Domestic workers in Honduras increasingly are exercising their rights on the job in the country, where they have few labor law protections and so are especially vulnerable to abuse. More than 100 workers recently joined SINTRAHO (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadoras del Hogar), National Domestic Workers Union, which in October became the first legally registered domestic worker union in Honduras.
Following eight months of outreach, education, training and organizing, domestic workers formed SINTRAHO to address their difficult working conditions. Most domestic workers are women and many live in their employers’ homes, where they often are subjected to sexual harassment and other forms of gender-based violence. As in many countries worldwide, Honduran law excludes domestic workers from mandated breaks, minimum wages and access to social security.
“In Honduras, there are more than 100,000 domestic workers, and we believe that the best way for us to be heard and recognized is to organize ourselves and fight for our rights as workers in a sector that has been hidden,” says Silma Perez, SINTRAHO president.
Recognizing that most domestic workers in urban centers are internal migrants from rural areas, often from marginalized indigenous communities, leaders of FESTAGRO, the agroindustrial union federation supporting SINTRAHO, say it is especially import to support these workers as they organize for improved conditions. FESTAGRO’s confederation, CUTH, and Solidarity Center, also provide support for the new union.
Global Movement for Domestic Worker Rights
Domestic workers in Honduras are part of a worldwide mobilization of domestic workers seeking their rights, forming unions and associations, and pushing for their governments to ratify International Labor Organization Domestic Workers Convention (No. 189). Convention 189 is a binding standard in which domestic workers are entitled to full labor rights, including those covering work hours, overtime pay, safety and health standards and paid leave.
As tens of thousands domestic workers around the world mobilized around ILO 189, which was adopted in 2011, their efforts led to formation of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF). Since then, domestic workers have campaigned for their governments to ratify it, and 29 countries have done so, meaning they are bound to its regulations, which include clearly stated work requirements, safe working conditions, paid annual leave and the freedom to form unions.
Costa Rica, Nicaragua and Panama are the only Central American countries that have ratified Convention 189, and SINTRAHO is planning a ratification campaign in Honduras. SINTRAHO also plans to push for greater protections for domestic workers under Honduran national labor law, including a fair minimum wage and access to social security protections.
SINTRAHO is the first national union in Honduras to specifically mention the rights of LGBTI workers in its statutes, and created an Executive Committee position for Secretary of Gender and Diversity to recognize and value its members’ diverse backgrounds.
“SINTRAHO will take on the challenge of organizing many more workers in the coming year in order to fight for national laws that will directly benefit us as domestic workers,” says Perez.
In a historic achievement, delegates to the 11th Congress of Brazil’s garment worker union federation, CNTRV (National Confederation of Clothing Workers) last week voted for gender parity in leadership and adopted a pro-women’s rights agenda.
The union achieved parity not only in the overall number of women and men in leadership, but also in its top executive positions.
“Women are empowered at the highest levels in the organization,” said CNTRV President Cida Trajano.
In partnership with the Solidarity Center, CNTRV in recent years ran a nationwide women’s leadership project, preparing women workers to assume leadership positions, according to Trajano.
“This is proof that the effort to form and organize feminist activism is worth it,” she said.
Over the next four years, CNTRV will focus on a pro-women’s rights agenda, including developing programs to combat gender-based violence at work and empower women workers; allow greater space for feminist agendas in communications; consult with women leaders and activists when developing recommendations for public policies affecting women; and expand women’s participation in collective bargaining and wage negotiations.
The Solidarity Center supports women workers seeking greater voice at the workplace across a range of employment sectors in Brazil, including the chemical, garment and hospitality industries, and domestic work. Together with the CNQ (National Confederation of Chemical Workers) CNTRV and CONTRACS (National Confederation of Service and Retail Workers), the Solidarity Center conducts trainings and campaigns to equip women to advocate for safer working conditions and more equitable salaries on the job, and to assume more active leadership roles in their unions.
