Millions of workers—most of them women—face intimidation, humiliation, physical and verbal assault, and worse on the job. A July 27, 2023, international summit in southern Africa gathered representatives from the governments of Argentina, Canada, Germany, Lesotho, Spain and the United States—along with dozens of leaders from unions, business and worker and women’s rights organizations—to highlight and advance efforts to end gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work, with a focus on southern Africa.
Hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER),* Lesotho Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU) and Lesotho Labor Council (LLC), the daylong summit explored how governments, corporations and unions can eliminate GBVH at work, particularly by ratifying and codifying International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) on violence and harassment, and by replicating the negotiated and binding Lesotho Agreements in supply chains elsewhere.
(Photos: Solidarity Center/Institute of Content Engineering)
Kingdom of Lesotho Prime Minister Samuel Ntsokoane Matekane (R) greets U.S. Department of State Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez (L) and United States Embassy Lesotho Deputy Chief of Mission Keisha Toms.
“We are all witness to the ever-increasing instances of gender-based violence and harassment at the workplace, not only in Southern Africa but across our beloved continent,” said Prime Minister Matekane, noting that Lesotho has committed to ethical sourcing through the U.S. African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) and the U.S. Millennium Challenge Compact II.
Below: Harry Nkhetse, senior facilitator and leadership coach, Tobaka Consultants, Mountain Peak Business Solutions, and summit co-emcee, with Marieke Koning, co-emcee and ITUC policy adviser.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS IN ELIMINATING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT AT WORK: C190
Eradication of GBVH is an urgent, compelling global challenge that will only be resolved when workers have the power to bring about change, for which they need rights to freedom of association and of collective bargaining, said Marieke Koning. The panel included government representatives from Argentina, Germany and Lesotho.
Collective bargaining agreements are the most effective mechanism for implementing progressive laws in Argentina’s experience, said Cecilia Cross, Argentina’s undersecretary for inclusion policies in the world of work (below left). “For Germany, the reason to ratify is that C190 sends such a strong global signal—that it really defines globally what is harassment at work,” said Dr. Anna Montén-Küchel, first secretary, labor and social affairs, German missions in South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini.
“Efforts must be made at the global level as national efforts alone are not enough to tack this issue, which knows no borders,” said Joaquín Perez Rey, Spain’s secretary of state for employment and social economy, by video. “Gender-based violence and harassment have no place in our workplace,” he added.
U.S. GLOBAL LABOR PRIORITIES
Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez described the Lesotho Agreements as a model for other employers in Lesotho and beyond, and M-POWER as a vehicle for mobilizing like-minded governments to participate. “Culture change is required to create the conditions that allow workers, their families and their communities to thrive,” she said.
HOW WORKERS AND COMPANIES ARE ADDRESSING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT IN A GLOBAL SUPPLY CHAIN: FOCUS ON THE LESOTHO AGREEMENT
“I experienced so much harassment at the factory before the program at Nien Hsing was established,” said Popoti Ntebe, a UNITE member and factory worker. “Because of the high level of unemployment in our country, workers tend to be harassed because of poverty.”
THE ROLE OF TRADE UNIONS IN CREATING SAFER, FAIR AND HEALTHY WORKPLACES FREE FROM HARASSMENT AND VIOLENCE
To protect rights better, unions and other activists must maximize pressure on government, said Teboho Tolo (R), LFTU president, presenting with Zingiswa Losi, president, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). “We must mobilize support!” he said.
WOMEN WORKERS’ PARTICIPATION IN DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
Sethelile Ntlhakana, Lesotho field representative for Worker Rights Consortium, moderates the session.
Gloria Kente, an organizer with the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), in yellow, leads fellow panelists Mathekiso Tseote, NACTWU shop steward (left); Leboela Moteban, LFTU gender focal person; Thato Sebeko, LLC member; and Puleng Selebeli, United Textile Employees (UNITE) member, in song.
“No struggle can be won without women’s participation,” said Mathekiso Tseote.
