Kymbat Sherimbayeva was born in Naryn Oblast, a mountainous and very cold region of Kyrgyzstan where most people support themselves through cattle breeding. Seven years ago, 18-year-old Sherimbayeva left her village for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, seeking work.
Youth un- and underemployment stands at 55 percent in Kyrgyzstan. Most young people feel forced to migrate to Kazakhstan, Korea, Russia, Turkey or other countries in search of work, but some young people like Sherimbayeva hope to build their futures closer to home.
After arriving in Bishkek, Sherimbayeva found a job as a knitter at a hosiery factory, where she was soon promoted to head of quality control.
While working at the factory, Sherimbayeva says, she and her some 200 coworkers—of whom 90 percent are between the ages of 18 and 25—became increasingly concerned about inadequate wages and poor safety and health conditions.
With the help of trainings provided by the Garment Workers’ Union of Kyrgyzstan, with Solidarity Center support, workers at the factory realized they could negotiate improvements with management much more effectively as a group than as individuals. “We are stronger when we are together,” says Sherimbayeva.
Workers identified several activist leaders, including Sherimbayeva, who helped organize their coworkers into a union local. This year, workers are negotiating their first agreement with their employer, focusing on better wages and benefits. Sherimbayeva says that workers’ need higher wages because the average monthly salary of $200 does not cover basic expenses. She also hopes to help achieve for her co-workers paid sick leave and a year-end bonus, which are common to workers in Kyrgyzstan but not available to workers at their factory.
Since she and her co-workers organized, Sherimbayeva says they have found it much easier to negotiate improvements with factory management, even before a formal agreement is in effect. For example, in consultation with the union, factory management developed safety instructions for all departments and trained workers on those procedures; hired a local occupational safety and health service; provided protective clothing and other personal safety equipment; and now displays occupational safety and health information in prominent places throughout the factory building.
“Our position is much stronger concerning our labor as well as human rights. Together, we are able to defend workers in a much more effective way,” she says.
Workers around the world experienced rising physical violence and threats over the last year—and in more countries–according to this year’s ITUC Global Rights Index. The report documents attacks on union members in 59 countries and shows that 60 percent of countries are now excluding entire groups of workers from labor law.
“We need to look no further than these shocking figures to understand why economic inequality is the highest in modern history. Working people are being denied the basic rights through which they can organize and collectively bargain for a fair share,” said Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation general secretary.
The report’s key findings include:
- Millions of people are still enslaved under the kefala system in the Gulf, making the Middle East and North Africa once again the worst region for treatment of workers
- Unionists were murdered in 11 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Mauritania, Mexico, Peru, the Philippines and Venezuela
- The number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased from 52 to 59 countries, including Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, Indonesia and Ukraine
- Eighty-four countries exclude entire categories of workers from labor law
- More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers their right to strike
- More than three-quarters of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining
- Out of 139 countries surveyed, 50 deny or restrict free speech and freedom of assembly.
The report ranks the 10 worst countries for worker rights in 2017 as Bangladesh, Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Qatar, South Korea, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates.
Read the report: ITUC Global Rights Index 2017
Download the ITUC Global Rights Index map
Download the ITUC Global Rights Index Infographic – Violation of workers’ rights
Download the ITUC Global Rights Index Infographic – Ten worst countries in the world for working people
Some 350 workers at the Georgia chemical company Rustavi Azot recently were dismissed without notice or compensation and nearly 2,000 more threatened with firing unless they accept new, short-term contracts. The actions by the company, which produces mineral fertilizers, ammonia, sodium cyanide and nitric acid, generated protests in Rustavi and Tbilisi, garnered international support and prompted local media speculation about potentially questionable business dealings by the company’s former owner, Bank of Georgia.
The workers did not receive notice or access to union representation before being fired in January. Instead, they learned they had been dismissed when their passes failed to grant them access to the plant. Workers protesting their dismissals on February 2 suffered broken ribs and other injuries after they were violently removed from the company building by police.
Workers still employed at the plant say they were confronted with new contracts and threatened by their employer with firing if they refused to sign, and denied union representation and legal consultation. They say their future with the company is now uncertain.
Solidarity Center partner Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) is leading a legal challenge on behalf of dismissed workers, asserting that the firings violate Georgia’s labor code and the employer’s collective bargaining agreement with the Trade Union of Metallurgy, Mining and Chemical Industry Workers of Georgia (TUMMCIWG), a GTUC affiliate. With Solidarity Center assistance, the GTUC is preparing lawsuits against the company, demanding reinstatement or the compensation to which workers are entitled.
Workers from multiple unions, including representatives from IndustriAll affiliates in Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan joined members of TUMMCIWG and the GTUC for a global solidarity rally this week in Rustavi, presenting to fired workers letters of support from trade unions in Moldova, Russia and Ukraine.
Some Georgia media outlets are questioning how Rustavi Azot changed hands last September through a secretive auction shortly after receiving a $155 million loan from the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD).
Rustavi Azot, located 14 miles south from Tbilisi, generated 84 percent of its sales last year from exports, including to some European Union countries.
At least four garment workers lost their lives yesterday and dozens more were injured when the two flat-bed trucks they were commuting to work on collided, according to Solidarity Center staff at the site of the incident. One of the trucks was carrying 50 people and the other more than 70 workers. The deaths left at least eight children without their mother.
Agence France-Presse reports that 13 of the injured workers are in critical condition.
The incident happened as the Solidarity Center’s legal team was in court overseeing disbursement of the settlement to victims and surviving families of a bus crash that killed 19 workers and injured another 20 people last spring. Families of the deceased and workers injured in the May 2015 incident attended the court session, where they received meager payments of between $1,500 and $3,000 for the loss of their loved ones or their pain and suffering. After almost a year, a number of workers who survived say they have not received compensation due them from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
Cambodia’s garment sector features notoriously dangerous and largely unregulated transportation for its workers, who crowd onto open-air trucks to save money. According to Women’s Wear Daily, “73 garment workers died from traffic accidents while going to work, while 789 were injured” in 2014. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 garment workers were injured and 130 killed while they were being transported to and from factories in 2015, according to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
“The extremely high number of fatalities and injuries is completely unacceptable,” said William Conklin, Solidarity Center Cambodia program director. “Garment workers, or any other workers, should not have to fear for their life each day on the commute to and from work. Yet they do because of the confluence of low wages and high disregard for the lives of workers on the part of authorities and factory owners. Labor here is just a commodity.”
Cambodian unions say wages are vital to safe transport for Cambodian workers, and freedom of association is crucial to collective bargaining for higher wages. Just a short distance from the site of Tuesday’s crash, workers at a sweater factory continued their strike demanding, among other things, a $3 increase in the monthly transport allowance. The response from the factory and the authorities was a violent crackdown on striking workers, arresting five and injuring about 30 people, two of them seriously.
Whether building a towering office building in downtown Zimbabwe, sewing garments in a Bangladesh factory or digging for phosphate in Mexico mines, the world’s unsung working people demonstrate, time and again, the dignity of work. Here, we celebrate some of the amazing women and men we partnered with in 2015, and showcase their efforts to improve their lives and livelihoods and tip the scales toward greater equality in their countries.
As Mervat Jumhawi, a former garment worker and union organizer working with the Solidarity Center in Jordan, described her own experience: “When I became member of the union, I became stronger.”