Joining Together, Building Power, Ending Gender Violence at Work

Joining Together, Building Power, Ending Gender Violence at Work

Sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are rampant in garment factories in Bangladesh and throughout the textile production and retail industry in South Africa, according to two recently published Solidarity Center reports. The sample surveys are among a broad spectrum of outreach by Solidarity Center partners who also are addressing gender inequities through awareness efforts among informal economy workers and workers with disabilities in Nigeria, in labor rights and career workshops in Armenia and Georgia, and among app-based drivers in multiple countries.

In addressing the root causes of GBVH in the world of work, a priority for the Solidarity Center, workers and civil society join together to advocate collectively beyond the workplace to push for policy and legal reform, expanding democracy.

November 25 marks the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual  international campaign in which union activists stand in solidarity with women’s rights activists to highlight the prevalence of GBVH at the workplace and to support feminist movements around the world in calling for a world free from GBVH. The campaign culminates on December 10, Human Rights Day.

As activists mobilize worldwide, here’s a snapshot of how Solidarity Center and its partners are moving forward efforts to end GBVH at the workplace and achieve decent, inclusive work for all.

Garment Industry: Rife with GBVH

Bangladesh garment workers, standing up to gender-based violence at work with their unions, Solidarity CenterBecause so little data exists on the prevalence of GBVH at workplaces, union activists and their allies in Bangladesh and South Africa sought to document workers’ experiences at garment factories and clothing outlets. Solidarity Center partners previously conducted similar studies in Cambodia, Indonesia and Nigeria.

In South Africa, 98 percent of the 117 workers surveyed said they had experienced one or more forms of GBVH at work. The Bangladesh survey found severe outcomes for workers who experienced GBVH at work, with 89 percent saying they “broke down mentally” and 45 percent reporting leaving their jobs temporarily and/or losing pay. The survey involved 120 workers in 103 garment factories and was conducted by 21 activists from grassroots and worker organizations.

In many cases, workers’ jobs and wages were at risk if they did not agree to sex with employers or managers. In Bangladesh, 57 percent of survey participants said they lost their jobs because they refused such overtures. As one survey participant in South Africa said:

“My manager called me to his office and said that if I want to extend my hours of work, I must go out with him. He kept on asking, even forcefully and aggressively … I heard from other women workers that he had also asked them.” Survey participants were not identified for their safety.

Both surveys were conducted through participatory action research, rooted in collaboration, education, developing skills and centered on a “Do No Harm” ethos to avoid re-traumatizing interviewees. Through worker-driven strategies to address and prevent GBVH in the garment sector, the processes created a set of recommendations including urging employers to enforce zero tolerance policies for GBVH and for unions to prioritize GBVH prevention and make women worker safety a core union priority.

Key to the recommendations is ratification and enforcement of an international treaty on ending violence and harassment at work. Convention 190 was approved by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2019 after a decade-long campaign led in part by the Solidarity Center and its partners. C190 now must be ratified by governments, and union activists are mobilizing members and allies in ratification campaigns that include awareness-raising about GBVH at work. South African unions, led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), successfully pushed for ratification in 2021. 

Reaching Marginalized Workers

Nigeria, Lagos market, informal economy workers, gender-based violence and harassment at work, Solidarity Center

Amina Lawal, a Solidarity Center-trained GBVH researcher, leads the way for Nigerian Labor Congress leaders in Lagos’s Mile 12 market. Credit Solidarity Center / Nkechi Odinukwe

In Nigeria, union activists are using awareness raising to address the intersecting challenges facing workers with disabilities who also experience GBVH and gender discrimination at work. Through a weekly radio program and public service ads, the program elevates the voices of workers with disabilities who already are marginalized because of their status, providing a platform where they discuss their concerns around GBVH and access to equal rights to work and pay.

The program stems from recommendations in a survey of more than 600 workers with disabilities in Nigeria by the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) to create mass awareness of disability rights and GBVH. 

The radio program also is an avenue to reach workers in Nigeria’s large informal economy. Following the adoption of C190, union leaders at the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC), with Solidarity Center support, began training vendors at the sprawling Mile 12 market in Lagos. The vendors formed a GBVH task force that worked with the NLC to develop a market code of conduct covering gender-based violence and harassment and helped raise awareness among vendors about their rights to a violence-free workplace. 

