From Haiti to Kenya, Unions Take Action on COVID-19

From Haiti to Kenya, Unions Take Action on COVID-19

Just as the magnitude of the COVID-19 pandemic highlights the massive global economic and social inequality around the world, with workers in the informal economy and supply chains, and  migrant workers—many of whom are women—especially marginalized, so, too, does it offer the potential to build more equal, inclusive and sustainable economies and societies that are more resilient in the face of pandemics, climate change and the many other global challenges.

Around the world, unions and worker associations are taking the lead in championing worker rights and in doing so, demonstrating a path forward through collective action to achieve shared prosperity and sustainability. As the novel coronavirus spreads, unions are demanding safe and healthy conditions for workers who must remain on the job, and that they be compensated during forced worksite closures. The following is a small sample of union actions around the globe, reported in large part from Solidarity Center staff in close contact with union partners.

Haiti, workers washing hands outside garment factory, worker rights, unions, Solidarity Center
A communal wash bucket is one of the few options for workers in Haiti to sanitize their hands to prevent spread of COVID-19. Credit: /Reginald Lafontant

In Haiti, where garment factories were among facilities closed to prevent spread of the virus, workers were asked to return to pick up paychecks (for the days worked prior to the closures) in staggered stages so as to prevent crowding and potential contagion. It is standard practice for workers in Haiti’s garment industry to receive their wages in person, in the form of a cash, because most earn too little to maintain a bank account for check deposits, and paychecks are immediately consumed on basic goods.

Despite a government order to distribute pay to groups of 10 workers at a time, one factory employer simultaneously convened all 2,000 workers to collect their wages, despite the danger. In addition, some factories now are reopening to make masks, in large part for export to the United States, a move that puts at risk workers, their communities and the country’s already fragile healthcare system.

Although some factories have announced measures to protect workers’ health and safety at the factory, they do not adequately address risks workers face going to work as they walk through congested areas and travel up to an hour on crowded tap-taps (covered trucks serving as public transportation). Solidarity Center union partners will play a critical role in monitoring the enforcement of these measures and advocating for additional safeguards.

Four Haitian garment-sector unions, all Solidarity Center partners, issued a joint proposal to President Jovenel Moïse calling on the government and employers to respect International Labor Organization (ILO) protocols on COVID-19 in the world of work. The coalition also called on the government and employers to adhere to Haitian labor code stipulating workers receive pay when the government closes workplaces, and urged government and employers to pay workers the equivalent of the daily wages they earned on average in the three months prior to factory closures. The coalition also recommends the government provide support to informal workers, cease collecting income tax and reallocate funds from the country’s cancelled Carnival event to respond to the COVID-19 crisis. The unions include Centrale Nationale des Ouvriers Haïtiens (CNOHA), Confederation des Travailleurs Haïtiens (CTH), Confédération des Travailleurs- euses des Secteurs Public et Privé (CTSP) and ESPM-Batay Ouvriye.

Palestine, COVID-19, union members checking workers at Israeli checkpoints, PGFTU, Solidarity Center
Union members in Palestine check workers’ health as they return from jobs in Israel. Credit: PGFTU

Palestine General Federation of Trade Union members are fanning out to 12 checkpoints along the Israel-Palestine border to address the health needs of the tens of thousands of workers returning  home to the West Bank and Gaza as their worksites shut down in Israel, a large-scale movement that is exacerbating the spread of COVID-19.

Iman abu Salah, a member of PGFTU’s organizing team at Bartaa’h barrier near Jenin city in the West Bank, told Solidarity Center staff that three organizers are stationed in two shifts, connecting with between 100 and 200 workers per shift. Union members assist returning workers in completing detailed forms to ensure accurate reporting of health issues, and the unions share their reports with emergency health committees in each district. PGFTU members also are providing workers with information on protecting against the virus, as well as with union contact details in their city or village. Unions and health teams joined together to provide sterilized buses to take workers directly to their home city, village or refugee camp.

In Myanmar, as around the world, garment workers are especially hard hit by the #COVID-19 crisis as global retailers cancel orders, with factory employers laying off workers without pay, firing union supporters and forcing nonunion workers to remain on the job without safety protections, according to union leaders. Garment workers and their unions are mobilizing to demand that factories close for their safety and are seeking full pay for time off during the closures. Unions are pushing for employers to sign agreements that factories will recognize the union when they reopen and maintain all previous wages and benefits.

Unions representing garment workers in Lesotho, where more than 45,000 workers make jeans, T-shirts and other goods for export, are calling on the government to provide full wages to furloughed workers during the 21-day government-imposed lockdown to prevent spread of the novel coronavirus. The unions are also demanding that those required to work be provided with free transport in compliance with social distancing guidelines.