CLOSING STATEMENTS AND COMMITMENTS
“The world is watching; this is a precedent,” said Laura Gutierrez, AFL-CIO global worker rights coordinator, about the Lesotho Agreements. The AFL-CIO in partnership with its M-POWER colleagues wants to replicate this kind of program in the region and around the world, she said, because “M-POWER partners together recognize that in order to advance worker rights, ALL workers must have the power and ability to organize freely.”
“We must highlight [C190’s] importance as a key instrument in bringing an end to violence and harassment at work and in particular ensuring that women have a safe place to work,” said Chris Cooter, high commissioner for Canada in South Africa, by video.
The M-POWER GBVH project’s launch in Lesotho marks the milestone that Lesotho has committed to upholding worker rights through promotion of decent work for all workers in all economic sectors, said Richard Ramoeletsi, Lesotho minister of public service, labor and employment, in closing remarks.
MORE FROM THE EVENT
* M-POWER is a historic global initiative focused on ensuring working families thrive in the global economy and elevating the role of trade unions and organized workers as essential to advancing democracy. The government of the UnitedStates and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) co-chair M-POWER, joined by steering committee members: the governments of Argentina, Canada and Spain; the International Domestic Worker Federation; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); the AFL-CIO; and Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE). Additional partners include the governments of France, Germany and South Africa, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, ProDESC, Solidarity Center and Worker Rights Consortium.
An unprecedented, binding, worker-centered program designed to comprehensively address rampant gender-based violence and harassment in several garment factories in Lesotho is succeeding in creating a safe and dignified workplace in Lesotho, attendees of a high-level summit in the southern African country were told last week.
The July 23 summit, “Eradicating Gender-Based Violence and Harassment at Work in Southern Africa,” brought together government, labor and business leaders in Maseru, Lesotho’s capital, to highlight advances in ensuring worker rights and civil-society participation—including the program that arose from groundbreaking, anti-GVBH agreements negotiated collaboratively by local unions and women’s rights groups, multinational brands sourcing from Lesotho, international worker rights groups and a Taiwanese factory group producing clothing for Western markets. The event was co-hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER), the Lesotho Federation of Trade Unions and Lesotho Labor Council, and was supported by the Solidarity Center.
“I experienced so much harassment at the factory before the program at Nien Hsing was established,” said garment worker Popoti Ntebe. “Because of the high level of unemployment in our country, workers tend to be harassed because of poverty.”
Before the program launched in 2020, Ntebe said a variety of behaviors by supervisors and managers were common, including bullying, verbal and physical abuse, and sexual harassment. The desperation to have a paying job made workers vulnerable to situations where supervisors would demand sex for letting workers past the factory gate, granting overtime work or not terminating a work contract.
“After you were hired, you were given a 3-month contract. Supervisors threaten to terminate the contract if we don’t agree to have sex with them. And workers desperate for work agree,” she said.
However, since the program of education and awareness raising for workers and managers, “the rate of GBVH has really decreased. This program is so beneficial to workers,” she said.
The program has educated thousands of workers and managers about GBVH and worker rights at Nien Hsing factories in the country. It is the first attempt to end GBVH at work that is binding on the factory to implement the program; enforceable through the economic power of U.S. brands; and grounded in ILO Convention 190 on violence and harassment. And, in another milestone, it established an independent organization, Workers’ Rights Watch, to investigate allegations of violence and harassment, and remediate violations–with workers able to report issues to a newly established toll-free information line.
Other speakers on the panel, “How Workers and Companies are Addressing Gender-Based Violence and Harassment in a Global Supply Chain: Focus on the Lesotho Agreements,” were: Jeffrey Hogue, chief sustainability officer, Levi Strauss & Co. (by video); Samuel Mokhele, secretary general, National Clothing Textile and Allied Workers Union (NACTWU); Matsie Moalosi, education and awareness raising facilitator, NACTWU; Itumeleng Moerane, information line manager, Federation of Women Lawyers Lesotho (FIDA); Motseoa Senyane, lead assessor, Workers’ Rights Watch; and Leeto Makoro, shop steward, Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho (IDUL). Thusoana Ntlama, programs coordinator of FIDA Lesotho, moderated the panel.
