A milestone convening in Tashkent last week brought together stakeholders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan government ministries and agencies, non-governmental and civil society sectors, and international organizations as a first step in developing a joint action plan to combat forced labor and advance worker rights in the region. Worldwide, 28 million people were reportedly trapped in forced labor in 2021.
The May 22 conference highlighted labor inspectorates’ role in protecting worker rights and combating forced labor in the region. Solidarity Center supported the event, which was organized in collaboration with “Partnership in Action,” an international NGO network of more than 30 Central Asian organizations, Kyrgyzstan’s Migrant Workers Union’s partner organization “Insan-Leylek” and Uzbekistan’s Istiqbolli Avlod.
“There is a crucial need for regional cooperation in labor inspections, because migration patterns are constantly changing,” says “Insan-Leylek” leader Gulnara Derbisheva.
Recognizing the importance of collective action, the conference hosts provided a forum for representatives of labor inspectorates from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to share their expertise and experiences within their respective countries. Government representatives from each of those countries reiterated their commitment to labor inspectorates working cooperatively with one another and with the region’s worker rights defenders to fight labor exploitation and promote safer working environments and dignified work for all.
Topics included international standards related to the work of inspectorates, issues surrounding forced labor in Central Asia and the importance of labor inspections given the region’s unique challenges. Participants identified a severe shortage of labor inspectors—Solidarity Center research finds that 250 labor inspectors oversee 280,000 legal entities employing 6.5 million people in Kazakhstan, 30 inspectors oversee thousands of enterprises in Kyrgyzstan and 315 inspectors oversee 578,000 registered entities in Uzbekistan—and discussed restrictions on inspectorates’ effectiveness. Although the International Labor Organization (ILO) standards specify that inspections be conducted without prior notification, all three countries require prior consent and advance notice for inspections and exclude small businesses from inspection mandates. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are currently considering legislative changes to rectify such loopholes.
“The outcomes of the conference have the potential to transform labor protection, ensuring safer and fairer working conditions for everyone in the region,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter.
According to ILO data, some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year, including 340 million victims of occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses. The ILO reports 11,0000 fatal occupational accidents annually in the 12-member states comprising the Commonwealth of Independent States—Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—but points to “gross underreporting” of occupational accidents and diseases in the region.
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.
More than five years after the Rana Plaza and Tazreen Fashion disasters killed more than a thousand garment workers and injured many more, workers in ready-made garment factories in Bangladesh still struggle to make ends meet. And even now, garment workers often are forced to work in unsafe and unhealthy conditions.
Workers recently interviewed by the Solidarity Center say their employers set harsh production demands with short timelines. In fact, following the government’s recent minimum wage increase from $63 a month to $95, management in some factories pre-emptively set higher production targets. As a result, workers face unbearable pressure to work more quickly and produce more.
Verbal abuse and insults, such as name calling, is routine, workers say.
Many, like Shefali, also suffer from severe health problems after working between 10 and 14 hours per day.
Shefali, who asked that her real name not be used for fear of retaliation, says she is unable to sleep for several hours at a stretch because of pain. Other workers who stand long hours on factory lines say they are unable to sit for extended periods because of joint pain.
Putting Solidarity Center Fire Safety Training into Practice
And for many workers, fire safety is still a danger in many factories. To address the issue, the Solidarity Center’s ongoing fire safety trainings have reached thousands of garment workers, who learn how to extinguish fires, provide first-aid during incidents and safely handle chemicals. They also learn how to identify risks in building safety, abrasions in wiring and machine equipment and how to report those risks to management to help prevent their factories from becoming another Rana Plaza.
The trainings also provide workers with a platform to come together and share their workplace hardships and strategies for improving their work environment.
Lucky, who participated in one of the safety trainings, has put the lessons into practice.
“Once, there was fire in our factory and everyone rushed at the gates to escape. I saw a pregnant woman who was injured, and I could not leave her there alone. It is not by fire that people die but from the struggle during escape that causes death. So, I grabbed another colleague of mine and went to her to help. I wrapped my scarf around her as quickly as possible and pulled her out to safety,” she said.
Lucky added: “In another instance, I helped put out a fire at my neighbor’s home when no one could do it. I dipped a sack in the nearby river and threw it over the gas burner. People were amazed and said, ‘How can a woman do this?’ I learned this from all the training sessions I participated in over the years. It was really fruitful as I implemented what I learned a number of times inside and outside of my workplace.”
The three-year anniversary of the November 24, 2012, fire that killed 112 Bangladesh garment workers at the Tazreen Fashions Ltd., factory offers a time to reflect on garment workers’ ongoing struggle for workplaces where they will not be killed or injured and for jobs that will support their families.
The Tazreen fire was preventable, as was the collapse of the multistory Rana Plaza factory five months later in which more than 1,130 garments workers died and thousands more were severely injured.
Workers at Tazreen and Rana Plaza did not have a union or other organization to represent them and help them fight for a safe workplace. Without a union, garment workers say they are harassed and even fired when they raise safety issues with their employer. They are not trained in basic fire safety measures and often their factories, like Tazreen, have locked emergency doors and stairwells packed with flammable material.