Coal miners in Ukraine have protested underground over the past 15 days to demand months of unpaid wages after 33 miners at the state-owned Lysychansk coal mines refused to leave from their underground shift. The miners are demanding wages they did not receive from June to September 2018, as well as for several months from 2015 to 2017.
KVPU Chairperson Mykhailo Volynets (second from left) visited with coal miners waging an underground protest. Credit: KVPU
While the Ukraine government promised to transfer some of the $10.6 million owed to these miners, Mykhailo Volynets, chairperson of the Independent Trade Union of Miners of Ukraine (NPGU), said even if this promise is honored, some workers may not be paid. Cleaners and boiler house workers are among those who will not receive any of the funds, although they have also not been paid for four months.
Members of the NPGU held solidarity rallies at several locations in Ukraine’s Lviv and Donetsk mining regions. Across Ukraine, workers at state-owned coal mining enterprises are owed roughly $28.5 million in unpaid wages, and this month the figure will reach $42.6 million as October wage payments are due.
Volynets, a former mine worker, visited the men in the mine this week and said he is “deeply concerned about their health and lives. “These miners show genuine courage and integrity during their struggle for justice and fair payment,” Volynets says.
“The air atmosphere and air humidity in mine are also a point of concern. The miners are in dangerous conditions at a depth of 600 meters (1,968 feet). These people work in such extremely difficult and dangerous conditions, and their wages aren’t high.”
In Ukraine, a skilled miner may be paid as little as $280 to $320 a month. Ukraine has the lowest wages in Europe.
Ukraine miners have received international support with the global union IndustriALL sending miners a solidarity letter and calling on the Ukraine government to immediately pay all wages in arrears.
When Rose Omamo started work in 1988 as a mechanic in a vehicle assembly plant in Kenya, she was one of two women in a workplace dominated by hundreds of men. Her employer refused to recognize the women’s basic requests, and even her union, the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers, negotiated contracts that excluded their concerns.
So Omamo took action. She demanded her employer provide breastfeeding accommodations for women workers and such fundamental workplace amenities as sanitary receptacles in the restrooms. Soon, she was elected union shop floor leader, and after winning a series of increasingly high positions, now holds the highest office, general secretary, in the 11,000-member national Metal Workers union. Omamo also is national chair of the Congress of Trade Unions–Kenya (COTU-K) Women’s Committee and serves on the COTU-K executive board.
Her male co-workers saw “I could fight for the men, and they put their trust in me,” she says.
Women, race and youth are all crosscutting issues about workers who are most oppressed.—Rosana Fernandes, Brazil CUT. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Halfway across the globe in Brazil, Rosana Fernandes began working at age 22 at a plastics product factory in São Paulo, where she quickly ran for leadership in her factory union and soon was elected to a top-level position at the national Central Union of Workers (CUT). There, she created the Collective of Chemical Youth Workers section to advance the interests of young workers in her industry.
Now deputy secretary of CUT’s Secretariat of Combating Racism, Fernandes says the issues she has worked on as a union leader—women, race and youth—are all “crosscutting policies about workers who are most oppressed.”
Omamo and Fernandes are two of a 20-member Solidarity Center Exchange Program delegation of women union leaders from Kenya and Brazil here in St. Louis for the AFL-CIO 2017 Convention. While in St. Louis, the group will meet with Mayor Lyda Krewson, the city’s first female mayor, and will travel to Atlanta, where they will explore with leaders from U.S. unions and nonprofits their strategies for empowering women within their organizations.
On the Frontlines for Vulnerable Workers
Leaders in their unions, Omamo and Fernandes also are frontline advocates for empowering women and young workers to take roles in their unions.
“Most of labor move leadership is male dominated,” Omamo says. “What I have come to realize, personally, is that the biggest challenge has been, ‘How can a male trust a woman to lead them?’”
When Omamo ran for national office in April 2016, her slate included two other women, who ran for treasurer and assistant treasurer. Both were elected. “Now we have shop stewards in unions and branch officials and national officials” who are women, she says.
From the national union level, Fernandes has advocated for broader and deeper inclusion of young workers. “We must effectively incorporate youth into policies in way that renews the union movement,” Fernandes says, speaking through a translator. “Society is constantly changing itself and unions need to keep up. We need policies that are not just for youth but with youth.”
