defeat anti-worker laws.

Common themes emerged: ILAW members said the network should go deeper in labor law reform and legislation and policy changes, engage in more public statements and advocacy and include migrant worker rights throughout all its advocacy.

The ILAW network should provide technical assistance and support so members can “share information on the migrant worker recruitment system and migration policies to enable unions and other stakeholders in the destination country to assist migrant workers,” said Sabnam Awal from the People’s Forum on Human Rights in Nepal.

ILAW, International Lawyers Assisting Workers, Solidarity Center, worker rights lawyers

ILAW Conference participants took part in regional breakouts to map next steps. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Members also frequently urged ILAW to go further in helping them address gender equality issues and network around strategies to move ratification of a new global treaty ending gender-based violence at work (International Labor Organization/ILO Convention 190).

ILAW should explore “how to encourage unions to provide an equal and level playing ground free from discrimination for both men and women,” said Kaizala Tembo, from the Labor Institute of Zambia.

Many of the resources members seek are available at the ILAW website, said ILAW Board Chair Jeff Vogt, who reviewed its features in an afternoon plenary in which members shared their priorities for ILAW. The ILAW website is available in seven languages and includes a library of resources, such as legal cases submitted by members for inclusion. ILAW members may join any of the dozens of discussion groups which are organized thematically, such as migrant worker discussion group and regionally.

ILAW, Solidarity Center, Horacio Meguira, worker rights lawyers

Horacio Meguira led a discussion on worker rights and the ILO. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Vogt, Solidarity Center Rule of Law director, also noted that an urgent action feature will shortly be live that will enable members to react quickly with an online petition.

In the final conference plenary, Horacio Meguira from the Argentina Independent Workers union, shared a history of the ILO and engaged participants in a discussion of how worker rights lawyers can address the recent shift in the organization—comprised of representatives of workers, employers and governments—toward favoring corporate and state policies that endanger worker rights.

Worker Rights Lawyers Share Successes, Strategies

Worker Rights Lawyers Share Successes, Strategies

The ability of workers to freely form unions is such a fundamental human right that the United Nations (UN) holds countries accountable for violating those rights, according to Lance Compa, senior lecturer in labor law at Cornell University.

“Even countries that have not ratified ILO 87”—the International Labor Organization standard covering freedom of association—“are subject to it because it’s a basic right under the UN charter,” he said.

International Lawyers Assisting Workers network conference, Solidarity Center, worker rights

Lance Compa, Dayhe Park, Benson Upah and Jeff Vogt open the afternoon session on freedom of association. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Compa opened the afternoon panel plenary on freedom of association at the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) conference in Mexico City, where worker rights lawyers are discussing strategies to facilitate innovative litigation, help spread the adoption of pro-worker legislation and defeat anti-worker laws. The two-day conference in Mexico City brings together more than 100 worker rights lawyers from around the world.

Compa pointed out that the concept of freedom of association is much broader than the ability to form unions, and cited examples of workers in the United States who are exercising those rights through worker associations comprised primarily of migrant workers, walkouts at nonunionized corporations like Google, and the transnational fast food worker fight for better wages.

Benson Upah at the Nigeria Labor Congress and Dayhe Park from the Korea Confederation of Trade Unions joined Compa in leading a wide-ranging discussion with participants who shared concerns about the lack of judicial knowledge of ILO standards on labor rights and the need to educate workers about their rights.

“Unions need to embark on internal governance structural reforms, such as transparency,” Upah said. He also suggested the ILO should assist labor rights advocates in bringing companies to justice for committing offenses in one country and then moving operations to another so they will not face legal action.”

Upah also stressed another key tool to achieve worker justice: “the importance of mass action.”

Building on Success

KUDHEIHA, Kenya, International Lawyers Assisting Workers network conference, Solidarity Center, worker rights

Maureen Kalume chadi from KUDHEIHA shares discussions on migrant worker rights. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

“Capital can move freely, but where does it move?” Where it can pay workers the least, said Maureen Kalume chadi from the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), sharing insights from an earlier roundtable discussion on achieving justice for migrant workers. The roundtable was among six that participants reported on during another afternoon plenary, where they also suggested strategic next steps for ILAW to take in the coming year.

Discussing how migrant workers are excluded from national labor laws and so denied access to justice, and how unscrupulous labor recruitment agencies take advantage of migrant workers, the group also shared success stories from India and Thailand. In Thailand, for instance, worker rights attorneys assisted migrant farm workers from Myanmar in obtaining justice after they were imprisoned for reporting abuses.

Participants in the employment discrimination roundtable shared their discussions on the intersectional concept of discrimination and how religion, ethnicity and other factors are connected with gender discrimination, points that show “the need to bolster our expertise on it, and recognize it from the outset,” said Solidarity Center Senior Gender Specialist Robin Runge.

“Isolating forms of discrimination is not effective,” she said.

The roundtable on discrimination also discussed the extent to which gender inequality is a widespread global issue, and how equal pay is not limited to unequal paychecks between women and men—for example, women may be blocked from securing higher paying jobs.

With the June passage of ILO 190 on ending violence in the workplace and the need for governments to ratify the standard, the group recommended an ILAW forum to enable members to share strategies on its implementation in their countries.

Participants in the “fissured employment relationship” roundtable shared their conversations on the need for a broad definition of worker and employer to address the growing number of “platform” companies like Uber claiming they are not employers and asking for exemptions from labor laws that protect workers.

They also shared successes, including a September victory in Ukraine, where Glovo delivery workers became the first in the country to form a union in the gig economy. The workers, who say they were forced to bike or drive their scooters up to 14 hours per day, six days a week to make a living, won in part by building on a legal judgement in the United Kingdom regulating platform companies.

Participants also reported on their roundtable discussions on the global supply chain, occupational safety and health and the informal economy.

Emphasis on Democracy

Arturo Alcalde, International Lawyers Assisting Workers network conference, Solidarity Center, worker rights

Arturo Alcade discussed the strategies that led to Mexico’s new labor law reform. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Building on earlier discussions in the conference on Mexico’s recent labor law reforms, Arturo Alcade, a prominent labor lawyer in Mexico, discussed during a lunchtime plenary how worker rights advocates for years championed the reforms now coming to fruition.

By filing complaints with the ILO on labor law violations that put worker rights abuses under international scrutiny and by working across borders with unions to hold corporations like NIKE accountable for worker rights violations, Alcalde says labor law reform “is now becoming institutionalized” in Mexico.

Follow Solidarity Center on Twitter and Facebook for updates throughout the conference.

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