In the works is a radical overhaul of labor laws, which will redefine the lives of more than six million impoverished migrant workers. “The conditions [in Malaysia] are appalling,” said the Solidarity Center’s Dave Welsh. “If even a modicum of what trade unions put forward is enacted into law, this is a huge game changer.”
“Companies also need to do more to ensure workers never pay [recruitment] fees in the first place,” said Neha Misra from the Solidarity Center regarding a rare award reimbursing at least 10,000 Burmese migrants for the excessive and illegal fees they were charged to secure jobs at an electronics manufacturer in Thailand.
In a historic achievement, delegates to the 11th Congress of Brazil’s garment worker union federation, CNTRV (National Confederation of Clothing Workers) last week voted for gender parity in leadership and adopted a pro-women’s rights agenda.
The union achieved parity not only in the overall number of women and men in leadership, but also in its top executive positions.
“Women are empowered at the highest levels in the organization,” said CNTRV President Cida Trajano.
In partnership with the Solidarity Center, CNTRV in recent years ran a nationwide women’s leadership project, preparing women workers to assume leadership positions, according to Trajano.
“This is proof that the effort to form and organize feminist activism is worth it,” she said.
Over the next four years, CNTRV will focus on a pro-women’s rights agenda, including developing programs to combat gender-based violence at work and empower women workers; allow greater space for feminist agendas in communications; consult with women leaders and activists when developing recommendations for public policies affecting women; and expand women’s participation in collective bargaining and wage negotiations.
The Solidarity Center supports women workers seeking greater voice at the workplace across a range of employment sectors in Brazil, including the chemical, garment and hospitality industries, and domestic work. Together with the CNQ (National Confederation of Chemical Workers) CNTRV and CONTRACS (National Confederation of Service and Retail Workers), the Solidarity Center conducts trainings and campaigns to equip women to advocate for safer working conditions and more equitable salaries on the job, and to assume more active leadership roles in their unions.
Migrant workers at a glass factory in Malaysia say that for the past year, they have been forced to work 16-hour days, Monday through Friday, and eight-hour days on Saturdays and Sundays—without a day off. Injuries are common, such as the deep, seven-inch long gash one worker suffered on his chest while carrying glass.
Their report is the latest in a litany of continuing violations of migrant worker rights compiled by the Malaysian Trades Union Confederation (MTUC) and the General Federation of Nepalese Trade Unions (GEFONT), both Solidarity Center allies.
Over the past year, MTUC and GEFONT have documented hundreds of cases of employer abuse of migrant workers in Malaysia, often rising to the level of forced labor. Many of these workers, from China, India, Nepal, Sri Lanka and elsewhere, say their employer had not paid them, or had given them wages far below what they had been promised before leaving home. Female workers report being sexually assaulted by their employers.
Some 400 workers from Nepal died last year in Malaysia, according to Nepal’s labor attaché, who spoke before nearly 200 workers taking part at an MTUC-sponsored International Migrants Day event last month.
Migrant workers also suffer slave-like conditions on Malaysia’s palm oil plantations, according to a Wall Street Journal report last year.
Despite a slowing economy, employers in Malaysia are recruiting more migrant workers because they are paid less and do not receive social protection benefits, says N. Gopal Kishnam, MTUC general-secretary.
“Companies like to bring in foreign workers because they are easier to manage compared with locals. They also work hard and complain less,” Gopal told the Malaysian Insider.
A Malaysian employers’ group estimates that 20,000 workers were laid off last year, excluding 6,000 Malaysian Airlines workers who were let go as part of that company’s restructuring plan. Gopal said the figure is likely to be twice as high.
In July, the U.S. State Department upgraded Malaysia in its annual Trafficking in Persons Report, citing the country’s “significant efforts” to eliminate human trafficking.
“Many employers are still wrongly holding on to passports and work passes/visas/permits,” the MTUC said last year. “When workers claim their rights through existing legal avenues, many employers simply terminate their workers, and for migrant workers this also mean the loss of ability to stay in Malaysia which is a requirement in law if they want to pursue their claims for justice.”
Rarely do governments admit failing their citizens. However, on Friday the 193-member states of the United Nations did just that when they voted to rectify their failure to uphold the rights of workers and to ensure decent working conditions for more than half of the world’s working women and men.
By voting for an International Labor Organization (ILO) recommendation, The Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy, the large majority of the world’s governments has done more than just pledge to provide the basics for the world most vulnerable workers—those struggling to make ends meet in the informal economy—they have begun the essential process of strengthening society by promoting worker rights.
Street vendors, home-based workers, domestic workers and day-laborers usually work “off the grid” and outside a country’s regulations and labor laws. They join subcontracted, temporary and part-time workers who subsist on the fringes of the formal economy. These jobs typically pay low wages, perpetuate worker and human rights violations, provide limited or no social benefits, and offer little access to union representation. For most of these workers, survival trumps active engagement in society’s daily undertakings.
An estimated 1.5 billion, or approximately 60 percent of the world’s workers, toil in the informal economy, according to the ILO. In some developing countries, informal jobs comprise up to 90 percent of available work, and most workers take these unstable jobs out of necessity, not by choice.
Women, migrant workers and the young are disproportionately represented in the informal economy, and often the most exploited. Their situation is exacerbated because they may be barred from joining unions, which could offer support through collective bargaining on wages and working conditions, or because unions have not been able to reach them due to the isolated and changeable nature of their job.
Informalization of work fuels global income inequality, poverty and abuse. For example, at age 22, N. Naga Durga Bhavani left her small village in India for Bahrain, where she hoped a job as a domestic worker would help pay for her young daughter’s heart surgery. But when she arrived, after paying labor recruiters the equivalent of nearly two months’ wages, she says her passport and papers were confiscated, and she was forced to work long hours, trapped in an abusive environment where she was beaten, her fingers broken. After she escaped, the Indian Embassy could not help her leave the country because she had no identification.
And the drag on society does not end with the desperate plight of workers like Bhavani. Businesses employing workers in standard employer-employee relationships find themselves at a distinct disadvantage when they compete against those chasing short-term profits by not hiring full-time workers, paying taxes and benefits, or complying with regulations and labor law. Companies that provide financial and business services miss huge swaths of potential clients whose income leaves them too poor to enter the shop door and unable to access credit.
The effects on government are even more profound. The loss of tax revenue on huge percentages of GDP in many countries is only one edge of the sword. Because workers in the informal economy usually hang from the bottom rung of the economic ladder, they are more likely to need social safety nets—the very nets their jobs do not support through tax revenue.
Friday’s vote is significant because governments, worker representatives and employer representatives, who usually operate with very different agendas, publicly acknowledged the imperative of providing all workers with rights at work, social benefits and the ability to join a union. Their acknowledgement that the current system does not work—not for working people, not for governments and not for the businesses that serve them—is an important step toward bringing millions of workers into decent jobs that comply with labor codes and allow workers to be stronger members of their society. All of us should applaud the 193 nations for not choosing failure.