Uzbek union activist Fakhriddin Tillayev, in prison on a 10-year sentence and subjected to torture for attempting to organize an independent union for day laborers, was released over the weekend.
Tillayev’s release was among the results sought by a Cotton Campaign delegation, now in Tashkent, Uzbekistan’s capital, for unprecedented meetings with government officials, civil society advocates and human rights monitors to discuss the eradication of forced labor. During last fall’s harvest, the Uzbek government forced 336,000 people—including teachers, doctors and students—to work in the country’s cotton fields, picking a crop that generates nearly a quarter of the nation’s GDP, according to an International Labor Organization (ILO) survey. The Cotton Campaign believes the number of those forced to labor is higher.
Tillayev’s release “is a very positive step by the government,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter, who met with Tillayev after his release. Human Rights Watch, the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights, Cotton Campaign staff and the Solidarity Center all followed Tillayev’s case closely since his sentencing in 2014 and raised demands for his release in each meeting with the government.
Tillayev and his fellow activist, Nuriddin Jumaniyazov, were falsely accused of human trafficking, tortured and convicted in proceedings that violated fair trial standards. Jumaniyazov, who was sentenced to six years on the same charges as Tillayev, died in prison of complications related to diabetes in December 2016, information that was not made public until June 2017.
Tillayev said he and Jumaniyazov were arrested after they collected membership applications for an independent union from many people looking for day labor at eight markets in Tashkent.
“They had no other work, they needed protection, they needed their own union. The Administrative Court fined each of us 7 million Soum [$875] because we organized an independent union. They banned the independent union. And then they came up with a criminal offense to put us away for good.”
Seeking a Formal Plan to Dismantle State-Sponsored Forced Labor
Cotton Campaign coalition representatives are in Uzbekistan seeking legal and policy reforms to end the mobilization of education and healthcare workers to harvest cotton. They also are calling for an to end the practice of forcing those who refuse to go to the fields to pay for replacement workers.
The delegation seeks a formal plan to dismantle the forced labor system, and an accountability mechanism that allows for secure complaints and legal actions against officials who mobilize citizens. The Cotton Campaign delegation does not include forced labor monitors and will not assess Uzbekistan’s progress toward eliminating forced and child labor in cotton production.
Steve Swerdlow from Human Rights Watch says “one of the biggest developments in Uzbekistan has been the release of political prisoners.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
The Cotton Campaign sees these meetings as among “recent encouraging signs that the Uzbek government is willing to talk about the subject of forced labor.” Last week, the government released journalists imprisoned on political grounds.
Noting that Uzbekistan has released 28 political prisoners in the past 20 months, Steve Swerdlow, Human Rights Watch Central Asia researcher, says “one of the biggest developments in Uzbekistan has been the release of political prisoners.” Swerdlow spoke May 14 as part of an Uzbekistan-sponsored press conference in Washington, D.C., to discuss its progress on human rights and prospects for improvement.
Uzbek President Shavkat Mirziyoyev acknowledged forced labor in cotton production in a speech at the United Nations in September, the first time a high-ranking Uzbek government official had done so in a public forum. Mirziyoyev again repudiated forced labor in April when he referenced teachers being mobilized for street cleaning and other “public works.” With its partners in the Cotton Campaign, the Solidarity Center advocates for the complete eradication of forced labor and forced child labor in Uzbekistan.
Kalthoum Barkallah, Solidarity Center senior program officer and master trainer in Tunisia, this week received a lifetime achievement award from the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT). The award, the nationwide union’s highest honor, is given to union activists for their dedication to union work and in recognition of their struggle in the defense of workers and human rights.
The UGTT award is the union’s highest honor.
“We are enormously proud of Kalthoum and the great contribution she brings to the labor movement through her incredible dedication and accomplishments,” says Hind Cherrouk, Solidarity Center country program director for the Maghreb region. “Kalthoum’s expertise in nurturing and training new generations of leaders, especially women unionists, has ensured the labor movement in Tunisia and beyond is served by new, skilled union activists.”
Presented by UGTT General Secretary Noureddine Tabboubi, the award reads: “Honoring sister and union activist Kalthoum Barkallah in appreciation for her dedication and perseverance in support for union work.”
In conferring the award, Taboubbi noted Kalthoum’s popularity among the UGTT’s union structures from local to national.
“When I began the struggle for democracy, freedom and the rights of women in 1979, I never for a moment imagined that there would be a day when I would be recognized or honored for my part in realizing these noble objectives,” says Barkallah.
Building Women’s Leadership in Their Unions
As an activist with the Tunisian General Federation of Railways, Barkallah was first elected as a deputy general secretary in 1983, heading up training within the union. She later was elected deputy general secretary in charge of international relations. In the railways industry, Barkallah was known as the “iron lady” for her determination and struggle to challenge her male colleagues in a male-dominated sector to achieve equality and justice for all.
