As the COVID-19 crisis deepens in Ukraine and scandals are alleged regarding state procurement of personal protective equipment (PPE), worker rights activists are leveraging trade unions’ collective power to advocate for better pay and conditions for working people and help provide emergency relief during quarantine. The country’s trade unions are persisting in delivering help and calling out injustices—no small task given that Ukraine last year was awarded the worst labor rights score in Central and Eastern Europe.
Worker-initiated advocacy measures include:
- Civil society activists and the five major trade unions of Ukraine that represent 7 million members continue to resist proposed changes to the country’s labor law, which, in violation of international labor law, would allow employers to fire workers for any reason and drastically reduce overtime pay.
- Ukraine’s construction workers’ union began a collective bargaining process to minimize the negative effects of the pandemic on the construction sector and initiated a criminal case against construction company Prosco for wage theft.
- Trade union activists are speaking out on behalf of an emerging small entrepreneurs’ movement that is protesting disproportionate government support for larger, mostly oligarchy-owned, businesses during the lock down, and demanding equal support for small and micro-businesses, including small-scale farms.
- Workers at Ukraine’s postal and delivery service Nova Poshta successfully lobbied their employer to provide all 30,000 Nova Poshta employees with PPE when needed and preserve the wages and benefits of those required to stop working during quarantine.
- The Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine, FPU, on April 29 provided a live-streamed question-and-answer forum for labor leaders from Kharkiv, Kryvyi Rih, Poltava, Lviv, Zaporizzhya, Ternopil, and Kamyanske to consult with FPU experts about worker’s legal rights under Ukraine’s labor law during the pandemic, and to share their members’ most commonly reported violations—including overwork, employer pressure to take unpaid leave and issues around telework.
- Leaders of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, KVPU, on April 30 held a live-streamed conference with representatives of the medical workers’ union, rail workers’ union, independent unions of Donetsk region, the LEONI Wiring Systems union and others to catalog and discuss challenges reported by workers at home and on the job due to the pandemic—including job losses at shuttered mines in the Donetsk region, lack of PPE for medical workers and the uneven impact of quarantine on women.
- Trade unions in the Dnipro region successfully lobbied employers, local government and volunteers for increased support of medical workers at the frontline of the COVID-19 fight.
- Tower crane operators in Lviv held a wildcat strike, refusing to work until they receive their February and March wages and employer-provided PPE.
- Following an appeal from workers at the Kremenchuk machine-building plant, the local government in Poltava province allocated an additional $14,600 for medical worker needs, including face masks.
Worker-initiated relief measures include:
- Labor Initiatives (LI), a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian non-profit organization, is providing legal assistance to workers by distributing COVID-related information through its phone hotline, website, Facebook page and other social media. LI’s hotline provided some 100 consultations during the country’s first week of quarantine; its website FAQ on labor rights during the quarantine was viewed more than 60,000 times in March.
- The Trade Union of Healthcare Workers of Ukraine (HWUU) launched a hotline to collect and respond to emergencies reported by frontline healthcare workers, which include inadequate PPE and excessive workloads due to layoffs.
- Trade union members at Nova Poshta launched a COVID-19 email help line, provided disinfectants and children’s educational materials to all its members, and distributed 1,000 face mask vouchers to members deemed most at risk from COVID-19.
- The trade union representing workers employed by the Naftogaz state energy enterprise collected $300,000 for local healthcare worker needs, which was distributed to workers at 21 hospitals and 26 urgent-care centers.
- Also to support medical workers, the trade union representing workers employed by Ukraine’s Rivne Department of Culture collected $2,000 while the Rivne province union solidarity fund donated $50,000.
- Members of the trade union representing workers at oil-transporting company Ukrtransnafta distributed 2,256 food baskets to elders in need at a cost of $31,500.
- Unions in Pavlograd purchased 20 medical ventilators for hospitals in Pavlograd, Pershotravensk and Ternivka, and purchased $112,000 of PPE.
- KVPU-affiliated trade union activists at Antonov aircraft company helped ensure the safety of workers who are transporting medical equipment and PPE globally, including to COVID-19 hotspots.
- The trade union representing nuclear sector workers in Ukraine donated its entire reserve fund of $38,500 toward the purchase of PPE and relief for medical workers.
- Nuclear sector workers in Mykolaiv province collected $7,300 for medical workers at Yuzhnoukrayinsk hospital.
