Women workers and allies worldwide campaigned for more than a decade to secure the adoption of International Labor Organization Convention 190, the first global treaty that recognizes the fundamental right to work free from gender-based violence and harassment. This report highlights how C190 addresses sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence in the world of work and identifies concrete steps to address it.
More than 2,000 garment workers in Bangladesh are celebrating a new collective bargaining agreement that includes a 10 percent pay increase—double the amount required by law—and creation of a committee to prevent violence and harassment on the job. The pact, negotiated by the Hop Lun Apparels Ltd. Sommilito Sramik Union (HLALSSU), is retroactive to January.
The new agreement comes as many garment workers in Bangladesh and around the world are being laid off without pay because major fashion brands are canceling orders due to lack of demand during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
2,000+ Bangladesh garment workers have new contract that includes a 10 percent wage increase and a day care facility for their children. Credit: SGSF
“The guarantee of promotions for women to the higher posts and the establishment of the sexual harassment committee will empower the women and provide safeguards against sexual abuse and harassment in our factory,” says Aklima HLALSSU president.
Under the new contract, Hop Lun will set up a day care facility for workers’ children younger than age six, who will be guaranteed quality care and education. Factory management will provide free ultrasound tests for all pregnant workers, subsided food in the factory canteen, and guarantee a minimum of 20 women workers will be promoted annually.
Under Bangladesh law, women workers are entitled to 16 weeks’ maternity leave, yet employers often do not grant garment workers the required leave. The new contract provides enforcement of the law.
“It is because we have a strong union that we could maintain a good relation with the factory management and sign this collective bargaining agreement,” says Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) General Secretary Nahidul Hasan Nayan. “That is why, during this COVID-19 crisis, Hop Lun factory maintained the highest standard of safety for its workers and has provided each and every employee with proper protective equipment.”
The contract also includes provisions to streamline union representation, with the employer providing space for a union office and automatically deducting union dues. Union leaders will be involved in trainings and workshops and joint meetings with management.
Vanessa Cordoba, a goalkeeper on Colombia’s women’s national soccer team, is familiar with tough challenges. But when she debated whether to join some of her teammates’ high-profile campaign to end gender discrimination in the women’s soccer league, she had to confront a barrier many women in her position face: fear of losing her job.
“There is a point in life where you choose,” she said in a recent interview at the Solidarity Center. “And I decided I’m going to do it.”
Cordoba and other women soccer players are now pursuing an industry-wide collective bargaining agreement that includes the men’s teams.
“That’s the only way we can change things in soccer, says Cordoba. “We have more power if we bargain for the entire sector.”
Training Equipment: Two Medicine Balls and Beat-up Boxes
Colombia’s Atlético Huila women’s soccer players were forced to sleep on the airport floor following their championship win. Credit: Fare.net
Colombia’s professional female soccer team, launched in 1998, played in the 2011 and 2015 World Cup as well as at the Olympic Games in the same years. The professional women’s league was created in 2017, and in the following year, Colombia’s Atlético Huila won the Copa Libertadores, South America’s most important club-level tournament.
Yet women players are paid less than the men and only get three-month contracts, while men play on multiyear contracts. The men train in state-of-the-art gyms; women players’ equipment consists of two medicine balls and beat-up boxes to practice jumping. The Colombia Football Federation (FCF) even eliminated their $20 a day training stipend. A video on social media in December shows the Atlético Huila women’s soccer players forced to sleep on the airport floor following their championship win.
Their marginalization was compounded, says Cordoba, when Adidas used star player James Rodríguez to represent the men’s team for unveiling new jerseys, but recruited a former Miss Universe, Paulina Vega Dieppa, to promote the women’s jerseys. Cordoba expressed her displeasure about the move on social media.
“I understand that for publicity’s sake, they preferred to give the jersey to Paulina Vega, but in terms of respect and merit, THE PLAYERS count as well,” she Tweeted, a message the media quickly twisted into a Soccer Player v. Miss Universe narrative. Reflecting on her comments today she says, “If we are talking about marketing, development of the women’s league is a big part of the overall goal.”
‘We’re Not Afraid Anymore. We’re Here to Speak Up’
The longstanding gender discrimination against women players burst into the public in February, when former professional soccer players and Colombia national team players Isabella Echeverri and Melissa Ortiz released a video to highlight the disparities with their male counterparts, stating, “We’re not afraid anymore. We’re here to speak up.”
The video went viral, setting off a national dialogue at a time when the top-ranked U.S. women’s soccer team filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer alleging discrimination, and Latin America’s #NiUnaMenos (Not One More) movement campaigned for an end to sexual harassment and gender-based violence.
A handful of women soccer players gathered for a press conference in March to publicly back up Ortiz and Echeverri. Cordoba was among them.
“I figured my career would end after the press conference,” she said.
