Brazilian communities along a river near the Amazon are celebrating the government’s decision to halt a blasting and dredging project that could destroy their livelihoods and severely damage the environment. Earlier this month, the Public Prosecutor’s Office recommended that the Brazilian Institute of the Environment and Renewable Natural Resources (IBAMA) suspend its preliminary license for the Araguaia-Tocantins waterway project in the state of Pará.
In suspending the license, the government cited the absence of prior consultation with residents who would be impacted, especially Indigenous communities and quilombolas, and the lack of information on the effects of the project on the communities.
The victory “has impacts not just for the local community, but also for the state and even further,” says Carmen Foro, speaking through an interpreter. Foro, a rural activist from the area, is former secretary-general of the Unity Worker Center in Brazil (CUT). “I feel that I and other community members are being heard, that we have opened a dialogue that this project can’t happen without our participation.” (Foro described her community’s fight for survival in a Solidarity Center Podcast episode last year.)
The project would have involved heavy dredging of the Tocantins River and require removing miles of the rocky Pedral do Lourenço river bed to increase navigability during the dry season and facilitate commodity export. IBAMA approved the preliminary license to begin the project in October 2022, ignoring several government agency recommendations.
Key to Success: Mobilizing a Diverse Coalition
Members of the Caravan in Defense of the River Tocantins meet with residents of Nova Ipixuna to discuss a proposed waterway project that threatened livelihoods and the environment. Credit: Amazon Community
“This time in world history, it is really important to connect to the diversity around us,” Foro said. The campaign was victorious because “we created a grand alliance between the unions and with other movements, like quilombos, the Catholic Church, young people, women, fishers. And that alliance is what gave us strength.
“It was a collective struggle.”
These diverse groups, with support from the Solidarity Center, formed the Caravan in Defense of the Tocantins River to raise awareness about the negative impacts of the waterway construction and demand that the government honor international treaties respecting Indigenous and Tribal People’s right to safeguard and manage the natural resources on their lands. They reached thousands of people, through riverside meetings and in online forums.
With its strength in workers’ collective voice, the Brazilian labor movement was well-positioned to respond to the needs of workers and their communities, including the impact of climate change and environmental degradation on jobs and communities. “The unions in those cities are kind of seen as the principal organization in the social movements,” she said. “Along with the CUT, was able to be an umbrella organization and give us support.”
The Struggle for Democracy Cannot Rest
Foro, who recently was selected by the new administration of President Luiz Inácio “Lula” da Silva to serve in the Ministry of Women, says “many women will be impacted by this project, and through my role now at the Ministry of Women, I plan to be alongside the women who are going to be impacted by this project.”
The license suspension is a huge victory, but the process is not over. “Everyone knows that this recommendation doesn’t resolve the issue,” she says. “The problem is still there and it will be a long journey. There still will be something in the middle between this recommendation.”
While she is hopeful about working with the new administration, whose election with the support of union and community groups opened dialogue with historically marginalized communities along the Amazon, Foro is keenly aware they must work to ensure the democratic process thrives.
“It’s important that we continue the fight, continue the struggle. Even with a democratically elected government that is representative now, there is still pressure that is coming from all different sides. The workers are part of that, but also there is the pressure from large companies, and agro-business as well. We have to continue to fight.”
To address obstacles preventing elimination of gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work, union women and their allies marked International Women’s Day with a public event advocating for ratification of UN International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190).
Women in Kyrgyzstan are routinely subjected to various forms of discrimination—including unequal pay and lack of opportunities for career advancement—and harassment that includes sexual harassment, verbal abuse and even mockery, said Textile and Light Industry Trade Union Chairman Almash Zharkynbaeva.
“[GBVH] harms women’s mental health and well-being, leading to long-term emotional and psychological trauma,” says Zharkynbaeva.
The event was convened to recognize publication of a March 2 ratification motion that moved the draft law to parliament and, on March 8 International Women’s Day, opened the draft law to public comment on Kyrgyzstan’s draft law public discussion portal.
Publication of the draft law represents a three-year Solidarity Center campaign to educate government officials, labor inspectors, unions and the public on the use of C190 to end violence and harassment in the world of work. The Solidarity Center secured commitments from trade unions and parliamentarians to support the ratification process, advised on language now included in three union bargaining agreements to protect workers from violence and harassment, and coordinated a sectoral union campaign appealing to the Ministry of Labor for ratification of C190.
The convention is a powerful tool to combat discrimination and harassment in the world of work, says Eldiyar Karachalov, chair of the Republican Committee of the Trade Union of Construction and Building Materials Workers, but significant progress will require unwavering commitment from employers, workers and the government.
C190 was adopted during the ILO’s annual meeting in Geneva in 2019 following a decade-long campaign by women trade unionists and feminist activists, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, the Solidarity Center and other labor allies. Since 2019, 25 countries have ratified the convention, of which ten have begun enforcement.
Hear more about the global campaign to end GBVH in the world of work.
Discrimination, marginalization and powerful political forces like authoritarianism do not stop at a country’s border—and that is why it is so important for black women worldwide connect through their unions and allied organizations, panelists said Thursday at a Solidarity Center-sponsored event.
