In Thailand, where automotive assembly plants have temporarily shut down due to COVID-19, the closures have reverberated throughout the country’s supply chain, with many small- and medium-sized businesses laying off workers or freezing or cutting their pay. So when workers, unsure of their rights, turned for support from union organizer Mongkol Yang-ngam, he responded quickly—and creatively.
Mongkol, a seven-year organizer with the Thai Confederation of Electronic, Electrical Appliances, Auto and Metal Workers (TEAM), a long-time Solidarity Center partner, set up a “Labor Clinic” on Facebook. There, he answers questions submitted to the page and to reach as many workers as possible, posts video clips of himself responding to queries. But like any good union organizer, he also is taking the opportunity to educate and inform workers—through comedic skits that include playing guitar and singing labor songs he composed. His approach is a success: His Facebook Live events between March 31 and today, during which he answered questions and updated government’s policies, have drawn 22,000 views.
Mongkol, 47 (nicknamed Poo, or “crab” in Thai), has been instrumental in helping workers form unions at workplaces such as Volvo Truck, 3K battery (owned by Hitachi), and many automotive parts factories that supply to major brands such as Toyota or Honda. He also serves as a paralegal at the Thai Labor Solidarity Committee (TLSC), a national-level trade union organization with more than 270,000 members. At TLSC, he advises workers on their right and assists them in filing grievances with the Labor Court.
Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Piya Kritayakirana recently interviewed Mongkol about his successful outreach to workers during the novel coronavirus crisis. The interview, conducted in Thai and translated, has been edited for clarity and length.
Piya Kritayakirana: Can you please give a bit of your background and how you became a trade union organizer for TEAM?
Mongkol Yang-ngam: I grew up in Samut Sakhon (an hour outside Bangkok) where my family had a small business, and I got a job at Thai Sin rubber factory near my home. The factory was already unionized. When I was eligible to apply for union membership, there was a vacant position on the union board, so I applied and got the position.
I worked eight years in the factory, and also did an extra work to earn more income. My extra work required me to carry heavy rubber parts hundreds of times a day. I quit the factory as my body started to give out, and worked at restaurants, where I witnessed how badly workers were treated by customers, making me want to do something to help exploited workers.
PK: From my understanding, your responsibilities include organizing new unions and providing legal advocacy and assistance. Can you describe both?
MY: Trade union organizing and legal advocacy have to happen concurrently. In Thailand, employers view unions as rivals. We have to make workers confident that the union could stand against the attack and can co-exist with the employer. We have to prepare them through rights and legal education. My work providing legal assistance and advocacy is crucial, as many workers in Thailand cannot afford lawyers. The TLSC Legal Department provides free legal service and representation to fill this gap.
PK: How does the COVID-19 pandemic affect your work, both in terms of trade union organizing and legal advocacy?
MY: The pandemic heavily affects our organizing work, as we cannot meet face-to-face with workers. We try to maintain conversation though social media platforms such as Facebook or Line (a messaging app), and sometimes call to check up on the workers we are trying to organize.
The impact on legal advocacy is also huge. There are already many violations, such as layoffs or dismissals without severance pay. Court appointments are being postponed due to the pandemic, and workers seeking relief are running out of money and are forced to agree to the employers’ poor offers. Most employers are using the pandemic as an excuse to deny unions’ bargaining proposals, even when the records clearly show their operations have not been hurt by the crisis.
PK: When and why did you start the Labor Clinic Facebook Page?
MY: I have to give most credit Brother Chansin Sapnonwai (former union leader at Honda Automobile who briefly worked as a trade union organizer with the global union IndustriALL). In mid-2019, we both recognized workers did not like to study about labor law, but liked to watch things that were entertaining. We then came up with the idea to make the labor law education entertaining. We tried to make video clips that were not too long, to attract more workers’ attention.
PK: What are the formats you use in Labor Clinic Facebook Page
MY: We try to use all available formats. I just did Facebook Live for an hour to update the situation from each company. I also use this to show how unions can be the solution for workers. I said in the Facebook Live that unionized companies such as Auto Alliance or Ford are paying workers higher than the legal requirement during the temporary suspension, while many nonunion companies ask workers to agree to wages lower than the law requires.
