In Ukraine, as workers face employer efforts to shortchange their pay, lay them off or take other adverse actions during the COVID-19 crisis, many are turning to Labor Initiatives, a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian NGO that provides legal assistance to workers.
Teleworking from home under Ukraine’s COVID-19 quarantine, the six-member staff, along with eight legal student interns, are fielding questions from e-mail, Facebook, Viber and the organization’s hotline.
“We are working until 1 or 2 a.m. each day,” says George Sandul, Labor Initiatives legal director.
In the first week of the quarantine, Labor Initiatives lawyers provided some 100 consultations, and the organization’s FAQ page on labor rights during the quarantine now has more than 60,000 views. The website, Our Kyiv, also posted the FAQs and reports 100,000 views, says Sandul.
Labor Initiatives staff are addressing questions from many workers reporting their employer is not providing safeguards against the novel coronavirus. Railroad drivers, grocery store workers and health care workers, especially in small cities, say they have no personal protective equipment. Ukraine’s occupational safety and health law stipulates that if working conditions could result in employees becoming sick or injured, an employee may refuse work if the employer does not provide safe conditions.
Yet many employers are not abiding by the law, says Sandul—unless workers are represented by unions. For instance, at Nova Poshta, a logistical company where 14,000 of the 30,000 workers are union members, the union successfully pushed the employer to provide antiseptics and protective masks and gloves, in addition to paid leave.
All Nova Poshta delivery offices are now equipped with special transparent barriers to better protect operators working with clients. In addition, Nova Poshta provided one month’s health insurance for all employees, telework options and paid leave. Labor Initiatives lawyers provided legal assistance to workers during an organizing campaign at the company in 2018, and also helped them negotiate a strong collective bargaining agreement.
Although Parliament passed a temporary law effective during the quarantine that provides for telework and unlimited vacations, Sandul says the measures are implemented at employers’ discretion, and the law does not offer guidance on how to implement it. The varying company policies that result, and the challenges in ensuring employers honor requirements for some paid leave, mean the calls, messages and Facebook posts keep pouring in for Labor Initiatives staff.
Shutdown Hits Ukrainian Workers Hard
Up to 40 percent of workers in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, could end up unemployed due to COVID-19. Gig workers—the informal sector comprises up to 35 percent of Ukraine’s economy—are especially vulnerable, and are not covered under the emergency legislation. Many will continue working through the quarantine, risking their health, without any protective guarantees from their companies.
The coronavirus crisis “showed the giant systemic problems with informal work,” says Sandul. While the government is fining employers $1,700 for each informal worker who lost a job, “informal workers are very vulnerable in this situation because they have no wages,” he says.
Another government move also may make it more difficult for workers to get by. Small employers received a moratorium on their required contributions to the country’s social insurance fund through April 30, along with tax breaks. The new policy may reduce the insurance fund and make it more difficult to pay sick leave and even pensions, says Sandul.
A ‘Tragic Situation’ if Proposed Labor Law Was Enacted
The COVID-19 crisis brings into stark relief the potentially harsh outcome of labor law revisions the Ukrainian Parliament has considered in recent months, one that Sandul and other legal experts say will be back on the table after the pandemic is contained.
“The [proposed] law doesn’t cover OSH [occupational safety and health] at all,” says Sandul. If the proposed law were in place now, “the front-line workers who keep critical services running during this crisis would have no way to protect their own lives. It would be a tragic situation.”
One draft law, still in Parliament, would create an at-will employment system with no collective bargaining in which employees may be fired at the employer’s whim. It has been denounced by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and other global bodies as violating the freedom to form unions. It also would result in short-term individual labor contracts and zero hours contracts; and overtime paid at a fifth of current rates.
“We need to provide people with wages to eat something, literally,” says Sandul. “If this law was passed, Ukraine would be vulnerable.”
Across the Middle East and North Africa, unions and worker associations are mobilizing to educate workers about their rights during the COVID-19 crisis, provide them with resources to protect themselves and their families, and push for fair treatment at the workplace.
The Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) convened a meeting in recent days with leaders of migrant worker associations and the Solidarity Center to discuss such issues as expired residency, late salaries and unsafe living arrangements—migrant workers there, as in many countries, are housed in crowded conditions, with eight to 12 people per room, or even dozens sleeping in dormitory settings. KTUF, which is hosting an office of migrant community volunteers and educators (MOVE), plans to work closely with the Public Authority for Manpower to solve urgent issues.
Participants then donned gloves and masks and fanned out to grocery stores to help distribute some of the 100,000 copies of “Healthy Measures to Protect Yourself from Coronavirus,” a brochure available in Tagalog, Hindi, and Bengali. KTUF now is translating it into Sinhala and French to distribute among the more than 3 million migrant workers in Kuwait who are engaged in construction and as domestic workers.
