Days of economic protests in Kasserine, Tunisia, are the result of “the persistent marginalization” and “the ruling elite’s failure to achieve the hopes and expectations of Tunisians,” especially the young, according to the country’s union federation, Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT).
“The UGTT supports the legitimate demands of hundred of thousands of marginalized and unemployed,” the federation said in a statement. The UGTT, a Solidarity Center partner, is calling on the government to “take urgent measures to remedy to this situation and to engage in a constructive and serious dialogue.”
Protests began on January 19 after a man committed suicide reportedly because he was denied a government post. Kasserine, with few jobs and a high poverty rate, is among many cities and towns in Tunisia’s central and border areas where workers, especially young people, are unable to support themselves and their families.
The government declared an indefinite nationwide curfew yesterday. Police use of tear gas to disperse the crowds sparked protests in several other towns, including Tunis, the capital, where hundreds took to the streets.
The UGTT is urging people to demonstrate peacefully and avoid violence, and is calling on the government, political parties and civil society organizations to join in national dialogue to address social tension and develop a strategy to fight unemployment.
The events echo the December 2010 suicide of a 23-year-old market vendor, Mohamed Bouazizi, whose death sparked protests for jobs and democracy that spread quickly across the country and ignited the Arab uprising.
Tunisian trade unionists, supported by UGTT, played a central role in the 2011–2012 revolution, and public outcry led to the ouster of President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, who had ruled Tunisia for 23 years, holding sway over a large percentage of the Tunisian economy, controlling real estate, hotels, airlines, telecommunications and automobiles.
A vigil tonight at the United Nations kicks off events around the world body’s broad new 17-point agenda that aims in part to end extreme poverty, eradicate hunger and ensure clean water and sanitation. The 193 UN member states have debated the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) over past three years and in coming days likely will commit to work toward achieving them by 2030.
The 17 goals include 169 targets, an ambitious agenda whose success will depend upon governments and civil society working together, according to UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. But fundamental to the entire plan is Goal No. 8, “Decent Work and Economic Growth,” says Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director.
“Pernicious economic and social inequality is most obvious where the rights of working people are most denied,” Bader-Blau wrote in a recent Huffington Post article. “And no effort to mitigate inequality within and among countries will succeed without a committed movement to protect and bolster those rights.”
Key Goals in Decent Work and Economic Growth
Decent Work and Economic Growth includes the following key goals:
- By 2030, achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all women and men, including for young people and persons with disabilities, and equal pay for work of equal value.
- By 2020, substantially reduce the proportion of youth not in employment, education or training.
- Take immediate and effective measures to eradicate forced labor, end modern slavery and human trafficking and secure the prohibition and elimination of the worst forms of child labor, including recruitment and use of child soldiers, and by 2025 end child labor in all its forms.
Another critical target is protecting worker rights and promoting safe and secure working environments for all workers, “including migrant workers, in particular women migrants, and those in precarious employment.”
“People should not have to leave their human rights at the border when they migrate,” Bader-Blau said this week on the Kojo Nnamdi radio show in Washington, D.C.
Gender Equality Essential for Broad-Based Prosperity
Achieving gender equality, Goal No. 5, also is essential to attaining broad-based prosperity. A new study released today estimates that tackling gender inequality and boosting women’s job opportunities could add $12 trillion to the annual gross domestic product (GNP).
The “Gender Equality” goal includes as one of its top targets the elimination of all forms of violence against women and girls in the public and private sphere—a scourge that is prevalent even in the workplace, where 30 percent to 40 percent of workers report gender-based violence, a figure that rises to 90 percent in some jobs.
Building accountable institutions and ensuring access to justice (Goal No. 16 and Goal No. 17), and implementing social protections systems, one of the targets of Goal No. 1, also are essential components of the new 15-year plan.
The SDGs replace the eight UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), which included halving extreme poverty, halting the spread of HIV/AIDS and providing universal primary education by 2015.
