Globally, marginalized workers have been especially hard hit by the novel coronavirus. Migrant workers in particular have experienced some of the harshest effects of COVID-19 and the related lockdowns, quarantines and travel restrictions.
Yet while the world has recognized “the bravery of frontline workers,” many of whom are migrants, “we must now turn that celebration into something that is meaningful and not just ephemeral,” says United Nations Secretary-General António Guterres.
We must ensure “fair and ethical recruitment, decent work, and access to health care and social protection without discrimination. It is also critical we promote financial inclusion of migrants and their families. We must address discrimination … migrants must not be stigmatized or denied access to medical treatment and other public services.”
Guterres spoke during release of the first UN Secretary General’s report on the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration. Adopted in December 2018, the Global Compact sets out a cooperative framework for achieving safe, orderly and regular migration within a rights-based framework, and includes a process for implementation and review.
The report, part of the UN review process, focuses extensively on the effects of COVID-19 on the world’s 272 million migrants and the guidance the Global Compact offers in addressing the adverse effects on migrant workers.
Fewer Protections for Migrant Workers Under COVID-19
As borders and worksites were shut early this year, millions of migrant workers were stranded around the world, many trapped in crowded housing with no access to support, including access to food and other life-sustaining provisions. Many migrant workers were systematically denied social safety net protections like unemployment benefits or other forms of income support.
Others were forced to work in unsafe conditions, suffered from wage theft, and retaliation for speaking out about abuse. Origin countries frequently lack adequate health infrastructure, exposing those who returned to a greater risk of contracting COVID-19, or making it difficult for those who were infected to find care. Migrants returning in these conditions are also particularly vulnerable to exploitation, violence, stigma, discrimination and, without jobs, may be unable to support themselves or their families.
Although some governments took positive steps to voluntarily return migrant workers, according to the Global Compact report, many imposed even harsher restrictions. “The pandemic has been used by some [countries] to justify the increased and discriminatory use of immigration detention and to deport migrants without due process,” the report said.
The COVID-19 crisis also has worsened the situation for migrants in countries where they work. In Central Asia, the COVID-19 pandemic “exposed structural and institutional flaws in the way migration is managed in the region,” making conditions for migrant workers dire, according to a shadow report on implementation of the Global Compact in the Central Asian region. The shadow report cites such structural flaws as lack of work contracts that result in wage theft, no regulation of work hours and little or no access to health care or other social and legal protections. It was submitted to the UN by the Solidarity Center, the International Labor Initiatives (ILI), Insan Leilek and the Kazakhstan International Bureau for Human Rights.
The pandemic is especially hard on women, including the 8.5 million migrant women in domestic work, as well as lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and intersex migrants, the Global Compact report finds. Even as domestic violence is increasing during the pandemic, resources are being redirected away from sexual and reproductive health services. The Global Compact report points to the need for a gender-responsive, rights-based approach to migration all the more necessary.
Remove Barriers that Repress Migrant Workers’ Full Potential
Rooted in the UN Declaration of Human Rights and internationally agreed standards and frameworks, the Global Compact is grounded in rights-based policies and is a “call to build comprehensive, rights-based policies to ensure that migrants and their communities can thrive,” according to the report.
As such, “legislation should provide for ensuring the rights of migrants in accordance with international human rights standards, including fair and safe working conditions, the right to good rest, the right to access jobs without discriminatory procedures for obtaining the right to work,” according to a shadow report from Russian unions to the UN. “We believe that receiving countries should provide regulatory and visa flexibility for workers, especially during a pandemic.”
Noting the urgency for greater cooperation across borders during the COVID-19 crisis, including the integration of public health concerns into rights-based border governance, the Global Compact report recommends that member countries implement measures and practices in response to COVID-19 that ensure an inclusive public health response to suppress the virus and restart economies, protect migrants’ human rights and ensure the availability of lifesaving humanitarian assistance.
The report’s recommendations support the UN’s June 2020 Policy Brief: COVID-19 and People on the Move, which states that “the best way to recognize the important contribution made by people on the move to our societies during this crisis is to remove barriers that inhibit their full potential.
“This means facilitating the recognition and accreditation of their qualifications, exploring various models of regularization pathways for migrants in irregular situations and reducing transaction costs for remittances.”