As an active union leader with the UGTT, Barkallah built on the gender empowerment training she began in the railway sector to reach union members in a variety of industries throughout Tunisia, championing women’s rights there and supporting her sisters beyond its borders.
Barkallah, who in 2006 was elected president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)–Arab Women’s committee, also recently received an award from the ITF Women’s Committee for her fight and struggle in support of women workers in the transport sector.
Throughout her decades of service to workers and their unions, Barkallah balanced both work and family duties, raising two sons who each now have their own children.
Chanting support for their union and for worker rights, more than 7,000 members of the General Union of Tunisian Workers (UGTT) packed the Menzah Sports Palace in Tunis today in a boisterous, enthusiastic May Day celebration.
“We are committed to defend worker rights and workers’ interests and we shall struggle for more justice, equality and freedom”–UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Tabboubi Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Our principles are to defend the independence of this country and to defend the people of this country,” said UGTT Secretary-General Noureddine Tabboubi. “We are committed to defend worker rights and workers’ interests and we shall struggle for more justice, equality and freedom. We shall combat all forms of abuse and oppresssion.”
In a speech interrupted frequently by chants of “Long live UGTT” and “With blood and with spirit we remain loyal to the UGTT,” Tabboubi outlined the union’s efforts to work with the government in reforming public services without resorting to privatization, a move the union says would lower wages and create precarious jobs and reduce or eliminate access to pensions and health care.
“The UGTT’s priority is for the national interest”–UGTT member Dhouha Kouki Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
UGTT has been the leading force in protecting democratic gains following the 2011 Tunisian uprising in which workers, outraged at high unemployment and low wages despite the country’s economic prosperity, ousted Tunisia’s dictator, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali. During the ensuring interim government, UGTT proposed a constitution that included the freedom to form unions and strike, proposals that were maintained when the new constitution was approved.
“In the light of the weakness of the different goverments, the UGTT remained the only reasonable power that ensured stability, but it also ensured a balance between workers and the government,” says Dhouha Kouki, a call center worker and UGTT member who took part in the May Day celebration. “UGTT’s priority is for the national interest.”
As workers waved Tunisan and UGTT flags, some wearing shirts imprinted with the demands of the 2011 uprising–“Employment, Freedom, National Dignity”–Taboubi said: “The goals of our revolution shall be achieved and nobody can confiscate our right to freedom, dignity and social justice.”
Economy Teeters on Crisis
A UGTT member holds a sign reading, “I am a trade unionist and I defend my country and my fellow citizens’ institutions.” Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
With 750,000 members across Tunisia, UGTT represents mineworkers, textile workers, professional employees and many others, including 75 percent of public-sector employees. The union federation has organized 250,000 members since the 2011 uprising, many of whom were formerly subcontracted government employees with low wages, no access to social benefits or secure employment. UGTT worked with the interim government within a month of the revolution to bring subcontracted workers into full-time employment, says Sami Tahri, secretary-general in charge of information.
Since then, the UGTT, a Solidarity Center partner, negotiated a 6 percent wage increase for private-sector workers in 2012, an 11 percent increase in the mininum wage in 2014, and an improved contract for high school teachers in 2015, according to “Workers and Thieves: Labor Movements and Popular Uprisings in Tunisia and Egypt.”
Yet the increasing number of workers in the informal sector–which represents more than 54 percent of the country’s gross domestic product–lack of investment in job creation, especially by financial institutions, and an official unemployment rate of 16 percent, including 250,000 university graduates in a country of 11.6 million, mean Tunisia is facing an economic crisis, says Tahri.
Workers in the informal economy are “deprived of all their economic rights and have no social protection like paid sick leave or pensions,” he says, speaking through a translator. Tahri says the official unemployment rate is likely much higher because many people are not counted.
Retirees are suffering the most, especially those who worked for private employers, Tahri says. Many private-sector employers do not fully pay into the country’s social security system, resulting in pensions so low that 25 percent of retirees receive less than the minimum wage, and another 30 percent receive only the minimum wage, says Tahri.
Creating a ‘Solidarity Economy’
Sami Tahri, UGTT Secretary General in charge of Communications, says UGTT is assisting workers through multiple strategies. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
The UGTT is tackling the challenges facing Tunisian workers through organizing and legislative action. In partnership with allied organizations, including the Solidarity Center, UGTT is organizing rural workers in Tunisia’s long-neglected interior, where most of the 1.5 million agricultural workers are women who are not covered by social benefits like pensions and who toil in dangerous and harsh conditions, often into their seventies.
