Ramon Alexander Mosquea Rosario, a union leader at Frito Lay/Pepsico worksites in the Dominican Republic, helped form the National Union of Workers of Dominican Frito Lay (SINTRALAYDO), despite nine years of employer harassment, firings and retaliation.
He encourages other workers to never give up their struggle.
In Pakistan, recent gains in union membership and expansion of worker support services reflect Solidarity Center efforts to promote worker rights through programs and training that address union strengthening, legal and technical education, gender equality and communications outreach.
Between 2010-2016, membership in Pakistan unions with which the Solidarity Center engaged increased from 134,801 to 146,724, and through improved financial management, unions gained resources and bargaining power to initiate social services such as medical assistance for accidents, legal support and marriage grants, and negotiate higher wages and improved benefits.
Key to these advances are Solidarity Center trainings enabling unions to maximize their resources. Improving financial stewardship strengthens the broader Pakistani labor movement and expands the range of unions’ options for achieving workers’ rights in Pakistan.
More Union Resources = Wins for Workers
Some 88 unions participated in the training sessions, and subsequent reforms led to $400,000 in increased funding, a resource that will further expand. The additional resources have enabled unions in Pakistan to undertake a range of projects, including building a state of the art medical burn center in Peshawar to serve members who work at the Water and Power Development Authority in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
The burn center, which is in the planning stage, will also further enhance the union’s financial management by reducing health coverage costs the union incurs when injured workers seek care at distant hospitals. The union also aims to construct a research and residential training institute for workers in Peshawar with ongoing occupational safety and health training.
At the Capital Development Authority in Islamabad, additional financial resources enabled the employees’ union to wage a successful campaign to shift 5,400 contract staff to permanent positions. Most of the contracted-out workers had served the organization for years but their temporary status meant they did not receive the same wages and benefits as full-time employees.
Nighat Rafaq, Solidarity Center manager for Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting in Pakistan. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Through its additional resources, the Oil & Gas Development Corporation Limited Employees Union successfully delayed the government’s efforts to meet International Monetary Fund priorities by privatizing the oil and gas industry.
“The Solidarity Center feels proud and privileged to have had the opportunity to deeply engage with unions and built the institutional capacity of a few labor unions that, in turn, instituted dues reforms and benefitted their workers by enhanced and improved services at the plant level,” says Nighat Immad, Solidarity Center manager for Monitoring, Evaluation and Reporting in Pakistan.
“There is a need for resources to flow up the structures enabling respective labor federations to play their due role at national and international level,” she says.
Cutting-Edge Training on Combatting Gender Inequality at Work
Although 1.8 million workers belong to 945 trade unions in the country, according to an independent research conducted by a group of national and international researchers, those figures translate to roughly three percent of workers in Pakistan represented by unions. Half of the 61 million workers in Pakistan toil in the agricultural sector, and so are not covered by the country’s labor laws.
Recent changes in the country’s governance structure have devolved more legal authority to its provinces, and Pakistan’s unions, with support from the Solidarity Center and other labor organizations, have contributed to passage of the Federal Industrial Relations Act and other measures to improve working conditions.
Solidarity Center staff in Pakistan also conducts cutting-edge training on combating gender inequality in the workplace, and helped spearhead the Trade Union Female Forum (TUFF), an empowerment and training network for women. Plans to expand TUFF to media workers are part of the Solidarity Center’s media workers and journalist union-focused training that addresses safety, gender equality, legislation and legal aid.
In Pakistan, journalists often don’t see themselves as workers, and so do not advocate for their rights, says Immad Ashraf, acting country program director for the Solidarity Center in Pakistan. “Usually you only find blue-collar workers who recognize themselves as being the labor force, and that is exploited by the employers.”
Along with training and education awareness, Solidarity Center in Pakistan communicates with union members and the broader public through Labor Watch Pakistan, which covers such worker rights issues as child labor, minimum wages and gender discrimination through news stories, videos and sections on labor law and international labor standards.
The Central Organization of Trade Unions–Kenya (COTU-K) said the country’s recent decision to lift its ban on workers migrating to Qatar and Saudi Arabia for jobs is “ill advised,” and urges the government to keep the ban in place until the Ministry of Labor provides a report that shows working conditions have improved.
“The ban was put in place after Kenyans suffered and many died in the Middle East,” says COTU-K Secretary General Francis Atwoli. Lifting the ban, which takes place at the end of November, will allow “Kenyans to be enslaved, tortured and killed in Gulf countries,” he says.
In 2014, Kenya banned some 930 recruiting agencies after reports of abuses, including murder, of Kenyan workers in the Middle East. Many Kenyans migrate for jobs, most employed as domestic workers and construction workers, because they are unable to find jobs at home.
