Kyrgyzstan’s Sherimbayeva: ‘We Are Stronger… Together’

Kyrgyzstan’s Sherimbayeva: ‘We Are Stronger… Together’

Kymbat Sherimbayeva was born in Naryn Oblast, a mountainous and very cold region of Kyrgyzstan where most people support themselves through cattle breeding.  Seven years ago, 18-year-old Sherimbayeva left her village for Bishkek, Kyrgyzstan’s capital, seeking work.

Youth un- and underemployment stands at 55 percent in Kyrgyzstan. Most young people feel forced to migrate to Kazakhstan, Korea, Russia, Turkey or other countries in search of work, but some young people like Sherimbayeva hope to build their futures closer to home.

After arriving in Bishkek, Sherimbayeva found a job as a knitter at a hosiery factory, where she was soon promoted to head of quality control.

While working at the factory, Sherimbayeva says, she and her some 200 coworkers—of whom 90 percent are between the ages of 18 and 25—became increasingly concerned about inadequate wages and poor safety and health conditions.

With the help of trainings provided by the Garment Workers’ Union of Kyrgyzstan, with Solidarity Center support, workers at the factory realized they could negotiate improvements with management much more effectively as a group than as individuals. “We are stronger when we are together,” says Sherimbayeva.

Workers identified several activist leaders, including Sherimbayeva, who helped organize their coworkers into a union local. This year, workers are negotiating their first agreement with their employer, focusing on better wages and benefits. Sherimbayeva says that workers’ need higher wages because the average monthly salary of $200 does not cover basic expenses. She also hopes to help achieve for her co-workers paid sick leave and a year-end bonus, which are common to workers in Kyrgyzstan but not available to workers at their factory.

Since she and her co-workers organized, Sherimbayeva says they have found it much easier to negotiate improvements with factory management, even before a formal agreement is in effect. For example, in consultation with the union, factory management developed safety instructions for all departments and trained workers on those procedures; hired a local occupational safety and health service; provided protective clothing and other personal safety equipment; and now displays occupational safety and health information in prominent places throughout the factory building.

“Our position is much stronger concerning our labor as well as human rights. Together, we are able to defend workers in a much more effective way,” she says.

 

 

Swaziland Bans Unions

Swaziland Bans Unions

Swaziland has ordered all worker and employer federations to stop operations immediately, a demand issued yesterday in a resolution by the government cabinet. The order effectively disbands the Trade Union Confederation of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), a Solidarity Center ally.

Minister of Labor and Social Security Winnie Magagula, quoted in the Times of Swaziland, said that in the wake of the resolution, “all federations are non- existent in terms of the Industrial Relations Act and should stop operating immediately until the amendment of the Industrial Relations Act has been passed by Parliament.”

The move runs counter to international labor standards, including the right of freedom of association.

“This is a blatant and outrageous attack on the ability of working people to form associations of their choice and stand up for their rights,” said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau. “By denying workers a voice at work, the Swazi government is preventing workers from achieving safe and healthy workplaces and wages that will support themselves and their families.”

A recent TUCOSWA survey of more than 400 textile workers in Manzini, Swaziland, found that workers in the textile sector are subject to harsh and sometimes abusive conditions, many of the country’s labor laws are routinely violated by employers, and union activists are targeted by employers for punishment.

In June, the U.S. government took the rare step of suspending African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA) trade benefits for Swaziland, citing the Swazi government’s systematic violations of fundamental worker rights, including lack of ability for unions to register.

Magagula was quoted as citing the International Labor Organization (ILO) as directing the move, a charge the ILO unequivocally denies.

Condemning the action, AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold wrote in a letter to Swazi Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini that it “is the latest in a series of actions designed to repress and restrict legitimate trade union activities in Swaziland.”

Sharan Burrow, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) general secretary, said, “We demand that the ruling be rescinded immediately.” The ITUC also sent a letter to the Swazi prime minister, condeming the move.

In August, some in the Swazi government falsely accused TUCOSWA General Secretary Vincent Ncongwane and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze of taking a stand against AGOA benefits for Swaziland when they were in Washington, D.C., as part of a delegation of 40 African trade union leaders.

The 2014 U.S. State Department human rights report cites serious human rights violations in Swaziland, including arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents; severely restricted freedom of assembly, including violence against protestors; jailing of trade union leaders; the deregistration of TUCOSWA and the banning of strikes.

