Across the Middle East and North Africa, unions and worker associations are mobilizing to educate workers about their rights during the COVID-19 crisis, provide them with resources to protect themselves and their families, and push for fair treatment at the workplace.
The Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) convened a meeting in recent days with leaders of migrant worker associations and the Solidarity Center to discuss such issues as expired residency, late salaries and unsafe living arrangements—migrant workers there, as in many countries, are housed in crowded conditions, with eight to 12 people per room, or even dozens sleeping in dormitory settings. KTUF, which is hosting an office of migrant community volunteers and educators (MOVE), plans to work closely with the Public Authority for Manpower to solve urgent issues.
Participants then donned gloves and masks and fanned out to grocery stores to help distribute some of the 100,000 copies of “Healthy Measures to Protect Yourself from Coronavirus,” a brochure available in Tagalog, Hindi, and Bengali. KTUF now is translating it into Sinhala and French to distribute among the more than 3 million migrant workers in Kuwait who are engaged in construction and as domestic workers.
Teachers Union Creates Fund to Help All Workers
In Jordan, where the government suspended all public and private enterprises, the Teachers’ Union in Jordan created a $705,218 fund—half of the union’s liquid assets—to assist workers throughout Jordan, and called on the government to launch a health fund to combat the pandemic, urging unions, affiliates and business to donate. During a televised speech from the union’s emergency meeting, union Deputy Director Nasser Al-Nawasrah offered the union’s unlimited assistance to the government to combat the pandemic.
“This ‘holiday’ should not be counted toward employees’ annual vacation days, or considered as unpaid leave, nor should any actions be taken that would detract from his/her labor rights, or the termination of his/her services,” Nijmeh said in a statement.
Sadaqa, a Solidarity Center partner, urged the Jordanian government to allow flextime for parents who must care for their children with schools closed, and the Phenix Center, an economic research organization and Solidarity Center partner, urged employers and the government to ensure workers are protected at the workplace, called for workers to receive wages when infected with the coronavirus, and urged employers to allow teleworking to limit spread of the disease.
Palestine Union Members Assist Workers in Staying Safe
Beginning in early March, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) undertook an array of outreach to safeguard workers’ health. The PGFTU distributed sterilizers, masks, and informational fliers to Palestinians at areas where they cross to Israel to work, including Qalandia, Tarqomya, Al-Thahriya, Qalqilia, Burqan, Al-Khan Al-Ahmar, Ne’elein, Al-Taybeh and Dir Al-Ghsoun. The federation launched a long-term campaign to sterilize commercial buildings, taxi stations and institutions in Ramallah and union members sterilized public transport vehicles and taxi stations in partnership with the Ministry of Health in Jericho.
Union members visited the Barta’a barrier and conducted medical examination for workers and distributed fliers on coronavirus prevention, and the PGFTU also distributed food packages and sterilizers to families in Bethlehem. The PGFTU urged employers to pay workers normal wages during the emergency in accordance with labor law.
Probationary workers in Tunisia won back their jobs at a Dutch-owned call center after an employer fired them under the pretext of the novel coronavirus. The General Federation of Information Technology and Services, the union that represents the workers, enlisted the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which sent a letter to the CEO and conducted a Facebook campaign to ensure the workers were reinstated. Together with the technology workers union, the UGTT, which has called for all call centers to be closed, and is demanding workers be paid and teleworking be implemented.
The UGTT has pledged 100,000 Tunisian dinars ($32,240) toward a fund to combat the coronavirus and support workers who lost income due to the virus. UGTT is calling on workers to donate a work day, and their pay will be directed to the special fund, which it says could be as much as 90 billion dinars ($31 billion). The UGTT and various government agencies will oversee the fund. The federation plans to postpone all planned strikes.
The UGTT is demanding the government continue social protections during the crisis, and guarantee the wages and rights of private-sector workers and in hard-hit businesses, such as restaurants and tourism.
Kurdistan United Workers Union (KUWU) leaders discussed COVID-19 in interviews on popular satellite channels as Rudaw and K24 and encouraged union members to follow the prevention procedures to avoid spreading the infection.
Violence against women takes many forms, and can happen in the home, in public spaces—and on the job. At the workplace, 35 percent of women worldwide have experienced violence.