Teachers Union Creates Fund to Help All Workers
In Jordan, where the government suspended all public and private enterprises, the Teachers’ Union in Jordan created a $705,218 fund—half of the union’s liquid assets—to assist workers throughout Jordan, and called on the government to launch a health fund to combat the pandemic, urging unions, affiliates and business to donate. During a televised speech from the union’s emergency meeting, union Deputy Director Nasser Al-Nawasrah offered the union’s unlimited assistance to the government to combat the pandemic.
“This ‘holiday’ should not be counted toward employees’ annual vacation days, or considered as unpaid leave, nor should any actions be taken that would detract from his/her labor rights, or the termination of his/her services,” Nijmeh said in a statement.
Sadaqa, a Solidarity Center partner, urged the Jordanian government to allow flextime for parents who must care for their children with schools closed, and the Phenix Center, an economic research organization and Solidarity Center partner, urged employers and the government to ensure workers are protected at the workplace, called for workers to receive wages when infected with the coronavirus, and urged employers to allow teleworking to limit spread of the disease.
Palestine Union Members Assist Workers in Staying Safe
Beginning in early March, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) undertook an array of outreach to safeguard workers’ health. The PGFTU distributed sterilizers, masks, and informational fliers to Palestinians at areas where they cross to Israel to work, including Qalandia, Tarqomya, Al-Thahriya, Qalqilia, Burqan, Al-Khan Al-Ahmar, Ne’elein, Al-Taybeh and Dir Al-Ghsoun. The federation launched a long-term campaign to sterilize commercial buildings, taxi stations and institutions in Ramallah and union members sterilized public transport vehicles and taxi stations in partnership with the Ministry of Health in Jericho.
Union members visited the Barta’a barrier and conducted medical examination for workers and distributed fliers on coronavirus prevention, and the PGFTU also distributed food packages and sterilizers to families in Bethlehem. The PGFTU urged employers to pay workers normal wages during the emergency in accordance with labor law.
Probationary workers in Tunisia won back their jobs at a Dutch-owned call center after an employer fired them under the pretext of the novel coronavirus. The General Federation of Information Technology and Services, the union that represents the workers, enlisted the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which sent a letter to the CEO and conducted a Facebook campaign to ensure the workers were reinstated. Together with the technology workers union, the UGTT, which has called for all call centers to be closed, and is demanding workers be paid and teleworking be implemented.
The UGTT has pledged 100,000 Tunisian dinars ($32,240) toward a fund to combat the coronavirus and support workers who lost income due to the virus. UGTT is calling on workers to donate a work day, and their pay will be directed to the special fund, which it says could be as much as 90 billion dinars ($31 billion). The UGTT and various government agencies will oversee the fund. The federation plans to postpone all planned strikes.
The UGTT is demanding the government continue social protections during the crisis, and guarantee the wages and rights of private-sector workers and in hard-hit businesses, such as restaurants and tourism.
Kurdistan United Workers Union (KUWU) leaders discussed COVID-19 in interviews on popular satellite channels as Rudaw and K24 and encouraged union members to follow the prevention procedures to avoid spreading the infection.
Maquila workers in El Salvador and Honduras are challenging employer attempts to use the coronavirus as a way to cut wages, layoff workers and even stop worker efforts to form unions.
In Honduras, after the government on March 15 barred groups larger than 50 from gathering to stem the spread of COVID-19, most maquila employers told workers to go home when they showed up the next day for work.
But at some apparel factories, workers were expected to continue as usual, including at a Gildan plant where 2,400 workers make T-shirts and sweatshirts for export.
After the employer refused to let them leave, the workers demanded they be sent home and marched to the factory gates, alerting the media that the employer was not following the government’s order. The employer released them by 11 a.m., says Eva Argueta, coordinator of organizing maquila workers for the General Workers Central (CGT) union confederation. The plant is among three of the six Gildan factories where workers are represented by a union and have a collective bargaining agreement. At Fruit of the Loom factories, where workers also protested the employer’s demand they continue working, they were released at 3 p.m. the same day, she says.
“Workers need to demonstrate their collective power at the workplace—and that’s what we saw here,” says Argueta. “That’s what we need to see everywhere, because people can’t be exposed. It’s a matter of health and lives.”
Argueta led the campaign over the past several years to organize unions represented by CGT and the Independent Federation of Workers of Honduras (FITH) in 30 factories that represent 60 percent of workers in Honduras’s apparel and light manufacturing sectors. Collective bargaining agreements included significant pay increases, free transportation to and from work, free lunch, and educational funds for workers and their children.
Immediately after the government’s announcement to limit gatherings, she negotiated with the Maquila Chamber of Commerce to ensure workers would be paid during plant closures. While she says employers wanted workers to use their vacation for the week the plant closed, they ultimately agreed to pay them. Argueta says negotiations are still ongoing to ensure employers pay not just the minimum wage, but worker’s average pay.
“Workers are not responsible for their employers’ business losses, and it shouldn’t be taken out of their wages and benefits,” she says.