Recent Solidarity Center interviews with Kenyans who had returned from jobs as domestic workers in Saudi Arabia highlight the brutal treatment they receive by employers, who force them to work without breaks day and night and often beat them and sexually assault them. Many, like Mwahamisi Josiah Makori, return home unpaid after months of abuse.
Together with the Solidarity Center, the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) is reaching out to communities in the Mombasa area with a series of forums on migrant workers’ rights. Unscrupulous labor brokers promise workers higher wages than what they will be paid, describe working conditions far less grueling than reality, and do not show workers their contracts until they are at the airport or bus station. Frequently, the contracts are written in Arabic or a language the workers cannot understand, and the contracts may even change after they arrive at their destinations.
“The majority of African countries have banned their citizens from working in these Gulf countries,” says Atwoli. “Kenya should follow suit.”
“Informal workers are organizing and they will organize as long as there is injustice and oppression,” says Sue Schurman, distinguished professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University.
Sue Schurman, distinguished professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations at Rutgers University, opened the Solidarity Center book launch. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Opening a Solidarity Center book launch and panel discussions on Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective this morning, Schurman also cautioned that unless unions focus on the issues unique to empowering workers who have no direct employer, workers in the informal economy will organize to improve their rights “with or without the existing trade union movement.”
Hosted by the AFL-CIO, the event launched the Solidarity Center daylong 20th Anniversary Celebration in Washington, D.C., which will culminate tonight with a festive event honoring U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown and the Colombian and Honduran labor movements. Rep. Karen Bass and AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler will host.
Edited by Schurman, Adrienne E. Eaton and Martha A. Chen, Informal Workers collects case studies from union campaigns in such countries as Brazil, Cambodia and Colombia, bringing together in one volume a compendium of academic field research and concrete grassroots examples. The book was produced by Rutgers and WIEGO with support from the Solidarity Center.
Highlighting the event, U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, the first Indian-American woman in Congress, energized participants with an impassioned call to action.
AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre opened the Solidarity Center book launch on informal workers. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“This is about people standing up around the world and making it clear we have a very different vision,” she says. “It is about more jobs and better jobs for workers all over the world and that is the work of the Solidarity Center that we are grateful for.
“You are the ones who give me hope, working in countries around the globe in countries where organizing unions is sometimes life and death.”
“The work of the Solidarity Center around the world is very personal,” says AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, who addressed the opening session. “I was a refugee and dedicated my life to workers all across this country and world in support of their fights.”
A Broader, More Inclusive Labor Movement
Building a broader and inclusive labor movement by recognizing workers’ intersectionality is essential for unions to organize going forward, according to panelists.
“We can’t organize on the basis of class, or ethnicity, or gender—we must think about multiple identities,” says Janice Fine, associate professor of Labor Studies and Employment Relations, at Rutgers University.
Fine spoke on “Perspectives on Fighting for Social and Economic Justice for All,” the first of three panels.
Mary Evans from Rutgers discussed how female Cambodia beer sellers improved their status as women in their communities by joining together to better their workplaces. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
In Cambodia, where women beer sellers launched a grassroots social justice movement to improve their working conditions, and ultimately joined with unions, women have made tremendous progress in improving their status at work and in their communities, says Mary Evans, Labor Studies professor at Rutgers University.
“Beer worker women wanted dignity at work. There have been huge strides for women in Cambodia” where women have little status, she says.
Speaking about the need for unions to engage in “intersectional” organizing—inclusive, cross identity movement building, AFL-CIO International Director Cathy Feingold says, “ We need to build a campaign from the roots up, not at the place where we get stuck.
“Solidarity is multi-dimensional and horizontal,” she says. “We have to be saying, ‘I look you in the eye,’ not ‘I look down on you.’ ”
Speaking on the second panel, “The Impacts of Successful Organizing on Communities, Societies and Countries,” Evangelina Argüeta Chinchilla, National Coordinator at the General Workers Central (CGT) union confederation, described some of the challenges in organizing garment workers and negotiating bargaining agreements.
“Trade unions have been critical to the fight we are in”—Evangelina Argüeta Chinchilla, national coordinator at the General Workers Central (CGT) union confederation Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Trade unions have been critical to this fight we are in,” she says. “We have really been intentional about the unions being on the sideline in this struggle … and stand up to government and corporations and be the voice for the workers in this industry.” But the unions have not worked alone, she says. By partnering with women’s advocacy groups and anti-violence networks, unions have broadened their knowledge and expanded their allies in Honduras and around the world.
