Cambodia’s Siem Reap temple complex draws millions of tourists each year. But what most tourists do not see are the restoration workers like Ong Kay, who are paid low wages and toil under the hot sun without safety clothing or equipment to protect against falling stones and other hazards.
Sana Sabheni, 32, is confined to a wheelchair at her home in a four-story apartment complex in Tunisia. She does not leave her apartment for months at a time because her building does not have an elevator. Without resources to enable her mobility, Sabheni, who lives with her elderly mother, must crawl down two flights of stairs to reach street level. From there, she depends upon someone to carry her wheelchair down to her and push her through the streets. Lacking basic provisions for accessibility, she is unable to hold a good job or engage in everyday life.
Sabheni was among 1,601 participants in Solidarity Center surveys among workers with disabilities in Morocco and Tunisia. Conducted in partnership with Union Marocaine du Travail (UMT), Union Generales des Travailleurs Tunisiens (UGTT), and the Arab Forum for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, the surveys are the first of their kind to examine how workers with disabilities and unions can address discrimination and lack of accessibility for workers in North Africa. The experiences of Sabheni and other workers with disabilities reveal how a powerful combination of discrimination, lack of appropriate accommodation and poor enforcement of existing laws deprives persons with disabilities of good jobs.
While the World Health Organization (WHO) reports that persons with disabilities account for 15 percent of the global population, in the Arab world unemployment rates for persons with disabilities can be as high as 90 percent. The Solidarity Center studies find that efforts to improve employment among persons with disabilities focus on “make-work” programs that rely on local charities rather than address accessibility. As a result, workers with disabilities often are marginalized into informal economy jobs with little access to workplace rights through unions.
Although legislation in both Morocco and Tunisia establishes hiring quotas for persons with disabilities, the surveys’ results suggest most private-sector employers pay little heed to this law and labor inspections have proven inadequate in forcing compliance.
Women with Disabilities also Challenged by Sexism
Sabheni now has an electric wheelchair and the promise of employment, the result of Solidarity Center partners’ support with support from Lilia Makhlouf from the Ministry of Employment and Vocational Training, and the generosity of a local businesswoman. Sabheni must still manage two flights of stairs on her own but once at the lower level of her building, she is able to access her new wheelchair and independent life outside her building.
Yet most persons with disabilities in North Africa will face immense obstacles to finding good jobs. In particular, women with disabilities are challenged by the double burden of sexism and ableism. For North African women, sexual harassment, violence, and other forms of abuse mean job opportunities can be both scarce and exploitative.
Reflecting on survey results, Nahla Sayadi, coordinator of the Women’s Committee in Monastir, Tunisia, and a member of the UGTT, summarized the dire conditions facing women with disabilities at work, in both Tunisia and Morocco.
“Even within the category of workers with disabilities, men have significantly better conditions than women,” she said “The rate of sexual harassment is shocking. Women with disabilities at work are subjected to exploitation—as workers, as disabled, and especially as women—three times as often.”
Unions the Strongest Voices for Rights of Workers with Disabilities
Sayadi touches on an important aspect of the struggle for disability rights at work. As an issue that is at once invisible and highly intersectional, disability rights can be a difficult subject around which to help workers form unions. Workers with disabilities may feel particularly beholden to their employers or otherwise fear reprisal, leaving them reluctant to speak out for their rights. By working alongside civil society groups, rights activists, and union leaders to complete these landmark studies, the Solidarity Center assembled a strong coalition committed to supporting workers with disabilities.
“[The study] has given me a lot of energy to continue my struggle as a trade unionist and activist,” Sayadi concluded.
The ILO reported in a recent review that labor unions are already the strongest voices advocating for the rights of persons with disabilities at work around the world. Public-sector unions, where survey data shows persons with disabilities experience higher levels of union representation and are natural organizers around rights issues because of their position at the nexus of governance and work. Armed with unprecedented data on the subject, union allies are now better prepared to fulfill this role across North Africa.
Following the studies, which were funded by the Ford Foundation, 13 workers with disabilities contacted the UMT in Morocco to learn more about the union and their rights as workers. In Tunisia, the study brought 82 workers with disabilities into the UGTT. Working with a regional labor movement committed to building inclusivity, the Solidarity Center is empowering persons with disabilities to exercise their rights as workers in a region where they face dynamic challenges to finding decent work.