Global Solidarity to Achieve Global Goals
In her 17 months as general secretary of the Metal Workers union, Omamo has initiated trainings across the union’s 11 branches in dispute resolution, labor law, grievance handling and collective bargaining negotiating. The workers, many of whom are illiterate, are now effectively negotiating collective bargaining agreements for the first time without national union participation.
“We need to give them tools and skills to be able to represent workers effectively on the shop floor,” she says. She also has streamlined operations and tackled the union’s debt, reducing it from 4.5 million Kenya shillings ($43,200) to 1.2 million Kenya shillings ($11,520).
In Brazil, where Afro-Brazilian workers are disproportionately paid less and work in the most dangerous jobs with little job security, Fernandes is now focused on creating fair playing fields for racially disadvantaged workers.
“It’s very clear racial equality is not alive in labor market,” Fernandes says. For instance, the country’s 8 million domestic workers are overwhelming Afro-Brazilian, “a legacy from slavery that work in the home should be automatically done by black women who don’t deserve to have decent wages or (decent) working conditions,” she says. “It’s 2017, and we’re still fighting for fundamental rights for domestic workers.”
For both women leaders, global solidarity is essential to address the common struggles in their countries and around the world.
“It’s also time for us to unite together to fight together to work together in solidarity and to say we want to change the world of work so that the work that will be done by our members will be decent and not precarious,” says Omamo.
And like all the women on the Solidarity Center delegation, Omamo is ready for the challenge.
As she puts it: “I don’t believe in failing, I believe in achieving.”
The Solidarity Center and allies throughout the international labor, human and women’s rights communities are campaigning for an International Labor Organization (ILO) convention to stop violence and harassment at work. As part of the process, begun many months ago, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is now spearheading efforts to lobby governments and employer organizations around the world for their input and support. (The ITUC campaign toolkit includes talking points, resources and tips for lobbying your government.)
Allies are building awareness for passage of a convention and distributing an ILO questionnaire to their government representatives soliciting comments and support in advance of a September 22 deadline. When ILO member states ratify a convention, they commit to applying it in national law and practice, and complaints can be made against countries for violations. In June 2018, the ILO International Labor Conference (ILC) will take up the issue.
Gender-Based Violence: Worse Without Freedom to Form Unions
Domestic workers, whose isolation in employer homes makes them especially vulnerable to abuse, are strongly championing its passage. Building on the tactics of their successful global campaign for the 2011 ratification of ILO Convention 189 covering domestic workers—the last convention the ILO passed—they are reproducing those steps to ensure support for a convention to end gender-based violence at work, says Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF).
“Gender-based violence is always worse when there is no freedom of association,” Solidarity Center Policy Director Molly McCoy said earlier this year. “When workers are not organized (in unions), they don’t have resources to tackle gender-based violence.” McCoy moderated a Solidarity Center panel in New York on gender-based violence at work in conjunction with the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women meetings.
Gender-Based Violence Includes Physical, Mental Abuse
In a detailed report issued in advance of the 2018 ILO conference, the ILO describes gender-based violence as affecting both women and men, but notes that unequal status and power relations in society and at work often result in women being far more exposed to violence and harassment, which can be physical, psychological and sexual.
In addition, the ILO uses the term “world of work” for a proposed convention, because gender-based violence occurs not only in the physical workplace, but during the work commute, at work-related social events, in public spaces—the primary venue for informal workers such as street vendors—and in the home, in particular for domestic workers and teleworkers.
Addressing violence and harassment through an international standard is key to the objectives of achieving decent work for all and addressing gender inequality in the UN’s 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development (Goal 8 and Goal 5). A new standard would be preventative, by addressing negative societal and workplace cultures, and “should also be able to respond to the new challenges and risks which might lead to violence and harassment in the world of work, such as those arising from changing forms of work and technology,” according to an October 2016 report by the UN Meeting of Experts on Violence against Women and Men in the World of Work.
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