“We need to strengthen this kind of international unity as a way to strengthen our fight in Brazil. Racism does not manifest only in one society,” said Rosana Fernandes, a leader at the national Central Union of Workers (CUT) in Brazil.
Fernandes spoke at the panel, Black Women’s Power: Advancing Partnership Between Unions and Global Racial Justice Movements, a conversation with union leaders and members of the Black Women’s Roundtable on advancing racial and gender justice through labor movements worldwide. Members of the Black Women’s Roundtable, part of the National Coalition on Black Civic Participation, were joined by the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists (CBTU) and the Global African Workers (GAW), along with Sarah McKenzie, Solidarity Center program coordination director.
“The Black Women’s Roundtable seeks the liberation of Black people so they can strengthen the healthy wealthy and wise opportunities for Black women here and around the world,” said Carol Joyner, director of the Labor Project and policy lead at the Black Women’s Roundtable. Members of the Black Women’s Roundtable have engaged in exchange programs with Black women workers in Brazil, Cameroon, Colombia, Ghana, Guinea and Kenya. Elsie Scott, founding director of the Ronald Walters Leadership and Public Policy Center at Howard University and Black Women’s Roundtable member, also took part. Scott is the former president of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation.
Panelists engaged in conversation with Solidarity Center staff from around the world, including from Albania, Bangladesh, Brazil, Cambodia, Colombia, El Salvador, Honduras, Kenya, Jordan, Lesotho, Mexico, Morocco, Niigeria, Palestine, Serbia and South Africa. Solidarity Center’s Viviana Osorio Pérez, equality and inclusion director and Hanad Mohamud, program coordination and leadership associate director, moderated the panel.
‘We Have to Unite in Our Struggles’
From CBTU’s founding in 1972, members recognized they needed to connect with Black workers globally, Apollos Baker told the audience. CBTU began by coalition-building alongside unions in South Africa, where workers struggled under brutal apartheid laws.
Baker, special assistant to the New York State AFL-CIO secretary treasurer and CBTU activist, said that now, as union officials around the globe are threatened and attacked for “pressing their countries to be pro-worker, pro-Black,” CBTU and GAW work to ensure they and their families have the support they need. “We have to make sure asylum is available to people,” he said.
Agripina Hurtado, former president of the Afro Colombian Labor Council in Colombia and a GAW member, described her conversations with Black women in Colombia about how racial discrimination impacts them in workplaces, and pointed out that it is important for workers to be aware of international laws and “all the instruments of international justice.”
“We have to unite our struggles, our fights, especially women, who suffer discrimination because of their gender, their color,” she said. “We have to be agents of change to transform our society.”
Uniting Globally to End Racism
Hurtado lifted up the game-changing national election of a progressive slate of candidates in 2022 that includes Francia Márquez, a former housekeeper, union member and Colombia’s first Black vice president.
We now “have a vice president who comes from the neighborhoods, who’s Black, worker, the first African descendant woman” a milestone that shows that “women in particular can get to what we work toward.”
Fernandes also described the difficult conditions Black and Indigenous women face, including lack of access to water in marginalized communities and job discrimination even when they have university educations.
CUT has long tackled racism and discrimination, and recently produced videos in which Black men and women describe how racism impacts their lives. The videos also show alternatives, offering ways to fight racism in society. But “the anti-racist struggle must be international,” Fernandes said.
“This kind of international forum is helping us and strengthening our capacity to fight for workers.”
Global labor unions and the international human rights community are denouncing the arrest in Tunisia of a top leader in the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT).
Anis Kaabi, general secretary of the highway workers’ union, was arrested January 31 after leading a strike by toll booth workers. A coalition of 66 human rights groups and Tunisian political parties denounced the action, calling it a “desperate attempt to criminalize union work.”
Kaabi was charged with causing financial loss to a state-owned company because of the strike. A court hearing is set for February 23.
Toll booth workers walked out to urge the government to renegotiate the contract for the biggest highway link in the North African country, which is mired in economic crisis.
For months, the Tunisian government has been negotiating a bailout from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to shore up the country’s rapidly deteriorating economy, but the IMF often conditions such support by demanding curbs on state spending and austerity measures like cutting subsidies for the country’s poorest.
Union members who legally exercise their rights in Tunisia, such as the freedom to strike, have been increasingly targeted, according to data from the UGTT, which found that the percentage of cases filed against union members rose in 2022, with a quarter of them directed against women.
Already this year, the government has filed more than 60 cases against union members for exercising their internationally recognized labor rights, according to UGTT, which says the numbers indicate a stepped-up effort to diminish the union’s power and turn public opinion against it.
Workers are taking part in a series of marches across the country through March 11, after the UGTT approved the actions to protest Kaabi’s arrest and in light of the government’s increased aggression against the union and its members.
In January, UGTT, the Tunisian Human Rights League and two other organizations launched a National Salvation Initiative to offer a “rescue initiative” to the president to find solutions to the economic and political crisis in Tunisia, including the growing consolidation of the presidency and the closing space for civil society.
Following Kaabi’s arrest, UGTT Secretary General Noureddine Taboubi said President Kaid Saied is “trying to divert attention” from the election result and “the utter failure of his economic and social decisions.”
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.”
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