Liberia and Nigeria Unions Act against Ebola

Liberia and Nigeria Unions Act against Ebola

Unions in Liberia and Nigeria are teaching union members, their families and local communities how to prevent transmission of the Ebola virus and speaking out on behalf of health care and other front-line workers.

The United Workers’ Union of Liberia (UWUL) and the Firestone Agricultural Workers Union of Liberia (FAWUL) announced a joint action plan last month and are currently directing community-based health education trainings for protection against transmission of Ebola virus disease (EVD).

The Movement for Labor Rights and Justice (MOLAJ)—a grassroots organization with links to UWUL and FAWUL—is providing Ebola awareness training, disinfectants and hand-washing buckets to Liberian communities.

“We wants to use [MOLAJ] to launch an S.O.S. call to all our partners to assist in any way possible to combat this dreadful EVD in our country to save the lives of workers and their families,” says David Sakoh, UWUL general secretary. MOLAJ’s efforts were boosted by a $15,000 donation from the United Steelworkers (USW) last month.

An effective union response is critical in Liberia. The World Health Organization (WHO) concluded last week that—with 14 of Liberia’s 15 counties having confirmed cases—the Ebola outbreak has completely outstripped the Liberian government’s ability to respond.

Unions in Nigeria are playing an important role in getting information to the grassroots about how to prevent Ebola infection and taking the lead in pressing for protection protocols for healthcare and other front-line workers.

The National Association of Nigerian Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), the Medical and Health Workers’ Union of Nigeria (MHWUN), and the Union of Textile Garment and Tailoring Workers of Nigeria (NUTGTWN) are conducting trainings for members as well as providing train-the-trainer workshops in communities, so as to broaden their outreach and better equip workers and communities to fight the infection.

The Nigeria Labor Congress (NLC) and several Nigerian sector unions are also distributing posters and handbills that explain Ebola and how workers can protect themselves and care for others, through local branch offices. In addition, the federation and several sector unions are calling for personal protective devices for at-risk workers and for the government to issue standard protocols for health care and other workers likely to be exposed to the virus—including port workers, air transportation workers and border workers. Unions representing healthcare workers are distributing union-printed copies of a WHO document providing infection prevention techniques for healthcare workers.

Last month the WHO reported that 12 Ebola cases were successfully contained within Lagos. Recently, though, several cases were confirmed in Port Harcourt, Rivers State. By September 8, 477 people were under quarantine in Port Harcourt and by last Friday that number had risen to 490.

The Ebola outbreak has killed more than 2,000 people across West Africa, including Liberia, Guinea, Sierra Leone and Nigeria and Senegal. Last week the WHO estimated that as many as 20,000 people in West Africa may become infected.

Swazi Union Leader Backs AGOA; Country Must Meet Benchmarks

Swazi Union Leader Backs AGOA; Country Must Meet Benchmarks

U.S. trade benefits for Africa—known as the African Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA)—provide key economic support for countries such as Swaziland, according to Vincent Ncongwane, secretary general of the Trade Union Confederation of Swaziland (TUCOSWA).

Yet some in the Swazi government are falsely accusing Ncongwane and human rights lawyer Sipho Gumedze of taking a stand against AGOA benefits for Swaziland when they were in Washington, D.C., last week as part of a delegation of 40 African trade union leaders. In June, the U.S. government took the rare step of suspending AGOA trade benefits for Swaziland, citing the Swazi government’s systematic violations of fundamental worker rights.

“We maintain our position that we want the country to regain eligibility but it must meet the benchmarks,” Ncongwane said today in a press statement. “As we stated in the U.S. and heard clearly stated to us there, (the United States) does not wish to keep Swaziland outside the AGOA program, but eligibility remains for the (Swazi) government to take the necessary steps. It has been emphasized over and over again that all (the Swazi) government has to do is to meet the requirements of the benchmarks.”

While in Washington, Ncongwane and Gumedze, both internationally respected labor and human rights advocates, the Swazi Prime Minister Sibusiso Dlamini reportedly told lawmakers “you must strangle them” upon their return. The U.S. State Department condemned the threat, saying in a statement:

“The United States is deeply concerned by the threatening remarks made by Swaziland Prime Minister Sibusiso Barnabas Dlamini toward Swazi labor and civil society leaders who participated in the U.S.-Africa Leaders Summit in Washington this week. Such remarks have a chilling effect on labor and civil rights in the Kingdom of Swaziland.”

