Some 670,000 workers in Tunisia waged a nationwide one-day strike today to protest the government’s refusal to increase wages for civil servant workers. The strike follows months of intense negotiations between the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) and the government, which refused to increase wages in 2019 because of its commitment to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) to freeze public-sector wages and spending and balance the budget.
Hundreds of thousands of Tunisian workers pack the streets of Tunis for a one-day strike. Credit: UGTT
Workers began the strike at midnight. By morning, hundreds of thousands gathered at the UGTT headquarters in the capital, Tunis, and at regional offices across the country, rallying to cries of “We want employment, freedom, national dignity.” The UGTT says all public service workers took part in the strike, including workers from state-owned enterprises.
Public-sector wages have failed to keep up with rising prices, leading to a decline in purchasing power. The UGTT says the monthly minimum wage of about $128 is one of the lowest in the world, while Tunisia’s Institute of Strategic Studies says real purchasing power has fallen by 40 percent since 2014. The UGTT points out that private-sector workers have seen a 6 percent pay increase for 2019.
In addition, the government’s proposed $60 tax increase would severely impact workers’ wages, social security and the prices of consumer goods, UGTT Deputy General Sami Tahri said at a press conference yesterday.
Only one flight left the airport, and the strike affected ports, public transportation and central, regional and local administrations. Vital care at hospitals continued.
Tunisia struck a deal with the IMF in December 2016 for a loan program worth around $2.8 billion to address an economic crisis that includes high unemployment and stagnant wages. During negotiations with the UGTT, the government delegation withdrew many times to consult with the IMF, according to the global union IndustriAll.
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.
Two media workers have been murdered each week on average this year—73 to date, making it likely the number of those killed will meet or exceed that of 2017, when 82 media workers were murdered, according to data compiled by the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
Yet the culprits are rarely held accountable for these crimes.
“The biggest reason people continue to do it is because they know they can get away with it. As long as impunity is at 90 percent, most people think they’re not going to be held to account for it,” IFJ Deputy General Secretary Jeremy Dear said in an interview with the Solidarity Center. Countries that bill themselves as democracies, such as Brazil and Mexico, are among those where government officials and criminal groups go unpunished for murdering journalists in high numbers.
In 2013, the United Nations designated November 2 as International Day to End Impunity for Crimes against Journalists, yet the impunity rate has remain unchanged, even as attacks are increasing. Last month, representatives of journalists, media workers broadcasters and newspapers around the world took their case to the UN to urge creation of a UN Convention dedicated to the protection of media professionals.
The campaign for the convention emphasizes that holding accountable perpetrators of violence against media workers would not only benefit individual journalists, but society.
“It is not just the individual’s right that is being denied, but it is the collective right of societies to information—and yet at the moment there is no means for a third party to be able to seek redress for attacks against journalists,” says Dear.
Hundreds of journalists also are jailed each year on false charges, according to the Committee to Project Journalists. Among them is Gaspar Matalaev, an Alternative Turkmenistan News reporter. Matalaev was arrested in October 2016, two days after his report on state-orchestrated forced labor of children and adults in Turkmenistan’s cotton harvest. (Sign and share a petition in support of his immediate release.)
The proposed convention also would address arbitrary arrest and detention, include an expedited procedure to address violations of worker rights, and codify journalistic guidelines and criteria into a stronger enforcement mechanism. (To add your organization’s name to support the Convention, sign here.)
Attacks Rise against Women Media Workers
More than half of women in media have suffered work-related abuse, threats or physical attacks in the past year, according to a survey this year by the International Women’s Media Foundation (IWMF) and TrollBusters. An IFJ survey of women media workers earlier this year found similar responses. Nearly two-thirds of respondents to the IWMF survey said they had suffered online harassment or threats, with more than one in 10 reporting it happened often or daily. Of those, approximately 40 percent said they avoided reporting certain stories as a result of online harassment.
Yet “up to three-quarters of media workplaces have no reporting or support mechanism,” broadcast journalist Mindy Ran said at a panel on challenging impunity and gender-based violence against women journalists and media workers in March. Without safe and structured systems for reporting gender-based violence at work, employees are less likely to seek assistance—and, as the IFJ survey found, 66 percent of journalists who had experienced some form of gender-based violence said they had made no formal complaint.
“Often they suffer a double jeopardy—on the grounds of being a journalist, and being attacked for that, and on the grounds of being a woman,” says Dear. Online attacks are especially prevalent, he says, citing cases in which governments have set up websites to assail women’sreputations on the basis of sexual identity or morality and for challenging cultural norms.
