Reaching across Borders for Farmworker Rights

Reaching across Borders for Farmworker Rights

“Now more than ever we see the need to organize across borders to tackle corporate global supply chains” that keep workers from retail and farms in low wages,” says Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer and chief officer of the California Labor Federation.


“We need to learn from each other to learn to organize more.”

Pulaski helped open a day-long conference, “Realizing a More Fair Global Food Supply Chain,” which gathered farm worker activists and food justice advocates to explore farmworker organizing strategies, alliances to support worker rights across the food chain, legal initiatives to ensure decent work and the importance of workers in the advancement of sustainability and justice as our food moves from farm to table.


“We are talking about a whole distribution system that is based on low-wage work, an economic model that relies on low wages in restaurants, retail, farms,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Today is about changing that.”


Bader-Blau and Kent Wong, director of the University of California-Los Angeles Labor Center, joined in launching the event, sponsored by the Solidarity Center, the Food Chain Workers Alliance and UCLA Labor Center.


One way to improve worker rights in global supply chains involves workers coming together to demand their rights, and union activists from Mexico, Morocco and Washington state shared their successful strategies organizing farmworkers.


Speaking on the first panel, “Build Real Voice and Real Work for Workers,” Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia in Washington state, described how he joined with co-workers on farms in Washington state for a two-cent an hour raise in 2013. They went on to champion laws that ensured farmworkers would receive their wages from employers who he estimates engaged in wage theft totaling $850,000.


“One thing I want to emphasize is how important it is for us to organize,” says Torres, speaking through a translator. “I am proud to represent workers.”


In Morocco, where the Democratic Labor Federation (CDT) organized more than 1,000 farmworkers on a large agro-industrial complex, the union focused on empowering women throughout the process, says Saida Bentahar, a member of the CDT executive committee.


“For women working in the agricultural fields, women started to learn about their rights and how to discuss and negotiate,” says Bentahar. “Women also managed to have their voices heard during negotiations” and as a result, they won first-ever health care and education opportunities for their children and can work in higher-skilled, higher-paid jobs previously open only to men.


“Now women benefit from many advantages they would not have had without the collective bargaining agreement,” she says.

Food justice advocates shared how they incorporate the rights of workers along the global agricultural supply chain during the second morning panel, a strategy session on models of cooperation.


“When we say agricultural food chain workers, we mean farm workers, fish workers, meat processing and poultry processing workers, those who truck the food and workers in grocery stores, retail chains, restaurants, and street vendors,” says Joann Lo, co-director of the Food Chain Workers Alliance in Los Angeles.


Lo says her organization forrmed as the sustainable food movement took off and consumers began asking how far their food traveled and was it fresh and sustainable—but left workers out of the conversation. “We need to ask: Are the jobs sustainable for workers in the global supply chain?” she says.


“The power of procurement most powerful tool we have,” says Clare Fox, executive director at the Los Angeles Food Policy Council. Fox described how her organization successfully moved the LA Unfired School District—which spends $150 million a year on food—to commit to ensuring 15 percent of the food it sources meets a baseline of fair labor, animal welfare and nutrition.


The panel also included moderator Robert Eggers, president of the LA Kitchen and Ryan Zinn, regenerative projects manager at the family-owned organic, fair trade company, Dr. Bronner’s.


Stop back for more coverage of the afternoon sessions!

Women in Morocco, Tunisia Highlight GBV at Work

Women in Morocco, Tunisia Highlight GBV at Work

Women union activists and their allies in Morocco and Tunisia celebrated International Women’s Day this week with events that highlighted the need for a global standard to address gender-based (GBV) violence at work.

“Violence is escalating dramatically. Without an international agreement and deterrent laws that protect women at home, in society and in workplaces, we cannot move forward,” says Saida Ouaid, a member of the Executive Office of the Democratic Confederation of Labor (CDT) in Morocco.

Ouaid and other women union leaders and allies took part in a March 6 event “Toward an International Convention for the Elimination of Gender-Based Violence in the Workplace” at the Parliament in Rabat, in coordination with Morocco’s Secretariat of Equity and Equality.

Tunisia, gender-based violence, gender equality, Solidarity Center, Women's Day

Touriya Lahrech (far left),coordinator of the CDT’s Women Department, joins women union members to discuss an ILO convention addressing gender-based violence at work. Credit: Mohamed Yakkane

The International Labor Organization (ILO) is considering a convention (regulation) that would address violence and harassment against workers. The Solidarity Center is part of an International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) campaign for passage of a strong ILO convention.

In Tunisia, 100 union members from across the country gathered for a March 8 event where they also discussed the need for passage of an ILO convention on gender-based violence at work.

“The gathering is an opportunity for women to stand up for their struggles to defend their rights and freedom, and to promote equality and an environment free of  violence,” Samir Al-Shefi, deputy general-secretary of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) Women, Youth and Association, said in opening the event.

Naima Hammami, one of two women on the UGTT’s executive office, paid tribute to the struggles of Tunisian, Palestinian, Syrian and Arab women around the world. The event was sponsored by UGTT’s Women, Youth and Association Department, together with the Solidarity Center.