The Mexican domestic workers union, SINACTRAHO, last week launched a far-reaching campaign to ensure domestic workers across Mexico are covered by employment contracts.
“Our goal is to have 10,000 workers sign a formal contract with their employers, in time for December holidays,” says Marcelina Bautista, SINACTRAHO co-president.
“Trabajo Digno por Ti, por Mi y todas Mis Compañeras” (“Decent Work for You, for Me, and all My Sisters”) also is gaining unlikely support—from employers.
“This is not an act of kindess, this is an action of responsibility,” says Maite Azuela, speaking on behalf of “Hogar Justo Hogar” (Home, Just Home), a group of employers that aims to work jointly with workers to improve rights and labor conditions.
“The unjust conditions that exist in our country and in our workplaces, we as employers too often replicate at home,” she says. “Building the country that we truly want is work that begins at home.”
During the campaign launch June 23, which coincided with Mexico’s annual day to celebrate domestic work, the union presented two model contracts, one for domestic workers who labor full time for an employer, and another for part-time workers. The contracts include a calculation sheet to determine proper accrual and payment of benefits afforded to workers under law.
“I appreciate Marcelina´s work and support, and all the people here, because I am beginning to understand that there are people who support us,” says SINACTRAHO member Yazmin Méndez.
“I know that we can change the situation that we as workers live. Our work is the same as another job, we have rights and resposibilities.”
SINACTRAHO was founded two years ago and has since grown to some 900 members nationwide. The struggle by Mexico’s domestic workers for rights on the job is documented in the film, “Day Off” (Día de Descanso), in which SINACTRAHO executive board members take part.
Like many women in Mombasa, Kenya, Alice Mwadzi says for years she barely eked out a living. A lack of jobs in the port city for many means a constant struggle to survive—selling fruit on busy highways or hauling carts stacked with heavy water containers through congested streets—involving long hours of often back-breaking work for nearly no pay.
“I was suffering so bad,” she says, remembering the time in 2012 when, desperately trying to support herself and three children, including a newborn son, a labor broker approached her. “He told me, ‘Alice, there is a chance you can change your life. You can go to the Middle East and have a different life so you’ll be a rich person.’”
To support her children and pay for their education, Mwadzi made the hard decision to leave them behind and become a domestic worker in Saudi Arabia.
“I was sure after two years, I’d have a change in my life. It was my only hope in life,” she says.
Without the Union, ‘I Don’t Know Where I Would Be’
But before she traveled, an organizer from Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA) came to her house and invited her to a three-day training workshop. There, she learned how to educate domestic workers about their rights in Kenya and abroad. Ultimately, she became an organizer with KUDHEIHA, a Solidarity Center ally.
“If not for KUDHEIHA, I don’t know where I would be,” says Mwadzi. “They taught us how to get jobs organizing—to educate domestic workers on their rights.” Women traveling abroad for jobs as domestic workers are vulnerable to exploitation by labor brokers who sell them on false promises, and once in an employer’s home, often are subject to physical, sexual and mental abuse, forced to toil up to 20 hours a day, seven days a week.
Over the past five years, Mwadzi signed up 200 domestic workers with the union and helps women seeking to go abroad get jobs in Kwale, a town southwest of Mombasa, where she is based. “I go door to door to give them hope,” she says with pride.
Lack of Good Jobs Fuels Labor Migration
Informal economy jobs—street vending, motorcycle driving, day labor—comprise the vast majority of work options available in Kenya, where 2.5 million people toil in irregular, precarious jobs compared with 900,000 in the formal sector. In Mombasa and Kwale counties, an informal KUDHEIHA survey found that 60 percent of the workforce were casual or seasonal employers. Strikingly, many employers who now hire informal economy workers had until recently hired workers full time.
“Casual employment is the root cause of migrant workers moving for employment,” says Zacheaus Osore, KUDHEIHA Mombasa Branch secretary.
Kenya is not unique. The informal economy accounts for more than half of the global labor force, and most of the jobs do not pay enough for workers to support their families. Workers in the informal economy often face dangerous working conditions, with no health care or other social protections, and have no job security.
Living in extreme poverty despite working long hours, such workers are vulnerable to exploitative labor brokers, some of whom are their relatives or friends, whose offers of employment in countries like those in the Middle East frequently are based false promises. In Kenya, women signing on for domestic work in Saudi Arabia were told they would receive 23,000 Kenya shillings ($221) a month, only to find the pay significantly less and the working and living conditions inhumane.