Despite the many obstacles to forming organizations and achieving a voice at work, garment workers are at the forefront of pushing for change at their factories. With our strong and long-term grassroots connections in Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center allies with garment workers to provide ongoing training for factory-level union leaders on topics such as gender equality, workers’ legal rights and fire safety.
This photo gives voice to the sorrow, but also the hope, of the 4 million workers who toil in Bangladesh garment factories.
Bangladesh’s 4 million garment workers, mostly women, toil in 5,000 factories across the country, making the $25 billion garment industry the world’s second largest, after China. Yet many risk their lives to make a living. In the three years since the fatal Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory fire, some 31 workers have died and at least 935 people have been injured in garment factory fire incidents in Bangladesh. Credit: Law at the Margins
Tahera cannot remember much about her life before the day she was trapped in the Tazreen fire. She is unable to care for her 4-year-old son and rarely comes out of her room. “It seems to me that something dark comes to my door and is calling me,” she says. “When I see the darkness, I become unstable and want to go far away from here.”
Tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers held rallies on May Day this year to highlight the need for the freedom to form worker organizations to ensure safe and healthy workplaces. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim
With few jobs available that pay a living wage, more than 600,000 Bangladeshi workers migrate each year. Yet, “after two years, after three years, they are not getting their salary,” says Sumaiya Islam, director of the Bangladesh Migrant Women’s Organization (BOMSA). “After spending $1,000 (to labor recruiters), they are not getting paid.” Credit: Shahjadi Zaman
Migrants from Bangladesh also risk their lives when going overseas for jobs. In June, Bangladesh families rallied to demand the government punish traffickers after many Bangladesh workers were among migrants stranded on abandoned boats by unscrupulous labor traffickers. “I did not get anything to eat for 22 days and just survived by eating tree leaves,” Abdur said, describing his journey to Malaysia. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mushfique Wadud
On April 24, 2013, the multistory Rana Plaza factory collapsed, a preventable tragedy that killed more than 1,100 garment workers and injured thousands more. On the two year anniversary in April, family members and friends gathered at the site of the building to commemorate their loss. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim
Thousands of garment workers, like Mosammat Mukti Khatun (above, looking at the Rana Plaza rubble) who survived the Rana Plaza disaster, remain too injured or ill to work and support their families. Survivors and the families of those who lost loved ones in the collapse say they are struggling to make ends meet, unable to pay rent, send their children to school or provide for other basic needs. Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim
Days before tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers rallied on the two-year anniversary of the Rana Plaza collapse, the ITUC released a report that found “a severe climate of anti-union violence and impunity prevails in Bangladesh’s garment industry. The violence is frequently directed by factory management. The government of Bangladesh has made no serious effort to bring anyone involved to account for these crimes.” Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim
The Solidarity Center launched the Bangladesh Worker Rights Defense Fund in April 2014, following an increase in violence and harassment against workers who were seeking to form unions to protect their health and rights on the job. Donations of more than $15,500 helped to provide costly medical treatment for organizers beaten or attacked while speaking to workers about their rights, and temporary food and shelter for workers fired for trying to improve their workplace. Credit: Solidarity Center/Shawna Bader-Blau
Despite employer and government resistance to workers’ efforts to form organizations to improve job safety, in the Dhaka export processing zone alone, 40 of the 103 factories include workers’ welfare associations, which are similar to unions. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mushfique Wadud
Women garment workers primarily fuel Bangladesh’s $25 billion a year garment industry, yet women are “still viewed as basically cheap labor,” says Lily Gomes, Solidarity Center senior program officer for Bangladesh. “There is a strong need for functioning factory-level unions led by women,” says Gomes, who is leading efforts to help empower women workers to take on leadership roles at factories and in unions throughout Bangladesh. Credit: Solidarity Center/Kate Conradt
With strong and long-term grassroots connections in Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center provides ongoing training for garment worker union leaders on topics such as gender equality, workers’ legal rights and job safety. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim
Garment worker union leaders sharpen their skills through regular Solidarity Center workshops, such as this one on financial management. Credit: Solidarity Center/Balmi Chisim
Hundreds of garment worker union leaders have participated this year in the Solidarity Center’s 10-week fire safety certification course. “People who worked at Tazreen and Rana Plaza had no training and had no union,” says Saiful, who took part in a recent fire training. “This training is about making sure those things never happen again.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Rakibul Hasan
Juarez told Reuters that miners want President Pedro Pablo Kuczynski to drop proposed labor reforms that would loosen safety rules, make it easier to fire workers and shift the burden of paying into an unemployment fund to workers from employers. Kuczynski, who took office in July 2016, is a former investment banker and free-market proponent who has sought to attract investment since taking office.
Some 200,000 members of the General Confederation of Peru Workers (Confederación General de Trabajadores del Perú, CGTP) also conducted a general work stoppage yesterday to protest the president’s proposed labor reforms.
Although workers in Peru are allowed by law to strike, the freedom to strike frequently is restricted. The government declared the mine workers’ strike out of compliance with legal requirements, as it does for most major strikes. The Mineworkers Federation is appealing the determination.
Peru is the world’s second-biggest copper producer and its largest mines are operated by major multinational corporations, including Southern Copper Corp., where 2,000 miners went on strike earlier this year for better medical care, an end to company surveillance of workers and the reinstatement of dismissed workers.
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