Millions of workers—most of them women—face intimidation, humiliation, physical and verbal assault, and worse on the job. A July 27, 2023, international summit in southern Africa gathered representatives from the governments of Argentina, Canada, Germany, Lesotho, Spain and the United States—along with dozens of leaders from unions, business and worker and women’s rights organizations—to highlight and advance efforts to end gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work, with a focus on southern Africa.
Hosted by the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment and Rights (M-POWER),* Lesotho Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU) and Lesotho Labor Council (LLC), the daylong summit explored how governments, corporations and unions can eliminate GBVH at work, particularly by ratifying and codifying International Labor Organization Convention 190 (C190) on violence and harassment, and by replicating the negotiated and binding Lesotho Agreements in supply chains elsewhere.
(Photos: Solidarity Center/Institute of Content Engineering)
Kingdom of Lesotho Prime Minister Samuel Ntsokoane Matekane (R) greets U.S. Department of State Special Representative for International Labor Affairs Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez (L) and United States Embassy Lesotho Deputy Chief of Mission Keisha Toms.
“We are all witness to the ever-increasing instances of gender-based violence and harassment at the workplace, not only in Southern Africa but across our beloved continent,” said Prime Minister Matekane, noting that Lesotho has committed to ethical sourcing through the U.S. African Growth and Opportunities Act (AGOA) and the U.S. Millennium Challenge Compact II.
Below: Harry Nkhetse, senior facilitator and leadership coach, Tobaka Consultants, Mountain Peak Business Solutions, and summit co-emcee, with Marieke Koning, co-emcee and ITUC policy adviser.
THE ROLE OF GOVERNMENTS IN ELIMINATING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT AT WORK: C190
Eradication of GBVH is an urgent, compelling global challenge that will only be resolved when workers have the power to bring about change, for which they need rights to freedom of association and of collective bargaining, said Marieke Koning. The panel included government representatives from Argentina, Germany and Lesotho.
Collective bargaining agreements are the most effective mechanism for implementing progressive laws in Argentina’s experience, said Cecilia Cross, Argentina’s undersecretary for inclusion policies in the world of work (below left). “For Germany, the reason to ratify is that C190 sends such a strong global signal—that it really defines globally what is harassment at work,” said Dr. Anna Montén-Küchel, first secretary, labor and social affairs, German missions in South Africa, Lesotho and Eswatini.
“Efforts must be made at the global level as national efforts alone are not enough to tack this issue, which knows no borders,” said Joaquín Perez Rey, Spain’s secretary of state for employment and social economy, by video. “Gender-based violence and harassment have no place in our workplace,” he added.
U.S. GLOBAL LABOR PRIORITIES
Kelly M. Fay Rodríguez described the Lesotho Agreements as a model for other employers in Lesotho and beyond, and M-POWER as a vehicle for mobilizing like-minded governments to participate. “Culture change is required to create the conditions that allow workers, their families and their communities to thrive,” she said.
HOW WORKERS AND COMPANIES ARE ADDRESSING GENDER-BASED VIOLENCE AND HARASSMENT IN A GLOBAL SUPPLY CHAIN: FOCUS ON THE LESOTHO AGREEMENT
“I experienced so much harassment at the factory before the program at Nien Hsing was established,” said Popoti Ntebe, a UNITE member and factory worker. “Because of the high level of unemployment in our country, workers tend to be harassed because of poverty.”
THE ROLE OF TRADE UNIONS IN CREATING SAFER, FAIR AND HEALTHY WORKPLACES FREE FROM HARASSMENT AND VIOLENCE
To protect rights better, unions and other activists must maximize pressure on government, said Teboho Tolo (R), LFTU president, presenting with Zingiswa Losi, president, Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU). “We must mobilize support!” he said.
WOMEN WORKERS’ PARTICIPATION IN DEMOCRATIC GOVERNANCE
Sethelile Ntlhakana, Lesotho field representative for Worker Rights Consortium, moderates the session.
Gloria Kente, an organizer with the South African Domestic Services and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), in yellow, leads fellow panelists Mathekiso Tseote, NACTWU shop steward (left); Leboela Moteban, LFTU gender focal person; Thato Sebeko, LLC member; and Puleng Selebeli, United Textile Employees (UNITE) member, in song.
“No struggle can be won without women’s participation,” said Mathekiso Tseote.
CLOSING STATEMENTS AND COMMITMENTS
“The world is watching; this is a precedent,” said Laura Gutierrez, AFL-CIO global worker rights coordinator, about the Lesotho Agreements. The AFL-CIO in partnership with its M-POWER colleagues wants to replicate this kind of program in the region and around the world, she said, because “M-POWER partners together recognize that in order to advance worker rights, ALL workers must have the power and ability to organize freely.”
