Workers in the informal waste and recovery sector (IWRS)—such as collectors, traders and waste pickers—help recycle almost 60 percent of the world’s plastic waste and, in some countries, provide the only form of municipal solid waste collection. This service financially supports millions of workers who are already facing social marginalization, poverty, appalling working conditions and minimal local government support. The rights of these workers, who contribute significantly to their communities and the environment, must be protected under the proposed new global plastics treaty, say worker rights advocates—including just transition policies that enable IWRS workers to upskill or shift to alternative livelihoods.
Policymakers, civil society and industry representatives met in Uruguay last week for the first of five meetings through 2024 to prepare a treaty that aims to eliminate plastics pollution by 2040—stopping the conveyor belt of what the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP) says is a garbage truck of plastic dumped into the world’s oceans every minute.
Elements under discussion included global, collaborative measures to reduce hazardous chemicals in plastics production, transitioning to plastics that are more easily recyclable, reducing the supply of plastics by capping plastics production—thus making recycling more economically viable—and fairly addressing the fate of waste pickers and others informal workers associated with the waste and recovery sector.
“Climate and labor justice requires that all workers impacted by climate change mitigation measures have a meaningful say in the process to ensure that a greener economy is also one that protects worker rights and advances decent work,” says Solidarity Center Climate Change and Just Transition Global Lead Sonia Mistry, who helped review a UN-Habitat global plastics treaty report, “Leaving No One Behind.” Other report reviewers included Solidarity Center allies Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) and WIEGO network partner International Alliance of Waste Pickers (IAW), which represents thousands of waste picker organizations in more than 28 countries, mostly in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Recognition and inclusion of IWRS voices in the development of solutions to end plastics pollution are key to ensuring that such solutions align with UN Sustainable Development Goal 8 promoting labor rights, safe and secure working environments, productive employment, decent work and equal pay for work of equal value, concluded the report.
“Fairness demands that the needs of all workers and their communities be at the center of climate-responsive policies and practices, including those negotiated through a global treaty to reduce plastics pollution,” says Mistry.
Climate justice grassroots organizations and their advocates globally are demanding together that nations, governments and companies enriched by practices leading to climate degradation do not shift the costs of climate change mitigation policies to the most vulnerable, most of whom live in countries subjected to the worst forms of historical and contemporary racial and ethnic subordination.
The Maldives Trade Union Congress (MTUC) and its affiliates say the government must rapidly address the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, urging passage of occupational safety and health and labor legislation and an economic stimulus package targeted to protect jobs and income security of the island nation’s most vulnerable workers.
“All actions and policies must prioritize and protect worker rights and ensure decent work for all, with the inclusion of the migrant worker population in the country. Further, policies must be developed in consultation with trade union and employer organizations,” MTUC says in a statement.
With its population spread across 188 islands, Maldives is highly dependent upon travel and tourism, which has been hard hit in the coronavirus crisis, and workers are suffering the brunt of the impact. More than 11,000 resort workers, including migrant workers, are on unpaid leave or have received pay cuts while undocumented migrant workers were forced to leave the resort islands and are trapped in the capital, Malé, unable to return home.
Union Leader Targeted with COVID-19 as Cover
Union activists say the government issued contradictory regulations in a scramble to keep the resorts operating. With rapidly changing regulations, Ibrahim Ziyad, branch leader of the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM), was arrested and detained last month after returning to work for violating coronavirus travel restrictions. He was fired a day after being arrested, a move seen by TEAM as an act of retaliation for his union activities, which have paved the way for safe working conditions for employees.
Ziyad, who has since been released, still faces a six month jail sentence because charges have not been dropped.
A staff member at JA Manafaru, a five-star luxury resort in the North of Maldives, Ziyad was asked to go on annual leave by management following an announcement by the Maldives Health Protection Agency (MHPA) of a new 14-day travel restriction to combat the spread of COVID-19. Ziyad departed to his island of residence, HA Kelaa on March 14 (a day before implementation of the restriction), planning to return to work later on. While the MHPA announcement mentioned restrictions on travel between inhabited islands, it allowed for resort employees to travel between their homes and their workplaces.
Upon completion of his annual leave, Ziyad returned to the resort and was admitted by hotel security. Unaware of a further notice by the MHPA that restricted all forms of travel, which was circulated internally to hotel staff on March 18, Ziyad was visited in his quarters by the human resources manager and resort doctor who said that he was in violation of MHPA orders and would have to remain in isolation pending the resort doctor’s clearance.
The following evening Ziyad was arrested by police and sentenced to a 15-day prison term pending investigations. He was terminated from employment a day later.
On March 25, the MHPA issued a new notice allowing resort employees to travel between resorts for employment and on holidays.
Even as the Maldivian government further shuts the door on worker rights, union leaders and members of the Maldives Port Workers Union (MPWU) who were fired or suspended from their jobs in 2012 remain strong in their struggle. In recent days, Maldives President Mohammed Waheed Hassan Mani signed a bill into law that restricts freedom of assembly throughout the island nation. This move follows the firing and suspension of MPWU leaders and members by the state-owned Maldives Port Ltd. early last year.
The MPWU, an independent union that was officially registered in May 2011, says port management violated the country’s labor laws and International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions when it fired the union president, general secretary and four other union members, suspended 49 trade union members and transferred others to different locations. MPWU members have faced harassmentby port management, which the union says has used intimidation tactics to prevent members from participating in union activities. The MPWU has filed a labor complaint with the ILO.
Further, the MPWU says MPL established another workplace union in an attempt to dismantle the newly formed union. “It’s our responsibility to speak out to protect our rights,” said MPWU President Ibrahim Khaleel. “We should take action … for a better work environment, for better pay.”
The MPWU is a member of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), which has written twice to Manik calling for him to intervene. The ITF has received no response. The ILO also has written to the Maldives government asking it to rectify the injustice against WPWU members.
The MPWU is allied with the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM), which joined in solidarity with the union’s struggle to protect labor rights. TEAM, a Solidarity Center partner, is working to get 22 of its members reinstated after they were terminated. The workers were among 350 who held a peaceful work stoppage in 2011 on a key pay issue. Management refused to comply with the court order to reinstate workers and compensate them with back pay and is appealing the decision.
TEAM is a member of the International Union of Foodworkers (IUF).
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