Exiled Union Leader: Workers ‘Demanding Democracy’ in Eswatini

Exiled Union Leader: Workers ‘Demanding Democracy’ in Eswatini

In Eswatini, a landlocked country in southern Africa, union workers are routinely harassed, attacked and even killed for going on strike or holding rallies. In 2021, dozens of workers were killed by security forces in what Amnesty International called “a full-frontal assault on human rights” by the government in response to ongoing pro-democracy protests. In January, prominent human rights lawyer Thulani Maseko was shot dead, hours after a speech by the king warning those calling for democratic reforms that mercenaries would deal with them.

Graphi of exiled SWATCAWU leader Sticks Nkambule who is receiving support from SCAWU and other unions in Eswatini.

Exiled SWATCAWU leader Sticks Nkambule is receiving support from SCAWU and other unions in Eswatini. Credit: SCAWU

Most recently, Sticks Nkambule, general secretary of the Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU), was targeted by the government for leading a strike to improve working conditions. Forced to flee Eswatini, formerly called Swaziland, Nkambule described the interconnected struggle for worker rights, human rights and democracy on the latest Solidarity Center Podcast.

“We are just demanding the basics of what could be defined as democracy. A government that is formed by the people and serving their interests,” Nkambule told Podcast host and Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.

“By bringing together the collective voice of all workers, unions fight for decent working conditions but also for the freedoms fundamental to all democratic societies,” Bader-Blau told Nkambule.

Despite the brutality and repression, Nkambule finds hope in the support from labor and human rights organizations around the world—and in workers themselves.

“What is quite inspiring is that the people of Swaziland are determined to be part of the conversation that is going to change their discourse. It is a reality, activists and, not just labor, beyond labor.”

Listen to this episode and all Solidarity Center episodes here or at SpotifyAmazonStitcher, or wherever you subscribe to your favorite podcasts.

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Billions of Us, One Just Future: Solidarity Center Podcast Launches Today

Billions of Us, One Just Future: Solidarity Center Podcast Launches Today

“Violence and harassment happens to all workers, irrespective of your gender,” says Brenda Modise, a union activist in South Africa. “It doesn’t matter whether they are men and women, old young LGBTQI community or anyone, but we are addressing violence and harassment in the world of work against all workers.”

Modise spoke with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau in first episode of The Solidarity Center Podcast, “Billions of Us, One Just Future,” which highlights conversations with workers (and other smart people) worldwide shaping the workplace for the better.

(Join us for a new episode each Wednesday at iTunes, Spotify, Amazon, Stitcher or wherever you listen to your podcasts. )

Front-line Leaders Building a Future Inclusive of All Workers

The Solidarity Center Podcast logo for Episode one, How We End Gender-Based Violence at Work with host Shawna Bader-BlauThe Solidarity Center Podcast’s seven-episode season will feature worker advocates from around the world:

  • Maximiliano Garcez, a labor rights lawyer who describes workers’ efforts to seek justice following a deadly mining accident in Brazil.
  • Adriana Paz, an advocate with the International Domestic Workers Federation who understands firsthand the power of unions in ensuring domestic workers have safe, decent jobs.
  • International Trade Union Confederation President Ayuba Wabba, who explores the Nigerian labor movement’s response to the COVID crisis on workers, and discusses the global labor movement’s plans to build back better for workers around the world.
  • Preeda, a migrant worker rights activist in Thailand working with unions to help migrant workers meet the challenges of COVID-19.
  • Sergey Antusevich, a brave union leader in Belarus working for democratic freedom in a repressive regime.
  • Francia Blanco, a domestic worker and trans rights activist reaching marginalized workers through her all-trans domestic workers union.

These front-line leaders will share the steps they are taking to shape their livelihoods at the workplace and in their communities in the face of escalating attacks on democracy and civil rights, and explore how they seek to build a more equitable future, one inclusive of all workers as the COVID-19 pandemic upends structures, systems and societies.

‘Tears of Joy’

gender equality, gender-based violence, ILO, Convention 190, Solidarity Center

Union activists celebrate after the ILO adopts Convention 190 to end gender-based violence at work. Credit: ITUC

In the first episode, Modise shares how she and women unionists around the world campaigned for adoption of an International Labor Organization convention (regulation) on ending gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work, and how they are moving forward the campaign by pushing their governments to ratify Convention 190.

“We need to put more effort as the women in South Africa to make sure that whatever that you have were fought for is going to be realized in South Africa and be incorporated into our own legislation and make sure that it is implemented. We should not only have beautiful legislation, but we should have implementable legislation that we can be able to monitor and evaluate.”

As Modise heard an audio clip of women unionists singing and clapping the moment Convention 190 was adopted in 2019, she reflected on her experience.

“It was a breathtaking moment. We all shed tears. It was tears of joy because remember, when you went into that room as workers of the world, we knew what we wanted, but we didn’t know if the business constituents of the world understand where we are coming from.

“It really feels great, even though the bigger work has not yet started. We really want South Africa to ratify the convention. The work is not going to be ending at ratification. It’s also going to go in terms of after ratification, what next, and that’s where the bigger role and our activism is going to be needed.”

