Even as 11,000 Bangladesh garment workers were fired in the wake of strikes they waged in December and January to protest low wages, many seeking to form unions or take collective action also have been physically threatened, attacked and arrested on trumped-up charges. And union leaders say these employer-directed assaults often take the form of gender-based violence at work.
In testimony provided to the Solidarity Center by garment workers and union leaders, a pattern emerges in which women seeking to form unions or engage in collective action are especially targeted with actions to degrade, demean and intimidate them, and some have suffered physical attacks and rape.
“As we try to form unions, management is hostile against us,” says one garment worker. (Neither workers nor factories will be identified to protect workers against retaliation.) “They threaten me that, what if someone stops me in the road, what can I do as a woman?”
Children Injured in Police Attack on Factory
At one factory where workers walked out on January 7 to demand higher wages, police charged them and threw tear gas into the factory, injuring between 13 and 14 children in the ground floor day care. Managers later “sent out a list of all the mothers with babies and terminated them,” says one worker at the factory. “They did this so that they could close down the day care.”
On the same day, at another garment factory where workers say managers had harassed them ever since they submitted a union registration application in November, police beat workers with rods and sticks and “took away the scarves of women,” threatening to rape them, according to a worker’s eyewitness account.
While Bangladesh employers stepped up attacks directed at women workers during the recent walkouts, they have long used gender-based violence at work as a tactic to intimidate women active in union organizing. In November, hired criminals associated with management and local government officials attacked and raped a woman organizer at a factory in the midst of a campaign to form a union.
Crackdown Amplifies Ongoing Assaults on Worker Rights
The harassment, assaults and arrests of garment workers this year amplifies an increasingly repressive environment for worker organizing that in recent years has included threatening home visits, kidnappings and mass termination.
In one recent example, workers at a garment factory saw their daily production quota increased to 400 pieces a day, up from 250 pieces after they filed with the government for union registration. Workers there say supervisors locked union committee members in bathrooms and hired local criminals to pursue them in the streets.
Even as employers exploit workers’ wage protests as a pretext for infringing on the rights of workers to organize and bargain collectively, government resistance to workers seeking to register unions further represses workers’ efforts to form unions and collectively bargain better wages and working conditions.
Following the deaths of more than 1,200 garment workers in the 2012 fire at the Tazreen Fashions factory and the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse, workers vigorously organized to form unions and negotiate contracts, as the Bangladesh government and ready-made garment (RMG) employers responded to international pressure to improve safety and wages.
But now Bangladesh, which in 2018 the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) ranked as among the world’s 10 worst countries for worker rights, is on the verge of expelling the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh. Established after the Rana Plaza disaster, the legally binding agreement between hundreds of primarily European retail brands and unions conducted safety inspections at more than 1,000 factories and educated workers on safety and other workplace rights.
And without the freedom to form unions and bargain collectively, internationally recognized rights, Bangladesh garment workers are unable to collectively negotiate safer, healthier workplaces.
“We are poor. Just because we formed a union, we have been the victims,” says one worker at a factory where 200 workers were fired after they sought to register a union with the government. The worker says when management learned of their efforts to form a union, women were threatened with rape and men threatened with guns and knives.
“Our photos and fingerprints have been sent to all the factories, so we are not able to find jobs anywhere else. Blacklists are hanging in front of the factories,” she said.
Two union leaders in Guatemala were imprisoned January 17–28 for negotiating and signing a collective agreement between the union and the Ministry of Health authorities in 2013. Following a hearing, both union leaders were released on parole but placed under house arrest, pending a final decision.
Union leaders say the arrest of SNTSG activists Luis Alpirez Guzmán and Dora Regina Ruano is part of a sustained attack against unions in Guatemala. Credit: PSI
Luis Alpirez Guzmán, general secretary of the National Union of Health Workers of Guatemala (SNTSG), and Dora Regina Ruano, former SNTSG deputy general secretary, were charged with fraud in signing the collective bargaining agreement between the government and the SNTSG.
The arrest of SNTSG leaders highlights “a sustained attack on collective bargaining, freedom of association and the right to organize,” the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) says in a statement. TUCA is a regional body of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
The international labor community—including the ITUC, TUCA, Public Services International (PSI), Global Nurses United and the Caribbean Confederation of State Workers—is calling on the Guatemala government to drop all charges against the two union leaders and end the repression and harassment of trade unionists, including the prosecution of workers’ gains through collective bargaining. Although the pact was signed in 2013, it has since been suspended, leaving the workers without a contract.
(You can urge the Guatemala government to ensure justice by taking part in an online campaign spearheaded by PSI.)
Guatemala One of 10 Worst Countries for Workers
The number of trade unionists murdered in Guatemala rose to 90 in 2018 since 2004, according to the ITUC, which in 2018 ranked the country as among the 10 worst for workers. The ITUC says Guatemala’s “pervasive climate of repression, physical violence and intimidation” is “compounded by the government’s failure to provide timely and adequate protection to trade unionists who received death threats and to pursue the many historic cases of murders of trade unionists.”
The AFL-CIO and Guatemala and Honduran trade unions in 2008 first submitted to the U.S. Trade Representative a complaint regarding anti-union violence in Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The complaint was heard by an arbitration panel in 2015 following Guatemala’s failure to implement an 18-point enforcement plan to address worker rights violations that was agreed to in 2013.
In June 2017, a U.S.-Guatemala CAFTA arbitral panel released its long-delayed decision and ruled against the workers, after the panel hearing the case decided worker rights violations documented in the complaint were not affecting trade. Within three months of the decision, five unionists were shot, two fatally.
