More than 300 the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) members took part in the PGFTU Congress in Nablus late last month, where delegates voted to boost representation of women and reinforced the federation’s commitment to worker rights. They were joined by representatives from 16 international organizations, including the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the Solidarity Center and the International Labor Organization (ILO).
Delegates at PGFTU’s Fifth Congress voted to increase from 20 percent to 30 percent the representation of women across all PGFTU bodies over the next four years; agreed to enforce Palestine’s minimum wage law and work to make it a living wage; and reinforced the PGFTU’s stance in defending the freedom to form unions.
Also during the three-day conference, PGFTU General Council members elected Shaher Saad as secretary general and voted in 24 representatives of national general unions, including four women, to the executive committee, along with seven men and women unionists to the financial and administrative audit committee. All will serve four-year terms. The elections were observed by representations from the ILO, the Arab Labor Organization and U.S. and European trade unions and federations.
Delegates backed ongoing dialogue with allies as the PGFTU campaigns for fair labor laws that guarantee decent work for workers and a fair social security law for workers and their families. In ensuring that women make up 30 percent of the federation’s leadership, delegates seek to guarantee their input in designing labor policies and executing union resolutions and reinforced their commitment to promoting the role of Palestinian working women as a key force in the national and local markets.
Participants also emphasized the need to network with civil society organizations and legal groups that to work toward establishing a democratic and transparent civil society.
In his remarks, Saad said workers will achieve social justice and fairness through a strong and independent trade union movement that seeks to elevate workers’ voices and protect him from exploitation.
Since April 2015, at least 14 Honduran union leaders and members have suffered threats or violence, including one who was disappeared and another one who was murdered, part of a campaign of intimidation against worker rights documented in a new report by the Union Network against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras.
Days after the report’s release, Nelson Geovanni Núñez Chávez eceived renewed death threats for helping banana workers form unions, according to the Honduras-based nonprofit ACI-Participa. Last November, Núñez Chávez was forced to leave his home with his family after repeatedly being followed and harassed.
Nuñez Chavez is an organizer for the Honduran agricultural workers’ union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS), and host of the radio program, “Unionist on the Air.”
Four of the 14 union members and leaders who were victims of violence were active in the Network against Anti-Union Violence—a trend Honduran human rights activists say is a troubling development that may indicate those who actively seek justice for perpetrators of violence are targeted for attack.
Héctor Martínez Motiño, president of a local sectional union of Workers of the National Autonomous University of Honduras (SITRAUNAH), was murdered in June despite protection from the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR). Environmental activist Berta Cáceres Flores, who was murdered last month in Honduras, also had IACHR protection. Observers say there was no police presence around either Martínez Motiño or Cáceres when they were killed. ACI-Participa has documented the assassination of 13 recipients of precautionary measures.
Two union leaders also faced death threats as they defended worker rights at agro-industrial plantations cited in a 2012 complaint filed by the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations over the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The complaint alleges the Honduran government failed to enforce labor rights under its labor laws.
A report released yesterday by an international fact-finding commission, “Justice for Berta Cáceres Flores,” cited the “ineffectiveness of the Honduran state’s human rights protection system, as well as a prevailing institutional practice that ignores the rights of the victims of human rights violations as active rights holders.”
Honduras passed a law six months ago that protects human rights defenders, but has not issued a regulation on its implementation or enforcement.
The Network against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras, a Solidarity Center ally, was created in 2014 to document violence against union members and push for an end to impunity for those who commit such crimes. No formal statistics on violence against trade unionists existed before the network formed.
Oscar Muro, Solidarity Center program officer in Peru, reports on his late February fact-finding journey to the Minera Aurifera Retamas (MARSA) mine, where subcontracted mineworkers, represented by a strong union, won a national labor inspection finding that calls for 2,464 outsourced workers to be moved to permanent contracts. The workers subsequently went on a weeklong strike to protest the employer’s appeal of the judgment and a ruling by the regional labor authorities that MARSA should not be fined for misclassifying workers. The national labor inspection office indicates it will return to the mine in a few weeks to ensure the company has correctly classified miners.
Together with Ricardo Juárez, secretary-general of the Federation of Mine and Metalworkers of Peru, and Elder Villalobos, secretary general of the union of workers of the companies of MARSA, I traveled to the mining center in the mountains of La Libertad to attend the union’s extraordinary general assembly. There, the secretary general told the 4,500 workers in attendance that, following mine inspections, the national Superintendent of Labor Inspection had ruled in favor of 2,464 of 4,000 subcontracted workers, stipulating that they become permanent workers.
Miners are standing strong in their demands for permanent contracts. Credit: Solidarity Center/Samantha Tate
Many MARSA workers have labored in dangerous conditions for up to 20 years, but without a contract. Their “non-permanent” status means their livelihoods are jeopardized if they raise safety issues with their employer, or demand decent wages that allow for a life with dignity.
In January, one miner died on the job, and two miners perished in 2014. In November 2015, there was a deadly radiation poisoning and suffocation incident at the Taurus mine.
Mine is Rich, Yet Residents still Poor
The MARSA mine, 4,000 feet above sea level in the Southern Highlands, produces gold in large quantities and ranks among Peru’s top five gold producers. The journey to MARSA takes more than 14 hours from the northwestern coastal city of Trujillo. To reach the mining center, we had to cross hill after hill on a single-lane road. When our bus encountered a vehicle coming the opposite direction, the vehicles struggled to pass each other on the narrow stone trail. We made the trip to join our co-workers who need us, and thank God, everything went well.
