In a global context where most working people and their communities are being denied a say in their future according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Kenya’s Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU-K) is effectively engaging government and policy makers to represent the needs of working people in the development of climate change solutions.
“[N]early nine out of ten countries are… not using social dialogue,” says ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow about climate plans submitted by governments under the Paris Agreement on Climate Change. As defined by the International Labor Organization (ILO), social dialogue structures and processes are tools for promoting consensus building and democratic involvement among the main stakeholders in the world of work—representatives of governments, employers and workers—on issues of common interest.
In Kenya, the climate crisis is prompting more frequent and prolonged droughts, erratic rainfall, intermittent flooding, water scarcity and increased incidence of climate change-related diseases—which threaten people’s jobs and livelihoods in all sectors, especially agriculture, fishing, forestry, mining and tourism. Unions, says COTU-K, must take their place at the table to advance worker-centered climate solutions toward a sustainable and thriving future.
COTU-K, a Solidarity Center partner, has successfully represented the interests of Kenya’s most vulnerable citizens in multiple fora and processes, contributing to the country’s Climate Change Response Strategy, the National Climate Change Action Plan, Climate Change Act and, most recently, in the 2020 process of updating Kenya’s Nationally Determined Contributions (NDCs) under the Paris Agreement to include just transition elements. COTU-K is also a member of Kenya’s National Climate Change Council—a body chaired by President Uhuru Kenyatta that advises government on the development of climate change policies and legislation.
COTU-K’s just transition program is rooted in its vision of climate justice, which advocates for a low-carbon development path and actions to address climate change while simultaneously prioritizing the creation of good jobs and ensuring social justice, rights and social protection for all.
“Climate justice [will ensure] that the environmental and social costs of unsustainable production and consumption are met by the economic agents responsible for them,” and prevent the burdens of changes benefiting everyone being placed disproportionately on a few or the most vulnerable, says COTU-K.
The development of climate-related programs and policies requires active and informed public participation, says COTU-K. To this end, COTU-K is pursuing climate-justice coalitions with like-minded organizations, supporting climate and labor justice at both national and county levels of government, and providing worker-to-worker and union-to-union exchanges on effective climate justice strategies.
In a joint effort to protect market vendors and workers and reduce community spread of COVID-19, Kenya’s labor federation, Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU-K), last week provided three of its affiliates with infection control supplies for distribution through the informal worker organizations that they represent. Under the August 13 “COTU CARES” campaign, six organizations that represent almost 6,000 informal workers are distributing to their Nairobi-based members, with Solidarity Center support, 4,000 KN95 face masks, 2,000 pairs of disposable surgical hand gloves, 100 pairs of industrial hand gloves, 140 gallons of liquid handwashing soap, 100 soap containers, 46 gallons of hand sanitizer, 36 handwashing stands and nine thermal body temperature scanners.
“Many people think that trade unions only represent formal workers, but now you know that informal workers are equally important and that’s why we are here,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), which helps represent automobile mechanics.
Recipients of the distribution include informal worker organizations Grogon-Ngara Food Vendors Association, metal worker associations Ambira Jua Kali and Migingo Mechanics Self Help Group, Muthurwa Cleaners Association, Muthurwa Food Court Vendors Association and street vendor association Nairobi Informal Sector Confederation (NISCOF). COTU-K affiliate participants include AUKMW, the Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers Union (KLDTDU), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA).
Given the prominence of market shopping in Kenyan citizen’s daily lives—96 percent of the country’s retail is informal—together with relatively high infection rates of market vendors, infection control at markets is essential for containment of the pandemic. Scientists surveying about 10,000 people in Mozambique last month found that market vendors had the highest rate of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—followed by healthcare workers.