Shutting Plants to Stop Workers from Forming Unions
The government of El Salvador closed all public and private enterprises March 16, and labor inspectors were at plants the next day to ensure they shut their doors. But many managers are asking workers to sign “severance agreements,” which provide an immediate payment but ensures they will not be rehired. Union activists say some of those plants are among those where workers are trying to form unions, and the employers hope to use the COVID-19 pandemic as a way to close factories rather than negotiate with workers.
Although the government has required employers to pay textile workers for the time closed, FEASIES, a federation representing maquila and domestic workers, is gearing up for action at the end of the month, when union leaders anticipate many workers will not be rehired or paid.
Even though there are no collective bargaining agreements in El Salvador’s apparel sector, FEASIES and its unions are poised to strongly advocate for maquila workers in coalition with women’s and community groups that support organizing among garment workers and advocacy for their rights. FEASIES also has established a first-ever dialogue with the labor ministry.
The federation also is communicating with garment workers through social media, alerting them to their rights in case they are laid off or asked to sign severance agreements.
In Guatemala, where the government has issued mandatory safety precautions at workplaces, including requiring employers to provide transportation for workers because public transportation has been halted, maquila employers are demanding garment workers stay on the job. Garment workers have struggled for decades to form unions, which for many years were repressed with violence. Today, workers seeking to form at maquilas face strong opposition from employers, and do not have collective bargaining rights.
Domestic workers in Honduras increasingly are exercising their rights on the job in the country, where they have few labor law protections and so are especially vulnerable to abuse. More than 100 workers recently joined SINTRAHO (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras del Hogar), National Domestic Workers Union, which in October became the first legally registered domestic worker union in Honduras.
Following eight months of outreach, education, training and organizing, domestic workers formed SINTRAHO to address their difficult working conditions. Most domestic workers are women and many live in their employers’ homes, where they often are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. As in many countries worldwide, Honduran law excludes domestic workers from mandated breaks, minimum wages and access to social security.
“In Honduras, there are more than 100,000 domestic workers, and we believe that the best way for us to be heard and recognized is to organize ourselves and fight for our rights as workers in a sector that has been hidden,” says Silma Perez, SINTRAHO president.
Recognizing that most domestic workers in urban centers are internal migrants from rural areas, often from marginalized indigenous communities, leaders of FESTAGRO, the agroindustrial union federation supporting SINTRAHO, say it is especially import to support these workers as they organize for improved conditions. FESTAGRO’s confederation, CUTH, and Solidarity Center, also provide support for the new union.
Global Movement for Domestic Worker Rights
Domestic workers in Honduras are part of a worldwide mobilization of domestic workers seeking their rights, forming unions and associations, and pushing for their governments to ratify International Labor Organization Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189). Convention 189 is a binding standard in which domestic workers are entitled to full labor rights, including those covering work hours, overtime pay, safety and health standards and paid leave.
As tens of thousands domestic workers around the world mobilized around ILO 189, which was adopted in 2011, their efforts led to formation of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Since then, domestic workers have campaigned for their governments to ratify it, and 29 countries have done so, meaning they are bound to its regulations, which include clearly stated work requirements, safe working conditions, paid annual leave and the freedom to form unions.
Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama are the only Central American countries that have ratified Convention 189, and SINTRAHO is planning a ratification campaign in Honduras. SINTRAHO also plans to push for greater protections for domestic workers under Honduran national labor law, including a fair minimum wage and access to social security protections.
SINTRAHO is the first national union in Honduras to specifically mention the rights of LGBTI workers in its statutes, and created an Executive Committee position for Secretary of Gender and Diversity to recognize and value its members’ diverse backgrounds.
“SINTRAHO will take on the challenge of organizing many more workers in the coming year in order to fight for national laws that will directly benefit us as domestic workers,” says Perez.
A leader of Colombia’s national petroleum union barely escaped with his life following an early-morning assassination attempt Monday.
The attack on Jonathan Urbano Higuera, president of the USO local for Puerto Gaitán, in Meta Department, occurred as he traveled in a vehicle assigned by the National Protection Unit, a government entity that assigns protection to endangered social leaders.
The USO reports that two armed men on motorcycles approached the vehicle and fired. Bullets shattered the rear window, and it was the quick thinking of the driver who saved lives and prevented injuries.
Urbano Higuera and four other USO leaders in Puerto Gaitán all have received harassing phone calls and death threats this year—as have fellow leaders from across Colombia, including in Huila, Magdalena Medio, Putumayo, Tolima and the capital, Bogotá.
In a statement, the union is calling on authorities to full investigate this incident and all threats against union leaders, as well as to guarantee that their ability to exercise union rights be protected. The USO is a Solidarity Center partner. In early February, the Colombian Workers Federation denounced acts of intimidation and overt threats—including a flier distributed by the Black Eagles, a far-right paramilitary group—to union leaders, members of the National Strike Committee and other social leaders.
Meanwhile, Colombian teachers are in the streets today in a “Strike for Our Lives,” to denounce the murders of and threats to social justice, rights activists and community leaders.
Within the first 52 days of this year, 51 Colombian social leaders—including union leaders and worker rights advocates—have been murdered.
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