Labor leaders, policymakers and stakeholders from around the world discussed efforts to prevent gender-based violence and harassment at the workplace at a panel discussion, “Ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work” on Thursday, April 7. The panel was part of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development’s Global Deal conference, “A Better Future for Essential Workers.”
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Sabina Dewan, president and executive director of the JustJobs Network moderated the panel. Speakers included: Philippe Symons, Sodexo chief ethics officer; Claudio Moroni, Argentina Minister of labor, employment and social security; Sandra Hassan, Canada deputy minister of labor; Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director; Frances Onokpe, Federation of Informal Workers Organization of Nigeria program officer; and Joaquin Pérez Rey, Spain’s vice minister for employment and social security.
Moroni began the discussion by describing Argentina’s efforts to address workplace violence and harassment. “Argentina has a long history of confronting violence and harassment in the workplace,” Moroni said. “The labor ministry believes there’s no such thing as an effective standard unless it includes behavioral results.”
To that end, Moroni said the ministry is working with female union leaders to include language in collective bargaining agreements to counter violence and develop a law to regulate the implementation of International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) in Argentina. Moroni closed his remarks by re-emphasizing the importance of concrete results. “Laws are not effective unless they are translated into concrete action. We are working to make sure these efforts are translated into specific conduct.”
Hassan said that Canada is in the process of C190, “One of our priorities is to continue making sure workplaces are safe and inclusive for everyone,” she said. “The ratification of C190 is a top priority of the government of Canada.” A year ago, Canada brought forth groundbreaking legislation to prevent violence and harassment in federal workplaces. “We also developed a fund that supports partner organization projects that develop sector-specific tools and practices to prevent violence and harassment in the workplace,” Hassan said.
Bader-Blau described the Solidarity Center’s partnership with Lesotho-based trade unions and women’s rights groups, global fashion brands and international rights organizations to secure a safe and dignified workplace for women employed in the country’s predominantly female garment sector. The partnership resulted in a precedent-setting program to comprehensively address rampant gender-based violence and harassment in garment factories. The program was established by two negotiated and enforceable agreements to mandate education and awareness trainings for all employees and managers, an independent reporting and monitoring system, and remedies for abusive behavior.
“These agreements were signed among apparel brands to combat violence and harassment in Lesotho’s garment sector,” Bader-Blau said. “The agreements link businesses to a commitment to eliminate gender-based violence and harassment.
“The program is also focused on culture change,” Bader-Blau said. “Thousands of workers have participated in two-day training sessions about gender-based violence and harassment.” As part of the program, Workers Rights Watch “trains intake counselors who listen with empathy and are empowered to take action.” As a result, “workers are starting to believe that employers are committed to ending gender-based violence and harassment. “The lesson we learned is that worker-led solutions matter.”
Bader-Blau also described what’s needed to replicate the success in Lesotho. “We need to move from good global framework agreements to negotiated solutions that hold suppliers and buyers accountable, not voluntary codes of conduct. We need to hear from global brands if that’s what they want to do. We need to invest in systems that recognize that abuse is common, and we need to invest in systems that establish third-party interventions.”
The Global Deal is a multi-stakeholder initiative for social dialogue and inclusive growth–a partnership of governments, businesses and employers’ organizations, trade unions, civil society and other organizations. The aim of the Global Deal partnership is to benefit from and contribute to, a platform that highlights the value of social dialogue and strengthens existing cooperation structures.
A police crackdown against Lesotho garment workers protesting a two-year delay in scheduled minimum wage increases resulted in two fatalities in Maseru, the capital, last week. Pitso Mothala and Motselisi Ramasa died as police fired into the crowd. Many more workers were injured.
The deaths come after two weeks of escalating state-sponsored attempts to use shootings, beatings and arrests to force thousands of the country’s 50,000 garment workers to return to their factories. Meanwhile, government ministries have rejected union attempts to negotiate an end to protests and are still refusing to provide garment workers with the wage increases they need to sustain themselves and their families through the COVID-19 pandemic, reports United Textile Employees (UNITE).
“We want justice for our brutal[ally] killed comrades and we shall forever make sure that their blood is not in vain,” says a UNITE media release that identifies the two slain garment workers by name. Garment workers remain at home this week while the country’s armed forces continue to patrol the industry, reports the union.