This podcast was made possible by the generous support of the American people through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) under Cooperative Agreement No.AID-OAA-L-16-00001 and the opinions expressed herein are those of the participant(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of USAID/USG.

Cornell Recognizes Solidarity Center Leader

Cornell Recognizes Solidarity Center Leader

The global crackdown on human rights, especially worker rights, coupled with rising inequality are disproportionately affecting marginalized populations around the world. At the same time, the rules are skewed to promote profit, deregulation and the expansion of corporate power over people. The answer, said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, is a global, social-justice labor movement that “stands up and fights back.”

“Collective action is the antidote to injustice,” said Bader-Blau during her keynote speech, “On Our Terms: How We Redefine Democracy and Reverse Exploitation through Social Justice Global Unionism,” at the School of Industrial and Labor Relations (ILR) at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York, last week.

“[T]he restoration of democracy and the building of more just societies needs to be the primary business of all our labor movements,” she said

Bader-Blau spoke to about 100 Cornell students, faculty and the general public in her role as ILR’s 2019 Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence—a multifaceted program that recognizes U.S. and global labor leaders and brings them into Cornell classrooms and the public stage to share their knowledge and expertise. During her time at Cornell—sponsored by the ILR Worker Institute as part of the university’s 2019 Union Days program—Bader-Blau met with students, student labor organizations, ILR and other university faculty, and visited the Tompkins County Workers’ Center (TCWC) in downtown Ithaca.

The challenges Bader-Blau described “are ones that our students will confront as they study and think about how to shape the future of work and labor,” said Alexander Colvin, ILR Interim Dean and Martin F. Scheinman Professor of Conflict Resolution.

Each year, Cornell’s ILR Worker Institute invites a union activist to visit as the Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence to give ILR students the opportunity to learn from the knowledge and experience of labor leaders who reflect the diversity of the labor movement. The ILR School of Cornell University is focused on work, employment and labor policy issues through teaching, research and advocacy outreach.

Previous Alice B. Grant Labor Leaders in Residence include AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, former Pride at Work Co-President Nancy Wohlforth and former Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) Regional Secretary Tony Ehrenreich.

Bader-Blau’s presentation was sponsored by the ILR’s Worker Institute and co-sponsored by the People’s Organizing Collective (POC), Cornell Organization for Labor Action (COLA), ILR Graduate Student Association (ILR GSA), Catherwood Library, Cornell’s Law & Society Minor, Undergraduate Labor Institute, ILR Office of Career Services, ILR Office of Student Services, Cornell Farmworker Program and the TCWC.

A World in Which Workers Have Decent Jobs, Fair Wages

A World in Which Workers Have Decent Jobs, Fair Wages

Decent work, living wages, safe workplaces–these are some of the goals the Solidarity Center envisions for all workers around the world and for which it strives as the largest U.S.-based international worker rights organization, says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau in a recent interview.

Speaking on “Human Rights Heroes,” a podcast sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Labor Affairs, Bader-Blau pointed to broad-based human rights workers can achieve when they join together in unions or associations.

“Just in the past 50 years, we can see that every major transition to democracy has had trade unions front and center.”

In Morocco, the Solidarity Center supported more than 1,000 agricultural workers, many with limited literacy and the majority women, who came together to form their first union in export agriculture.

“They sat down with employers they had always been intimidated by and negotiated fair wages, decent work and dignity for the first time,” says Bader-Blau. The workers now have full-time employment, fair wages and safer jobs.

Speaking with podcast host Sarah Fox, outgoing special representative for international labor affairs, Bader-Blau also discussed the landmark freedom of association report produced in October by United Nations Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai; the scourge of human trafficking for labor and forced labor; and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 8 on inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.

Despite economic growth and reduction of poverty in recent years, says Bader-Blau, “we’ve seen an expansion of inequality within states and between states.”

But with Goal 8, “we will be able to create through good employment the ability to have fair economies and more just societies, when workers every day can go to work and know they will get paid what they are owed and won’t face indignities at work and that they will make family supporting wages.”

Listen to the full podcast here.

Shawna Bader-Blau: ‘Work Should Be about Dignity’

Shawna Bader-Blau: ‘Work Should Be about Dignity’

On the eve of the tragic Tazreen Factory Ltd. fire that in 2012 killed 112 garment workers in Bangladesh, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau discussed on the Working Life podcast published today how global inequities led to Tazreen and to the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh—and how unions can enable workers to help prevent such disasters.

Describing her visit to the burned-out Tazreen factory, Bader-Blau says workers who survived the collapse met with her.

“They told me that they had tried to form unions in that building … and their union organizing efforts were busted by the supervisors and the employers,” she says. “They told me that had they had trade unions, they really believe they would have had more power vis à vis the supervisors and the company to negotiate things like safety improvements for themselves and adequate wages for themselves and their families.

“When workers do have the ability to form and join trade unions, they can bargain to improve their wages, they can bargain with their employers to make their conditions better. Work should be about dignity.”

Listen to the full podcast here.

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