Joining Together, Building Power, Ending Gender Violence at Work

Joining Together, Building Power, Ending Gender Violence at Work

Sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence are rampant in garment factories in Bangladesh and throughout the textile production and retail industry in South Africa, according to two recently published Solidarity Center reports. The sample surveys are among a broad spectrum of outreach by Solidarity Center partners who also are addressing gender inequities through awareness efforts among informal economy workers and workers with disabilities in Nigeria, in labor rights and career workshops in Armenia and Georgia, and among app-based drivers in multiple countries.

In addressing the root causes of GBVH in the world of work, a priority for the Solidarity Center, workers and civil society join together to advocate collectively beyond the workplace to push for policy and legal reform, expanding democracy.

November 25 marks the start of 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence, an annual  international campaign in which union activists stand in solidarity with women’s rights activists to highlight the prevalence of GBVH at the workplace and to support feminist movements around the world in calling for a world free from GBVH. The campaign culminates on December 10, Human Rights Day.

As activists mobilize worldwide, here’s a snapshot of how Solidarity Center and its partners are moving forward efforts to end GBVH at the workplace and achieve decent, inclusive work for all.

Garment Industry: Rife with GBVH

Bangladesh garment workers, standing up to gender-based violence at work with their unions, Solidarity CenterBecause so little data exists on the prevalence of GBVH at workplaces, union activists and their allies in Bangladesh and South Africa sought to document workers’ experiences at garment factories and clothing outlets. Solidarity Center partners previously conducted similar studies in Cambodia, Indonesia and Nigeria.

In South Africa, 98 percent of the 117 workers surveyed said they had experienced one or more forms of GBVH at work. The Bangladesh survey found severe outcomes for workers who experienced GBVH at work, with 89 percent saying they “broke down mentally” and 45 percent reporting leaving their jobs temporarily and/or losing pay. The survey involved 120 workers in 103 garment factories and was conducted by 21 activists from grassroots and worker organizations.

In many cases, workers’ jobs and wages were at risk if they did not agree to sex with employers or managers. In Bangladesh, 57 percent of survey participants said they lost their jobs because they refused such overtures. As one survey participant in South Africa said:

“My manager called me to his office and said that if I want to extend my hours of work, I must go out with him. He kept on asking, even forcefully and aggressively … I heard from other women workers that he had also asked them.” Survey participants were not identified for their safety.

Both surveys were conducted through participatory action research, rooted in collaboration, education, developing skills and centered on a “Do No Harm” ethos to avoid re-traumatizing interviewees. Through worker-driven strategies to address and prevent GBVH in the garment sector, the processes created a set of recommendations including urging employers to enforce zero tolerance policies for GBVH and for unions to prioritize GBVH prevention and make women worker safety a core union priority.

Key to the recommendations is ratification and enforcement of an international treaty on ending violence and harassment at work. Convention 190 was approved by the International Labor Organization (ILO) in 2019 after a decade-long campaign led in part by the Solidarity Center and its partners. C190 now must be ratified by governments, and union activists are mobilizing members and allies in ratification campaigns that include awareness-raising about GBVH at work. South African unions, led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), successfully pushed for ratification in 2021. 

Reaching Marginalized Workers

Nigeria, Lagos market, informal economy workers, gender-based violence and harassment at work, Solidarity Center

Amina Lawal, a Solidarity Center-trained GBVH researcher, leads the way for Nigerian Labor Congress leaders in Lagos’s Mile 12 market. Credit Solidarity Center / Nkechi Odinukwe

In Nigeria, union activists are using awareness raising to address the intersecting challenges facing workers with disabilities who also experience GBVH and gender discrimination at work. Through a weekly radio program and public service ads, the program elevates the voices of workers with disabilities who already are marginalized because of their status, providing a platform where they discuss their concerns around GBVH and access to equal rights to work and pay.

The program stems from recommendations in a survey of more than 600 workers with disabilities in Nigeria by the Trade Union Congress of Nigeria (TUC) to create mass awareness of disability rights and GBVH. 