Some 7,000 people live in Llacuabamba, the village where the MARSA mine is located. Despite the wealth beneath their soil, the residents do no benefit from investment, such as proceeds from mining licenses. Instead, their village suffers from poor sanitation infrastructure and is so isolated that residents do not receive newspapers and often do not have access to television because of the weak Internet signal.
Solidarity with Miners
Together with Juárez and Villalobos, we conveyed to the workers that we stand in solidarity with them in their struggle until they achieve victory: worker rights through permanent contracts.
During this journey, we also learned about informal mines in the area, which employ between 3,000 and 5,000 miners. Further, at the nearby Consortium Horizon mine, the more than 4,000 employees have sought to form a union several times, only to see many workers fired. We have much work ahead to assist all of these workers in getting permanent contracts and the safe and healthy working conditions all workers deserve.
The murder of a second Honduran rights activist, Nelson Noé García this week, days after the assassination of Berta Cáceres, a globally recognized leader for indigenous rights and environmental justice, has widened international outrage and amplified demands for justice, security, respect for basic rights and an end to impunity for perpetrators.
The Center for International Justice and Rights strongly condemned Nelson’s murder. Marcia Aguiluz, CIJR director for Central America and Mexico, said it “proves that the spiral of violence against indigenous peoples fighting for their territories in Honduras remains with impunity.”
García, 38, a father of five, was a member of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH), co-founded by Cáceres. Local media report that García received four gun shots to the face and suggest the attack followed the forceful eviction of at least 150 families in the village of Tilapia by military police.
Berta Cáceres (center), murdered March 3, won the prestigious Goldman Environmental Prize for her opposition to one of the region’s biggest hydroelectric projects. Credit: Democracy Now!
The same day as García’s murder, the president of Unified Campesino Movement of the Aguán, another indigenous group, was briefly arrested on questionable charges; Cristián Alegría, a campesino activist, was shot at; and David Romero, a journalist critical of the government, was sentenced to 10 years in prison. In addition, Gustavo Castro, a Mexican activist who witnessed Cáceres’s murder, has been prevented from leaving the country.
Targeted murders of human rights activists and union members have helped make Honduras one of the most dangerous countries in the world for human rights defenders.
Union activists are targeted to silence demands for economic justice, freedom of association and other basic rights. Over the past 12 months, the Solidarity Center has documented 13 cases of threats or violence against union activists, including the disappearance of Donatilo Jiménez in April 2015, the murder of Héctor Martínez Motiño in June, and repeated death threats against longtime Solidarity Center allies Tomas Membreno and Nelson Geovanni Nuñez Chávez, both of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria y Similares (STAS) industrial agricultural workers’ union.
In the United States, more than 60 Congress members yesterday asked Secretary of State John Kerry and Treasury Secretary Jacob Lew to suspend aid to Honduras security until an international investigation into the murder of Cáceres.
The Inter-American Commission on Human Rights had mandated “precautionary measures” to protect Cáceres, Motiño and Jiménez—which were not borne out in practice. This week, 23 U.S. Congress members sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry urging the State Department to take concrete action to address the situation of activists in Honduras.
The AFL-CIO has expressed deep concern with human rights and sustainable development in Honduras based on the findings of an October 2014 labor delegation that met with labor and community organizations, the Honduran government and the U.S. embassy.
In Georgia, coal miners in Tkibuli and glass factory workers in Ksani recently made big gains at the workplace with the assistance of the Metal Workers, Miners and Chemical Industry Workers’ Trade Union (MMCIWTU) and the Georgian Trade Unions Confederation (GTUC).
Despite tough opposition from their employers, both groups of workers waged successful strikes and won significant wage increases, with miners also gaining key job safety and health improvements.
Miners in Georgia won key contract demands, including a wage increase and improved job safety and health. Credit: MMCIWTU
Some 750 miners went on strike in February, seeking wage increases promised during their last strike in 2011. The workers, employed by the Georgian Industrial Group (GIG), which operates two mines in Tkibuli, walked out before notifying union leadership of their intention.
But with GTUC President Irakli Petriashvili and MMCIWTU President Tamazi Dolaberidze at the bargaining table, miners returned to work in 16 days with a new contract that includes a 7 percent pay increase starting March 1 and an additional 3 percent hike beginning April 1—and will be paid for half of the days they spent on the strike with no punishment for strike leaders. The company also has agreed to address salary imbalances.
GIG supplies coal from Tkibuli primarily to cement-producing factories in Georgia and is one of the country’s largest corporations, with operations in energy generation, natural gas and real estate.
JSC Mina factory workers received wide international support for their strike. Credit: MMCIWTU
At the JSC “Mina” glass container factory, 170 workers—80 percent of the workforce—went on strike February 5 after months of contract negotiations which stalled when the company did not address workers’ key issues, including a wage increase.
Throughout the 30-day strike, glass workers won wide international support, with employees of the JSC Mina Turkey-based parent company, Sisecam, holding a solidarity action backing striking workers. The Sisecam workers also sent their Georgian brothers and sisters a message: “Workers of “Mina” are symbol of fight for just cause, wherever human rights are violated we should be there and fight together!”
The global union federation IndustriALL, the Eurasian Metal Workers Federation, the Turkish union DISK and unions in Ukraine, Russia, Belarus, and Kyrgyzstan sent protest letters to the company and support letters to the glass workers. GTUC affiliate organizations and non-governmental organizations also backed the workers.
Petriashvili and Dolaberidze ultimately negotiated a 7.5 percent pay increase beginning January 1, 2017, and the company agreed to the workers’ demand for a location to hold union activities.