- The local chapter of the industrial workers’ union in the city of Kryvyi Rih organized self-manufacture of face masks for its members and others, producing more than 1,000 masks through March.
As a migrant mine worker from Swaziland, Mduduzi Thabethe says he has fewer workplace rights than his South African co-workers. Although all mine workers pay the same amount into the health fund, migrant workers get inferior care and pensions are rare.
“If you are a citizen of South Africa, you see you are building your country and you have something, but we have nothing.”
Although media and policymakers focus on African migrants to Europe, some 80 percent of African migrant workers remain on the continent.
Thabethe’s union, the Association of Mineworkers and Construction Union, is among those working to improve conditions for migrant workers.
Bullet shells shot into a crowd of mineworkers at Peru’s Labor of Ministry.Credit:Solidarity Center/Samantha Tate
Six mineworkers were arrested and one injured from police gunfire yesterday as some 100 workers protested at the Ministry of Labor and Employment Promotion in Lima, Peru. The miners, who have been on strike for 17 days at Buenaventura’s Uchucchacua silver mine in the coastal region north of Lima, are calling for immediate improvement in safety and health conditions in the mines, especially air quality, which they say is extremely hazardous.
The mineworkers, all contract workers, gathered at the Labor Ministry, hoping their representatives could speak with Ministry representatives. After police accused them of blocking a public sidewalk, a police officer shot at the group, wounding mineworker Roberto Loyola, in the leg.
“We reject how we have been received here at the Ministry of Labor, with a worker wounded by a bullet,” says Uchucchacua Workers Secretary General Ronald Ventocilla. “We cannot allow Peruvians to be shooting at Peruvians. Buenaventura is an irresponsible employer that ignores its obligations to its workers, including high levels of carbon monoxide in the mines and not providing mineworkers with the food that they have committed to provide.”
On Tuesday, the Mineworkers Federation (FNTMMSP) launched a nationwide strike in part to call for a repeal of additions to Peru’s Health and Safety Law that make it more difficult for injured workers or their families to hold employers accountable for workplace injuries. Employers requested the amendments to the law, which was enacted last July.
Miners told Solidarity Center staff in Lima yesterday that when safety and health inspectors arrive at the mine to investigate working conditions, managers turn off the older machinery that produces the worst air contamination. Mineworkers regularly work 10-hour days underground for 14 days, followed by seven days off, and they say the continued exposure to toxic gasses prematurely ages them.
Contract workers at the mine, who are not in a union, earn $16 day, less than unionized Uchucchacua mineworkers, who are paid $22 a day, of which almost one third must be returned to the employer for food. Up to 30 workers who have participated in the strike have received letters from the employer saying they will be laid off for participating in the strike.
Buenaventura Group, owner of the Uchucchacua mine, is Peru’s largest producer of precious metals and in May announced $17.3 million dollars in net profit for the first quarter of 2015. The Uchucchacua mine, in the province of Oyon Lima region, produces about 714,300 pounds of silver a year. Peru is the world’s third-biggest silver producer.
Vowing to stay in Lima until Labor Ministry receives them—striking workers are sleeping under the eaves of the National Stadium because they don’t have the money to pay for a hotel—Ventocilla says, “Three days ago we started a ‘march of sacrifice’ to Lima and we are going to continue until the Ministry receives us.”
FNTMMSP decried the use of police violence to repress workers freedom of speech and is working with National Human Rights Coordinating Body to seek the release of the detained workers.
Protesting laws that facilitate mass layoffs and enable large-scale subcontracting of workers’ jobs, tens of thousands of Peruvian mineworkers launched a strike Tuesday at the nation’s gold, copper, tin and silver mines in regions such as Cerro de Pasco, Puno, Ancash, and Huánuco. Marching in the main square of Juliaca yesterday, mineworkers shouted, “Down with the outsourcing law, mineworkers unite!”
The Mineworkers Federation describes the outsourcing law and why it needs to be repealed in this brochure.
Members of the Mineworkers Federation (FNTMMSP), a Solidarity Center ally, are seeking to halt worker layoffs and prevent passage of a proposed law that, among other detrimental outcomes, would allow 10 percent of workers to be fired when a company reports losses. They are demanding the government repeal outsourcing legislation that union leaders say enables employers to divide the workforce and violate worker rights. (The Mineworkers Federation describes the outsourcing law and why it needs to be repealed in this brochure.)