Gender-Based Violence ‘Widespread at Work’

At both the Morocco and Tunisia events, experts discussed preliminary findings on gender-based violence at work based on participatory field research sponsored by the  Solidarity Center and CDT in Morocco and the UGTT in Tunisia.

Discussing the research in Morocco, Najat Al-Razi, a gender specialist and sociologist, says gender-based violence is “widespread in the world of work,” and “the most common form of violence against women in workplaces is sexual harassment.”

Asma al-Marani, a member of the Moroccan Union of Labor and the Arab Trade Union Confederation, pointed out that her union receives daily complaints about violence at work from  women working in the precarious and informal economy.

CDT leaders noted that as part of the global campaign for an international convention on the elimination of violence in the world of work, the union will continue meeting with a range of allies at the grassroots level until the Geneva Conference with a campaign to push the government to support the ILO draft convention, supplemented by a guiding document implementing the convention.

Representatives from the Njda Center, the Jusour Association, the Women’s Labor Union, the Association of Women for Equality and Democracy (Afed) and other union leaders and journalists also took part in the Rabat event.

Year in Review: Ending GBV on Morocco Farms

Year in Review: Ending GBV on Morocco Farms

As part of our year in review series, we are highlighting the 12 most popular Solidarity Center web stories of 2017. This story received the most reach on our Facebook page in November. Read the full story here.

Agricultural work remains one of the most dangerous in the world. And 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.

Decent Work Forum: ‘With a Union, We May Fight Together’

Decent Work Forum: ‘With a Union, We May Fight Together’

Morocco, decent work, domestic workers, migrant workers, Solidarity Center

Worker rights advocates from across the Middle East and North Africa strategized and networked over three days in Casablanca, Morocco. Caption: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Ending human trafficking. Ensuring all employers treat workers fairly. Giving voice to migrant workers around the world. Creating a world in which women are treated equally to men.

These are some of the broad goals participants at the Solidarity Center Forum on Decent Work Forum for Agricultural Women and Domestic Workers identified in a morning ice breaker on the final day of the November 29–December 1 conference in Casablanca.

“If I had a magic wand, I would do away with all oppression. I would do away with all inequalities,” says Farah Abdallah, with the National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL).

Some 30 participants at the conference then explored how to put their hopes and dreams into action, building on two days’ discussions in which they shared their challenges and successes in winning worker rights on farms and in households throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) in Morocco, the Forum includes representatives of unions and worker associations from Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco.

Creating Positive Change Takes Collective Action

Tunisia, domestic workers, migrant workers, human rights, Solidarity Center

Making positive change takes the kind of collective strength workers gain in unions—Kalthoum Barkallah. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Participants proposed lobbying government and advocating for national laws covering worker rights as key steps forward. For instance, several participants discussed the need to press for an end to the kefala sponsorship system in Arab Gulf countries which ties migrant workers to their employers, effectively denying them all fundamental rights.

Campaigning for ratification of International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions like those covering domestic worker rights also is key, participants say, as is regulating labor brokers who often charge migrant workers exorbitant fees and give them false information on wages and working conditions.

Yet as Kalthoum Barkallah pointed out, it takes collective action to successfully press for laws and create broad change. And collective action means workers joining together in unions or associations—and connecting with other kindred groups.

“One association cannot achieve a lot. You must have a network of people and organizations for our lobbying efforts to be strong enough to change the mind of decision makers,” says Barkallah, Solidarity Center senior program officer in Tunisia, who led the day’s sessions.

Morocco, farm workers, Solidarity Center

Bouhaya Adiabdelali, a farm worker and union steward from Morocco, joined more than two dozen worker rights advocates for a Solidarity Center forum in Casablanca. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

“We have seen throughout our conference that the conditions for decent work do not exist in many places. It is incumbent upon us as civil society to address that.”

“No worker is an unorganizable,” says Elizabeth Tang, general secretary for the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), sharing her experiences working with domestic workers in Hong Kong, SAR and around the world. “Women, men, migrant, old, young—they all can join unions, they can all be organized.”

Tang gave the example of Malaysia, where it is not legal for migrant workers to form unions. Yet domestic workers “take great risk to win their rights” and have now formed an organization and are the newest IDWF affiliate.

Farm workers in Meknes El Hajeb, Morocco, described how they improved their working conditions through collective bargaining, and domestic workers from across the region shared how the abuse they endured in employer households ended when they joined unions and became covered by contracts.

The bottom line, says Marie Constant, a domestic worker from Madagascar working in Lebanon: “Within a union one may fight together.”

Going Forward

Morocco, domestic workers, Solidarity Center

Adoracion Salvador Bunag plans to share with other domestic workers the strategies she learned at the Solidarity Center Decent Work Forum. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

For forum participants, the conference served as a springboard for moving forward with strategies for carrying out campaigns to improve the rights of domestic workers and farm workers.

“This dialogue is not going to stop here,” says Saida Ouaid, CDT executive board member and coordinator for programs covering women and migration. “It will be further conveyed here through our institutions.”