Their outreach resulted in the identification of multiple cases of rape and sexual assault against minors, who often assist their parents in the market. Five people have been arrested and now are awaiting trial for allegedly violating the rights of children between 9 and 14 years old, said Agnes Funmi Sessi, NLC Lagos State Council chairperson.    

Building Leadership Skills, Building Power

Armenia, professional development for young women, Solidarity Center, worker rights, unions

The OxYGen foundation in Armenia, with Solidarity Center support, held “Women for Labor Rights” seminars this year as part of its professional empowerment network. Credit: Solidarity Center

Building leadership and power within historically marginalized populations to take on issues and traditional hierarchies is a key part of Solidarity Center’s focus on ensuring equality and inclusion at the workplace. 

In Armenia and Georgia, young women workers are learning crucial employment skills as part of Strengthening Women’s Participation in the Workforce, a Solidarity Center-supported program in partnership with professional networks and other civil society organizations. The project seeks to increase women’s full, equal and safe participation in the workforce, including vulnerable women workers’ access to decent work. Training sessions include exposure to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions and other career development, and cover labor rights, including the right to a safe and healthy workplace. The programs reach women in rural areas, many of whom are marginalized with limited access to job opportunities and skills building.

In Armenia, where the project operates as the Women Professional Empowerment Network (WPEN), young women take part in an interactive exchange that fosters the development of a supportive network and includes upskilling and raising awareness of employment opportunities, along with advice and guidance about the most in-demand new careers.

Women Delivery Drivers Stand Strong Together

UNIDAPP President Luz Myriam Fique Cardenas, Colombia, platform workers, delivery drivers, app-based workers, gig workers

“Not just in Colombia, but worldwide, women are always the ones that are the most vulnerable and paid the worst”—Luz Myriam Fique Cárdenas. Credit: UNIDAPP_Jhonniel Colina

Addressing GBVH is an essential part of campaigns mobilizing app-based drivers to achieve their rights on the job, including the freedom to form unions, as the safety risks they face every day are especially compounded for women platform workers.

“Not just in Colombia, but worldwide, women are always the ones that are the most vulnerable and paid the worst,” Luz Myriam Fique Cárdenas told participants earlier this year at a Solidarity Center-sponsored event, Women Workers Organizing: Transforming the Gig Economy through Collective Action. “We suffer harassment. We don’t have security in the streets because we’re women,” said Cárdenas, president of Unión de Trabajadores de Plataformas (Union of Platform Workers, UNIDAPP) in Colombia. 

Recently in Mexico, the Solidarity Center hosted women delivery drivers from seven countries in Latin America and in Nigeria. The eight unions participating agreed on five key gender-focused points for inclusion in the Convention on Decent Work on Digital Platforms now being drafted for consideration by the ILO. The women leaders at the Alza La Voz (Raise Our Voice) forum are planning a joint campaign to ensure the convention addresses the specific challenges women app-based workers face. 

As throughout the campaigns to end GBVH at work, women app-based drivers are finding strength in joining together and experiencing the power to improve working conditions through collective action.

“We have to create alliances,” Shair Tovar, gender secretary of the National Union of Digital Workers (UNTA) in Mexico, told participants. “Women can achieve enormous things together.”

New Labor Center in Mexico Set to Expand Worker Rights

New Labor Center in Mexico Set to Expand Worker Rights

A new Labor Center in Mexico will advise workers about their rights and how to mobilize and organize unions and collectively bargain. The Labor Center, at the Autonomous University of Querétaro in central Mexico, is supported by the Solidarity Center and the UCLA Labor Center.

“The aim is to strengthen and promote the full recognition of labor rights, freedom of association and organization, and the democratic participation of workers through research, linkage and accompaniment,” said Labor Center Director Dr. Javier Salinas García. Salinas spoke at a recent Solidarity Center event in Mexico to announce the opening.

The Labor Center comes three years after Mexico’s government announced a series of comprehensive labor reforms to establish a democratic unionization process, address corruption in the labor adjudication system and eradicate employer protection (“charro”) unions prevalent in the country.