Samuel Mokhele emphasized the importance of collaboration in addressing GBVH in Lesotho’s garment factories. “We came together with international organizations we are working with, namely the Solidarity Center, then we asked what we can do to eliminate the challenges that workers are facing at work,” he said. “We learned from other countries what kind of models they had and how we could domesticate that into our country.
“This is where all of us came up with the agreement to have a program on gender-based violence and harassment,” Mokhele added.
Speaking on behalf of educators and facilitators, Matsie Moalosi stressed the importance of addressing the root causes of GBVH and collaboration across cultures in addressing GBVH. “There are root causes to GBVH. So we have to remove them: the abuse of power, disrespect of women’s rights and gender equity. We are from different cultures. So we have to know about gender and how it’s diverse in order to accommodate LGBTQIA+ because they are people who are most vulnerable in the workplace,” Moalosi said.
Itumeleng Moerane and Motseoa Senyane emphasized the importance of the principle of confidentiality throughout the process of gathering workers’ reports of GBVH through the information line, then investigating and making determinations on remedies for valid cases, with the express consent of workers.
To date, Senyane said, Workers’ Rights Watch has issued 108 determinations, and five cases are currently under investigation.
But, more importantly, she said, “This program puts justice in the hands of workers.”
The program’s power to right injustices has elicited calls from workers in other factories and organizations, panelists said. Currently, the work is limited to factories owned by Nien Hsing, a signatory to the agreements. However, the need is great.
“Some of our (union) members are interested in the program but it’s only at Nien Hsing, as a pilot. It would be helpful to extend it to other factories,” said Mokhele.
M-POWER is a historic global initiative focused on ensuring working families thrive in the global economy and elevating the role of trade unions and organized workers as essential to advancing democracy. The government of the United States and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) co-chair M-POWER, joined by steering committee members: the governments of Argentina, Canada and Spain; the International Domestic Worker Federation; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); the AFL-CIO; and Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE). Additional partners include the governments of Germany and South Africa, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, ProDESC, Solidarity Center and Worker Rights Consortium.
Event partners for this M-POWER summit were: the Congress of South African Trade Unions; Federation of Women Lawyers Lesotho; Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho; International Domestic Workers Federation; International Trade Union Confederation-Africa; International Trade Union Confederation; National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers Union; Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council; United Textile Employees, Lesotho; Women and Law in Southern Africa Research and Education Trust; Worker Rights Consortium and Workers’ Rights Watch.
In a powerful demonstration of support for strengthening worker rights to ensure thriving democracies and prosperous economies, representatives from governments, unions and philanthropic organizations met in Washington, D.C., yesterday to renew their commitment to the global initiative, M-POWER (Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights).
U.S. Secretary of Labor Marty Walsh makes the connection between worker rights and democracy. Credit: Department of Labor / Alyson Fligg
“Labor rights are fundamental to democracy,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Martin Walsh, opening the event before a packed room. “The collective voice of workers is fundamental to democracy. And strong labor movements are fundamental to democracy,” he said, remarks echoed by participants throughout the event.
Launched in December 2021, M-POWER is part of the U.S. Presidential Initiative for Democratic Renewal involving a partnership of governments, global and national labor organizations, philanthropic institutions and civil society stakeholders cooperating to advance freedom of association and collective bargaining in the global economy through actions such as standing up for and standing with labor activists and worker organizations under threat.
“When workers have a seat at the table, trade unions can advocate for better protections, better wages better and better laws that protect them,” said USAID Director Samantha Power. Speaking via recorded video, Power said USAID is contributing $25 million to the initiative, which, at $130 million, is the largest the U.S. government has made to advance worker rights globally.
“The M-POWER initiative lifts up the voice of workers who are fighting on the front lines for democracy,” said Cathy Feingold, deputy president of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) which, along with the U.S. Labor Department, is M-POWER co-chair. The initiative creates “the power to shape policies that affect workers and their environment. Protecting that power has never been more important,” she said, citing examples of brutal government attacks on workers and their unions in countries such as Belarus. Feingold also is AFL-CIO International director.
