For the second time this year a leader of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) was arrested, this time for suspicion of insulting a public official at a protest outside the country’s Ministry of Culture building. The arrest of the UGTT’s secretary for culture, Abdel Nasser Ben Amara last month—who has since been acquitted in court—is having a chilling effect on union work in the country and their efforts to represent workers’ interests, say unions.
The UGTT with civil society organizations last year convened a national initiative for the restoration of democracy after more than 90 percent of the country’s voters stayed away from Tunisia’s widely criticized December 2022 parliamentary elections. Workers last month took part in a series of rallies across the country to protest the government’s increased aggression against the union and its members, including arrest of general secretary of the highway workers’ union, Anis Kaabi. On Saturday more than 3,000 people joined a UGTT-organized rally calling for the government to accept “dialogue.”
Union members who legally exercise their rights in Tunisia, such as the freedom to strike, have been increasingly targeted, according to data from the UGTT, which found that the percentage of cases filed against union members rose in 2022, with a quarter of them directed against women. The government through February had filed more than 60 cases against union members for exercising their internationally recognized labor rights, according to UGTT, which says the numbers indicate a stepped-up effort to diminish the union’s power and turn public opinion against it.
The UGTT, which represents more than 1 million members, in 2015 shared a Nobel Peace Prize with three other civil society groups for promoting national dialogue in Tunisia.
A vicious crackdown in Belarus on striking workers peacefully protesting President Lukashenko’s refusal to leave power despite months-long popular protests is drawing the attention and condemnation of worker and human rights experts, including Amnesty International, the AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
“The right to strike is guaranteed under international law, and the government is obliged to respect this right, all the more because Belarus has ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98,” says ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow, who also denounced Belarus’s violation of workers’ fundamental right to freedom of assembly and of association rights through police violence and threats targeting the general public.
In Minsk, where 100,000 people marched to deliver a “People’s Ultimatum,” authorities cut off mobile internet access, closed down public transportation, turned out balaclava-clad riot police and military and riot control vehicles at strategic sites, and attacked protesters in the evening.
Participants in Monday’s general strike, including ITUC affiliate the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), demanded Lukashenko’s resignation, a halt to the crackdown and the release of political prisoners. Thousands stayed home or took to the streets—including workers at state-owned factories and private enterprises, including restaurants and cafes—as well as university students and their teachers. At least 155 people were arrested for supporting the strike in Minsk, Borisov, Brest, Grodno, Mogilev and Novopolotsk, human rights group Vesna reported.
Intimidation may have had a chilling factor on the strike, says the BKDP, who also reported that peacefully protesting workers at Minsk’s Hi-Technology Park were being intimidated and dispersed. Other intimidation tactics included visits by security officers to the homes of workers who failed to start their shift at Grodno Azot, a major nitrogen fertilizer producer in Grodno, as reported by the Associated Press.
“A frank disregard is being shown for the most basic of human rights, and the right to strike is now one more that is being mercilessly crushed,” says Amnesty International Acting Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Denis Krivosheev.
The AFL-CIO, in a letter to the BKDP president, praised the BKDP, its affiliates and members for their support for worker rights and democracy despite government repression and harassment.
“Intimidation must end. We support the right of workers to participate in collective actions specifically to demand fair and democratic elections,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Director Rudy Porter.
The ITUC Global Rights Index, has ranked Belarus “no guarantee of rights” for many years under Lukashenko’s government, including in 2020, in part because legal strikes are effectively impossible while illegal strikes fall afoul of severely punitive legislation.
Update: Read the BKDP’s November 2 statement regarding the punishment of striking workers and their leaders, in Russian.
In a joint effort to protect market vendors and workers and reduce community spread of COVID-19, Kenya’s labor federation, Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU-K), last week provided three of its affiliates with infection control supplies for distribution through the informal worker organizations that they represent. Under the August 13 “COTU CARES” campaign, six organizations that represent almost 6,000 informal workers are distributing to their Nairobi-based members, with Solidarity Center support, 4,000 KN95 face masks, 2,000 pairs of disposable surgical hand gloves, 100 pairs of industrial hand gloves, 140 gallons of liquid handwashing soap, 100 soap containers, 46 gallons of hand sanitizer, 36 handwashing stands and nine thermal body temperature scanners.
“Many people think that trade unions only represent formal workers, but now you know that informal workers are equally important and that’s why we are here,” said Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers (AUKMW), which helps represent automobile mechanics.
Recipients of the distribution include informal worker organizations Grogon-Ngara Food Vendors Association, metal worker associations Ambira Jua Kali and Migingo Mechanics Self Help Group, Muthurwa Cleaners Association, Muthurwa Food Court Vendors Association and street vendor association Nairobi Informal Sector Confederation (NISCOF). COTU-K affiliate participants include AUKMW, the Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers Union (KLDTDU), the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW) and the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotels, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA).
Given the prominence of market shopping in Kenyan citizen’s daily lives—96 percent of the country’s retail is informal—together with relatively high infection rates of market vendors, infection control at markets is essential for containment of the pandemic. Scientists surveying about 10,000 people in Mozambique last month found that market vendors had the highest rate of antibodies to SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—followed by healthcare workers.
COTU-K and its affiliates are addressing the pandemic on several fronts, including advocating with the Kenyan government to ensure informal worker access to government-provided COVID-19 relief measures such as food support and cash transfers. Solidarity Center partners AUKMW, KUCFAW and KUDHEIHA together with the Kenya Long Distance Truck Drivers Union (KLDTDU) are advocating for measures to protect cashiers and other workers exposed to the public. COTU-K and its affiliates are conducting several pandemic relief drives, including food and PPE distribution to flower workers in Isinya, Kajiado County, with the Kenya Plantation and Agricultural Workers Union (KPAWU) on August 17.
The pandemic has thrown systematic inequality in the Kenyan workforce into stark relief. As compared to the fewer than 3 million people who work in the formal sector, Kenya’s nearly 15 million informal sector workers—the majority of whom are women—historically have few legal protections. Most informal-sector workers, which include domestic workers and cleaners, market and street vendors, mechanics and security guards, are not covered by national safety and other employment regulations and have no access to government social programs such as social security, healthcare and unemployment benefits. Last year COTU-K affiliate trade unions representing Kenya’s formal-sector workers in food, health, education and metals signed memoranda of understanding (MOUs) with informal worker associations in their respective sectors in order to bring 5,600 newly organized informal-sector workers under the country’s legal framework that protects formal workers.
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.
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.
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