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.
Brazil lawmakers have postponed a vote on a bill that would expand job outsourcing after a series of union-led protests drew tens of thousands of workers to streets across the country. The law would allow public and private employers to contract out all jobs, enabling employers to replace workers who have direct employment contracts with employees who could be paid up to 25 percent less. Some 12 million Brazilians already are employed as outsourced contractors, principally in cleaning and security services.
The Central Unica dos Trabalhadores (CUT), Central dos Trabalhadores e Trabalhadoras do Brasil (CTB), Intersindical, CONLUTAS and other unions spearheaded two national days of protest against the bill, most recently on April 15, when unions led peaceful protests in the capitals of all 27 Brazilian states. In São Paulo, more than 10,000 participants, including housing activists and student groups, temporarily stopped traffic on the city’s main roads. Uniao Geral dos Trabalhadores (UGT) also recently joined the coalition opposing the bill.
During similar protests on April 7, military police in Brasilia, the capital, blocked union members from entering the spectators’ gallery of the Congress, detaining four people and injuring eight others, according to the global union IndustriALL.
Under the bill, PL 4330, companies that contract outsourced services would not be directly responsible for any violations of outsourced workers’ labor rights. It also would allow outsourced workers to be represented by outsourced workers unions, and not by the unions that represent the directly-contracted workers at the companies where they are employed.
Lawmakers are expected to take up the bill next week.
Fed up with unpaid wages, salaries that are below the poverty line, few jobs available in the formal sector and a proposed wage freeze, Zimbabwe workers took to the streets in six cities Saturday to demand workers be paid and to petition the government to not arbitrarily change the labor law to empower employers to fire workers.
Workers rallied in cities across Zimbabwe Saturday. Credit: Thando Khoza
Carrying signs reading “Worker rights are human rights,” and “This year, we are not backing down,” workers presented government officials with a petition demanding officials honor their pledge to create 2 million jobs and rethink the introduction of so-called labor market flexibility, in which the brunt of economic reform falls on workers. (Read the full petition.)
“Senior government officials, including the minister of finance, want to turn the worker into a form of cheap labor,” Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) President George Nkiwane said at the rally. “While it is the ordinary worker that is being made to suffer, the government is not taking any meaningful action on chief executives who are bleeding the economy by paying themselves huge salaries and perks.”
Wages average less than $250 a month—for the 30 percent of the population working in the formal economy—while the cost of living is as high as in New York City. Some 72 percent of the population lived below the poverty line in 2013. Increasing numbers of Zimbabweans are forced to seek a living in informal economy jobs like street vending, in which they have no income security and few, if any, social benefits like health care.
“We used to have over 1.5 million workers in the formal sector 10 years ago, but we would be lucky if we have 700,000 in the formal sector (today),” Nkiwane said.
Women are disproportionately represented in poor-paying informal economy jobs, and young workers in urban areas also lack jobs that pay a living wage, the ZCTU petition noted. Employers also increasingly subcontract dangerous jobs, and so avoid paying compensation to workers injured or made ill while on the job, the petition stated.
Fake press releases and pamphlets were distributed in advance of the rally, falsely stating the rallies had been cancelled. Credit: ZCTU
Protestors turned out in Bulawayo, Chinhoyi, Gweru, Harare, Masvingo and Mutare despite a campaign to fool workers into thinking the rally had been cancelled. Fake press releases and pamphlets, purportedly from ZCTU, were distributed in several cities in advance of the rally, telling workers it had been canceled.
The march took place in an increasingly threatening environment for activists. Last month, Itai Dzamara, a leading pro-democracy advocate, was abducted. He remains missing, and leading civil society organizations—including the ZCTU—are calling on the government to ascertain his whereabouts and prosecute his abductors.
Police in the cities of Bulawayo, Mutare and Masvingo initially refused to grant permission for the demonstrations, but reversed their decisions after the Harare police agreed to allow the demonstration there, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).