Argüeta and several Honduran garment workers will accept the honor award on behalf of the Honduran union movement at tonight’s 20th Anniversary Celebration.
Social Movement Unionism
Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau described how Tunisian unions joined a countrywide movement for social justice. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connel
Highlighting the Tunisian labor movement’s role in the 2011 Arab spring, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau said unions initially played a supporting role to the grassroots opposition to dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali.
Later, the labor movement made a choice to shift its political support to the people, and by calling a national strike in which 100,000 union members took to the streets, the union movement facilitated the election of a democratic government.
“What the labor movement did was recognize itself in this movement. Bread, freedom and liberty—that’s what the labor movement is about.”
In Buenaventura, Colombia, where port workers were paid low wages with no social protections after their jobs were subcontracted, workers went on strike despite a law prohibiting them from doing so because they were not formally employed, says Dan Hawkins, research director at the Escuela Nacional Sindical in Colombia.
The strike, says Hawkins, empowered the Afro-Colombian community because “it symbolized to people in a racially discriminated city where all people in power are white or mestizo, the importance of port workers standing up for their rights.”
In the Dominican Republic, where informal economy workers have no legal right to form unions, domestic workers joined together in an association to work for their rights, says Fine, who shared the results of her case study from Informal Workers. The efforts of the primarily Haitian women workers were key to moving 2011 passage of International Labor Organization Convention 189 on domestic worker rights, expanding the possibility of decent work to domestic workers around the world.
Summing up the conference discussion, Jayapal says, “Ultimately we need to recognize we need to help workers around the world. We need to take on racism and sexism and xenophobia because that’s what will make the union movement strong.”
Leonila Murillo, a decades-long leader in Buenaventura, Colombia, and Angel Miguel Conde Tapia, a Colombian palm oil worker and union vice president are among the extraordinary leaders and activists who will be honored for their dedication to improving the lives of workers and their communities during the Solidarity Center 20th Anniversary celebration in Washington, D.C., tomorrow.
The evening event features AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler and also will honor U.S. Sen. Sherrod Brown for his leadership to protect worker rights, and the Honduran labor movement for its dedication to achieving rights for workers in difficult and sometimes deadly conditions. Special guest U.S. Rep. Karen Bass will deliver remarks. (There’s still time to sponsor the event or buy tickets to attend!)
The day begins with a launch of the Solidarity Center-supported book, Informal Workers and Collective Action: A Global Perspective, and panel discussions featuring U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal and international worker rights activists. (Find out more about the free book event and RSVP here.)
On the Frontlines of Social Justice Unionism
Murillo, 81, has long been on frontlines to achieve social justice in her community. Most recently the mother of six children, 13 grandchildren and 14 great-grandchildren was among tens of thousands of peaceful protesters in Buenaventura who took to the streets for 22 days in May 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.
On June 6, the government agreed to invest more than $500 million in the long-neglected city over the next decade. 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, where residents are primarily Afro-Colombians.
Murillo, who leads 1,000 women in the organization Women in Black of the Pacific Route, and served as president of her neighborhood district’s Council of Community Action, also has worked for 29 years as a child caregiver, known as “community mother.” She was among leaders of the struggle by community mothers to gain pension benefits, going on strike in 2013 and winning promises from the government to give the women, who work as “independent contractors” the same benefits as directly employed caregivers. So far, the community mothers have seen no pension benefits.
“That’s why I’m here [in the United States]—to denounce that, to say that there are women who are dying and never getting their pensions,” Murillo says, speaking through a translator.
Palm Oil Workers Stand Strong in Face of Danger
As a palm oil worker in Colombia, Conde Tapia, hacks through the fruit with a machete, cleans branches and performs field maintenance on one of the country’s large agricultural plantations. A 29-year union member and now vice president of the palm oil union SINTRAINAGRO, he has sacrificed much to improve working conditions. Conde Tapia says he nearly lost his life when a gunman targeted him for his union work. Luckily, the gun pointed at him did not fire. But Conde Tapia has sent some of his children out of the area for their safety. Other union activists have had similar experiences.
Like the Buenaventura community, where workers say unfair job subcontracting is taking away family sustaining wages and social protections, palm oil workers in Colombia are regularly hired as subcontractors, enabling employers to avoid paying living wages and benefits granted in union contracts. In 2011, 15,000 subcontracted palm oil workers went on strike, and union leaders from four palm companies successfully initiated a process by which workers would gain formal employment status—success that vastly increased union affiliation.
In recognizing the incredible sacrifices of Murillo and Conde Tapia, the Solidarity Center honors the struggles of all Colombians in Buenaventura and across palm oil plantations who strive to improve their lives and their families’ future.