COTU-K and its affiliates are addressing the pandemic on several fronts, including advocating with the Kenyan government to ensure informal worker access to government-provided COVID-19 relief measures such as food support and cash transfers. Solidarity Center partners AUKMW, KUCFAW and KUDHEIHA together with the Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers Union (KLDTDU) are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public. COTU-K and its affiliates are conducting several pandemic relief drives, including food and PPE distribution to flower workers in Isinya, Kajiado County, with the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) on August 17.
The pandemic has thrown systematic inequality in the Kenyan workforce into stark relief. As compared to the fewer than 3 million people who work in the formal sector, Kenya’s nearly 15 million informal sector workers—the majority of whom are women—historically have few legal protections. Most informal-sector workers, which include domestic workers and cleaners, market and street vendors, mechanics and security guards, are not covered by national safety and other employment regulations and have no access to government social programs such as social security, healthcare and unemployment benefits. Last year COTU-K affiliate trade unions representing Kenya’s formal-sector workers in food, health, education and metals signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with informal worker associations in their respective sectors in order to bring 5,600 newly organized informal-sector workers under the country’s legal framework that protects formal workers.
Just as the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the massive global economic and social inequality around the world, with workers in the informal economy and supply chains, and migrant workers—many of whom are women—especially marginalized, so, too, does it offer the potential to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global challenges.
Around the world, unions and worker associations are taking the lead in championing worker rights and in doing so, demonstrating a path forward through collective action to achieve shared prosperity and sustainability. As the novel coronavirus spreads, unions are demanding safe and healthy conditions for workers who must remain on the job, and that they be compensated during forced worksite closures. The following is a small sample of union actions around the globe, reported in large part from Solidarity Center staff in close contact with union partners.
In Haiti, where garment factories were among facilities closed to prevent spread of the virus, workers were asked to return to pick up paychecks (for the days worked prior to the closures) in staggered stages so as to prevent crowding and potential contagion. It is standard practice for workers in Haiti’s garment industry to receive their wages in person, in the form of a cash, because most earn too little to maintain a bank account for check deposits, and paychecks are immediately consumed on basic goods.
Despite a government order to distribute pay to groups of 10 workers at a time, one factory employer simultaneously convened all 2,000 workers to collect their wages, despite the danger. In addition, some factories now are reopening to make masks, in large part for export to the United States, a move that puts at risk workers, their communities and the country’s already fragile healthcare system.
Although some factories have announced measures to protect workers’ health and safety at the factory, they do not adequately address risks workers face going to work as they walk through congested areas and travel up to an hour on crowded tap-taps (covered trucks serving as public transportation). Solidarity Center union partners will play a critical role in monitoring the enforcement of these measures and advocating for additional safeguards.
Four Haitian garment-sector unions, all Solidarity Center partners, issued a joint proposal to President Jovenel Moïse calling on the government and employers to respect International Labor Organization (ILO) protocols on COVID-19 in the world of work. The coalition also called on the government and employers to adhere to Haitian labor code stipulating workers receive pay when the government closes workplaces, and urged government and employers to pay workers the equivalent of the daily wages they earned on average in the three months prior to factory closures. The coalition also recommends the government provide support to informal workers, cease collecting income tax and reallocate funds from the country’s cancelled Carnival event to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The unions include Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haïtiens (CNOHA), Confederation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), Confédération des Travailleurs- euses des Secteurs Public et Privé (CTSP) and ESPM-Batay Ouvriye.
Palestine General Federation of Trade Union members are fanning out to 12 checkpoints along the Israel-Palestine border to address the health needs of the tens of thousands of workers returning home to the West Bank and Gaza as their worksites shut down in Israel, a large-scale movement that is exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.
Iman abu Salah, a member of PGFTU’s organizing team at Bartaa’h barrier near Jenin city in the West Bank, told Solidarity Center staff that three organizers are stationed in two shifts, connecting with between 100 and 200 workers per shift. Union members assist returning workers in completing detailed forms to ensure accurate reporting of health issues, and the unions share their reports with emergency health committees in each district. PGFTU members also are providing workers with information on protecting against the virus, as well as with union contact details in their city or village. Unions and health teams joined together to provide sterilized buses to take workers directly to their home city, village or refugee camp.