Many Labor Brokers Cheat Workers Desperate for Good Jobs
In Kenya and around the developing world, labor brokers haunt villages, towns and cities, preying on women and men trying to support their families and make a better life for their children. Unscrupulous labor brokers will not show workers their contracts until they are at the airport or bus station, and frequently, the contracts are written in Arabic or a language the workers cannot understand. When they arrive at their destination, the contracts may even change.
Although Kenya recently passed a law regulating labor agents, KUDHEIHA leaders say the law is rarely enforced, and the union is pushing for better enforcement. KUDHEIHA also is working for laws that make it mandatory for informal economy employers to pay into the country’s social protection funds.
In a series of recent interviews in Mombasa, workers who returned from the Arabian Gulf describe their experiences working abroad and the conditions that drove them to grasp for the glimmer of hope they thought would improve their lives. They spoke out, sometimes choking through tears, because they want others to learn from their struggles and because, they say, they never want anyone else to endure what they did.
These are their stories.
‘When My Children Spit on You, Don’t Complain’
When Mwahamisi Josiah Makori arrived in Saudi Arabia in 2014 at the home of her employer, she was given 20 minutes to rest before beginning her duties as a domestic worker. Her employers held their noses when they greeted her and made her shower outside before allowing her in the house.
Her responsibilities involved cleaning two homes, including that of the employer’s mother-in-law. She was required to take care of the children, and when they spit on her, her employer told her not to complain. She was up all night caring for the baby and by 6 a.m., preparing the family’s breakfast.
She was given a torn, dirty mat to sleep on, and when she requested a new mat, her employer refused, telling her she was only there for work. In the middle of her tasks, she was required to stop and flush the toilet after a family member used the bathroom.
Makori was required to hold the baby throughout the day as she cooked, cleaned and cared for the other children. One afternoon, when she put the baby down to store groceries, the baby crawled to a cabinet. Alarmed, she called out. Her employer began beating her, saying she was making the baby nervous. They took her to the police authorities and told them she slept all day and refused to work.
She finally was able to convince the police of her plight, and an officer told her employer to pay her way home. The employer refused, but the employer’s mother-in-law paid her way to Kenya.
In Kenya, Makori had struggled to support her three children as a single mother. She was desperate for paid employment when her best friend introduced her to a labor broker who was traveling from village to village. Makori could not afford to pay her children’s school fees, and says she felt she had no choice but to leave the country for work.
After three months of nearly non-stop labor in Saudi Arabia, Makori returned to Kenya. Without pay.
Fearing for Her Life, Maria Mwentenje Fled Her Employer
In Mombasa, the labor broker’s announcement that jobs were available in Saudi Arabia resonated with Maria Makori Mwentenje.
“We were very poor. We had two children,” (age 10 and 1), Makori says, describing why she and her husband agreed that she should seek work in the Saudi Arabia. “We tried a small business and selling food, but that didn’t work. And there were no casual jobs available. We were hustling every day, but some days there was not enough to feed the family.”
Makori signed up with the labor broker but was not given a contract nor told her duties. Only at the airport did she learned she would be paid 18,000 Kenya shillings ($172) a month rather than the 23,000 ($221) she was promised. But even at that rate, she had to take a chance—it was not possible to earn that much in Kenya. She boarded the plane.
When she arrived in Saudi Arabia, she and other women traveling for work were taken to a room where their passports and travel documents were confiscated. Under the kefala system in Arab Gulf countries, migrant workers are tied to one employer, and it is illegal for them to get another job in the country. To ensure they do not leave, employers typically take their passports and often their mobile phones.
In Saudi Arabia, Makori was required to care for four children, including a baby. Working around the clock, her employer expected her to wake at all hours of the night to tend to the baby and still rise at 6 a.m. to prepare the family’s breakfast and get the children ready for school.
During her last pregnancy, Makori had developed hypertension, and in Saudi Arabia, the long hours, stress and difficult tasks exacerbated her condition. She experienced frequent headaches, and her body started to swell. Rather than take her to a doctor, her employer forced her to take pills, and she did not know what they were.