“We must highlight [C190’s] importance as a key instrument in bringing an end to violence and harassment at work and in particular ensuring that women have a safe place to work,” said Chris Cooter, high commissioner for Canada in South Africa, by video.
The M-POWER GBVH project’s launch in Lesotho marks the milestone that Lesotho has committed to upholding worker rights through promotion of decent work for all workers in all economic sectors, said Richard Ramoeletsi, Lesotho minister of public service, labor and employment, in closing remarks.
MORE FROM THE EVENT
* M-POWER is a historic global initiative focused on ensuring working families thrive in the global economy and elevating the role of trade unions and organized workers as essential to advancing democracy. The government of the UnitedStates and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) co-chair M-POWER, joined by steering committee members: the governments of Argentina, Canada and Spain; the International Domestic Worker Federation; the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU); the AFL-CIO; and Funders Organized for Rights in the Global Economy (FORGE). Additional partners include the governments of France, Germany and South Africa, Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Global Labor Justice-International Labor Rights Forum, ProDESC, Solidarity Center and Worker Rights Consortium.
At the end of a day picking tea leaves under the July sun, women walk from the hilly fields down an embankment and into a muddy stream, fully clothed, to bathe before they return to their company-provided tin homes where they prepare dinner for their families.
The tea estate workers in Sreemangal, Bangladesh, say their work is much harsher now due to increased heat and more torrential rains. The changing climate also means that picking the daily quota of tea leaves, always difficult, is sometimes impossible. And when they cannot meet their quota, they are paid even less than their already meager wages.
Sreemati Bauri, a Bangladesh tea worker and union leader. Credit: Solidarity Center / Hasan Zobayer
“It often happens that in a heat wave, it’s a hardship to meet the daily quota [up to 25 kilos, 55 pounds] of tea leaves, and so they can’t make the daily wage of 170 taka ($1.55),” says Sreemati Bauri, a tea estate field supervisor and union leader.
“It’s already difficult to live with this little amount of money. If a worker can’t make their daily target, it’s difficult to survive. Due to the heat, it has become too hot for them to get their wage,” she said, speaking through an interpreter. Bauri, an executive member of the Jurivally Executive Committee, part of the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, supervises 300 women who walk long distances across tea fields each morning before they start picking leaves.
“The heat is more excessive than before,” says Sumon Kumar Tant, a field supervisor and union member. “They have to work under scorching sun. It’s as if they have to carry two times the burden—one the burden of tea leaves on their back, and the other, the weight of the heat.”
Better Working Conditions at Unionized Tea Estates
Bangladesh tea workers walk long distances across fields on their way to pick tea leaves. Credit: Solidarity Center / Gayatree Arun
“At higher temperatures and prolonged periods of exposure, heat stress can lead to exhaustion, it can lead to permanent disability, it can even lead to death,” says Sophy Fisher, discussing the findings of an International Labor Organization (ILO) report on the impact of heat stress on workers. And women are disproportionately affected by the impacts of rising heat due to the type of work they perform and physical issues such as pregnancy, according to a new study.
Climate change-related hardships add to tea workers’ already precarious working conditions. An estimated 13 million people in 48 countries work on tea plantations around the world, mostly women who are paid low wages and have few or no health and safety protections, including safeguards to prevent and address sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. Tea plantation workers often are forced to rely on their employers for food, housing and education, adding to their vulnerability.
“Tea workers give a lot of sweat for their work,” says Bauri.
Workers in the Bangladesh Cha Sramik Union, a Solidarity Center partner, have achieved workplace improvements not offered at nonunion plantations, with employers required to provide daily hour-long lunch breaks and a medical facility. Tant cites the rapid benefit payment by a company to the family of a tea picker killed on the job by a falling tree branch as an example of how the union’s intervention ensured proper compensation.
Still, more progress must be made, he said, citing the need for pregnant workers to get more time off than the four months’ paid maternity leave granted under the country’s labor law.
Little Accountability Global Tea Supply Chain
Bangladesh tea worker, Sanchari. Credit: Solidarity Center / Hasan Zobayer
Rooted in colonial era exploitation, tea plantations are rife with worker rights abuses. Accountability in the global tea supply chain is particularly lacking, with a recent report finding few corporations willing to provide the information necessary to determine how workers are treated and little due diligence across the supply chain.
Based on research into news stories from 2022, the report found human rights abuses in Bangladesh and four other countries involving low or unpaid wages, lack of safety and health protections, and employer intimidation of workers seeking to improve their workplaces through unions.
Involving workers in the due diligence process is essential for supply chain transparency, according to Natalie Swan, a BHRRC labor rights program manager. “That means not relying on certification, not relying on a human rights policy or a supplier code of conduct.”
