Some of the 245 Zimbabwe migrant farm workers brutalized and evicted last September from a large farm in South Africa, where many had toiled for years, have now been vindicated in court.
In a recent court hearing in South Africa, a judge rejected the farm owner’s argument that the workers were on extended strike and should not be compensated or reinstated. The judge offered the workers back pay or reinstatement, and the seven workers present opted for reinstatement to the farm at the legally determined wage.
The judge indicated he could reinstate only workers who were present, and with the assistance of South African Food and Allied Workers Union (FAWU), the seven workers have begun searching for the other workers.
Zimbabwe Migrant Farm Workers Driven from Their Homes
Last August, the Zimbabwean migrant farm workers, who labored on four vegetable farms operated by Johannesburg Farm, asked for a 59-cent-per-day pay increase. The workers, who were paid $120 month, roughly half the legal minimum wage, regularly put in 12-hour days, seven days a week, and were forced to toil 17-hour days during the harvest.
In September and according to witnesses, a group of men led by the farm owner fired rubber bullets at the workers’ homes, setting some on fire to drive workers out of their houses, where they were assaulted and clubbed. One of the workers, Edias, told Solidarity Center staff that he and four other workers were then kidnapped, tortured and interrogated for hours before police arrived. (For farm workers’ safety, we are using first names only.)
Unable to look for other jobs because the farm owner had confiscated their work papers, Edias and the others traveled to a refugee camp in Lephalale, South Africa, where they arrived in December near starvation.
Criminal Case and Wage Case Pending
Two other cases are pending. One involves a criminal hearing, set for late August, on the kidnapping and torture of the farm workers. South Africa’s Labor Department is leading the second case, which focuses on the issue of wage law violations. The Labor Department has the authority to demand back wages to January 1, 2015—which total more than $100,000—and assess penalties for violating the law.
Along with FAWU and the Migrant Workers’ Union of South Africa (MIWUSA), the Solidarity Center has provided key support to the Zimbabwe migrant workers, enabling them to be represented in court, offering material aid, generating public attention for their plight and raising awareness of the often brutal working conditions of migrant workers across South Africa.
The workers who are returning to the farm say they will post the ruling on minimum wages for farm workers and tell Solidarity Center staff that they feel vindicated—like human beings with standing and rights, according to one worker.
Nigeria’s largest trade union federations will call a nationwide strike May 18 unless the Nigerian government returns fuel subsidies it removed on May 11.
Meeting over the weekend, the executive councils of the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC), which together represent millions of workers, along with civil society organizations, decried the nearly 50 percent hike in fuel prices caused by deregulation and called on the government to return fuel subsidies and prosecute those involved in subsidy scams.
In a joint statement, the groups said that over the past five years, “there has been no increase in salaries or wages or pensions in the face of devaluations, spiraling inflation and other vagaries of the economy,” making the rising price of fuel “unrealistic, unaffordable (and) unacceptable.”
More than half of Nigeria’s population lives below the international poverty line of $1.25 a day, according to the most recent figures from UNICEF.
Although Nigeria is Africa’s biggest petroleum producer, the country imports nearly all of its refined fuel, unlike most members of the Oil and Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC), and is currently facing a severe shortage. Unions and civil society organizations are urging the government to create enhanced local refining capacity to permanently solve the problem of scarcity.
Eighty percent of Nigeria’s foreign currency comes from the petroleum industry.
The groups pointed out that the volatility of the country’s black market makes it unlikely the government will be able to stop fuel prices from rising further. They also cited the plunging local currency, the naira, which has rapidly begun depreciating against the dollar since deregulation, as furthering limiting consumers’ ability to purchase basic goods.
In calling for government measures to reverse fuel deregulation, the groups also are pushing for reform in the electricity sector, urging the government to end billing based on estimating electricity usage and make meters available to consumers.
When the government last attempted to deregulate fuel prices in January 2012, striking workers and students shut down airports, offices and shops, paralyzing the country for 10 days. At least 10 people died and hundreds were injured during the strike. Workers returned to their jobs after the government partially restored the fuel subsidy.
Unions also are calling on the government to involve labor in negotiating key policy issues and reverse privatization processes long pushed for by the International Monetary Fund and World Bank, including deregulation, which the groups say contravene “the constitutional provision that says government shall be the driver of the economy.”
More than two dozen worker, union and human rights experts from around the world gathered last week in Kenya to discuss some of the most intractable global labor issues: informalization of work, gender inequality, migrant worker rights and the erosion of workers’ freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association.
The two-day “Expert Consultation on Freedom of Association and Assembly for Workers” was convened by Maina Kiai, UN Special Rapporteur on the Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association (FOAA), in collaboration with the Solidarity Center. Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director, co-facilitated the meeting.
