The Brazilian Ministry of Labor and Employment (MTE) rescued 39 workers, including children, in February from modern slavery in the state of Santa Catarina. Over half of them were Venezuelan migrants who had moved to the state via the government’s Operation Welcome program.
A construction company enticed the workers through social media posts in Venezuela, offering jobs building warehouses and promising good pay, safe work conditions, free housing and meals for the workers and their families. When workers arrived, however, they discovered that their “housing” lacked beds or bathrooms, and they were forced to build their own accommodations, which all of the workers and their families had to share. Meanwhile, none of the workers were provided signed labor documents, which meant they were neither formally hired nor had they access to work benefits.
Around the world, it is not uncommon for migrant workers to be promised decent work for good wages only to find upon arrival to a new country that they have been tricked. Not unlike the rescued Venezuelas, they often face wage theft, unsafe working conditions, abuse and exploitation.
Since 2018, the Solidarity Center in Brazil has worked to connect migrant workers to unions and strengthen collective action. The migration program raises awareness on the specific struggles of the migrant workers, shares best practices and tools with local union partners to increase migrant affiliation, and promotes social dialogue for the development of local public policies on migration through a labor movement perspective.
In recognition of its unique perspective and relationships with partner unions, the Solidarity Center was invited to join a new working group created by the Brazilian Ministry of Justice to discuss and propose a new national migration policy for adoption by the new government. The group held its first meeting March 3.
In partnership with the Center for Human Rights and Immigrant Citizenship (CDHIC) through the SindicAndo project, the migration program led to the 2022 creation of the National Network of Unions for the Protection of the Migrant Worker, which already has more than 80 members among local unions, national trade union centers, federations, confederations and global union federations. The program also supported the General Workers’ Union (UGT) Amazonas branch in the creation of the Venezuelan Association in Amazonas (ASOVEAM), which became an UGT affiliate. As of today, ASOVEAM is the head of the Committee for Migrant and Refugee Policies of Manaus, the capital of Amazonas.
The Solidarity Center, with Brazilian trade union federation CUT’s affiliate, the National Confederation of Construction and Wood Industry Workers (CONTICOM/CUT), is working to strengthen union action and confront and combat precarious work through national awareness-raising and affiliation campaigns in the Combating Precarious Work in the Construction and Wood Sectors. The project has mapped worker rights issues in the sector. According to CONTICOM, workers’ main challenges in the sector are: informal hiring, construction companies not providing personal protective equipment and/or bathrooms, the lack of government inspections of work sites, wage theft and harassment, including gender-based harassment.
Workshop on Labor and Social Rights for migrant workers in Manaus (Source: SindicAndo/CDHIC)
CONTICOM’s capacity building workshop on communication (Source: CONTI)
Flagging a high number of work-related deaths and life-altering injuries in the country during the first ten months of this year, Solidarity Center partners Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine (KVPU) and Federation of Trade Unions of Ukraine (FPU) are educating their members and leadership on how to better protect themselves at work despite an erosion of worker rights under martial law—and monitoring and pushing back on any further deterioration of the country’s labor legislation. While the increase in work-related deaths and injuries endangers all workers, those charged with restoring or rebuilding essential infrastructure destroyed during Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine are especially at risk.
“We support the Ukrainian government and people as they defend against Russian attacks, but weakening worker rights will not make that defense stronger,“ says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter. “If workplace safety standards are ignored or not enforced, the increase in unnecessary workplace deaths and injuries will make defending the country more difficult.”
ILO member states, including Ukraine, are required to respect and promote all five ILO fundamental principles and rights at work, regardless of their level of economic development and whether they have ratified relevant conventions.
In the first nine months of 2022, 474 workers died in the workplace—half in war-related incidents—and 4,426 workers were injured in work-related accidents, according to data from Ukraine’s Social Insurance Fund. Even before the war, Ukraine had a high number of occupational injuries: On average, 4 000 employees suffer from work-related accidents in Ukraine each year, of which almost one in 10 dies.