Solidarity Center believes workers must be at the center of workplace solutions, including those involving climate justice, in which the needs of workers and their communities are involved in achieving a fair or just transition to a more equitable and sustainable economy to mitigate the impacts of climate change and enable adaptation for impacted communities.
A garment union leader in Bangladesh and four garment union leaders in Honduras were killed over the weekend, murders the Solidarity Center and global union and human rights organizations are strongly condemning, and which they say highlight the need for employers and governments in every country to ensure workers can safely exercise their basic rights to form and join unions.
“The perpetrators of these horrific murders must be brought to justice,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “Assaults on workers and union leaders for trying to form unions and exercise their fundamental rights are increasing worldwide. These heinous actions highlight the growing attacks on democratic freedoms, and must be answered with strong measures to safeguard worker rights and all forms of democracy.”
Shahidul Islam. Credit: Shahidul Islam.
Shahidul Islam Shahid, a union leader in the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), was killed June 25 in Gazipur, after he and union co-workers met with factory workers to discuss how to address unpaid wages. The workers at the Prince Jacquard Sweaters Ltd. had not been paid in May or June and had not received their Eid-ul-Azha holiday bonus. Shahidul, president of the BGIWF Gazipur District Committee, agreed to take up the issue with the Department of Inspection for Factories and Establishments at Tongi the next day.
When Shahidul left the factory after the discussion, a group of assailants stopped him. They shouted at him, “You are here for workers’ pay!” and started viciously punching and kicking him. The perpetrators beat him unconscious and left him on the road. Bystanders took him to a nearby hospital, where was pronounced dead. Shahidul, a father of two, was the sole financial supporter of his family. His wife is suffering from a life-threatening illness.
In a statement, the Solidarity Center says it joins BGIWF “in demanding that all stakeholders, including global brands sourcing in Bangladesh, hold suppliers accountable to basic human rights standards in garment factories.
“We call on the government of Bangladesh to step up their protection of trade unionists who are exercising their fundamental rights to organize—rights protected under Bangladesh and international law.”
SITRAGSAM President Xiomara Beatriz Cocas, former president d current delegate, Delmer Josue García, delegate José Rufino Ortíz and delegate Lester Arnulfo Almendarez. Eduardo Alexander Melendez, the son of SITRAGSAM president Xiomara Cocas, also died when armed assailants entered a billiards hall where the group was celebrating a birthday, and began firing.
The attack took place in the same week in which the union had received the announcement from apparel maker the Gildan corporation announced it was shuttering its Gildan San Miguel factory. The union was in initial discussions about the closure, which will leave 2,700 workers unemployed.
The Solidarity Center is calling on the Honduran government “to take all necessary measures to fully investigate these crimes and bring those responsible to justice” and “to ensure the safety of the workers employed in the area, especially those who join together to defend their rights and represent their collective interests.”
The Solidarity Center joins the U.S. and international labor movements in condemning the brutal murder of Shahidul Islam, a worker leader who was killed as a result of his labor rights activism in Gazipur, Bangladesh. Shahidul, a member of the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), fought for worker rights throughout his 25-year-long journey as a trade union organizer and died fighting for what he believed in.
According to the first information report of the case filed at the Tongi (West) Police Station, Shahidul, president of BGIWF’s Gazipur district committee, was attacked after leaving a meeting with workers at a Prince Jacquard Sweaters Ltd. factory. Shahidul and workers had met to discuss how to ensure the payment of two and half months’ wages and the Eid-ul-Azha festival bonus. According to the report, after Shahidul and other union representatives left the factory premises, a group of people attacked them, shouting, “You are here for workers’ pay!” The assailants reportedly started viciously punching and kicking Shahidul, leaving him critically wounded. Bystanders took him to a nearby hospital where he was declared dead.
Eleven years ago, in April 2012, another worker leader, Aminul Islam, was tortured and murdered. Aminul was BGIWF president and an organizer with Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) and a key player in the country’s movement to advance worker rights. The Solidarity Center knew both Shahidul and Aminul personally, and for decades admired their dedication to the worker movement.
Murder of trade unionists is the most extreme and horrific form of anti-union violence, and has a chilling effect on freedom of association. In a country where some employers systematically prevent independent unions from representing workers, the fear stoked by a second horrific murder of a BGIWF leader will undoubtedly make the task of organizing trade unions in Bangladesh even more difficult. Shahidul’s murder this week and Aminul’s murder over a decade ago underscore the absence of an environment where workers can freely exercise their rights without intimidation.