Ultimately, as the report states: “The COVID-19 crisis presents an opportunity to reimagine human mobility for the benefit of all while advancing the central commitment of the 2030 Agenda to leave no one behind.” The report is in line with calls from the global labor movement, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, for a new social contract “between workers, government and business, which should include a floor of a universal labor guarantee for all workers.
“Implementing a New Social Contract would make sure that that rights are respected, jobs are decent with minimum living wages and collective bargaining, social protection is universal, due diligence and accountability are driving business operations, and that social dialogue ensures just transition measures for climate and technology.”
In short: A new social contract must include all workers, including migrants.
Women activists and their organizations are the drivers of positive change worldwide—and the freedom to form unions and freely associate is key to their ability to do so, according to a report released today.
“Celebrating Women in Civil Society and Activism,” prepared by Clément Voule, United Nations special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, finds these fundamental freedoms empower women to “express their political opinions, engage in … economic and social activities … form and join trade unions and cooperatives, and elect leaders to represent their interests and hold them accountable.”
Yet women’s voices are undervalued, the report states, even as government, employers and others violate women’s rights, with many women experiencing an increase in severe violations of these fundamental freedoms and backlashes against gender equality. Exclusions from labor laws, barriers to forming and joining unions and reprisals for labor organizing leave women with “little leverage to change the conditions that entrench poverty, fuel inequality and limit democracy.”
Women’s exclusion from labor laws and reprisals for forming unions in Bangladesh and around the world limit women’s ability to improve their workplaces. Credit: Solidarity Center
For instance in Bangladesh, “in many cases when garment workers want to unionize, they are blacklisted, intimidated, local groups threaten their families and many women are subject to physical assault,” says Nazma Akter, Awaj executive director and president of the Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF). “There is no robust legal mechanism to appeal to for the right to organize and to help protect our human rights.”
Women seeking to improve their working conditions face similar challenges around the world, including in Ghana, where women “often are threatened with dismissals or non-renewal of contracts,” say Edward Kareweh, general secretary of the General Agricultural Workers’ Union (GAWU) and GAWU Gender Equality Officer Bashiratu Kamal. “There is a lack of cooperation from government in enforcing laws against discrimination, marginalization and exploitation.”
Agricultural workers in Morocco and around the world often are not covered by their countries’ labor laws, a lack of rights that falls especially hard on women. Credit: Solidarity Center/Hind Cherrouk
Laws barring retaliation against women who seek to form unions often are not enforced and additional barriers erected, say women activists.
In El Salvador, “the ability to form and join unions is a constitutional right, but in practice, there are many obstacles, ranging from delay in legal registration, defamatory campaigns, loss of employment, widespread violence, to murder in certain cases, says Marta Zaldaña, Secretary General of the union federation FEASIES.
“Tunisia’s Constitution guarantees equality and equal opportunities for men and women. But despite those important laws, the actual problem is in implementing those laws, especially in the interior regions where male domination prevails,” according to a Tunisian woman union activist.
Nazma, Kareweh, Kamal, Zaldaña and the Tunisian activist were among hundreds of worker rights and human rights activists whose testimony informed the report, which Voule is presenting this week to the UN General Assembly. SGSF, GAWU and FEASIES are Solidarity Center partners.
Gender-Based Violence the ‘Fiercest Form of Reprisal’
The ability of women to freely take action is especially critical now, as the COVID-19 pandemic has worsened the inequalities facing women, in their jobs, homes and communities.
“Faced with narrowing civic space, mounting inequalities and rising fundamentalisms, women have persisted in their fight for structural change, speaking truth to power and building resilience in their communities,” the report states.
Gender-based violence and harassment is “perhaps the fiercest form of reprisal to the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for women workers,” the Special Rapporteur finds.
Violence is used as a way of discouraging women from actively participating in unions and seeking leadership positions—Rose Omamo, Metal Workers Union, Kenya. Credit: Solidarity Center
“Gender-based violence against women at work has been on the rise in various places in Kenya. Violence also is used as a way of discouraging women from actively participating in unions/associations and seeking leadership positions,” says Rose Omamo, general secretary of the Amalgamated Union of Kenya Metal Workers, a Solidarity Center partner.
