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
Because 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
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 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
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
“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.”
After a coalition of unions and human rights organizations successfully campaigned for Nigeria’s government to ratify a global treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), they knew that was just a first step toward ensuring violence-free workplaces in the country.
Now, the hard work begins to implement the protections in International Labor Organization Convention 190, (C190), speakers said during a panel sponsored by the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) Network.
“The campaign does not stop at ratification. It must grow at the grassroots level, at the [factory] floor level, at the [union] branch level,” said Rita Goyit, head of the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) Department of Women and Youth and secretary of the NLC’s National Women Commission. “The struggle continues.”
Goyit was among speakers at a June 21 event launching a new ILAW Network report that analyzes the current legal framework regarding violence and harassment at work, particularly GBVH, and the status of international treaty obligations in Nigerian law. The report identifies key areas of reform to bring Nigerian laws and policies in line with C190 provisions and how legal practitioners can utilize existing law to seek justice for survivors of GBVH and other abuses at work.
It finds that “the government should work with trade unions, women’s right organizations and other human rights organizations to create safe, gender-responsive, effective complaints procedures, including measures to address barriers to reporting. There is a critical need for strong mechanisms to protect workers who report violence and harassment from retaliation.”
Speaking on the panel, Agomo advocated holistic legislation “that mainstreams health and welfare issues, safety issues, to include issues arising from gender-based violence and harassment.” She noted that C190, which the ILO adopted four years ago last week, is broad enough to ensure that all workers achieve violence-free workplaces, including while commuting to work and at related events. The convention covers workers in the formal as well as informal economies. Thirty-one countries have ratified C190, with the Nigerian government ratifying it in November.
Union leaders trained 25 vendors to form and lead a task force on GBVH in the market. The task force developed a code of conduct to prohibit GBVH and create a mechanism for reporting cases. They distributed information leaflets and helped raise awareness among vendors about their rights to a violence-free workplace. This 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.
“People are now being able to know their rights, there are mechanisms to report GBVH and there are people trained in the market for emergency response,” she said. The effort is now expanding to another large market in the area.
The NLC also is reaching out to unions to ensure their constitutions and collective bargaining agreements adequately address sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence at work and are training gender officers to educate union members on their rights to violence-free workplaces.
The campaign urging the government to ratify C190 involved a broad, union-led coalition, said Afusatu Shaibu, national chairperson, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) Women Commission. Among those organizations is the Advocacy for Women with Disabilities Initiative. Women workers with disabilities face multiple hurdles when confronted with GBVH at work, said Patience Ogolo-Dickson, the organization’s executive director.
“It’s very difficult for a person with a disability to get a job, and when you are faced with speaking out, you fear losing your job and think it’s better to keep silent. Many don’t know about the need to access to justice and need to be educated on C190.”
The online panel was moderated by Jacquline Wambui Wamai, ILAW Network regional coordinator for sub-Saharan Africa, and a recording will be available in coming days.
The Nigerian working group of a campaign led by the Organization of Trade Unions of West Africa (OTUWA) is collaborating on a regional campaign demanding more investment by governments in the health of their citizens. OTUWA represents trade union national centers in the 15 West African countries comprising the Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS).
Addressing journalists at a public event in Abuja, Nigeria working group coordinator Dr. Ayegba Ojonugwa, last month warned that governments must increase health workers’ wages and improve their working conditions—including safety—to staunch the outflux of health workers from the beleaguered sector.
“We are here today to further advocate that healthcare is a human right,” said Ojonugwa, who noted that West Africa’s governments are not implementing the 15 percent minimum annual budgetary health allocation to which African heads of state agreed in the landmark 2001 Abuja Declaration. Currently, no country in the region achieves this percentage and Nigeria’s healthcare indicators are some of the worst in Africa—in part because medical professionals are in such short supply there.
In Nigeria, OTUWA’s “Healthcare Is a Human Right” campaign—launched in Abuja in March 2021—is supported by the International Federation of Women Lawyers (FIDA), the Medical and Health Workers Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (NANNM) and labor federations Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC).
In the region, the campaign is supported by OTUWA’s affiliates together with many of their health sector unions. A 2020 survey of 700 health workers living in Gambia, Ghana, Nigeria, Senegal, Sierra Leone and Togo provides a window into the region’s health-sector shortcomings and presents a raft of recommendations for ensuring the protection of health worker rights and effective, accessible healthcare for all.
A survey of more than 600 workers with disabilities in Nigeria’s formal and informal sectors, conducted by the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) Women Commission and the Solidarity Center in collaboration with Nigerian unions and disability rights organizations, finds that most workers with disabilities cannot access decent work as defined by the UN International Labor Organization (ILO).
“It provides evidence for what we have been saying for so long [and is] a powerful tool for advocacy,” says Nigeria disability advocate and FAECARE Foundation Executive Director Ndifreke (Freky) Andrew-Essien.”
“Securing Equal Access to Decent Work in Nigeria: A Report by Workers with Disabilities,” reports quantitative data collected from 322 men and 338 women workers with disabilities across seven geopolitical zones and the Federal Capital Territory in Nigeria, supported by qualitative data collected from union members. The study—for its sample size and breadth, as well as for the collaboration between trade unions and disability rights organizations—is the first of its kind. An estimated 1 billion people experience disability worldwide, the majority in developing countries. According to the World Health Organization’s 2011 World Report on Disability, between 25 million and 27 million people experience a disability in Nigeria, the majority of whom live below the poverty line. Indeed, disability, gender and low socioeconomic status interact to keep people in poverty.
The survey found that, regardless of legislation aimed at addressing diversity in the Nigerian workplace, disabled workers do not experience the same access to employment opportunities as their counterparts without disabilities and often face physical, social, economic and/or environmental barriers to participation.