The radio program also is an avenue to reach workers in Nigeria’s large informal economy. Following the adoption of C190, union leaders at the Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC), with Solidarity Center support, began training vendors at the sprawling Mile 12 market in Lagos. The vendors formed a GBVH task force that worked with the NLC to develop a market code of conduct covering gender-based violence and harassment and helped raise awareness among vendors about their rights to a violence-free workplace. 

Their outreach 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.    

Building Leadership Skills, Building Power

Armenia, professional development for young women, Solidarity Center, worker rights, unions

The OxYGen foundation in Armenia, with Solidarity Center support, held “Women for Labor Rights” seminars this year as part of its professional empowerment network. Credit: Solidarity Center

Building leadership and power within historically marginalized populations to take on issues and traditional hierarchies is a key part of Solidarity Center’s focus on ensuring equality and inclusion at the workplace. 

In Armenia and Georgia, young women workers are learning crucial employment skills as part of Strengthening Women’s Participation in the Workforce, a Solidarity Center-supported program in partnership with professional networks and other civil society organizations. The project seeks to increase women’s full, equal and safe participation in the workforce, including vulnerable women workers’ access to decent work. Training sessions include exposure to science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) professions and other career development, and cover labor rights, including the right to a safe and healthy workplace. The programs reach women in rural areas, many of whom are marginalized with limited access to job opportunities and skills building.

In Armenia, where the project operates as the Women Professional Empowerment Network (WPEN), young women take part in an interactive exchange that fosters the development of a supportive network and includes upskilling and raising awareness of employment opportunities, along with advice and guidance about the most in-demand new careers.

Women Delivery Drivers Stand Strong Together

UNIDAPP President Luz Myriam Fique Cardenas, Colombia, platform workers, delivery drivers, app-based workers, gig workers

“Not just in Colombia, but worldwide, women are always the ones that are the most vulnerable and paid the worst”—Luz Myriam Fique Cárdenas. Credit: UNIDAPP_Jhonniel Colina

Addressing GBVH is an essential part of campaigns mobilizing app-based drivers to achieve their rights on the job, including the freedom to form unions, as the safety risks they face every day are especially compounded for women platform workers.

“Not just in Colombia, but worldwide, women are always the ones that are the most vulnerable and paid the worst,” Luz Myriam Fique Cárdenas told participants earlier this year at a Solidarity Center-sponsored event, Women Workers Organizing: Transforming the Gig Economy through Collective Action. “We suffer harassment. We don’t have security in the streets because we’re women,” said Cárdenas, president of Unión de Trabajadores de Plataformas (Union of Platform Workers, UNIDAPP) in Colombia. 

Recently in Mexico, the Solidarity Center hosted women delivery drivers from seven countries in Latin America and in Nigeria. The eight unions participating agreed on five key gender-focused points for inclusion in the Convention on Decent Work on Digital Platforms now being drafted for consideration by the ILO. The women leaders at the Alza La Voz (Raise Our Voice) forum are planning a joint campaign to ensure the convention addresses the specific challenges women app-based workers face. 

As throughout the campaigns to end GBVH at work, women app-based drivers are finding strength in joining together and experiencing the power to improve working conditions through collective action.

“We have to create alliances,” Shair Tovar, gender secretary of the National Union of Digital Workers (UNTA) in Mexico, told participants. “Women can achieve enormous things together.”