And, when they protest gender-based violence and harassment, women then become targets. “Women workers in Nigeria have been involved in protests against all forms of gender-based, violence and harassment,” says Mercy Okezie, chairperson of the National Women Commission and Nigeria Labor Congress vice president.
“There have been protests against rape and abduction of young girls by terrorists, femicide, sexual harassment in markets and gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work. Some of the women who participated faced … gender-based violence attacks ranging from bullying, sex discrimination to loss of jobs, threats to life and social stigmatization as a result of speaking out or standing up to push for an end to GBVH at home, workplace, their unions and communities.”
Women Must Be Part of the Solution
In Honduras, union activists are posting photos of themselves on social media with signs urging passage of C190. Credit: Promotoras Legales
In recommending steps to address violations of women’s rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and association, the report emphasizes the actions “should be grounded in supporting and empowering women’s movements and organizations in all their diversity.”
Governments must ensure adherence to international treaties addressing women’s right to a voice at work and in their communities, Voule said, speaking on a panel today with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau and other civil society leaders. Among its recommendations, the report urges governments ratify International Labor Organization (ILO) Convention 190, which covers gender-based violence and harassment at work, and ILO C189 which recognizes domestic workers’ right at work.
Employers also “have a direct responsibility to respect and protect women’s rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, to act with due diligence to prevent the violations of such rights and to provide women with effective remedies for violations connected to their operations,” the report states.
“Celebrating Women in Civil Society and Activism” builds on the 2016 UN Special Rapporteur report on workers rights that found workers rights—and the freedom to form unions and freely assemble—are key to achieving human rights because without assembly and association rights, workers have little leverage to change the conditions that entrench poverty, fuel inequality and limit democracy.
Freedom of peaceful assembly and association lie at the core of any functioning democratic system, according to a report by the new Annalisa Ciampi, the new United Nations (UN) Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.
“It is the combination of the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and the right to freedom of association that strengthens responsive democratic governance systems and ensures the full and meaningful exercise of the right to participate in public affairs,” writes Ciampi in her first report to the UN General Assembly.
Annalisa Ciampi’s first report as UN Special Rapporteur finds that worker rights go hand in hand with democratic development. Credit: UN
Ciampi, whose three-year term as Special Rapporteur began May 1, is an attorney and a professor of International Law at the University of Verona in Italy, and a visiting professor of European Human Rights Law at the Monash University Prato Center in Italy.
Worker rights go hand in hand with democratic development, according to the report, with the Special Rapporteur emphasizing “the mutually reinforcing relationship between freedom of peaceful assembly and of association … and democracy and development.”
(Ciampi is moderating an October 17 panel, “Expanding Space within the United Nations,” an event co-sponsored by the Solidarity Center. The side event at the UN General Assembly meeting in New York City will bring together national representatives, UN bodies and civil society representatives to discuss strategies to more effectively promote and protect civic space in the UN system through the development of responsive and inclusive UN mechanisms and processes.)
Trade union rights are covered under the mandate of the UN Special Rapporteur and exist in numerous international standards, including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Unions have been working together with other civil society groups to highlight global restrictions on freedom of association and assembly.
In the new report, “Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association,” Ciampi also outlines topics for upcoming reports, which include looking at how the rights to assembly and association are exercised in the context of multilateral institutions, and examining practices that promote and protect the right to form unions.
Ciampi plans to take an active role in strategic litigation cases before national, regional and international courts in cases relating to freedom of peaceful association and of assembly.
“As the Special Rapporteur previously reported, ‘workers face considerable opposition, harassment, stigmatization and even physical attacks’ in the exercise of these fundamental rights,” says Solidarity Center Legal Director Jeff Vogt.
“We welcome the commitment of Prof. Ciampi to use the legal authority of her office to intervene in support of workers’ rights in domestic litigation. Such interventions not only works to provide a remedy to workers, but also builds positive jurisprudence on the right to freedom of association.”