“It is an increasing trend in the way of discrediting somebody as a journalist in attacking their integrity and their character with the aim of making them either censor themselves or give up being a journalist.”
Journalists Targeted as Authoritarianism Spreads
Underlying the rising attacks against journalists is the broader global clampdown on human rights in which worker rights are among the most frequently violated.
“You have an increasing number of governments who rely on more authoritarian means to achieve their objectives,” Dear says. Such regimes, once limited to a few countries, now are “all over the world.”
Anti-terrorism laws provide governments new tools for repression.
“This idea of misusing laws that are designed to stop terrorism, designed to stop criminality but in fact are increasingly used against journalists and civil society to prevent any kind of alternative view any kind of dissent in a society.”
As the eyes and ears of their societies, journalists and media workers are instrumental in preserving and advancing freedoms fundamental to human rights.
When journalists are threatened, attacked or imprisoned, says Dear, the effect “is self-censorship, which damages societies, damages democracy, has an impact on citizen’s right to know.”
While helping farmworkers organize into unions in Mexico’s northern coastal state of Baja California, Abelina Ramírez holds workshops on labor rights, including gender equality.
Ramírez, who has picked berries for 13 years in the region after migrating from her home in the country’s southern Oaxaca region, says it is important for farm workers “to realize that together, we can join forces and go up against the employers and the government and get a better life for ourselves and our families.”
Read more at the Solidarity Center.
When thousands of farmworkers from Mexico’s coastal state of Baja California waged a 12-week strike in 2015 to protest poverty wages—roughly $4 a day—and poor working conditions like lack of access to water, Abelina Ramírez saw her chance to ensure women’s concerns, such as sexual harassment in the fields, were addressed.
“It’s important for us to get the message out to workers to join the union”—Abelina Ramírez Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“I decided to join the national caravan [in 2017] from San Quintín to Mexico City,” says Ramírez. “I joined the coordinating team because neither [of the organizations leading the strike] had a woman leader who could speak to any of these issues, and that’s where I got fully involved,” she says, speaking through a translator. (Ramírez discusses her work here.)
The strike drew international attention to the conditions of the region’s roughly 80,000 workers who pick berries and tomatoes for 160 different agro-industiral companies, and workers ultimately won wage increases, boosting pay from approximately $4 per day to $8-$10.
Ramírez, now alternate secretary of gender equality for the National Independent and Democratic Union of Farmworkers (Sindicato Independiente Nacional Democrático de Jornaleros Agrícolas, SINDJA), was among speakers at the recent Solidarity Center conference in Los Angeles, “Realizing a More Fair Global Food Supply Chain.”
In an interview with the Solidarity Center, Ramírez says workers are still fighting for their original 14 core demands, among which is onsite medical facilities. Workers who are injured or fall ill in the fields must be transported long distances to receive care, and some have died in transit, she says.
Further, despite the wage increase, farmworker pay is still comparable to wages paid in much poorer countries, and farmworkers say a national wage category for them should be created, as exists for carpenters and other professional workers.
“What we’re fighting for is a professional-level salary because we see the work we do—cutting, picking and packing—as part of a professional category, and we’re not being respected,” says Ramírez.
Women Farmworkers Struggle to Care for Their Children
Like many women and men in Mexico’s southern Oaxaca region, Ramirez saw an opportunity to improve her livelihood when a labor recruiter showed up promising good wages for picking berries and tomatoes far north, in San Quintín.
“When there are no options because of poverty, we end up migrating,” says Ramírez, who has picked berries for 13 years.
Most mothers who migrate for work take their children but, once in the fields, find no public services and no child care, and “that’s when you realize this crude reality of what moving has meant—you can’t provide for your children and give them an education,” she says. Unable to afford decent housing on the low wages they are paid, many farm laborers are forced to live in company or government encampments—each family occupying a space between 9 square feet and 13 square feet, with shared bathrooms and laundry.
“That’s why it’s important for us to get the message out to workers to join the union, she says. “It’s important for them to realize that together, we can join forces and go up against the employers and the government and get a better life for ourselves and our families.”
Ramírez holds workshops on labor rights, including gender equality, and now seven women trained by the union meet with women farmworkers to encourage them to take part. She reaches the women by “starting with issues that matter to them: They care about child care, medical attention,” says Ramírez.
As she experienced during the 2015 strike, when “everybody joined, my family, my children joined, we got our signs and we went out,” Ramirez says “we knew that we could achieve something if we all went out.”
And that’s why Ramírez sees union organizing as fundamental to improving worker rights.
“Because coming together, through our unity, we’re going to achieve the changes we’re striving for.”