“The comments made today by Prime Minister Dlamini are a clear threat to the human rights community,” said Santiago Canton, Director of RFK Partners for Human Rights. “This type of language is another indication that Swaziland’s authorities do not, in any way, respect the basic human rights of its people.”

Following the statements from the United States, and international outrage within the global labor and human rights communities, Dlamini later reportedly retracted his statement.

When the United States suspended AGOA benefits in June, U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, said, “We have made our concerns very clear to Swaziland over the last several years and we engaged extensively on concrete steps that Swaziland could take to address the concerns. We hope to continue our engagement with the Government of the Kingdom of Swaziland on steps it can take so that worker and civil society groups can freely associate and assemble and AGOA eligibility can be restored.”

The 2014 U.S. State Department human rights report cites serious human rights violations in Swaziland, including arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government or its agents; severely restricted freedom of assembly, including violence against protestors; jailing of trade union leaders; the deregistration of TUCOSWA and the banning of strikes.

A recent TUCOSWA survey of more than 400 textile workers in Manzini, Swaziland, found that workers in the textile sector are subject to harsh and sometimes abusive conditions, many of the country’s labor laws are routinely violated by employers, and union activists are targeted by employers for punishment.

In July, ITUC General Secretary Sharon Burrow said although Swaziland was aware of the potential withdrawal of U.S. trade benefits, “the government made no genuine effort to fulfill the eligibility criteria by May 15, 2014, the deadline set by the U.S. Trade Representative. The inaction is evidence of the government’s complete disregard for the rights and livelihoods of workers.”

Africa Summit: African Unions Say Prioritize Good Jobs, Worker Rights

African trade union leaders from across the continent called on U.S. and African leaders to adopt a decent work agenda for trade and economic growth where the creation of good jobs that respect worker rights and provide social protections will lead to greater shared prosperity.

Union leaders discussed issues regarding jobs, development and investment at an official U.S.-Africa Leaders’ Summit workshop yesterday: “Promoting Decent Work: Priorities for U.S. and African Leaders, Civil Society and Private-Sector Shareholders.” Their recommendations, which include a focus on gender equality, will be submitted to the African heads of state also meeting this week in Washington, D.C.

The panel discussion highlighted the reality that although many countries in sub-Saharan Africa are seeing tremendous economic growth through oil and mineral exports, the emergence of a textile sector and expanding foreign investment, workers and their families are not sharing in the prosperity. Indeed, in many sub-Saharan African countries, the majority of workers toil in the informal economy, leaving them vulnerable to economic shocks, without social protections and with limited ability to transition into formal employment—and often trapped in a multigenerational cycle of poverty.

Sahra Ryklief, secretary general of the International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations (South Africa), said: “Why do we promote decent work? Because if we don’t, we are headed for disaster. For a worker who does not have a steady income, life is precarious. And Africa has 80 percent of the population in informal work–many of them women. So many that they have come to be known as the ‘precariat.’”

To combat this problem and the gross inequality that it engenders, Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, Secretary General of the International Trade Union Confederation-Africa called for focused strategies that industrialize national economies and create better, formal-sector jobs. Formal livelihoods that provide real wages and a decent standard of living, he argued, are key to lifting up the working poor. In addition, the wealth generated through high levels of economic growth over the past decade should be reinvested in the African people via strong social institutions and investment in working women and men, through effective skills training programs.

Speakers also stressed the importance of extending social protections and worker rights to the majority of African workers in informal employment, to improve livelihoods and provide them equal protection under the law.

The workshop featured:
• Christopher Lu, U.S. deputy secretary of labor;
• Steven Feldstein, deputy assistant secretary of state, U.S. Department of State Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor;
• Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, general secretary, International Trade Union Confederation-Africa;
• Eric Biehl, associate deputy undersecretary for international affairs, U.S. Department of Labor, International Labor Affairs Bureau;
• Sahra Ryklief, secretary general, International Federation of Workers’ Education Associations; and
• Sabina Dewan, president and executive director, Just Jobs Network.

A set of recommendations will be publicly available soon.

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