In Myanmar, as around the world, garment workers are especially hard hit by the #COVID-19 crisis as global retailers cancel orders, with factory employers laying off workers without pay, firing union supporters and forcing nonunion workers to remain on the job without safety protections, according to union leaders. Garment workers and their unions are mobilizing to demand that factories close for their safety and are seeking full pay for time off during the closures. Unions are pushing for employers to sign agreements that factories will recognize the union when they reopen and maintain all previous wages and benefits.
Unions representing garment workers in Lesotho, where more than 45,000 workers make jeans, T-shirts and other goods for export, are calling on the government to provide full wages to furloughed workers during the 21-day government-imposed lockdown to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. The unions are also demanding that those required to work be provided with free transport in compliance with social distancing guidelines.
Workers have “sacrificed their lives for the country with meager wages and are continuing to keep the economy going as essential workers during this time,” according to the statement by the United Textile Employees, National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers’ Union and the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho. They “not only contribute to the GDP, but support numerous families, unemployed relatives and poverty-stricken families with their wages.”
The Albanian telecommunications union won a four-hour work day for those not teleworking, as well as company-provided masks, while in Kyrgyzstan, the union federation is urging the government to include remote work standards in the labor code. Unions in Albania, Kyrgyzstan and Montenegro have released statements calling on governments to improve social, economic and public health policy to protect both their membership and society.
In Thailand, Solidarity Center’s union and migrant worker partners are communicating with workers via social media, as unions set up an online Labor Clinic to create and post videos on worker rights and benefits during layoffs and plant closures, and are providing instructions for applying for unemployment and social welfare benefits. Unions are hosting live Facebook forums enabling workers to send in real-time questions and comments. Unions in the aviation sector are calling on the government to protect full-time permanent and subcontracted workers, and provide health and safety measures in line with international labor standards at all workplaces. Migrant worker organizations also are reaching out to migrant workers in Burmese with information on preventing and identifying COVID-19 symptoms and with information on locations to access health care.
The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) supported the launch of a regional isolation center for workers, and unions throughout Ethiopia are driving anti-stigmatization conversations that seek to encourage workers to report cases of infection and are negotiating with the government to ensure workers are protected on the job during the pandemic.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear to workers, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce. Additional Solidarity Center partners—the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA)—are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public.
Indonesia factory-level unions are negotiating masks and other safety protections for workers, and while they are achieving success, a shortage in personal protective equipment is hindering efforts. For example, 60,000 workers, members os National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner, successfully negotiated with their employer to receive masks, but the company is unable to procure such a large supply. The company recently agreed to allocate some production line to produce the masks to protect workers. Indonesian unions are urging the government to provide support for informal workers, who comprise more than 60 percent of the working population in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.
Led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), unions in South Africa established labor law helplines for their members to address employers’ increased abused of worker rights during the crisis.
In Morocco, where hotels have been turned into hospital facilities, the Federation Nationale des Hotels, Restaurants et Tourisme (FNHRT) is assisting hotel workers in collecting unemployment benefits and maintaining contact with workers across the sectors who have lost their jobs. The FNHRT is affiliated to the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT).
Three trade unions representing Kenya’s formal-sector workers in food, health, education and metals signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with informal worker associations in their respective sectors yesterday. The agreements formalize efforts by affiliates of the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) to organize workers in Kenya’s outsized and growing informal sector and make union representation of 5,600 newly organized informal workers official. With these agreements, for the first time, Kenya’s trade unions have brought informal-sector workers such as vendors, cleaners, autobody workers and mechanics under the union umbrella, giving them access to the country’s legal framework that protects formal workers.
“We are so excited. We have a dependable partner. Things will get better for us from now on,” said Grogon/Ngara Food Vendors Association Chairman Peter Ndirangu.