Another country where workers have been under brutal assault is Myanmar, following a government takeover by a military junta in February 2021. Speaking from outside the country in one of several video clips of workers shown throughout the event, Khaing Zar Aung, president of the Industrial Workers Federation of Myanmar (IWFM), said “freedom of association is very important for Myanmar, for workers.
“If we don’t have freedom of association, we cannot organize and hear the voice of the workers.”
Commitment to Action
Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau moderates a panel on putting M-POWER into action. Credit: Department of Labor /Alyson Fligg
Leaders of global unions and representatives of the U.S. government and philanthropic organizations turned to concrete examples of worker power in the panel, “Commitment to Action: the M-POWER Agenda for Worker Empowerment.”
“While human rights has long been considered a bedrock of democracy, worker rights has not received credit for the part it plays in ensuring more democratic societies,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, panel moderator.
Zingiswa Losi, president of the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), shared the union’s efforts for adoption of Convention 190, the International Labor Organization (ILO) treaty to end gender-based violence and harassment at work, and its successful efforts to push the South African government to ratify it.
“We strongly believe if we are to transform the workplace, we must ensure that when women go to work, women must be empowered equally as men,” she said. Losi discussed how South African unions work with government and business to improve worker rights, a model like M-POWER in which “through collaboration, we can meet challenges.” COSATU is a long-time Solidarity Center partner.
Describing the struggle of domestic workers to win their rights on the job, Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), said the first hurdle is getting lawmakers and the public to recognize them as workers. “They don’t think of domestic workers as workers because they are so invisible, and so just as they don’t think of them as workers they don’t think of them as eligible for labor rights.”
Tang outlined how domestic workers came together from around the world to create IDWF, which has grown from tens of thousands of members to some 650,000 in the past 10 years. This experience showed that workers having “a seat at the table is vital to see worker rights advancement,” a goal M-POWER has made central to its outreach.
Philanthropy and Government Working Together See Big Results
Sarita Gupta, vice president of the Ford Foundation, said combing philanthropic work with government resources was essential given the growing threats to the right of freedom of association and collective bargaining. “Achieving change at scale is impossible without the government,” she said.
Ford is among philanthropic organizations working together through FORGE, Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy, to support worker rights. “We have long known that democracy is incomplete if workers lack a say in their workplace,” Gupta said. “Worker voice is democracy.”
Erin Barclay, senior bureau official in the U.S. State Department’s Democracy, Human Rights and Labor division, said the appointment last week of Kelly Fay Rodriguez as special representative for International Labor Affairs was among the commitments the U.S. government has made in its global labor rights efforts. Rodriguez’s experience working in the international labor movement includes the Solidarity Center.
The initiative also includes an urgent action component to protect labor activists and organizations facing threats, because the variety of threats workers face mean they are most effectively addressed by a “diversity of tools,” said Molly McCoy, U.S. Labor Department assistant deputy undersecretary of international affairs.
AFT President Randi Weingarten, whose U.S.-based teachers’ union has long been committed to advancing global labor rights, put it this way: “Our responsibility as a global labor movement is to do more than speak, it is to act” to defend “fundamental rights like the right of association, like the right to collectively bargain.”
Labor ministers from Argentina and Canada joined the event to highlight how their governments are supporting and enhancing worker rights. Their countries are among Germany South Africa and Spain taking part in the initiative.
Democracy enables workers and their unions to flourish, and as it is increasingly threatened around the world, democracy also depends on working people and their organizations to keep it vibrant, according to speakers at the high-level event, “Worker Organizations’ Vital Role in Democracy.” (Watch for the full recorded session here.)
“We stand with all workers everywhere who are on the front lines of democracy”—AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler. Credit: Solidarity Center
“Threats to democracy go hand-in-hand with threats to workers’ right to form unions,” said AFL-CIO President Liz Shuler, speaking at the November 7 virtual forum. “We stand with all workers everywhere who are on the front lines of democracy in their countries and their workplaces.”