The Labor Center is “a way to respond to the needs of the situation,” said Beatriz García, Solidarity Center Mexico deputy program director.

“I think we all agree that Mexico is going through a historic moment. The labor reform responds to the demands that have been the objectives of the struggle of many workers for years, for decades, and reflects some positive practices of the independent unions,” she said.

The event featured a panel of independent union members and leaders who discussed the future of the labor movement in Mexico in the wake of historic labor law reforms.

Panelists explored the role that democratic and independent trade unions in promoting labor reform implementation in Mexico three years after the 2019 Labor Reform and negotiations of the United States–Mexico–Canada Agreement (UMSCA/T-MEC).

Speakers shared how they are using the tools of labor reform to organize on their worksites.

“We are the delegates, and we call our colleagues to share information about the Union League,” said Sonia Cristina García Bernal. “We have helped colleagues who were told they were going to be fired without severance pay. We have been able to get them severance pay. We have been able to get them rehired.”

“After these three years, the tool that we use the most is fast response mechanisms,” said Imelda Guadalupe Jiménez Méndez. “This has been a very important tool.”

In addition to Beatriz García, speakers included: Imelda Guadalupe Jiménez Méndez, Secretary for Political Affairs, the Miners Union (Los Mineros); Julieta Mónica Morales, General Secretary, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana); Rita Guadalupe Lozano Tristán, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana); Alejandra Morales, General Secretary, Independent Union of National Workers in the Automotive Industry; and Sonia Cristina García Bernal, Special Delegate, Mexican Workers’ Union League (Liga Obrera Mexicana).

Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles

Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles

Solidarity Center News
Solidarity Center News
Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles
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As the world commemorates International Women’s Day, women workers around the world are leading struggles to safeguard democracy and improve wages and working conditions, often facing arrest or violence.

Listen to this article.

 

Haiti

Women garment workers are on the front lines of the fight for a living wage in Haiti, where four-fifths of their day’s earnings are wiped out by necessities like food and transportation. This year, after not receiving an increase for more than three years and despite punishing inflation,  workers took to the streets to peacefully demonstrate for a minimum wage increase. They were met with police violence, including tear gas and live ammunition.

Berinette, a worker who was part of the February 9 and 10 demonstrations, spoke about the shocking police violence. “We thought they were protecting us and they were destroying us,” she said. “They shot rubber bullets and they fired tear gas at us. They beat us but, despite this, we didn’t fear and we were never afraid.”

Mexico 

In February, General Secretary María Alejandra Morales Reynoso led the National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA) to a landmark election victory in Mexico, when the independent union won the right to represent over 6,000 workers at a truck plant in Silao. 

In a union election with a 90 percent turnout, SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes out of 5,389 valid ballots. SINTTIA defeated the entrenched CTM labor group that had held the contract at the plant for 25 years and derived its strength from cultivating relationships with politicians and corporations while keeping wages low.

SINTTIA General Secretary Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso Credit: Solidarity Center

Workers succeeded in making their voices heard despite attempts to buy votes and threats of violence against union leaders and activists. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote. 

“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.

In a podcast interview with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, Morales Reynoso said the union’s victory “gave people hope, hope that it was possible to represent workers freely.

“We proved it’s possible to get organized and to fight for our rights and to leave behind the fear that we’re going to lose our jobs,” Morales Reynoso said. 

Myanmar

On February 1, one year after the overthrow of Myanmar’s democratically elected government by a military junta, Phyo Sandar Soe, general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), was among five-member presidium elected by the First People’s Assembly of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). Sandar is the youngest person and the only woman elected to the presidium.

Women workers played a leading role early on in the protests against the Myanmar coup, in which the country’s 450,000 garment workers were especially active in organizing civil disobedience and factory shutdowns. They have asked international corporate fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.

Myanmar, Sandar, CTUM assistant general secretary, military coup, unions, Solidarity Center

CTUM General Phyo Sanda Soe, Credit: Solidarity Center

An estimated 1,500 people have been killed since the military coup, and nearly 12,000 imprisoned, most tortured. The military junta especially targeted union leaders, arresting dozens, and many others fled the country or went into hiding. Demonstrating workers continue to be arrested under the pretense of spreading Covid-19 as Cambodian authorities repeatedly abuse the country’s COVID-19 law to break up the strike

Speaking from a safehouse, in a podcast interview with Bader-Blau, Sandar spoke of the strength of workers standing together despite repression and personal danger.