The agreements were signed during a public ceremony on October 29, 2019. Signatory organizations include the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW), Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) and the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW) together with their respective informal worker associations.
“We will walk together; we will fight together; we will learn together,” said AUKMW General Secretary and COTU-K Women’s Committee National Chair Rose Omamo—who is also a former mechanic.
“The three unions are not waiting until they have no more members, they are aggressively organizing informal workers,” said United Domestic Workers of America AFSCME Local 3930 Executive Director Doug Moore, who attended the signing in a show of solidarity by his local’s 91,000 members. Moore is also a member of the Solidarity Center’s Board of Trustees.
Informal associations represented in the agreements include the Ambira Jua Kali Association, the Eastleigh Hawkers Association, Grogon/Ngara and Muthurwa food vendors, the Migingo Mechanics Self Help Group and the Nairobi Informal Sector Confederation (NISCOF).
Until now, working women and men in Kenya’s informal economy have been left outside the legal framework that protects formal workers, and so they have little power to advocate for themselves. Solidarity Center partner COTU-K has focused increasingly in recent years on organizing and formalizing workers in the informal sector with the goal of protecting all workers’ livelihoods and ensuring safe and secure work for all.
A decline in the number of formal jobs is a global trend. Working women and men in the informal economy—among them, day laborers, domestic workers, kindergarten teachers, sugarcane cutters and call center workers—now comprise the majority of the workforce in many countries. The International Labor Organization (ILO) estimates that two billion people hold jobs in the informal labor market, with the largest percentage of these jobs being in low-income countries.
The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based movement to help workers come together to gain the knowledge and confidence to assert their rights and raise living standards. In 35 countries, we provide trainings and programs to help precarious workers better understand their rights, organize unions to mitigate job vulnerabilities, and learn to bargain for improved conditions and wages.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) and the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) signed a cooperative agreement last week in Kuwait City, formalizing the federations’ effort to jointly address issues affecting workers who migrate from Kenya to Kuwait for employment.
“It is crucial to bring together unions from countries on both ends of the migration spectrum to promote a deeper understanding of the challenges workers face along their journey and into the workplace,” said Solidarity Center Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs Hind Cherrouk. “This agreement, which affirms the rights of migrant workers from Kenya in Kuwait, is an important step forward in that regard.”
The majority of some 34 million Africans are migrants move across borders in search of decent work—jobs that pay a living wage, offer safe working conditions and fair treatment. Often they find employers who seek to exploit them—refusing to pay their wages, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay, and even physically abusing them. Kenyan women signing on for domestic work in Saudi Arabia, for example, were told they would receive 23,000 Kenya shillings ($221) a month, only to find upon their arrival that the pay was significantly less and the working and living conditions inhumane. Through the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), COTU-K is supporting a multi-year effort to protect domestic workers migrating from the coastal area surrounding the city of Mombasa to homes in the Middle East.
Unions around the globe are increasingly taking joint action to create community and workplace-based safe migration and counter-trafficking strategies that emphasize prevention, protection and the rule of law. KTUF spearheaded a groundbreaking 2015 domestic worker law that granted enforceable legal rights to 660,000 mostly migrant workers from Asia and Africa working in Kuwait as domestic workers, nannies, cooks and drivers, and urged further protection for migrant workers in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. That same year, unions in Asia and the Gulf signed a landmark memorandum of understanding (MOU) that promoted and outlined steps for coordination among unions in organizing and supporting migrant workers in those regions. The Solidarity Center and its partners in the Americas in 2017 crafted a worker rights agenda for inclusion in the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration.
“There is a potentially powerful role for union-to-union, cross-national and, in this case, cross-regional solidarity in protecting the dignity of migrant workers traveling from Africa to the Middle East. The Solidarity Center is proud to be a partner in this process and trade union-centered approach between the trade union movements of Kuwait and Kenya,” said Solidarity Center Director of Africa Programs, Hanad Mohamud.
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