The Solidarity Center joins BGIWF in demanding that all stakeholders, including global brands sourcing in Bangladesh, hold suppliers accountable to basic human rights standards in garment factories. And we call on the government of Bangladesh to step up their protection of trade unionists who are exercising their fundamental rights to organize—rights protected under Bangladesh and international law.
The Solidarity Center stands in solidarity with BGIWF in demanding justice for Shahidul Islam and safety for workers and union members who continue the struggle to defend the rights of workers at the Prince Jacquard Sweaters Ltd. factory and in workplaces across Bangladesh. We express our condolences and solidarity to Shahidul’s family, co-workers and union brothers and sisters.
About Shahidul Islam
Shahidul Islam Shahid, 45, was born at Rajabari in Gazipur’s Sreepur. He began working in the garment industry at the age of twenty. Noticing sheer negligence toward worker rights, he began working as an organizer and became a union leader. From 1999 to 2002, he worked alongside Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers’ Union Federation (BIGUF). In 2006, he joined Bangladesh Center for Workers’ Solidarity (BCWS) as a senior organizer and worked there till 2012. The same year, he became a senior organizer at BGIWF, and later became the president of its Gazipur District Committee. Throughout his career, Shahid successfully mobilized thousands of workers to join unions and empowered them to become solid factory-level leaders. He also assisted thousands of workers to receive arrears and severance pay wrongfully denied by their employers. His contributions to the labor movement were truly remarkable. His murder serves as a reminder of the terrible odds garment workers are up against in Bangladesh and represents an immense loss for the labor movement.
After a coalition of unions and human rights organizations successfully campaigned for Nigeria’s government to ratify a global treaty on violence and harassment in the world of work, including gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH), they knew that was just a first step toward ensuring violence-free workplaces in the country.
Now, the hard work begins to implement the protections in International Labor Organization Convention 190, (C190), speakers said during a panel sponsored by the International Lawyers Assisting Workers (ILAW) Network.
“The campaign does not stop at ratification. It must grow at the grassroots level, at the [factory] floor level, at the [union] branch level,” said Rita Goyit, head of the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) Department of Women and Youth and secretary of the NLC’s National Women Commission. “The struggle continues.”
Goyit was among speakers at a June 21 event launching a new ILAW Network report that analyzes the current legal framework regarding violence and harassment at work, particularly GBVH, and the status of international treaty obligations in Nigerian law. The report identifies key areas of reform to bring Nigerian laws and policies in line with C190 provisions and how legal practitioners can utilize existing law to seek justice for survivors of GBVH and other abuses at work.
It finds that “the government should work with trade unions, women’s right organizations and other human rights organizations to create safe, gender-responsive, effective complaints procedures, including measures to address barriers to reporting. There is a critical need for strong mechanisms to protect workers who report violence and harassment from retaliation.”
Speaking on the panel, Agomo advocated holistic legislation “that mainstreams health and welfare issues, safety issues, to include issues arising from gender-based violence and harassment.” She noted that C190, which the ILO adopted four years ago last week, is broad enough to ensure that all workers achieve violence-free workplaces, including while commuting to work and at related events. The convention covers workers in the formal as well as informal economies. Thirty-one countries have ratified C190, with the Nigerian government ratifying it in November.
Union leaders trained 25 vendors to form and lead a task force on GBVH in the market. The task force developed a code of conduct to prohibit GBVH and create a mechanism for reporting cases. They distributed information leaflets and helped raise awareness among vendors about their rights to a violence-free workplace. This resulted in the identification of multiple cases of rape and sexual assault against minors, who often assist their parents in the market. Five people have been arrested and now are awaiting trial for allegedly violating the rights of children between 9 and 14 years old, said Agnes Funmi Sessi NLC Lagos State Council chairperson.
“People are now being able to know their rights, there are mechanisms to report GBVH and there are people trained in the market for emergency response,” she said. The effort is now expanding to another large market in the area.
The NLC also is reaching out to unions to ensure their constitutions and collective bargaining agreements adequately address sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence at work and are training gender officers to educate union members on their rights to violence-free workplaces.
The campaign urging the government to ratify C190 involved a broad, union-led coalition, said Afusatu Shaibu, national chairperson, Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) Women Commission. Among those organizations is the Advocacy for Women with Disabilities Initiative. Women workers with disabilities face multiple hurdles when confronted with GBVH at work, said Patience Ogolo-Dickson, the organization’s executive director.
“It’s very difficult for a person with a disability to get a job, and when you are faced with speaking out, you fear losing your job and think it’s better to keep silent. Many don’t know about the need to access to justice and need to be educated on C190.”
The online panel was moderated by Jacquline Wambui Wamai, ILAW Network regional coordinator for sub-Saharan Africa, and a recording will be available in coming days.
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