“I have learned a lot from this forum and I will able to share it with my fellow domestic workers in Jordan,” says Adoracion Salvador Bunag, a domestic worker from the Philippines working in Morocco.

“As we move forward we will implement what we learned here,” says Hanan Laawina, a Morocco farm worker in Meknes El Hajeb.

“What is being talked about here is kind of stuff that is real and when I go back to work, I can speak from a position of strength when advocating for our rights,” she says.

Decent Work Forum: Sharing Strategies for Success

Decent Work Forum: Sharing Strategies for Success

Morocco, domestic workers, Solidarity Center, human rights

Romaric Hocine, Marie Constant and Adoracion Salvador Bunag shared domestic workers’ success stories. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Following heartfelt rounds of songs on workers’ struggles and union solidarity, some 30 worker rights advocates launched the second day of the Forum on Decent Work for Agricultural Women and Domestic Workers. Discussions centered on the lack of migrant worker rights and the commonalities between the treatment of domestic workers and farm workers, and participants concluded the day by sharing success stories and best practices from around the world.

The November 29–December 1 forum in Casablanca, sponsored by the Solidarity Center and the Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT) in Morocco, includes representatives of unions and worker associations from Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Morocco.

“We have to be aware of all the different ways our employers and governments try to divide us from each other,” says Erin Radford, Solidarity Center senior program officer for North Africa, opening the conference with small group discussions.

In conversation with each other and together as a group, forum participants explored how migrant workers often are paid lower wages than a country’s standard minimum wage, are prohibited from forming unions and typically are not covered by basic social protections, like pensions. Gender also is a key dividing line at work, and participants shared how women are treated as lesser than men at work, even as they take on most of the care burden at home.

These divisions, says Radford, are how employers “can increase their control over workers and exploit them.”

‘Labor Is Not a Commodity’

Morocco, Solidarity Center, farm workers

‘Labor is not a commodity’—Mohamed Korri, labor relations expert and former consultant in the agricultural sector. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Divisions in labor rights between farm workers and non-farm workers are especially acute in Morocco, says Mohamed Korri, a labor relations expert and former consultant in the agricultural sector. As part of a panel presentation with experts on decent work and migration, Korri listed the ways in which farm workers have fewer rights and protections than other workers: they are paid less than the standard minimum wage, they are not eligible for paid holidays and they face such strict pension restrictions they rarely qualify for paid retirement.

There is little incentive for legislators to improve the laws, he said, because many own farms and benefit from worker exploitation. “Labor is not a product, not a commodity and must be treated humanly,” he says.

Also on the panel, Bachir Znagui, a media professor from the HEM Research Center, overviewed the conditions of domestic workers and migrant workers in Morocco and the international conventions covering their rights, and shared best practices from countries around the world, including Uruguay, which requires labor inspections of the homes of those employing domestic workers.

Morocco, Solidarity Center, human rights, ILO

Freedom to form unions is a key pillar of decent work, says Fatima Idahmad, ILO representative in Morocco. Caption: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Znagui’s presentation showed that growing numbers of workers are forced out of formal-sector employment and into jobs with low wages and no social protections or job security—hitting women and migrant workers the hardest because they comprise the majority of workers in the informal economy. The increase in low-paying, temporary jobs is fueled by a rise of corporate rights and corresponding decrease in worker rights around the world.

Key to decent work is the freedom to form unions, the elimination of child labor and forced labor and the elimination of workplace discrimination, says Fatima Idahmad, national coordinator for the International Labor Organization (ILO) in Morocco. Idahmad  highlighted how the ILO is raising awareness among workers about their rights throughout Morocco.

Strategies for Success

Working together—across organizations, job categories and countries—workers can push back against global corporate forces and unsupportive governments. And in sharing success stories, forum participants began crafting strategies to take back to their workplaces.

Morocco, farm workers, gender equality, Solidarity Center

Farm worker and CDT member Hayat Khomsi says a union contract has completely transformed the conditions under which farm workers toil. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell

Marie Constant, a domestic worker in Lebanon originally from Madagascar, was among activists who led the formation a domestic workers’ union in that country, the first of its kind in the region. Constant described how union members, nearly all of whom are migrant workers, receive key support from National Federation of Employees’ and Workers’ Unions in Lebanon (FENASOL).

“Even if we know we have a long way to go, that there are a lot of hurdles along the way, we are advancing not regressing,” she says, speaking through a translator.

A union contract has completely transformed the conditions under which farm workers toil on Les Domaines Brahim Zniber farm, says Hayat Khomsi, a farm worker in Meknes El Hajeb and activist with the CDT.

Under the landmark 2015 agreement, which now covers 1,200 workers on six farms, workers for the first time have formal employment contracts with job security, paid leave and other social protections. Crucially, women now have equality with men, enabling the women farm workers, who previously were blocked from “male” jobs, like truck driving, access to these generally higher paying jobs.

“Now we have achieved a similar status to that of the men,” says Khomsi. “Now I am a team leader and before no woman could have been a team leader.”

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