Myrtle Witbooi: A Clear Vision of Justice for Domestic Workers

Myrtle Witbooi: A Clear Vision of Justice for Domestic Workers

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Myrtle Witbooi: A Clear Vision of Justice for Domestic Workers
Myrtle Witbooi, a fierce advocate of domestic worker rights who recently passed away, is remembered in this Solidarity Center Podcast episode by Solidarity Center Domestic Worker Global Lead Alexis De Simone. We also hear from Myrtle herself, as she accepted the AFL-CIO’s Human Rights award on behalf of the International Domestic Worker Federation, which she helped form and led. 
“Her deep conviction that when women, when the working poor, when 
women of color, when workers in the Global South, when union sisters and brothers decide to join forces, decide that they are in it together, there is no option but victory,” says  says De Simone.
“That is so much of Myrtle’s legacy.”
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This episode is a re-broadcast from the podcast, Labor History Today, produced by the Metro Washington Labor Council.
Fierce and Beloved Labor Leader Myrtle Witbooi Passes Away

Fierce and Beloved Labor Leader Myrtle Witbooi Passes Away

Solidarity Center
Solidarity Center
Fierce and Beloved Labor Leader Myrtle Witbooi Passes Away


The global labor movement lost a bright light and a pioneering leader on January 16 when Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU), and president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), passed away after a long and valiant battle with cancer. 

Myrtle Witbooi accepts ALF-CIO George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award for IDWF.

Myrtle began her career in the 1960s as a domestic worker in apartheid South Africa. A newspaper article about domestic workers moved her to write a letter to the editor. Myrtle was just 18 when, with the help of a local journalist, she convened the first meeting of domestic workers in Cape Town in 1965. 

“As I entered, I saw about 350 workers all looking at me, and I said to myself, ‘Oh Lord, what now?’” Myrtle recalled in an interview

“And I went up to the stage and I said, ‘Good evening. I am a domestic worker, just like you. I think we need to do something for ourselves because nobody is going to do anything for us.’ And they all started clapping and said, ‘You are going to lead us.’” 

It was the beginning of a lifelong fight to secure rights and protections for domestic workers. 

At that time, domestic workers in South Africa were not allowed to move freely and needed identification to enter the White neighborhoods where they worked. 

We needed an ID to identify that we were allowed to come to the White area to work. But we could go to church,” Myrtle said. The workers formed a committee in 1979 because they could not form a union. Their church meetings served as cover for committee meetings, even after the government banned all labor organizations in 1986 for fear they were ANC-affiliated.

As general secretary of SADSAWU, Myrtle fought for a national minimum wage increase and compensation for domestic workers injured on the job. In 2011, she helped lead an international coalition of domestic workers to secure passage of the ILO Convention on Decent Work for Domestic Workers (C 189), which ensured domestic workers the same basic rights as other workers. The convention marked the unprecedented involvement of informal women workers in setting ILO standards.

Myrtle became the first chair of the International Domestic Workers’ Network—and when the network formalized as a federation, Myrtle was elected the first president of the International Domestic Workers’ Federation, the only global union founded and led by women of color.

Myrtle was often recognized for her work on behalf of domestic workers. In 2013, she accepted the AFL-CIO’s George Meany–Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award, which recognizes international leaders and organizations who have overcome significant hurdles in the fight for human rights. In 2015, she was awarded the Fairness Award, which honors outstanding leaders dedicated to bringing economic justice, fairness and equality to poor and marginalized communities.

Myrtle was serving her second term as IDWF president when she passed. Under her leadership, the federation expanded to 87 affiliates in 67 countries, representing 670,000 domestic workers. Their “nothing about us without us” motto that achieved ILO Convention 189 served as the clear model for the fight to eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work, resulting in the passage of ILO Convention 190 in 2019—an effort led by affected workers, largely women workers and informal workers.

Upon news of her passing, tributes came in from domestic workers around the world, sharing stories of how Myrtle inspired courage among workers who have been made invisible by employers and governments to raise their voices and stand firm together in their demands for dignity and respect.

“Myrtle was bold, had a clear moral vision and was relentless in building up alliances to see a vision of equal rights for domestic workers to fruition. Myrtle’s legacy of courage, justice and sisterhood will live on for generations,” said Alexis De Simone, global lead for domestic worker rights at the Solidarity Center.