The International Labor Organization (ILO) last year closed its six-year investigation of violence against Guatemalan union activists and other freedom of association violations, and called on the government to implement reforms, such as pursuing legislation that adheres to ILO conventions covering freedom of association and the right to form unions, and the right to organize and collectively bargain. Yet workers say with the formal closure of the ILO complaint, it is doubtful
Noting the arrests followed the ILO suspension of its investigation in November, TUCA says the government’s action “seems to indicate a trend toward greater rights violations and an increase in anti-union violence.”
Two union activists were murdered in Guatemala and one in Honduras, while dozens of others were targets of violence—including threats of murder, kidnapping and stalking—over the past year, according to two reports released this week.
In Guatemala, “where the unionization rate is less than 1 percent, intolerance and violence against workers highlights, precisely, the mechanisms of terror to limit and, in many cases, to ignore those rights on the part of employers,” according to the Annual Report on Anti-Union Violence. The report, by the Network of Labor Rights Defenders of Guatemala (REDLG), found two more instances of violence in this reporting year (February 2017–February 2018) than in the previous period.
Since 2004, 87 union leaders and activists have been killed in Guatemala, one of the most dangerous nations in the world for union rights activists.
In Honduras, many of those targeted in the 39 documented instances of violence were organizing unions or seeking collective bargaining agreements in the agro-industrial palm oil sector in Colón, according to the report, “Freedom of Association and Democracy” by the Anti-Union Violence Network. Both networks are Solidarity Center partners. (The report is available in English, including an Executive Summary, and Spanish.)
Honduran Union Activist Targeted after Report Released
Isela Juárez is among Honduran union activists targeted with death threats. Credit: Anti-Union Violence Network of Honduras
Two days after the report on Honduras was released this week, union leader Isela Juárez, who has received death threats for her worker rights activism, was followed in a high-speed chase by two men on motorcycles before she took refuge inside the San Pedro Sula City Hall. Juárez, president of the Union of Workers of Municipal, Common and Related Services, (SITRASEMCA), also had been honored for her defense of human rights over the weekend.
The report on Honduras finds that 51 percent of the alleged perpetrators are public officials, including the military police, along with municipal authorities who harassed, coerced and fired nine workers to prevent them from forming unions.
Some 100 unionists and other members of civil society took part in the report’s launch, and several people violently targeted for their activism described their experiences. Since the network in Honduras began documenting cases of anti-union violence in 2015, 69 union activists have been targeted with violence, including seven who were murdered.
The report on Honduras also highlights a correlation between increased violence and the growing role of women in union leadership, and documents cases of unionists attacked during the post-election violence as they sought democracy.
In both countries, poverty and extreme poverty is high, with the World Bank estimating that in 2016, 65 of every 100 Hondurans lived in poverty, and 43 of every 100 in extreme poverty. In Guatemala, despite a growing economy, poverty rose to 59.3 percent in 2014.
The U.S. government has declined to consider anti-union violence in Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) complaints filed by the AFL-CIO and Guatemala and Honduran trade unions.
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.
In northeastern Nigeria, where violence has terrorized communities over the past several years, the Nigerian Union of Teachers is going beyond the difficult task of ensuring students continue to receive an education and teachers get the support they need. Union leaders and members have taken on the enormous job of providing housing, food and medical assistance to some of the thousands of teachers and their families displaced by the upheaval.
In Borno state, where the teachers’ union includes members from 2,000 schools, the union converted nearly all of its conference space into housing for those displaced by the violence. The union has provided food, clothing and shelter to some 200 union members and their families in the past year. It also has created a database of Borno-based union members killed in the insurgency. The union has tallied 388 teachers killed in Borno as of January, the majority of the more than 600 Nigerian teachers killed by suspected Boko Haram in the northeast.
“Teachers are traumatized and hence hold lessons in fear,” says Bulama Abiso, chairman of the Borno state branch of the Nigerian Union of Teachers and a former teacher and principal. “They fear suicide bombers’ infiltration of the school.” Over the past six years, Boko Haram has targeted public and private schools in northeast Nigeria, dousing the facilities with gasoline at night and setting them ablaze. Militants have also hurl homemade bombs at the concrete classrooms.
Across the country, some 19,000 teachers have been displaced, Michael Alogba-Olukoya, told the International Business Times. Alogba-Olukoya is president of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, a Solidarity Center ally.
Despite the incredible personal risk, teachers continue to their jobs in the classroom. To encourage students to return to school, Suleiman Maina, the state representative of the National Union of Teachers in Borno state, says the union is partnering with the government and other stakeholders to keep as many schools as possible open in and around the state capital.
“Our state governor has formed a high-powered committee” which includes representatives of the Nigeria Union of Teachers, principals and other stakeholders,” he says. “Out of about 1,000 primary schools, now 400 in Maiduguri and outskirts are running. It is so encouraging because now in schools, teachers are performing their jobs,” he says.
Adamu Wakawa, principal of Government Girls College in Maiduguri, the Borno state capital, leads a school that also serves as a camp for internally-displaced people. “Managing students and displaced persons is the greatest challenge that we are now facing,” he told the Nigeria Union of Teachers. “As far as I’m concerned, together with the government, effort is being made to see that students do not lose.”
In addition to raising awareness about political violence as a workplace health and safety issue for front-line workers, Abiso, who also serves as vice chairman of the Nigeria Labor Congress for Borno State Council, says the union has opened a door to conversations linking civil society with government, and is a member of key committees considering policy on resettlement of those displaced. Union leaders also are planning for opportunities for youth when the conflict ends.