Workers have “sacrificed their lives for the country with meager wages and are continuing to keep the economy going as essential workers during this time,” according to the statement by the United Textile Employees, National Clothing, Textile and Allied Workers’ Union and the Independent Democratic Union of Lesotho. They “not only contribute to the GDP, but support numerous families, unemployed relatives and poverty-stricken families with their wages.”

The Albanian telecommunications union won a four-hour work day for those not teleworking, as well as company-provided masks, while in Kyrgyzstan, the union federation is urging the government to include remote work standards in the labor code. Unions in Albania, Kyrgyzstan and Montenegro have released statements calling on governments to improve social, economic and public health policy to protect both their membership and society.

In Thailand, Solidarity Center’s union and migrant worker partners are communicating with workers via social media, as unions set up an online Labor Clinic to create and post videos on worker rights and benefits during layoffs and plant closures, and are providing instructions for applying for unemployment and social welfare benefits. Unions are hosting live Facebook forums enabling workers to send in real-time questions and comments. Unions in the aviation sector are calling on the government to protect full-time permanent and subcontracted workers, and provide health and safety measures in line with international labor standards at all workplaces. Migrant worker organizations also are reaching out to migrant workers in Burmese with information on preventing and identifying COVID-19 symptoms and with information on locations to access health care.

The Confederation of Ethiopian Trade Unions (CETU) supported the launch of a regional isolation center for workers, and unions throughout Ethiopia are driving anti-stigmatization conversations that seek to encourage workers to report cases of infection and are negotiating with the government to ensure workers are protected on the job during the pandemic.

The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) distributed protective gear to workers, such as masks, gloves, soap and hand sanitizer before shops were closed, and has met with the Kenyan government to lobby for support for informal workers, who comprise some 80 percent of the workforce. Additional Solidarity Center partners—the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA)—are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public.

Indonesia factory-level unions are negotiating masks and other safety protections for workers, and while they are achieving success, a shortage in personal protective equipment is hindering efforts. For example, 60,000 workers, members os National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner, successfully negotiated with their employer to receive masks, but the company is unable to procure such a large supply.  The company recently agreed to allocate some production line to produce the masks to protect workers. Indonesian unions are urging the government to provide support for informal workers, who comprise more than 60 percent of the working population in Indonesia and Timor-Leste.

Led by the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), unions in South Africa established labor law helplines for their members to address employers’ increased abused of worker rights during the crisis.

In Morocco, where hotels have been turned into hospital facilities, the Federation Nationale des Hotels, Restaurants et Tourisme (FNHRT) is assisting hotel workers in collecting unemployment benefits and maintaining contact with workers across the sectors who have lost their jobs. The FNHRT is affiliated to the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT).

Thailand Migrant Rights Leader Wins Human Rights Award

Thailand Migrant Rights Leader Wins Human Rights Award

Suthasinee Kaewleklai, coordinator for Migrant Workers Rights Network (MWRN) in Thailand, recently was honored for her work by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT).

Suthasinee Kaewleklai, MWRN coordinator, recently was honored for her work by the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand (NHRCT). Credit: Solidarity Center/Robert Pajkovski

“Migrant workers are among the most vulnerable and abused workers in every country,” says Kaewleklai. “Worker rights are human rights, and migrant workers are entitled to fundamental rights without discrimination, including the freedom of association and collective bargaining. We will fight shoulder to shoulder with our sisters and brothers.”

Kaewleklai received the award during an NHRCT seminar last week, held in conjunction with International Women’s Day to honor women human rights defenders. The nonprofit MWRN, a Solidarity Center partner, has provided a crucial bridge between workers and access to legal redress for unpaid wages, occupational injuries and other forms of workplace abuse since it was founded in 2009.

“Whether they are protecting rights in the judicial process, fighting against impunity for rights violations, protecting democratic freedoms and the rights of communities and migrant workers, or fighting for freedom of expression, equality and the reduction of gender biases, their courageous stories are models and inspirations for future generations to learn and remember,” Angkana Neelapaijit, National Human Rights commissioner, said during the award ceremony.

Risking Physical, Verbal Assaults to Support Workers

Kaewleklai, a long-time trade unionist, began championing worker rights in the 1990s, when she worked at a factory in the Rangsit district, north of Bangkok. A co-founder of the factory’s union, she and other workers successfully challenged their employer’s refusal to regularly pay wages, and she successfully took legal action after the employer fired her and other union activists.

She later worked as coordinator for the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee, another Solidarity Center partner, and has championed the issues of working women, successfully campaigning to make International Women’s Day a national holiday.

At the MWRN, Kaewleklai advocates for the rights of migrant workers to form unions, negotiate with their employers for better working conditions, and urging lawmakers to ratify International Labor Organization standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining. She has helped migrant workers on chicken farms and elsewhere recover unpaid wages and attain safe working conditions.