South Africa: Survey Flags Domestic Worker Human Rights Violations, Solutions

South Africa: Survey Flags Domestic Worker Human Rights Violations, Solutions

“The dignity of people’s very being is at stake,” said IZWI Domestic Worker Alliance’s founder and lead researcher Amy Tekie in opening remarks at a recent webinar focused on a new qualitative survey of human rights violations against live-in domestic workers in South Africa.

A screen snip of IZWI Domestic Worker Alliance’s founder and the survey’s lead researcher Amy Tekie presenting at a Solidarity Center webinar on February 1, 2022, that focused on a South Africa domestic worker survey co-published by IZWI and the Solidarity Center.

“Really awful things are happening behind closed doors,” said IZWI’s Amy Tekie.

The Persistence of Private Power: Sacrificing Rights for Wages“—co-published by Johannesburg-based IZWI Domestic Workers Alliance and the Solidarity Center—surveys the constitutional and human rights of live-in domestic workers in South Africa. It describes how domestic workers’ rights to privacy, freedom of movement and children’s right to parental care are frequently sacrificed for wages in a sector underpinned by racism, sexism and classism. Resulting exploitation—largely invisible because of the private spaces in which it occurs—continues regardless of constitutional protections and industry-specific labor regulations.

We are expected to be indoors even when it is our off day,” said the survey’s lead field researcher Theresa Nyoni. Credit: IZWI

“We are not allowed to be seen around,” said the survey’s lead field interviewer, Theresa Nyoni, of a sectional title housing complex in which she was formerly employed as a domestic worker.

Nyoni described almost universally denied opportunities for live-in domestic workers in sectional title housing to enjoy open spaces on, or near, the employers’ property and lack of freedom to move around or receive visitors in their own quarters—even during off hours. And, for most live-in domestic workers, she noted invasive employer surveillance and almost total lack of privacy.

“We are sleeping with kids and not allowed to lock the door; parents barge into the room and even the bathroom,” she said.

Employers isolate domestic workers by routinely denying them visits from friends, spouses and children, and some domestic workers say they are not allowed to leave their employer’s home for any reason. Nyoni described her former employer’s refusal to allow her to leave the work premises, on her own time, to purchase and arrange for transportation of bulk food items to her own children during the pandemic.

“When I held a plate of food to eat, I was thinking: Did my children get food today?”

Survey interviewees outlined living conditions that Tekie described as “almost kidnapping [in its] constant and complete employer surveillance and control.” Besides being isolated from loved ones, many live-in domestic workers said they were denied employer permission to keep their infants with them, receive packages or use their employer’s kitchen to preserve and prepare their own food, and those employed in sectional title housing complexes reported repeated employer and security guard searches. Some live-in domestic workers said they have chosen abortions for fear of losing their jobs.

IZWI interviewed 115 mostly migrant live-in domestic workers for the survey, most of whom were working in or near Johannesburg—where working conditions are anecdotally better than those than in rural areas, said Tekie. Approximately half of South Africa’s more than 800,00 domestic workers live in by IZWI’s estimate, although definitive data does not yet exist, she said.

A screen snip of McGill University Faculty of Law Professor of Transnational Labor and Development Adelle Blackett presenting at a webinar on February 1, 2022 that focused on a South Africa domestic worker report co-published by IZWI and the Solidarity Center.

The survey affirms that state silence perpetuates the status quo, said McGill University Faculty of Law Professor Adelle Blackett.

McGill University Faculty of Law Professor of Transnational Labor and Development Adelle Blackett underscored the significance of the report being centered on the lived experience of domestic workers and the persistence of private power in their lives, even post-Apartheid.

Describing the report as “chilling,” Blackett defined the status quo for South Africa’s domestic workers as, “historicized, racialized, intersectionalized enslavement to domestic servitude.”

A screen snip of former South African Labor Court judge and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and panelist Urmilla Bhoola presenting at a Solidarity Center webinar on February 1, 2022, that focused on a domestic worker survey co-published by IZWI and the Solidarity Center.