Previous UN Reports Examined Broad Range of Worker Rights Issues
Ciampi takes over from Maina Kiai, whose six-year term as Special Rapporteur saw a broad range of reports on the status of freedom of association in an era of global closing civic space. Among them, “The Rights to Freedom of Peaceful Assembly and of Association in the Workplace” found that without assembly and association rights, including the right to strike, workers have little leverage to change the conditions that entrench poverty, fuel inequality and limit democracy. Further, the report stated that discrimination, abuse and relegation to jobs at the bottom of the global economy undermine women workers’ ability to join and form organizations that defend their interests. Previous reports on freedom of association and assembly also looked at worker rights to form unions in countries such as South Korea, Chile and Kazakhstan, and examined issues that include the right to freedom of assembly and association in the context of elections and business.
A Special Rapporteur is an independent expert appointed by the UN Human Rights Council to examine and report back on a specific human rights theme or country situation. The mandate of the Special Rapporteur on freedom of peaceful assembly and of association includes studying trends, developments and challenges in relation to the exercise of these rights; making recommendations on ensuring their promotion and protection; and reporting on their violation, as well as on discrimination, threats or use of violence, harassment, persecution, intimidation or reprisals directed at those exercising these rights.
No global data document gender-based violence at work. But across the board, gender-based violence remains one of the most tolerated violations of workers’ human rights. Some 35 percent of women over age 15—818 million women globally—have experienced sexual or physical violence at home, in their communities or in the workplace.
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.
Hundreds of high-level government delegates at the Commission on the Status of Women (CSW) meeting at the United Nations in New York this month will for the first time discuss women’s economic empowerment and the role of labor unions as core to achieving women’s rights.
“Women’s Economic Empowerment in the Changing World of Work,” the topic of the March 13–24 meeting, represents a huge milestone for working women around the globe in achieving recognition of their workplace struggles by the world’s human rights body—and one that worker rights organizations like the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and Solidarity Center have long championed.
Simultaneously, the global union movement, together with the Solidarity Center, is bringing together some 200 labor activists from around the world to New York for workshops and a four-day women’s leadership training.
Labor and allied sessions include the Solidarity Center workshop on eliminating gender-based violence at work on March 13 and a discussion on the “Impact of Corporate Power on Women’s Economic Empowerment.” The latter event, sponsored by the Association of Women in Development (AWID) and Solidarity Center, is based on a joint 2016 report, “Challenging Corporate Power for Gender Justice: Highlights from a Cross-Movement Dialogue,” which outlines how national and transnational corporations can exploit women and other marginalized people and offers insights into strategies for resistance.
Concrete Achievements through the UN Process
The Solidarity Center has long focused on making working women’s issues a priority for UN bodies and, most recently, had its recommendations on employment, gender-based-violence and other workplace abuses included in a Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (CEDAW) report on behalf of Honduras.
Issued in November, CEDAW’s report, “Concluding Observations on the Combined Seventh and Eighth Periodic Reports of Honduras,” incorporates Solidarity Center recommendations to address the persistent gender wage gap; the lack of regulations protecting women from exploitative working conditions, like domestic work; and severe health and safety dangers for women agricultural workers. The UN formed CEDAW in 1979 following CSW’s recommendation that a single entity champion international standards on the equal rights of men and women.
Solidarity Center and Global Labor Help Shape CSW Document
The Solidarity Center and global unions contributed to a document on women’s empowerment at work that the CSW will discuss and amend before approving at the end of the March meeting. They urged the CSW to acknowledge the economic impact of globalization on women workers’ wages and the socioeconomic conditions fueling “the accelerated feminization of poverty.”
Crucially, global unions are recommending the CSW “recognize the importance of trade unions in addressing persistent economic inequalities,” in closing the gender wage gap, the gap between minimum and living wages, and social protection gaps.
The Solidarity Center participated in crafting the draft document throughout a yearlong process in advance of the CSW meeting. In 2016, the Solidarity Center and ITUC were among 25 participants at an Expert Group Meeting convened by UN Women to discuss and prepare the first draft. At the meeting, the Solidarity Center presented the paper, “Women’s Labor Rights and Economic Power, Now and in the Future.”
Created in 1946, the CSW is the main global intergovernmental body exclusively dedicated to the promotion of gender equality and the empowerment of women and is part of the UN Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC).
Watch the Solidarity Center website for coverage of the global union events and follow the action at our Facebook page and on Twitter @SolidarityCntr.