Findings and Recommendations
Most of the 660 workers surveyed are self-employed and in the informal sector. Almost half of respondents earn less than Nigeria’s minimum wage and say their work environment is not accommodating to their disability. Most (62 percent) cite transportation as the most significant obstacle to accessing work, followed by a lack of disability-friendly facilities (33 percent) and poor communication with or unsupportive co-workers (19 percent). Nearly a quarter of disabled workers say they work more than eight hours without overtime pay. A similar number had experienced gender-based violence or harassment (GBVH) during the previous two years.
Researchers conclude that a variety of actions—by the Nigerian government, employers and unions—could build an inclusive working environment that respects, includes and accommodates disabled workers. This includes the revision of laws to outline reasonable accommodations in employment and the creation of a disability tax fund to provide adequate social security benefits. In addition, unions, along with disabled workers, should work together to demand reasonable accommodations at work and greater accessibility.
The ILO defines decent work as work that is available to all equally, is productive and delivers a fair income and security in the workplace, provides equal access to social protections—such as pensions, and adequate and affordable healthcare—and affords workers freedom to participate equally in decisions affecting their work lives.
Drivers in Nigeria won the country’s first union covering platform-based workers, a victory that shows it is possible for “unions to organize workers in the gig economy,” says Ayoade Ibrahim, secretary general of the Amalgamated Union of App-Based Transport Workers of Nigeria (AUATWN).
Platform workers in Nigeria join with Labor Ministry officials to finalize recognition of their union, AUATWN. Credit: AUATWN
The Ministry of Labor’s recognition of AUATWN empowers it to have a say in determining the terms and conditions of drivers working for Uber, Bolt and other app-based transportation companies in the country, and covers drivers who deliver food and passengers or engage in other services. The union worked with the Nigeria Labor Congress throughout the campaign for recognition.
In a statement approving AUATWN as union representative of app-based workers last week, the Labor Ministry pointed out that while the freedom to form unions and collectively bargain are internationally protected rights, workers in the informal sector, such as app-based workers, often are not included.
In Nigeria, as in countries around the world, app-based drivers often must work long hours to support themselves and pay for expenses like vehicle maintenance, insurance and car leasing. Excessive hours lead to accidents, says Ayoade.
“I work 15 to 18 hours a day. Long hours working is actually not safe for drivers,” says Ayobami Lawal, a platform driver in Lagos. “That is why you see in the news that the driver had an accident. It is because of fatigue, because there is no time to rest.” Drivers also risk being assaulted and even killed on the job, as platform companies do not screen riders. By contrast, riders have access to drivers’ name and personal phone numbers.
In April 2021, platform drivers and their associations in Nigeria went on strike, demanding that Uber and Bolt raise trip fares to make up for the increased cost of gas and vehicle parts. They also launched a class action suit in 2021 against Uber and Bolt, seeking unpaid overtime and holiday pay, pensions and union recognition. Following the protests, Uber increased fare costs on UberX rides and UberX Share in Lagos, a move that did little to improve drivers’ pay and nothing to improve conditions.
‘We Must Be United’
App-based drivers in Nigeria began seeking union recognition in 2017, after drivers’ income was slashed by 40 percent, says Ayoade, a father of three who that year was forced to drive 10-hour days to make the same income he had previously earned for fewer hours. When Uber and Bolt first launched, drivers were paid enough to work without putting in long hours. But the companies’ price wars to lure passengers and increased driver fees, including commissions up to 25 percent per rider, slashed driver pay.
As the process to register a union with the government dragged, platform worker associations made key gains in mobilizing workers through Facebook, WhatsApp and, most recently, Telegram. The campaign also includes legal action and lobbying Parliament to extend labor laws and social protections to workers in the informal sector.
Three worker associations engaged in the campaign—the National Union of Professional App-based Transport Workers (NUPA-BTW), the Professional E-hailing Drivers and Private Owners Association of Nigeria (PEDPAN) and the National Coalition of Ride-Sharing Partners (NACORP)—last year joined together to form AUATWN.
“We cannot go to war with a divided mind,” says Ayoade. We must be united before we can achieve. The fact that we are united now, we are fierce. We’re trying to involve everybody.”
App-Based Workers Making Gains Worldwide
Unions face unique challenges organizing app-based workers, but by mobilizing members through online apps, unions also have the ability to involve more workers in meetings, education and other opportunities.
“Everybody is included,” says Ayoade. “It’s a more democratic process. We have delegates for unit leadership. If the delegates can’t join for a physical meeting, they can join anywhere.”
Members’ questions can be quickly answered on social platforms and the union operation is more transparent. For instance, he says, members “will see how the money to the union is moving from the app to the account. Every member knows how the money will be used.”
Platform workers in countries worldwide are joining together to better wages, job safety and other fundamental rights guaranteed by international laws. In Kyrgyzstan, gig workers at Yandex Go formed a union and won better wages, while a new report finds that workers on digital platform companies who are pursuing their rights at work through courts and legislation are making significant gains, especially in Europe and Latin America. The Solidarity Center is part of a broad-based movement in dozens of countries to help app-based drivers and other informal sector workers come together. Members of the International Lawyers Assisting Workers Network (ILAW), a Solidarity Center project, have assisted platform workers in many of these cases.
While celebrating the new union, Ayoade also is mindful of the cost some workers paid for a lack of decent work.
“Some of the people we started together with in this campaign, they lost their life along the line,” he says. The lack of insurance or social benefits mean that if drivers are attacked or robbed or even die on the job, they and their family are left all on their own. “They have children, they have parents, who received nothing,” he says.
Although he is bullied and even threatened for his work, Ayoade says such tactics only make him see his efforts are effective. “God gave me the opportunity to help people in this struggle. I am doing something that is improving people’s lives.”
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.