The forum, an official side event of the December 9-10 U.S. Summit for Democracy, brought together union leaders, labor ministers and philanthropic organizations from around the world to highlight the role of worker voice and worker rights as fundamental components of democracy and spur global action in support of freedom of association and collective bargaining.
“Worker Organizations’ Vital Role in Democracy” built on recommendations that emerged from four listening sessions with 250 U.S. government officials and labor leaders from Asia, Africa, the Americas, Europe and the Middle East and North Africa. The Solidarity Center, International Trade Union Organization (ITUC) and the AFL-CIO assisted in organizing the sessions.
“The freedom to form unions is a human right,” said U.S. Labor Secretary Marty Walsh, opening the event. “For global democracy to thrive, the global community must support workers right to independent organizing and bargaining.” In announcing the launch of the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER) initiative, a year-long efforts by governments, unions and the private sector, Walsh said its goals include extending labor law coverage and strengthening unions.
“When we say workers need a seat at the table, we mean it.”
Democracy Under Threat: The Voice of Workers
During a session exploring worker rights, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow highlighted how economic inequalities—such as the 60 percent of the world’s workers who survive through informal jobs with no rights and no protections—threaten democracy. The ITUC and global labor movement are championing a new social contract, one that includes “Jobs, jobs, jobs, jobs,” said Burrow.
It’s time to return to full employment” with rights and protections for all workers, she said, with a new social contract that includes equality and inclusion for all workers, a push reiterated by International Labor Organization Director General Guy Ryder.
Josua Mata at SENTRO says union members are standing up to brutal assaults on democracy and freedom of association. Credit: Solidarity Center
From the Philippines, Josua Mata, general secretary of the United and Progressive Workers Center (SENTRO), described a bleak environment for workers and their unions, with more than 50 union members killed since 2016 and ongoing redtagging (branding and accusing individuals and/or organizations of being terrorists), illegal firing of union activists and anti-terrorism laws directed at stifling freedom to form unions and bargain.
“Any claim that there is freedom of association in Philippines is a lie,” said Mata. Despite the dangers, he and other union activist there are determined to persist in the struggle for democracy.
“All of this has not stopped us from continuing to do what needs to be done.”
A union leader from Brazil shared her struggle with state corruption. Yet, like Mata, Carmen Foro, general secretary of the Central Union of Workers (CUT) vowed to continue the fight for transparent and free government to enable workers to freely exercise their rights.
“Unions are indispensable to democracy,” said Foro.
In a rallying cry to workers in the United States and around the world, Randi Weingarten, president of the U.S.-based American Federation of Teachers (AFT) said workers must see the struggle to engender and preserve democracy “the same as we would fight for a collective bargaining contract. The fight for democracy is the same as the fight for wages, the fight for dignity.”
Said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau: “No social or political progress happens by magic. Change is pushed by people working collectively. And legitimacy of the government comes from the people.”
Launching a Global Year of Action
Partners in the M-POWER initiative will come together in a year to evaluate progress and recommit to improving worker rights worldwide. Announcing a $100 million pledge by philanthropic organizations through Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE), Open Society Foundation Executive Director Thomas Periello said the commitment is an important statement for philanthropy to do its part keep worker rights and justice central to its work around the world.”
“As we see rise of threat of authoritarianism around the world, democracies need to deliver, and a huge part of that is free unions,” he said.
Government officials from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the State Department and Labor Department’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) shared their support of M-POWER’s goals and highlighted the U.S. government’s significant financial commitment to program.
“Governments have a foundational role in providing an enabling role for enabling free and independent unions to thrive,” said Thea Lee, ILAB deputy undersecretary.
Labor ministers from Argentina, Germany, Mexico and Norway also shared how partnerships among union, government and private sector in their countries are enabling workers to reskill and upskill, transfer to jobs in renewable energy and ensure worker rights throughout. “To protect the rights of workers, the first thing we need is a development model to have rights at center,” said Argentina’s Minister of Labor, Employment and Social Security Claudio Moroni.
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