Where unions establish collective bargaining, they initiate the strongest mechanism for protecting agricultural workers’ rights, health and dignity according to a new report prepared for the Solidarity Center by researchers at Penn State’s Center for Global Workers’ Rights (CGWR).
“Fighting for Work with Dignity in the Fields: Agriculture Global Supply Chains in Morocco, Colombia, Guatemala, and Mexico,” seeks to understand employment relations in agricultural global supply chains and the struggle for dignity and empowerment of workers who are providing the world’s food. The report analyzes five agribusiness sectors including palm oil in Colombia, bananas in Guatemala, strawberries in Mexico, and grapes, olives and wine in Morocco.
In all four countries and five sectors, workers’ collective action has been “almost entirely responsible for increasing respect for workers’ rights” in a context where: 1) governments are constraining worker rights in favor of maximum employer flexibility in support of national, export-oriented development policies and, 2) global retailers are putting downward pressure on wages by curtailing the amount of capital that production workers might negotiate over with their employer for wage increases.
Researchers found that—where established—unions are performing the task of government to protect workers’ legal rights, increasing stability in otherwise precarious employment sectors and providing a mechanism for women to advance gender equality in job status and earnings as well as address rampant gender-based violence associated with their jobs—including transportation to and from the workplace. For example:
- In Colombia, unions negotiated agreements that increased direct hiring by three palm oil production companies, pushing back against the sector’s rampant use of labor subcontracting, which denies subcontracted workers union representation and provides them lower pay and more precarious work.
- In Guatemala, union representation in the banana sector means employer compliance with laws on working hours, remuneration, provision of personal protective equipment, voluntary overtime, protection from sexual abuse and freedom of association.
- In Mexico, while not achieving collective bargaining, the 2015 strike during strawberry harvest compelled employers to increase wages and registration workers in the national social security system, e.g., toward compliance with laws requiring living wages and consistent registration.
- In Morocco, the country’s labor law is enforced in grape, wine and olive oil production due to the agreement secured for workers by the Confédération Démocratique du Travail (CDT).
Addressing inequality and gender-based violence and harassment
Women, who comprise between 50 percent and 70 percent of the informal workforce in commercial agriculture, are especially vulnerable to sexual harassment, physical abuse and other forms of gender-based violence at work. Unions are addressing the gender-based violence that is common in all five sectors studied, as well as gendered pay discrimination and division of jobs that reduces women workers’ earnings, as follows:
- In Guatemala’s banana sector, women workers covered by union contracts report 50 percent less incidence of sexual harassment than peers at nonunion plantations because union women “can inform the company,” a female unionist explained.
- Women in Mexico’s strawberry sector reported that the 2015 strike helped reduce sexual abuse at work.
- While Moroccan law does not prescribe comprehensive equitable treatment, women’s participation in CDT negotiations with Zniber-Diana resulted in clauses requiring equity.
Although union density remains extremely low in all sectors studied, the report concludes that, “[w]here workers are able to unionize and collectively bargain, conditions improve, wages increase and gender-based violence is curtailed,” and that increased union density and collective bargaining coverage will expand these improvements.
Where unions establish collective bargaining, they initiate the strongest mechanism for protecting agricultural workers’ rights, health and dignity. Through analysis of five agribusiness sectors—including palm oil in Colombia, bananas in Guatemala, strawberries in Mexico, and grapes, olives and wine in Morocco—this report seeks to understand employment relations in agricultural global supply chains and workers’ struggle for dignity and empowerment.
Workers in Morocco are denouncing efforts by a Peugeot Citroen factory to force union leaders to resign from the Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) or lose their jobs. Already, one union leader has been fired, according to the union.
One worker was injured during a closed-door session with factory employers, according to UMT. Credit: UMT
Last week, factory management forced 11 union activists to sign resignation letters after compelling them to spend three hours behind closed doors where union leaders say they were subjected to questioning and harassment that seriously injured one worker.
“This violation of workers’ rights sullies the image of our country,” UMT says in a statement. “We call upon all local authorities to intervene in our case, and we call for the solidarity of workers at the company, and from unions across Morocco.”
Union members met in a general assembly over the weekend, where they stood strong for their rights to form a union and bargain collectively, and proceeded with planned union elections.
Over the past few months, the workers have protested the non-payment of overtime at the factory and waged a strike earlier this year at the plant in Kenitra, on Morocco’s northwestern coast. In 2019, Peugeot SA recorded more than $4 billion in profits.
The General Confederation of Labor (CGT) in France, which represents workers at Peugeot, supported the workers’ strike in Kenitra and vowed to assist them in their current struggle.
Union leaders say they expect management to announce this week whether the workers forced to sign resignation letters will be officially fired.
“The accident took place earlier this month, in a factory that employs 130 workers, mostly women. The illegal factory is said to have been operating for 20 years. Labor groups including U.S.-based Solidarity Center, are campaigning for an investigation into the tragedy.”
A 14-year old girl was among the 28 garment workers killed in a factory disaster in Tangier, Morocco, this week. Her mother says she had worked at the factory, an illegal sweatshop, for three years.
The workers were drowned or electrocuted after a flood caused a short circuit. Seventeen others were injured. The facility operated in an underground garage in a residential area with 130 workers, most of them women. A nearby resident rescued some of the workers by throwing a rope into the flooded factory.
“How could this factory have been a secret? Where were the labor inspectors? Where were the local government authorities? Where were the investors?” asked Amal El Amri, a representative in Morocco’s upper house of Parliament and Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) member.
Residents in the area say the sweatshop operated for more than 20 years.
“We must ensure a voice for these workers who have died, and for the many thousands more women workers who toil under the same dangerous conditions,” El Amri said. In January, a fire at another illegal textile factory in Tangier injured one person and destroyed the factory, where 400 people worked.
The UMT and Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT), both Solidarity Center partners, demanded an immediate investigation into the tragedy, and the CDT said in a statement that it holds the state, the government and the employers fully responsible for the workers’ deaths.
Fast Fashion Industry Spawns Illegal Factories
Across from Spain on Morocco’s northern coast, Tangier is a key hub of Morocco’s textile manufacturing. Countrywide, official statistics show 1,200 textile companies with 165,000 workers—27 percent of the country’s industrial employment.
Yet many factories in Morocco’s textile and leather industry—estimates range in the thousands—operate illegally, forcing workers to labor long hours for low pay in often dangerous conditions. A 2012 investigation revealed that workers in illegal Moroccan textile sweatshops work, on average, 55 to 65 hours per week—11 to 21 hours more than the legal limit.
Operating outside national labor laws or standards, illegal factories are a direct response to the demands of the fast fashion industry, in which large brands demand quick response to fashion changes and customer demands and so draw on subcontractors whose workforce is cheaper and its work arrangements informal.
With no job stability and few social protections, garment workers in the informal economy are subject to exploitation and abuse, with no health coverage, pensions or other social and legal protections. Some one-third of Morocco workers are in the informal economy, which accounts for 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
‘Companies Must Be Held Accountable’
As the global labor movement joins in calls for accountability in a supply chain where workers pay the price for cheap production, the Morocco Contribution Forum is urging the government to close all workplaces without health and safety protections and establish a policy to ensure severe penalties for companies operating outside the law.
Public officials must “improve the rights and living standard of marginalized people who are victims of oppression and violence, whether it is on the way to work, or in the workplace, and to provide them with the minimum conditions of human rights,” the Forum, a Solidarity Center partner, said in a statement.