“[This report] is only the tip of the iceberg,” said former South African Labor Court judge Urmilla Bhoola.

The survey illustrates that translating South Africa’s laudable rights into reality for domestic workers is a tremendous challenge, said former South African Labor Court judge and former United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Forms of Slavery and panelist Urmilla Bhoola.

“When domestic workers live in, they forfeit their rights,” she said. And so, civil society legal activism is essential, including that spearheaded by trade unions, she added.

Report recommendations include extension to domestic workers of many of the rights contained in South Africa’s farmworker Extension of Tenure Security Act (ESTA) but absent from Sectoral Determination 7 governing domestic work. ESTA guarantees to farmworkers residing on employers’ land “the right to human dignity”—including privacy, having family life, the freedoms of association, movement and religion, and to have visitors and receive postal communication.” Alternatively, concludes the report, legislation specific to the domestic work sector should be created that includes:

  • Minimum housing standards for all live-in domestic workers, not only those paying rent
  • Basic regulations on rights to family life and visitors, including the right for family to cohabit with a worker, within residential density laws, and the right for workers to have visitors in their homes
  • Regulations to protect privacy, explicitly preventing employers from searching rooms, phones or property without permission
  • Clear protection of a worker’s right to move freely during off hours
  • Guidelines on bullying, harassment and assault, as those provided in the labor law do not address the specifics of the domestic sector
  • Guidelines for provision of food.
South Africa: Domestic Workers Celebrate Compensation Wins

South Africa: Domestic Workers Celebrate Compensation Wins

On June 16 International Domestic Workers Day, domestic workers are celebrating a landmark legal win by South Africa’s domestic workers for colleagues who die or are injured in their employers’ homes. For the first time, starting this year, domestic workers who suffer injury on the job are eligible for compensation for temporary and permanent disability, medical expenses, funeral costs and survivor benefits.

Until last year, South Africa’s approximately 1 million privately employed domestic workers suffered deaths and crippling injuries without access to compensation for themselves or their dependents because domestic workers were excluded from South Africa’s Compensation for Occupational Injury and Illness Act (COIDA). With Solidarity Center support, the South African Domestic Service and Allied Workers Union (SADSAWU) and human rights organization Socio-Economic Rights Institute of South Africa (SERI) litigated and won a long-denied claim for the dependent daughter of Maria Mahlangu, a privately employed and partially sighted domestic worker who had fallen into her employer’s swimming pool and drowned in 2012. The historic judgment, made by the South African Constitutional Court in mid-November, recognized that injury and illness arising from work as a domestic worker in a private home is no different to that occurring in other workplaces and thus equally deserving of COIDA coverage.

Myrtle Witbooi, general secretary of SADSAWU and the first president of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF), said in addition to the last year’s court ruling, South Africa’s domestic workers can also celebrate this year’s hard-fought win under revised compensation rules of three years of retroactivity to submit claims.

Under the new rules, all employers of domestic workers must register with the Compensation Fund or face penalties, and make annual payments to cover their employees. SADSAWU is focusing its efforts on educating employers and domestic workers about their obligations and rights under the new rules, says Witbooi. SERI made a new domestic worker compensation information fact sheet available to domestic workers, paralegals and community advice offices this month, while SADSAWU is producing and distributing an educational WhatsApp video and pamphlet and translating the amendment into local languages.

The unions and SERI continue to press the government for more time for domestic workers to submit claims and increase retroactivity. “We must remain that beacon of hope for workers,” says Witbooi.

Meanwhile, another domestic worker, Nobuhle Ndlovu, drowned in her employer’s swimming pool last month.

Ten years after the adoption of an International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention confirmed their labor rights, domestic workers across the globe are still fighting for recognition as workers and essential service providers, as documented by a new ILO report. And, although 32 countries have ratified Domestic Workers Convention 189, and 29 have entered the convention into force, most of the world’s 75.6 million domestic workers are still being denied social protection rights, including access to national health insurance, pension schemes and compensation funds.

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