Should workers be injured or killed, they and their families will struggle to access compensation from Ukraine’s Social Insurance Fund due to significant delays in the investigative process required to trigger payouts, say Ukraine’s unions. Although the State Labor Service (SLS) has proposed remedial measures to speed up such investigations, martial law provisions this year have reduced the SLS to an advisory-only entity that cannot effectively require employers to comply with remaining occupational health and safety protections, such as provision of adequate safety training and personal protective equipment. Under martial law, for example, and by order of the Ukraine Cabinet of Ministers starting in March, the SLS was required to suspend all unscheduled occupational safety and health inspections.
In heroic acts, especially on the front lines, Ukraine’s workers are risking life and limb to restore infrastructure such as electricity, roads, buildings and bridges. For example, last month a team of five repairmen in Ukrenergo reportedly worked more than six hours while suspended at a height of more than 300 feet in freezing cold, while risking artillery fire, to repair damage to a high-voltage overhead line.
To achieve European Union (EU)membership, which Ukraine is currently seeking, the country’s EU association agreement requires that the country fulfill several obligations, including occupational safety and health reform to ensure compliance with International Labor Organization (ILO) health and safety conventions 81 and 129.
Nabil El-Moumni, a Tunisian disability rights advocate and blind receptionist at the local hospital of Mareth, Gabes, advocated–and won–important changes at his workplace to accommodate both workers and patients with disabilities. At his urging, the hospital installed an access ramp and prepared illustrated signs to help people who cannot hear or speak access the hospital’s various departments.
“They can have access to that department’s services independently, without the help of strangers,” El-Moumni says in a new documentary, “We Are All Different,” on the experience of workers with disabilities in Tunisia produced by the UGTT (Tunisian General Labor Union) and the Solidarity Center.
“I am blind, and I want more independence in my work,” he says. “The phone numbers I work with are registered in numerical support. I read via text-to-speech. I prepared papers in large format.”
El-Moumni’s support for worker rights initially cost him his job. “After that,” he says, “I started a general strike in front of Gabe’s governorate.” He was reinstated on January 13, 2016.
A diverse group of workers with disabilities, from gardeners and street cleaners to municipal employees and athletic competitors, share their experience with discrimination and the barriers they face in the workplace, in their communities and in accessing government services and jobs due to accessibility limitations—both in public buildings and transportation.
Many also speak of the satisfaction they experience in their work, and the gains workers with disabilities have made in receiving protections and accommodations, and being empowered to advocate for their needs.
Kalthoum Barkallah, Solidarity Center acting country program director for North Africa, says the documentary “sheds light on the reality of persons with disabilities in order to build general public awareness and push public authorities, civil society and partners to take up their issues and defend their rights.”
The film debuted on International Day of Persons with Disabilities, December 3, 2021.
Jesmin Begum, a Bangladesh garment worker in her early 30s, died as she and hundreds of others rallied for unpaid wages in one of Dhaka’s Export Processing Zones (EPZs).
A sewing operator, Begum was laid off in January from Lenny Fashion, Ltd., after the factory closed. Although management said it would pay unpaid wages by May, the company never fulfilled its commitment, and workers gathered at the Nabinagar-Chandra highway outside the EPZ June 13 to demand payment.
When the workers at Lenny Fashion Ltd. and another factory that was closed by the same company refused to move from the road after two hours, the police used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons to disperse them, and Begum died after she fell fleeing the police violence. Dozens of workers also were injured.
“We are always told that in EPZ factories, BEPZA [Bangladesh Export Processing Zones Authority] enforces workers’ rights properly and vigorously, but BEPZA, as in many other previous cases, has miserably failed here that led to the workers’ protest and death of Jesmin,” says Babul Akhter, president of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF)
Worker Rights Abused, EPZs Make Billions
Bangladesh’s eight EPZs received $333.38 million in foreign direct investment and made $7.52 billion from exports in the 2018–2019 fiscal year. Yet Bangladesh workers in EPZs face daunting odds in trying to redress often poor and dangerous factory safety and health conditions, retrieve unpaid wages or end abusive treatment by supervisors because the zones are exempt from the country’s labor laws and workers are prohibited from forming unions.