The UGTT also submitted legislation to the national parliament that would create a “solidarity economy” in which the government finances young workers, especially those in agriculture, service and handicrafts, to create their own “start-ups,” with part of the profits returning to the government to fund more new enterprises. By targeting workers in the informal economy, the program also would bring more workers into the social security system, which also is underfunded because there are now five retirees for every one worker. In the 1970s, Tahri says, the ratio was reversed.
Additionally, UGTT has reformed internal union structures to reflect women workers, who comprise the majority of workers in industries such as education, health care and auto parts manufacturing. In 2017, the UGTT Executive Board voted to require executive boards at all levels of the union to include at least two women and better represent its membership.
In 2013, the UGTT was instrumental in brokering a peaceful path to democracy as part of the Tunisian “Quartet,” which was awarded the 2015 Nobel Peace Prize.
Following the Rana Plaza collapse in which 1,134 garment workers were killed and thousands more injured in Bangladesh, the horror of the incident spurred international action and resulted in significant safety improvements in many of the country’s 3,000 garment factories.
But five years after the April 24, 2013, disaster, Bangladesh garment worker-organizers say employers often are not following through to ensure worksites remain safe, and the government is doing little to ensure garment workers have the freedom to form unions to achieve safe working conditions. Since the Tazreen Factory fire that killed 112 garment workers in 2012, some 1,303 garment workers have been killed and 3,875 injured in fire-related incidents, according to Solidarity Center data.
“Five years after the tragedy, the police and local leaders are supporting the factory owners and harassing us”—Tomiza, worker-organizer. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mugfiq Tajwar
“Pressure from the buyers and international organizations forced many changes, says Tomiza Sultana, a garment worker-organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF), among them less interference by police and factory management. “ We organized trade unions, recorded complaints and trained many workers.
“But five years after the tragedy, the police and local leaders are supporting the factory owners and harassing us and anyone who wishes to come to us. They have forgotten the lessons of the disaster,” she says.
A Disaster that ‘Cannot Be Described in Words’
“I can vividly recall that day. I can still see the faces of families who were looking for the bodies of their loved ones by only holding their photo ID,” says Nomita Nath, BIGUF president. “This disaster cannot be described in words.” The multistory Rana Plaza building, which housed five garment factories outside Dhaka, pancaked from structural defects that had been identified the day before, prompting building engineers to urge the building be closed. Garment workers who survived the collapse say factory managers threatened their jobs if they did not return to work.
Factory owners did not care about our lives. They only cared about meeting production targets—BIGUF President Nomita Nath. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mugfiq Tajwar
Ziasmin Sultana, a garment worker who survived the collapse, recalls managers telling workers on the morning of April 24 the building was safe even though “the previous day, we had seen cracks [in the building] form right in front of our eyes.” Shortly after starting work, the electricity went out and the building began to violently shake.
After packing into a crowded stairwell to escape, Ziasmin says she found herself falling. “Everything happened in an instant and it was dark everywhere. When I came to my senses, I realized that three of us have survived and everyone else around us was dead.”
“The world saw how much our lives meant to the owners of these factories,” says Nomita. “They did not care about our lives. They only cared about meeting production targets.”
In the wake of Rana Plaza, which occurred months after a deadly factory fire at Tazreen Fashions killed 112 mostly female garment workers, global outrage spurred several international efforts to prevent deaths and injuries due to fire or structural failures. Safety measures were instituted at more than 1,600 factories.
Hundreds of brands and companies signed the five-year, binding Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety which mandated that brands and the companies they source from fix building and fire hazards and include workers in the process. Many of the signatories recently have signed on to the renewed three-year agreement that takes effect in May. Extending the Accord guarantees that hundreds of additional factories will be inspected and renovated.
Workers Still Struggle to Achieve Safe Workplaces
Maintaining the safety gains made after Rana Plaza is “a big task,” says Khadiza Akhter. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mugfiq Tajwar
In a recent series of Solidarity Center interviews, garment worker-organizers from several national unions applaud the significant safety improvements but warn that employers are backsliding. And workers seeking to improve safety in their factories often face employer intimidation, threats, physical violence, loss of jobs and government-imposed barriers to union registration.
“The Accord contributed to ensuring the safety of the factories, but there is a lot of other work that needs to be done,” says Khadiza Akhter, vice president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF). She and others interviewed say factories are not regularly inspected, employers do not ensure fire extinguishers and other safety equipment are properly maintained, and safety committees sometimes only exist on paper.
“We are now working in this area for maintaining the standard of fire safety. This is a big task in coming future,” Khadiza says.
The Solidarity Center, which over the past two decades in Bangladesh jump-started the process to end child labor in garment factories and served as a catalyst in the resurgence of workers forming unions, in recent years has trained more than 6,000 union leaders and workers in fire safety. Factory-floor–level workers learn to monitor for hazardous working conditions and are empowered to demand that safety violations be corrected. Many workers, in turn, share their knowledge with their co-workers.