She was sexually harassed from the time she first walked into the employer’s house. When she contacted her husband and told him about the abuse, her husband went to the labor broker and asked why he sent his wife to such an employer. Rather than take steps to ensure Makori’s safety, the labor broker verbally abused her husband.
At one point, when she was too ill and tired to work, she told her employer she needed to rest. Enraged, the employer’s daughter entered the tiny space where Makori slept and after screaming at her, threw an iron at Makori, barely missing her head.
Fearing for her life, Makori fled to the police, where she was fortunate to encounter an officer who forced the family to return her passport and gave her money to travel. Unpaid for six months of work, she was grateful to return home with her life.
The Promise of a Tailoring Job Turns to Horror
At the urging of her mother, Noor (name changed to protect identity) signed up with a labor broker in 2014 to work in the Arabian Gulf. A seamstress in Mombasa, she made it clear to the broker she wanted to continue her profession abroad. Her sister suggested they travel together and work in the same house. So they met with an agent who promised they would stay together, and they made the journey to Saudi Arabia.
At the airport in Saudi Arabia, all the Kenyans migrating for work were taken to a room where the agent called their names, one at a time, to leave with their employer. Her sister’s name was called, and she left. Noor remained behind. Finally, a man called her name. He took her to an employer whose compound included two businesses, including a tailoring shop. Her sister was not there.
At first, Noor worked as planned in the tailoring shop. But one day, she was asked to model for a group of women. She was very uncomfortable doing so, but agreed. As she walked for the women, they touched her, making her even more uncomfortable.
Days later, a woman named Lucy, who also worked at the house, told her to prepare for a visitor. She offered Noor a drink into which she had slipped a drug. Five men came. Ali managed to fight them off. But when they returned, they stripped her, tied her to a bed and four men raped her. The first was her employer.
Later, Lucy came to her and said she would be paid extra because she had been a virgin.
Noor quit eating. She locked herself in the bathroom for three days. Finally, her employer asked if she needed anything. Noor said she needed to go home. Her boss said, “If my wife finds out, she will kill you.” Noor said she wanted to go home.
Lucy helped her escape. She gave Noor a passport and a ticket and hid her in the trunk of a car for five hours. Ultimately, Noor made it to the airport and flew home.
Three years later, Noor is still so traumatized by the events that she cannot stop crying as she describes what happened to her in Saudi Arabia. She says she is no longer the independent spirit she had been before she migrated for work. She no longer sings and plays music. Yet she summoned the strength to tell her story, she says, so no other woman will experience her horror.
Brazil workers and their unions are outraged and vowing further protests over a draconian labor law reform the Senate passed yesterday that will weaken labor regulations as well as restrict financing for unions.
The law, which President Michel Temer supports and is expected to sign, will remove all restrictions on outsourcing, dismantle labor rights, including provisions on vacations, overtime and working hours, give more freedom to employers to negotiate individually with workers rather than collectively through unions, and eliminate the “union tax” paid by all formal-sector workers, which is the principal form of financing for union activities in Brazil.
Workers across Brazil rallied over the past weeks to urge lawmakers to vote against the so-called labor law reform bill, which will mean “lay-offs, end of formal employment and legalization of freelancers,” says Central Union of Workers (CUT) President Vagner Freitas.
“The problem already begins with the name, the lie that there is around [it],” Sérgio Nobre, secretary-general of CUT told thousands of metalworkers gathered in São Paulo on Tuesday. “‘Reform’ gives the impression that it is a good thing.” Nobre said the law would serve the interests of large multinational companies, not workers.
Workers across Brazil launched a 24-hour general strike in April, after the lower house approved the bill. Brazil’s Congress debated the law without the participation of CUT or any trade union opposed to its provisions, says Nobre.
Young people, specifically young black workers, will be especially harmed, because young workers are primarily employed in precarious jobs and are the majority of the unemployed, Julia Reis Nogueira, CUT national secretary of racial equality said in May.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) said the law’s provisions violate international conventions signed by Brazil.
Senators opposed to the bill tried to block the vote with a sit-in at the Senate president’s rostrum, but the session resumed after a six-hour delay and lawmakers passed the law by 50-26.
Temer was indicted in the Supreme Court in June by the independent public prosecutors’ office, and on Monday, a congressman leading a lower house committee on the president’s alleged corruption called on lawmakers to allow Brazil’s top court to try the case.