Maina Kiai (left) opens the discussion, with Wisborn Malaya (center) representing informal workers in Zimbabwe and Phil Robertson from Human Rights Watch. Credit: UN
High-level representatives from key organizations—Asia Monitor Resource Center; Asia Network for Rights of Occupational & Environmental Victims; Escuela Nacional Sindical (ENS, National Union School, Colombia); Human Rights House Foundation; Human Rights Watch; International Center for Not-for-Profit Law; International Corporate Accountability Roundtable; International Domestic Workers Federation; International Labor Organization; International Trade Union Confederation; Kenya National Union of Teachers; Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA); Labor Research Service; National Guestworkers Alliance; Proyecto de Derechos Económicos, Sociales y Culturales (ProDESC, the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project, Mexico); Social and Economic Rights Institute of South Africa; UNITE-HERE; World Movement for Democracy; and Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Employment Organizations—discussed the status of vulnerable workers and their rights, gender-based violence and discrimination, the ability of workers to exercise their rights to freedom of association and assembly, particularly in global supply chains.
The experts closed the meeting by looking at ways to bolster FOAA for vulnerable workers, including strengthening legal frameworks at the national level, monitoring and improving the practices of non-state actors, and establishing global governance mechanisms.
Discussions and conclusions from this consultation will feed into the Special Rapporteur’s next thematic report on the freedoms of peaceful assembly and association, which he will present to the UN General Assembly in October 2016.
“The Special Rapporteur’s focus on these very serious labor issues can have a real impact, and the organizations consulted during this kick-off meeting were excited to support the effort,” said Bader-Blau. “This is a critical moment for working people around the world, so many of whom are seeing their rights as workers deteriorate because the freedoms of association and assembly are under assault.”
More than 300 the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) members took part in the PGFTU Congress in Nablus late last month, where delegates voted to boost representation of women and reinforced the federation’s commitment to worker rights. They were joined by representatives from 16 international organizations, including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Solidarity Center and the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Delegates at PGFTU’s Fifth Congress voted to increase from 20 percent to 30 percent the representation of women across all PGFTU bodies over the next four years; agreed to enforce Palestine’s minimum wage law and work to make it a living wage; and reinforced the PGFTU’s stance in defending the freedom to form unions.
Also during the three-day conference, PGFTU General Council members elected Shaher Saad as secretary general and voted in 24 representatives of national general unions, including four women, to the executive committee, along with seven men and women unionists to the financial and administrative audit committee. All will serve four-year terms. The elections were observed by representations from the ILO, the Arab Labor Organization and U.S. and European trade unions and federations.
Delegates backed ongoing dialogue with allies as the PGFTU campaigns for fair labor laws that guarantee decent work for workers and a fair social security law for workers and their families. In ensuring that women make up 30 percent of the federation’s leadership, delegates seek to guarantee their input in designing labor policies and executing union resolutions and reinforced their commitment to promoting the role of Palestinian working women as a key force in the national and local markets.
Participants also emphasized the need to network with civil society organizations and legal groups that to work toward establishing a democratic and transparent civil society.
In his remarks, Saad said workers will achieve social justice and fairness through a strong and independent trade union movement that seeks to elevate workers’ voices and protect him from exploitation.
A global union campaign is calling on the Uzbek government to reverse its conviction of Uzbek human rights activist Uktam Pardaev, who was sentenced to three years’ probation in January and is under constant surveillance by security services at his home. Officials also continue to harass Uktam Pardaev’s relatives and friends, who have been watched, questioned and threatened, according to global union and human rights groups.
Human rights activist Uktam Pardaev was jailed while he was monitoring last fall’s cotton harvest in Uzbekistan. Credit: IUF
ardaev, a member of an independent cotton harvest monitoring group, was arrested in November 2015 on trumped-up charges of fraud and taking a bribe. He was held for eight weeks in pre-trial detention, where he was locked in a damp, cold cell with only a dirty mat to sleep on and little food. Pardaev says he witnessed officials torturing and mistreating detainees to coerce confessions and was beaten severely on one occasion.
Pardaev was among human rights activists monitoring last fall’s cotton harvest in Uzbekistan, where more than 1 million teachers, nurses and others are forced to pick cotton for weeks each harvest season. A report released in March documented how the government took extreme measures to cover up its actions last fall, jailing and physically abused those independently monitoring the process.
“The government unleashed an unprecedented campaign of harassment and persecution against independent monitors to attempt to cover up its use of forced labor while taking pains to make widespread, massive forced mobilization appear voluntary,” according to The Cover-Up: Whitewashing Uzbekistan’s White Gold.
Uzbekistan, which gets an estimated $1 billion per year in revenue from cotton sales, faced high penalties for not addressing its ongoing forced labor. But rather than end the practice, the government sought to cover it up, according to the report, produced by the Uzbek-German Forum for Human Rights.
Take action now and send a message of support calling on the Uzbek government to reverse Pardaev’s conviction; conduct a prompt, independent, and impartial investigation into his credible allegations of ill-treatment by prison officials; and bring those responsible