The country’s unions are refusing to return to work until the government makes good on two missed incremental minimum wage increases—for 2020/2021 and 2021/2022—that have been delayed indefinitely.
Lesotho has a long history of human rights violations against political and labor activists, including police violence against peacefully striking factory workers rallying for fair wages last year. The 45th annual U.S. Department of State, Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Human Rights report on Lesotho found that members of the Lesotho Mounted Police Service and Lesotho Defense Force last year committed numerous human rights abuses, including “unlawful or arbitrary killings; torture and cases of cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment; harsh and life-threatening prison conditions [and] arbitrary arrest or detention.”
A worker-centered, precedent-setting program that targets gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in four Lesotho garment factories is now in effect for as many as 10,000 workers producing jeans for the global market.
The program inauguration on Friday was marked by a social media campaign, including SMS text blasts to garment workers, Lesotho-based media coverage and a video announcement by signatories to binding 2019 agreements—the factory owner, brands, local unions and women’s rights groups, and international organizations and unions, including the Solidarity Center, Workers United, and the Worker Rights Consortium. The program, which is unique in that it is binding and worker-led, will empower Lesotho unions, human and women’s rights groups to effectively address GBVH. One of its tools is a new Solidarity Center GBVH training video in English and Sesotho, which debuted on Friday, that will be widely disseminated to garment workers during training programs and via social media.
To combat widespread abuse, the program is providing garment workers with GBVH awareness trainings, a confidential reporting system and enforcement processes administered by an entity independent of employer influence. Under the program:
Workers’ Rights Watch, an independent Lesotho-based nonprofit entity established by the agreements, is fully empowered to investigate complaints of GBVH and determine remedies to redress violations of the agreements’ GBVH code of conduct.
A confidential, toll-free information line run by one of the women’s rights organizations is available six days a week for garment workers to discuss GBVH issues and remedies with trained counselors, including determining their rights under the code of conduct and how to participate safely in a complaint and remedy process.
Education and awareness campaigns and programs are being provided to garment workers and their supervisors that get at the root causes of gender discrimination and violence against women, outline the GBVH code of conduct and remedies under the program, and encourage reporting through the information line.
“Painful occurrences have been happening at our place of work,” said Nien Hsing shopfloor union representative ‘Mamoleboheng Mopooane, describing demands by supervisors for sexual favors from workers seeking employment at the factory gate in exchange for work in previous years.
“We are really grateful for this program because before it has even [officially] started, we can see that there are already existing successes,” she said, adding that the program will be of even greater assistance once workers know where to report violence and harassment, and can see that GBVH incidents are taken seriously.
Program partners include Lesotho-based unions and women’s rights groups that will play a key role in implementing the program to ensure that the binding agreements change the culture and practice at Nien Hsing’s factories and provide remedy for victims of GBVH. These include the Federation of Women Lawyers in Lesotho (FIDA), the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL), the National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union, Lesotho (NACTWU), the United Textile Employees (UNITE) and Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust (WLSA)-Lesotho; international rights organizations Solidarity Center, Worker Rights Consortium (WRC) and Workers United. Global brands Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands and the employer Nien Hsing are signatories to and participants in the binding agreements and GBVH program. Funding comes from Levi Strauss, The Children’s Place and Kontoor Brands together with the Solidarity Center and WRC in collaboration with the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID).
A 2019 survey of workers at three Nien Hsing factories in Lesotho by WRC, which spurred the agreements, found that nearly two-thirds of the women from three factories who were interviewed reported “having experienced sexual harassment or abuse” or having knowledge of harassment or abuse suffered by co-workers. Women workers from all three factories surveyed identified GBVH as a central concern for themselves and other female employees.
The agreements build on the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, in which unions were key participants. The Accord recognizes the fundamental role of collective bargaining in achieving an agreement that is binding and enforced, backed by international brands’ commitment to link their ongoing business with their supplier to their compliance.
The Lesotho GBVH program also is partially modeled after the Fair Food Program, a set of binding agreements between leading food brands, like McDonald’s and Whole Foods, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which uses an independent complaint mechanism.
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).
A discussion on WPFW 89.3 about a landmark pact addressing gender-based violence at garment factories in Lesotho–the first-ever binding negotiated agreement by workers, employers and clothing brands to mandate education and awareness trainings for all employees and managers, an independent reporting and monitoring system and remedies for abusive behavior.
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