The Federation is calling for all outsourced workers who currently perform core functions of mining operations to be moved into permanent contracts and also seeks modifications in legislation that would allow outsourced workers to benefit from annual profit sharing, which is the legal right of directly-employed mineworkers.
Further, the Federation is calling for a repeal of additions to Peru’s Health and Safety Law, enacted last July at the request of employers, which make it more difficult for injured workers or their families to hold employers accountable for workplace injuries, among other harmful measures.
Ivan Granados, a mineworker, said employers already are using the mass layoff legislation. Granados told Telesur that “at work, they are starting to fire the workers, saying that the company is losing money. They are … harassing people with threats of firing them. That is why we are here fighting.”
Mining accounts for up to 15 percent of the Peru’s gross national product, and mining exports have grown 4.7 percent over the past year.
“The mineral wealth of a country should be used for the benefit of the people, including the workers, and not to destroy the environment for the benefit of the corporations and politicians,” say United Steelworkers (USW) President Leo Gerard and Sindicato Nacional de Mineros President Napoleón Gómez Urrutia in a joint statement backing the mineworkers.
The USW and Sindicato Nacional de Mineros, whose solidarity statements were read at a press conference yesterday, are part of a broad coalition of supporters Peruvian mineworkers are engaging, one that includes the Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú (CGTP), unions from the telecommunications, textile/apparel and oil/petroleum industries, as well as independent unions—Red Solidaria—and student and youth organizations. A coalition of students, young workers and unions earlier this year successfully repealed a law that reduced salaries and benefits for workers under age 25.
The Mineworkers Federation and its affiliated unions built the campaign to address outsourcing in the mining sector following Solidarity Center trainings and workshops, begun last year, in which they gained information about documenting worker rights violations and developing a policy proposal to improve outsourcing legislation.
Over the past six months, the Solidarity Center also has supported regional workshops for Federation affiliates to raise awareness and collect more information about how outsourcing is undermining decent working conditions—including health and safety in the mines—freedom of association and the right to collectively bargain in Peru’s mines.
The Mineworkers Federation also has filed a lawsuit alleging that the outsourcing law is unconstitutional, which has been accepted by Peru’s Constitutional Court for review.
With the safety and security of staff under increasing threat, the Worker Support Center (CAT, Centro de Apoyo al Trabajador) in Mexico has been forced to close its office in Puebla. The decision was based on a risk assessment conducted following the kidnapping and torture of one of CAT’s human rights defenders, Enrique Morales Montaño, on May 15, and ongoing threats against other CAT staff.
The director of CAT, Blanca Velázquez Díaz, who received a death threat in 2011, received a text message just hours after the kidnapping saying that she would be next. CAT’s office also was robbed and vandalized in December 2010.
Mexico’s Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culurales, ProDESC) and CAT, with broad national and international support, last year requested that the National Commission of Human Rights and the Puebla State Commission of Human Rights grant immediate precautionary measures to protect CAT members in their work. While this request was granted and implemented in 2011, the Puebla State Commission suspended the measures in April 2012 without any headway having been made in the investigations of these threats and without having conducted a risk analysis that would have justified the decision, according to the CAT and ProDESC. The attack on Morales took place one month later. An online petition campaign to the Mexican government on behalf of CAT has gained more than 5,000 signatures.
The Mexican mineworkers union, Los Mineros, together with national and international human rights groups including ProDESC, the UN Office for the High Commission on Human Rights, and Amnesty International, held a press conference last week in Mexico City, calling on the federal government to protect human rights defenders. Despite complaints filed with numerous government agencies and with the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights at the Organization of American States, the culprits remain at large.
“The systematic campaign against worker rights defenders must end—and the only way that will be done is if the Mexican government opens an investigation into the kidnapping, the break-in, and death threats and brings these violent and dangerous perpetrators to justice,” said Lorraine Clewer, Solidarity Center country program director in Mexico.
CAT has led multiple successful worker organizing drives at auto parts and garment assembly factories in the state of Puebla. Formed in 2001, CAT has developed strong relationships with unions and human rights organizations in Mexico, Europe and North America, including the mine workers union of Mexico. Many of CAT’s organizing initiatives have sought to oust protection unions and replace them with democratic, independent organizations. Blanca Velázquez is CAT’s founder and current director.