This November 25, International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women, unions around the world are calling for the International Labor Organization (ILO) to pass an global convention on gender-based violence at the workplace. As the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) points out, “anyone can be a victim of violence at work, but gender-based violence typifies unequal economic and social power relations between women and men.”
Union leaders and allies are re-submitting a proposal to the ILO Governing Body requiring the ILO to develop an international standard to guide governments and businesses in formulating strong laws and policies to prevent and remedy gender-based violence at work. The ILO Governing Body adjourned this month without considering a similar proposal, and will meet again in March 2015. (You can take action through the International Transport Workers’ Federation’s “End workplace violence against women” campaign.)
This fall, workers in the Middle East and North Africa waged rallies and sit-ins to highlight the issue. The General Federation of Iraq Trade Unions (GFITU) organized a solidarity gathering in late October at Al Qushla Square in Baghdad. Hashmeyya Al Sa’adawi,IndustriALL executive board member and president of the electricity union in Basrah, read the statement of the Arab unionist women network, which expressed concern over increased violence against women.
“We believe that the violence against women issue is a crucial matter that requires immediate action,” she stated
In Morocco, the Democratic Labor Confederation (Confédération Démocratique du Travaille, CDT), organized a sit-in outside Parliament to raise awareness about gender-based violence in the workplace and request support for the convention (watch a video clip of the event).
The Jordanian Federation of the Independent Trade Unions sent a letter to the country’s chambers of commerce and industry and Jordanian government officials urging their support for passage of the gender-based violence standards in the ILO Administration Council.
Women disproportionately work in precarious, low-income and informal economy jobs, where there are few mechanisms to prevent violence and exploitation. Women also are the majority in occupations where workers are more likely to be exposed to violence, such as domestic work and health care, the garment and textile industries and in agriculture. Many women do not report physical, psychological or sexual violence fearing they will be fired or because of cultural norms.
An ILO Convention would further acknowledge that violence against women is a human rights violation, and would be an important step to improving women’s working conditions worldwide and saving the millions of dollars spent every year on health care, lower productivity and sick leave because of violence against women,
Tayel Alkhamayseh, president of the Independent Union of Phosphates Workers in Jordan, returned to his job this month after worker and human rights organizations denounced his November 6 arrest and suspension, pressed for his reinstatement and decried his arrest as a move to prevent unionization at the plant.
The Jordanian Federation of Independent Trade Unions (JFITU) sent letters protesting his detention to the Ministry of Labor and company management. The National Center for Human Rights and Jordanian civil society organizations generated additional support for Alkhamayseh, who was reinstated after a meeting with management in which it was established that he had no intention of declaring a strike.
The Phosphate Workers Union is affiliated to the JFITU, which is campaigning for the Jordanian government to adopt legislation to allow full freedom of association for all workers.
The JFITU says Alkhamayseh’s arrest and suspension indicate continuing pressure to restrict the practice of independent trade unionism in Jordan. The federation notes that his reinstatement is an important demonstration of Jordanian support for independent trade unionism.
The federation formed last year, when nine unions representing more than 7,000 workers joined forces to mobilize for improved economic conditions and greater political freedom.
Alkhamayseh, an engineer, works in the White Valley phosphate mine near Karak in the south of Jordan. As president of the workers’ union in Karak, he organized a meeting that included workers from several branches of the same company. Management then suspended Alkhamayseh and accused him of inciting a strike. In response, workers organized a protest and work stoppage.
Some 2,000 workers recently took part in a rally in Basra organized by the Southern Oil Workers Committee, after the government refused to negotiate over issues such as jobs for unemployed workers, skills training and higher pay for hazardous work.
In August 2013, the government excluded workers in the state-run oil sector from receiving wage and benefit increases granted to other public employees. Public-sector wage increases ranged from 5 percent to 114 percent.
Workers delayed the action because of the country’s ongoing instability. Meanwhile, the committee’s negotiation team traveled to Baghdad to meet with government officials at the Ministry of Oil. After negotiations stalled, workers waged a mass rally.
“We are determined to achieve our rights and find no other way to be heard than peaceful demonstrations and sit-in actions,” the Southern Oil Committee said in a statement.
Read the full list of oil workers’ demands in English and Arabic.
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