“We are facing a bloody crackdown, but all people protect each other. We are finding solutions to fight back. That’s why I want to tell our brothers and sisters to endure this duration because we have very high motivation to fight back against the junta, she said.”

Cambodia

In early January in Cambodia, Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees (LRSU) President Sithar Chhim was one of nine union leaders arrested during a peaceful strike and was violently taken away when she attempted to join her colleagues in a picket line at the NagaWorld hotel and casino. 

Hundreds of slot machine workers, dealers, housekeepers and technicians are on strike to demand the reinstatement of 365 workers who were fired months earlier. While management claimed the layoffs were due to COVID-19, union leaders say nearly all of those laid off were union leaders or members. 

The layoffs took place shortly after the union won a wage increase that boosted pay between 18 percent and 30 percent and secured the reinstatement of Chhim, who was suspended from her job in September 2019 for defending the right of a union member to wear a shirt with a message that called for higher wages.

Striking workers petitioned several embassies and consulates to contact the government about the arrests of union leaders and urge officials to respect human rights. 

Podcast: Mexican Auto Workers Win Landmark Victory

Podcast: Mexican Auto Workers Win Landmark Victory

Thousands of workers in Mexico recently formed an independent union at a GM auto plant in Silao, in central Mexico, voting out a corporate-supported union that did not operate in their interest. On the latest episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast, Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso, general secretary of SINTTIA, the union that now represents the workers, tells why this victory is a milestone for many Mexican workers who are forced to be part of sham unions. (En español)

Morales shares how workers at the Silao plant stood strong in the face of widespread corruption, laws tilted against them and incredible pressure to cast their vote for a protection union that did the bidding of the company.

The union victory “gave people hope, hope that it was possible to represent workers freely,” she says. “We proved it’s possible to get organized and to fight for our rights and to leave behind the fear that we’re going to lose our jobs.”

“It takes courage to take on an entire, entrenched, corrupt system. Yet the workers in Silao did just that, inspiring workers all over the world,” says Podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.

“And they did so at one of the biggest companies in Mexico, with more than 6,000 workers. This is living proof that worker power and global solidarity is a powerful voice and force for democracy and worker and human rights. When workers come together, we cannot be stopped.”

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Mexico: Independent Union Wins Landmark Election

Mexico: Independent Union Wins Landmark Election

The new, independent union, Sindicato Independiente Nacional de Trabajadores y Trabajadoras de la Industria Automotriz (SINTTIA), won the right to represent more than 6,000 workers at a truck plant in Silao, Mexico, in a closely watched election. SINTTIA won the election by a wide margin, defeating the entrenched CTM labor group that had held the contract at the plant for 25 years, and two other groups with ties to CTM.

SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes out of 5,389 valid ballots, in an election with 90 percent turnout. The three CTM unions combined won just over a thousand votes.

The victory happened despite attempts to buy votes and intimidate workers, and threats of violence leveled against union leaders and activists. One of those threatened was SINTTIA General Secretary María Alejandra Morales Reynoso. She spoke about the victory at a press conference.

SINTTIA General Secretary Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso / Credit: Solidarity Center

“Today is a day in history for Mexican workers,” says Morales Reynoso. ” And we have just begun.”

SINTTIA’s victory could signify the beginning of the end of CTM’s decades-long hold on power. The labor group derived its strength from secret contracts, intimidation of workers and close relationships with Mexico’s previous ruling party and employers, whom they appeased by keeping wages low.

The election is a significant test of the impact of trade reforms, which expand worker rights and establish union votes by secret ballot to validate labor contracts. Mexico’s government estimates that prior to reforms, about 80 percent of union contracts were signed without workers’ knowledge, and helped suppress wages and give employers more control over workers.

At this one truck plant this week, workers were able to overcome corruption and threats of violence to vote out the sham union. Thousands of workers now have a chance at collective bargaining, raising wages and improving working conditions, but much work remains to ensure free and fair elections at thousands of workplaces for millions of Mexican workers.

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