Bangladesh at a Crossroads
Garment workers can barely survive with such low wages—Momotaz Begum, worker-organizer. Solidarity Center/Mugfiq Tajwar
Accounting for 81 percent of the country’s total export earnings, Bangladesh’s ready-made garment industry is the country’s biggest export earner. Yet wages are the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations, while the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Luxembourg and Montreal.
“The workers can barely survive with such low wages, as their house rents and even food prices have risen,” says Momotaz Begum, who has worked as a garment worker organizer with the Awaj Foundation since 2008.
Without a union, garment workers often are harassed or fired when they ask their employer to fix workplace hazards or seek living wages. Worker advocates say Bangladesh is at a crossroads—and they hope the government and employers choose a future in which Bangladesh workers are partners in the country’s economic success and treated with the dignity and respect they deserve.
But even in the face of severe employer harassment and government indifference, worker-organizers like Khadiza, Momotaz, Tomiza and Nomita, all of whom began working in garment factories as children or young teens, are helping workers join together and insist on their rights at work. Today, 445 factories with more than 216,000 workers have unions to represent their interests and protect their rights.
“I believe that the workers must be aware of their rights and they must be united to achieve them,” says Shamima Akhter, an organizer with the Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF). “We train them to let them know what they deserve, and we empower them so that they can claim their rights from the factory owners.”
In Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center implements the Workers Empowerment Program – Components 1 and 2, which provides training and rights education to garment workers and organizers, with the support of USAID.
Iztiak, an intern in the Solidarity Center Bangladesh office, conducted the interviews in Dhaka.
Five years after the deadly Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, workers and union activists say despite the massive demand from workers for union representation to achieve safe workplaces, worker-organizers must face down threats, harassment and violence to educate workers about their rights on the job.
Shamima Aktar is among Bangladesh garment worker-organizers empowering workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Mugfiq Tajwar
Since the April 24, 2013, tragedy in which more than 1,130 garment workers died and thousands were injured, the government has approved a little more than half of the garment unions that have applied for official registration, according to Solidarity Center data. Confronted with employers and a government hostile to worker organizations, worker-organizers have sometimes risked their lives to help workers improve wages and working conditions.
Shamima Aktar, a garment factory worker and organizer with Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers’ Federation (BGIWF), is one of them. During a meeting with management at a newly unionized factory, managers refused to grant a demand made by the factory union that salaries be paid on a timely basis. Instead, Shamima and the other union representatives were locked in the building and beaten, she says.
“But what moved me was that hearing about our abuse, 17 trade unions around the community immediately came to our aid and barricaded the whole factory which we were in. The workers needed us on their side to be able to live in peace and I wish to [keep organizing] no matter how difficult it is for me,” she says.
Through persistence and courage in the face of daunting odds, worker-organizers have helped garment workers form unions despite the severe obstacles. In Bangladesh, more than 200,000 garment workers at 445 factories are represented by unions that protect their rights on the job.
“I have worked day and night, went to gates of factories to talk to the workers, walked with them to their homes to earn their trust and to make them aware of how they are being exploited and deprived of their rights,” says Monira Aktar, an organizer with the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF). “So far, we have united 2,250 workers into trade unions, and they say that we give them courage and hope. For me, these words are enough to encourage me to work on for them.”
Poverty Wages, Safety Improvements
Thousands of garment workers have participated in the Solidarity Center’s 10-week fire safety certification course. Credit: Solidarity Center/Rakibul Hasan
Wages in Bangladesh are the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations, even though the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Luxembourg and Montreal. The country’s labor law falls far short of international standards, and the Bangladesh government has failed to enact meaningful legal reforms, including addressing the arbitrary union registration process that is vulnerable to employer manipulation. Without a union, garment workers often are harassed or fired when they ask their employer to fix workplace safety and health conditions.
But due to international action after the Rana Plaza disaster, which occurred months after a deadly fire at Tazreen Fashions Ltd. factory killed 112 mostly female garment workers, a variety of efforts to prevent unnecessary deaths and injuries due to fire or structural failures—including the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety—have remedied dangers at more than 1,600 factories.
The Solidarity Center has trained more than 6,000 union leaders and workers in fire safety, helping to empower factory-floor–level workers to monitor for hazardous working conditions and demand safety violations be corrected.
Such international attention has opened up space for workers to collectively demand—and win—improvements on the job, says Monira.
“I am proud that we have been able to create leaders among the workers by organizing them into trade unions. In the past this would have been close to impossible.”
In Bangladesh, the Solidarity Center implements the Workers’ Empowerment Program – Components 1 and 2, which provides training and rights education to garment workers and organizers, with the support of USAID.
Iztiak, an intern in the Solidarity Center Bangladesh office, interviewed the worker-organizers in Dhaka.