For Vanessa Cordoba, a goalkeeper for Colombia women’s national soccer, tackling gender discrimination was one of her biggest challenges. Photo from Cordoba Twitter
Members of the all-male FCF Executive Committee refused for months to meet with the women represented by the National Association of Professional Soccer Players union, ACOLFUTPRO, about their demands for equal treatment, but have since come to the table. The Solidarity Center is supporting the women players in their efforts and is assisting ACOLFUTPRO in preparing a proposal for negotiations with the Colombian Soccer Federation, and another to establish a sectorwide bargaining policy with the labor ministry.
Additionally, the Solidarity Center helped the union engage the national Ombudsman’s Office, which filed a constitutional complaint for gender discrimination against the employers of the individual soccer clubs and the federation. The Solidarity Center documented players’ testimonies and contributed legal arguments that form the basis of the complaint. In August 2019, Colombia’s Constitutional Court ruled in favor of the women players, ordering both the employers and ACOLFUTPRO to present plans for gender equality.
Cordoba, who graduated from Ohio University with a degree in communications, also works at Caracol, one of Bogatá’s top radio stations. Her father, Oscar Cordoba, a former star soccer player, at first sought to protect her from the controversy, but ultimately supports her efforts.
“I’m very passionate about gender equality,” she says. “Women’s soccer was able to open the door to change soccer in Colombia.”
A recent survey by the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) of more than 400 textile workers in Manzini, Swaziland, reveals that workers in the textile sector are subject to harsh and sometimes abusive conditions, many of the country’s labor laws are routinely violated by employers, and union activists are targeted by employers for punishment. (Download a PDF of this article.)
Surveys were collected by a team of five TUCOSWA union organizers from June 23–July 2, 2014. Workers from 18 of 28 textile companies in Manzini were represented in the survey and included sewing machine operators, pressers, quality controllers, packers, cleaners, trimmers, cutters and storeroom workers. The vast majority of respondents—94 percent—were women. And nearly a third of workers surveyed had post-secondary school education.
Notably, 91 percent of workers surveyed reported being punished by management for making errors, not meeting quotas or missing shifts. “I was a victim of physical abuse,” said one survey respondent. She is not alone. More than 70 percent of survey respondents reported witnessing verbal and physical abuse in their workplace by supervisors.
Some workers reported that supervisors slap or hit workers with impunity. In one example, a worker knocked to the ground by a line manager was suspended during an investigation of the incident while the line manager continued in her job.
Women reported instances of sexual harassment, as well. Several workers said they or other contract (temporary) workers were offered a permanent job in exchange for sex.
Nearly all workers—90 percent—reported having production quotas. Of these, more than 30 percent said they can never, or almost never, meet their quota, while more than 80 percent reported difficulty meeting their quota. According to the survey, punishments for not meeting quotas include suspension without pay, mandatory unpaid work through lunch breaks and verbal harassment.
Survey results also show that employer punishment of workers who are ill, injured or pregnant is common. More than 60 percent of workers said they knew someone who was fired for being sick or pregnant. Some respondents said any worker taking five sick days are automatically punished with three months forced unpaid leave.
The Swaziland Employment Act of 1980 guarantees maternity leave, prohibits termination for pregnancy and mandates 14 days paid sick leave per year under penalty to the employer of a fine or up to one year imprisonment.
Even though more than ninety percent of survey respondents believe a union would help them improve workplace conditions, survey responses show that most employers in the textile sector are hostile to unions. Eighty percent of respondents said their employer does not accept workers’ right to form a union while almost the same number reported knowing of union organizers, activists or leaders who were punished, fired or otherwise intimidated.
“Union members are victimized so I am scared to join,” said one worker.
Workers report that more than half of the clothing they produce is destined for U.S. and European stores.
In June 2014, Swaziland lost eligibility for benefits under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) because the Swazi government had not demonstrated progress on the protection of internationally recognized worker rights, in particular, protecting freedom of association and the right to organize. The U.S. government, in announcing the rescinding of AGOA eligibility, also pointed out Swaziland’s “lack of legal recognition for labor and employer federations.”
TUCOSWA was formed in in January 2012 and registered by the Swazi government. The union federation was deregistered in April 2013, putting the government in violation of Convention 87 of the International Labor Organization Convention 87 which the government has ratified. Since deregistration intimidation of TUCOSWA leaders by government security forces has been widely reported, including arbitrary arrests, threats and assaults while in police custody.
Safety Concerns @ Work: Safety concerns: dust (causing respiratory problems), hot pipes, steam (causing burns), needle sticks, falling equipment and/or production materials.
Awareness: Percent of workers who have seen other workers injured at work.
Aware of Union Intimidation: Aware of union organizers, leaders, activists being punished, fired or otherwise intimidated.
Allowed Breaks: No breaks during the day. Restroom breaks tightly controlled.Abused: Verbal and physical abuse by supervisors.Job Loss due to Sickness or Pregnancy: Workers who know of someone being fired for getting sick or pregnant.
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