After 22 days of peaceful protests, workers, unions and other civil society groups in Buenaventura, the country’s largest port city, won a landmark agreement with the Colombian government. On June 6, the government agreed to invest more than $500 million in the long-neglected city over the next decade. United Nations officials, senators and local politicians witnessed the signing of the agreement. A bill securing the funding is scheduled to be submitted to Congress on July 20.
Following the agreement, the elected strike committee, representing a coalition of 66 civil society organizations in Buenaventura, suspended the civic strike for one month to assess the government’s compliance with its pledge. In the lead up to the July 20 deadline, local groups will continue to negotiate decent employment and improved water services, sanitation, healthcare, education, housing and other social initiatives.
On May 16, tens of thousands of peaceful protesters took to the streets demanding peace and dignity after years of neglect by leaders in Bogota, the capital. Many of the port city’s 400,000 predominately Afro-Colombian inhabitants live in abject poverty without access to proper hospitals, schools, roads and other basic services.
Buenaventura’s thriving port accounts for 60 percent of the country’s maritime trade and in 2014, generated $2 billion in tax revenue. Only 3 percent of that revenue is reinvested in the city.
Many residents work in the port without the protection of Colombia’s labor code. The Port Workers’ Union (Unión Portuaria) is pushing to incorporate them into a collective bargaining agreement that would establish direct, indefinite employment contracts that include a living wage and provisions for health and pension benefits.
Beginning on the fourth day of demonstrations, the peaceful protests were disrupted by a national police force crackdown, with 41 reported arrests, dozens injured and at least one death. Human rights groups condemned the government’s decision to deploy riot police against peaceful demonstrations—in a city deprived even of a local, publicly-funded security service.
Tamar Barisashvili, Georgian language teacher and ESFTUG member, in the classroom. Credit: Lela Mepharishvili
In a precedent-setting move, the union representing teachers in Georgia signed a pact with the education ministry last month, signaling the new government’s willingness to partner with teachers—although unions in other sectors, including the railways and postal sector remain under attack. Unions in Georgia have struggled for their right to organize for more than a decade now, including under former president Mikheil Saakashvili.
“The decision of the Minister of Education and Science to sign the sectoral agreement shows clearly how democratic processes are developing and the democratic management in the education sector is being established,” said the president of the ESFTUG education union, Maia Kobakhidze, representing teachers.
Committing the ministry to work in partnership with the ESFTUG, the agreement sets a path for cooperation on laws and regulations affecting teachers, collective agreements with the union regarding teachers’ compensation, work conditions and benefits, as well as any new education initiatives.
The agreement reverses more than a decade of an anti-union campaign by the former administration, as a result of which the country’s labor federation, GTUC, lost more than 100,000 members, and the teachers’ union came close to collapse.
In recognition of the significance of the agreement, the signing ceremony in Tblisi on March 16, 2017, by ESFTUG’s Kobakhidze and Education Minister Aleksandre Jejelava was widely covered by media, and gathered together 300 guests. Attendees included representatives of the teachers, ministry officials, members of the diplomatic corps, including the U.S. Embassy, the International Labor Organization (ILO), the global union federation Education International (EI) and several nongovernmental organizations.
Jejelava thanked ESFTUG during his speech for giving his ministry the opportunity to work with the union to create better conditions for teachers and defend their rights, so they may better serve Georgia’s children.
The Solidarity Center has partnered with Georgian trade unions for almost two decades, providing programs that support legislative research and training in defense of worker and union rights, promote activities designed to increase union integration and coordination, help unions represent their members and reach out to unorganized workers, and educate workers about principles of democratic trade unionism.
Addressing unemployment and underemployment, especially for young workers, is the most pressing issue for trade unions across Africa, according to participants in an African Labor Leaders Exchange Program sponsored by the Solidarity Center.
Speaking at a December 9 panel discussion at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., six union leaders from Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and South Africa discussed the challenges in securing economic prosperity for working people—and their strategies for empowering workers in the formal and informal economies.
“What faces us is high levels of unemployment, poverty,” said Edward de Klerk, deputy general secretary of South Africa’s United National Transport Union (UNTU).
“Unemployment is an African issue,” said Philip Kwoba, director of Youth Organizing with the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) in Kenya. Unions in Kenya are reaching out to informal economy workers, which include many young workers, helping them form worker savings associations as a step toward unionization and gaining bargaining rights. “We are allocating resources to help,” said Kwoba.
Members of the panel, moderated by Solidarity Center Regional Program Director for Africa Imani Countess, said poverty also is fueled by low wages. “Wage inequality is this battle still we have got,” said de Klerk. In Nigeria, unions are tackling wage issues by addressing government policies that reduce the pay of public-employees, including teachers, said Muhammed Nasir Idris, National Treasurer Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT).
Lack of employment opportunity and poverty in Liberia puts youth at risk of labor trafficking within the country’s borders, said Liberia Labor Congress (LLC) General Secretary David Sackoh.
Sackoh said labor recruiters take children from parents in their villages, promising the children will go to school in the city. Instead, the children are used in forced labor. “Even though our research shows (the children) want to return,” they are unable to do so for seven to 10 years,” he said.
Sackoh pointed to the Liberian trade union movement’s tremendous victory in eradicating child labor at the Firestone Natural Rubber Liberia plantation, and said the union movement now is working to address the issue at the seven other plantations across the country.
During questions with the audience, which included a packed crowd of union activists, policy experts and international experts, union leaders also discussed drawing more women into trade union leadership.
“Getting women elected to high offices is now on the union agenda,” said Boniface Kavuvi, general secretary of the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW). Kavuvi pointed to domestic workers in Kenya, represented by KUDHEIHA, as an example of dynamic organizing and strong leadership by women in Kenya. “They have done a tremendous job,” he said.
In Liberia, unions are pushing for 30 percent representation by women in union leadership, mirroring the country’s effort to increase women’s representation in the national legislature, said Isaac Grant, LLC organizing coordinator.
The six union leaders traveled to the United States for a South–South labor leaders’ exchange in which African labor leaders met with community and trade union organizers across the southern United States. The Solidarity Center worked with the U.S.-based labor education program, the National Labor Leadership Initiative (NLLI), to facilitate the exchange, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Representatives of Swaziland’s trade union federation, TUCOSWA—who are in Washington, D.C., to receive a human rights award from the AFL-CIO in recognition of the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights—say an alarming number of people are losing their jobs because of the country’s unwillingness to improve its poor human rights record.
Swaziland lost preferential access to the U.S. market under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), on January 1, for violations of worker rights eligibility criteria, including laws that restrict freedom of association and speech. As a result, thousands of workers, especially in the textile sector, face layoffs, said Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) Vincent Ncongwane, at a briefing on working conditions in Swaziland at the Solidarity Center yesterday. Some employers are closing factories while others are moving production to subsidiary plants outside the country.
TUCOSWA has strongly criticized the Swazi government’s actions leading to AGOA suspension and has said trade benefits can be restored when the government chooses to meet benchmarks to become compliant under the Act’s eligibility requirements. In return, the federation’s activities have been disrupted, it was long denied (and only recently received) official registration, and many workers are afraid to get involved for fear of retribution, said Ncongwane.
However, international solidarity with Swazi workers and TUCOSWA has helped the labor movement remain a vibrant voice for workers, he said. The federation represents more than 36,000 workers, who do not have to see their jobs disappear.
“All that is necessary is the political will,” said Ncongwane.
This evening, Ncongwane and Patrick Mamba, TUCOSWA treasurer general, will accept the 2015 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Swazi workers at a 6 p.m. ceremony at the AFL-CIO.