The terms and conditions of service for EPZ workers are regulated by BEPZA, essentially eliminating collective bargaining. Labor inspectors are not permitted to inspect factories in the zones and, unlike workers covered under the nation’s labor laws, workers in EPZs do not have the legal right to file a case challenging illegal termination.
In addition, says Akhter, “BEPZA and the employers are systematically dissolving the worker welfare associations in EPZ factories to eliminate any kind of voice of the workers in the workplace.”
With Unions, Workers Advocate for Safe Jobs
Although the government of Bangladesh in 2019 amended the EPZ law with the aim of bringing it more in line with its labor laws and international labor standards, the ILO found the new EPZ Law failed to address the vast majority of these concerns. “Importantly, the new law continues to deny EPZ workers the right to form or join a union,” according to the ILO.
“The EPZ workers must be allowed to exercise their rights to join union of their own choosing, removing the discrimination between the EPZ and non-EPZ workers,” Akhter says.
Without the ability to form unions, garment workers cannot collectively push for safety and health improvements at their workplaces. After more than 1,200 garment workers died in two tragic factory disasters in 2012 and 2013, unions have been a key partner with fashion brands in the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a landmark agreement that made factories safer for 2 million garment workers. Worker rights advocates are urging extension of the Accord, which expires in three months.
Yet the BEPZA did not allow the Accord to inspect any of the EPZ factories—all the more reason, worker advocates say, garment workers must be able to form union and collectively bargain.
On a recent Friday, the only day off for Bangladesh garment workers—if they get a day off—I went to visit workers at their homes to better understand how the people who stitch our clothes live their lives. Walking through the puzzling narrow alleys, I entered a tin shed-like building. A corridor tore through the center and on each side were rooms for families. It was in one of these dimly lit rooms where I met Konika, who worked as a sewing operator in a nearby garment factory in Gazipur. In the tiny space where she lived with two children and her husband, she revealed the conditions at her workplace.
A garment factory in Gazipur. Credit: Solidarity Center/Istiak Ahmed Inam
“We are under intense pressure to meet the target production,” she says. “I used to produce 70 pieces an hour but now, after our minimum wage has been increased by the government, I must produce 90 pieces. I have to think twice if I want to use the washroom. What if I miss my deadline? What if my production manager sees me? I rest only if there’s a problem with my machine and am lucky if the mechanic is not close by.”
Worker Safety under Threat Again
Six years after the deadly April 24, 2013, Rana Plaza building collapse killed 1,134 garment workers and injured hundreds more, the government is on the verge of rolling back international safety inspections even as employers and the government are blocking workers’ ability to exercise their right to form unions to improve working conditions.
Disasters like Rana Plaza or the 2012 Tazreen Fashions fire, which together killed more than 112 garment workers, prompted global outrage and mobilized workers in protest of unsafe and deadly working conditions, forcing major fashion brands and Bangladesh suppliers to address safety issues. As a result, unions, suppliers and many international brands formed the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety, a binding agreement that helped make many garment factories safer. Despite its success, however, the accord may be dismantled, leaving workers at the mercy of a system unprepared to improve factory safety, according to a recent report.
Meanwhile, fashion companies often send their own inspection teams to factories, but the effectiveness of these visits is debatable.
“Our managers make us tell the foreigners [safety inspectors] we don’t work until 10 p.m., that we receive our wages regularly and we even receive our doctor’s fees. None of this is true,” says Konika. On many occasions, the inspection team strolls around the factory, only gathering data from factory management and not from the workers, thus releasing inaccurate reports.
Konika and her co-workers face odds that would dishearten many: factory owners escalating pressure to produce and depriving workers of their basic rights, and corporations wearing a mask of “doing all they can” for workers, while in fact, doing nothing.
Yet Konika, on her day off, enjoys time with her family, despite recognizing the injustices she is likely to face tomorrow.
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