She repeatedly has been verbally threatened, physically attacked and put under surveillance by state and non-state actors for her work to protect and promote labor rights and the rights of migrant workers. Currently, Kaewleklai, along with 14 migrant workers and other human rights defenders, is challenging criminal and civil charges filed by the poultry company, Thammakaset Company, following her advocacy on behalf of the company’s underpaid migrant workers.

Despite rulings by authorities and the courts against Thammakaset—including a January Supreme Court decision upholding a lower court ruling ordering Thammakaset to pay $53,600 to 14 former migrant workers for violations of the Labor Protection Act—the company continues to pursue charges against Kaewleklai and the others. Human rights defenders believe the charges are part of a strategy to harass human rights defenders and migrant worker rights advocates.

Thai Worker Rights Advocate Wins Human Rights Award

Thai Worker Rights Advocate Wins Human Rights Award

Worker rights advocate Apantree Charoensak, vice chair of the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee, Women’s Division, was honored this week for her work protecting and promoting human rights by Thailand’s National Human Rights Commission (NHRC).

Courtesy Apantree Charoensak

Charoensak led the successful 2017 struggle for collective bargaining rights for collective bargaining rights for fast food workers at one of Thailand’s largest KFC franchises, in which 3,100 workers won a contract that includes an early retirement program, 23 meals provided by the company per year and motorcycle maintenance funds for delivery workers. The workers are among 2,400 members represented by the Cuisine and Service Workers’ Union, a Solidarity Center partner and IUF affiliate.

“I am proud to have advocated for human rights for the past seven years,” Charoensak said in a statement on the award, granted to 13 human rights defenders as part of International Human Rights Day December 10.

Charoensak has been leading the struggle for fast food workers across Thailand for nearly a decade. During negotiations at KFC, she was fired from her position at Yum! Thailand, which operates some of the KFC franchises.

As a manager at the corporation where she supervised up to a dozen restaurants, Charoensak says she began union organizing to rectify what she saw as a large pay disparity between front-line workers and managers. Ultimately two unions formed, one covering front-line employees and one for supervisors. Over the years, she says management also tried to end her union activism by offering her large sums of money, which she refused, and isolated her at work, giving her little to do—time she filled by completing a master’s degree in political science and addressing union members’ concerns.

Migrant Workers in Thailand Arrested for Volunteering

Migrant Workers in Thailand Arrested for Volunteering

Two female migrant workers from Myanmar were arrested in Thailand, fined and await deportation for volunteering their time to teach children of migrant workers at a Buddhist monastery, an action the Thailand-based Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF) is calling “illegitimate and unjustified.”

The two women, who hold valid passports, visas and work permits, volunteered at the Laem Nok Monastery in southern Thailand in addition to the jobs for which they were hired. But immigration officials charged them with performing work without a permit to teach, even though the time they spend instructing the children is unpaid, according to HRDF and the Migrant Working Group (MWG). The MWG is a network of non-governmental organizations working on health, education and migrant workers’ rights that includes the Solidarity Center.

The arrests occurred despite the statement of one worker’s employer who told police the worker is lawfully employed and has been excused to take leave from her regular job painting boats because she is pregnant. The monastery also affirmed the two workers taught without pay, actions that are not illegal in Thailand, says HRDF, a Solidarity Center partner.

The women were forced to sign a document in Thai that they did not understand, in which they admitted they committed a crime, and received a fine of 5,000 Baht ($153) in lieu of imprisonment. They will be banned from re-entering to work in Thailand for two years, according to HRDF. A Myanmar national holding a tourist visa who observed the volunteers teaching was also arrested on the same charge.

“The arrests could signal a strong discouragement to other similar teaching programs in the country and could also pose a negative impact on education opportunities for migrant children as a whole,” HRDF and MWG said in a statement.

Volunteers Taught Children at Risk of Exploitation

The Laem Nok Monastery has operated a learning center for children of migrant workers for more than four years. The program began after the community recognized that migrant children, who are often left without care when their parents are working can be targets of forced labor, human trafficking and other forms of exploitation. With support from community fundraising, the monastery dedicated a learning space where children are taught the languages and cultures of Thailand as well as those of their origin countries. Local businesses provide funding for food and teaching supplies, but the teachers are unpaid volunteers, including local college students.

HRDF and MWG are calling on Thailand’s Department of Employment, Ministry of Labor to establish clear guidelines for enforcing compliance with work permits and to review the policy that restricts migrant workers from becoming paid or unpaid volunteers.

The groups also are urging police to ensure migrant workers’ legal rights are respected, including the right to legal counsel and to bail during pre-trial.

“The arrests have created undeserving traumas to the children in the classroom who had to witness their teachers being arrested and taken away in front of them,” says HRDF.

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