PK: What are the violations you find during the COVID-19 pandemic?
MY: Most violations deal with the employers’ non-compliance with the law on temporary suspension of business. Section 75 of the Labor Protection Act requires employers who temporarily suspend business to pay 75 percent of wages to their workers. Many employers invoked these clauses, but then told the workers to apply for social security unemployment benefits rather than covering their workers’ reduced wages. This already happens to many hotel workers.
Some companies ask workers to resign without compensation, and promise workers they would be rehired once the situation got better. I encouraged workers to be realistic. First, who knows when anything would get better? Second, how can you put all your trust in the company? Or do you put a company’s hat on and think that it would actually be to their benefit to recruit a new and younger workforce with lower wages and fewer benefits? I encourage workers to get what they could for now.
PK: How do the workers who view your Facebook page use the knowledge and information you give them?
MY: After watching, they are more aware of their rights. They are also more curious and keep coming back with more questions. Once the workers learn of their rights and realize the employers have fooled them on many occasions, they become very concerned and very aware.
PK: What more do you think Thai labor movement should do to help workers during the COVID-19 crisis?
MY: First, union leaders have to keep themselves updated of the situations and policies. The government has no consistency and the employers look for any opportunity to put all burdens on workers. The work of the union leaders and activists has to be more proactive. We can no longer wait for workers to come to us with questions but we have reach out to them and try to dig in on the violations that happen to them.
My organization, TEAM, is currently compiling all the new government policies to inform and communicate broadly with workers. TLSC leadership is also talking about setting up a grievance filing center.
We also have to discover the mutual interests and concerns of all workers, educate them about the benefits of union membership and show how unions can be the solution.
PK: Lastly, what message of solidarity would you like to convey for workers around the world who are struggling through similar circumstances?
MY: This is a global crisis, and when it happens, it always impact workers the most. I want to see the global labor movement to come out and show support for each other. We have to build awareness for workers all over the world that we are the essential people who keep the world moving during the time of crisis. When we are aware, and we believe in ourselves, it will be the time we truly change the world for the better of workers.
The Maldives Trade Union Congress (MTUC) and its affiliates say the government must rapidly address the economic and health impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, urging passage of occupational safety and health and labor legislation and an economic stimulus package targeted to protect jobs and income security of the island nation’s most vulnerable workers.
“All actions and policies must prioritize and protect worker rights and ensure decent work for all, with the inclusion of the migrant worker population in the country. Further, policies must be developed in consultation with trade union and employer organizations,” MTUC says in a statement.
With its population spread across 188 islands, Maldives is highly dependent upon travel and tourism, which has been hard hit in the coronavirus crisis, and workers are suffering the brunt of the impact. More than 11,000 resort workers, including migrant workers, are on unpaid leave or have received pay cuts while undocumented migrant workers were forced to leave the resort islands and are trapped in the capital, Malé, unable to return home.
Union Leader Targeted with COVID-19 as Cover
Union activists say the government issued contradictory regulations in a scramble to keep the resorts operating. With rapidly changing regulations, Ibrahim Ziyad, branch leader of the Tourism Employees Association of Maldives (TEAM), was arrested and detained last month after returning to work for violating coronavirus travel restrictions. He was fired a day after being arrested, a move seen by TEAM as an act of retaliation for his union activities, which have paved the way for safe working conditions for employees.
Ziyad, who has since been released, still faces a six month jail sentence because charges have not been dropped.
A staff member at JA Manafaru, a five-star luxury resort in the North of Maldives, Ziyad was asked to go on annual leave by management following an announcement by the Maldives Health Protection Agency (MHPA) of a new 14-day travel restriction to combat the spread of COVID-19. Ziyad departed to his island of residence, HA Kelaa on March 14 (a day before implementation of the restriction), planning to return to work later on. While the MHPA announcement mentioned restrictions on travel between inhabited islands, it allowed for resort employees to travel between their homes and their workplaces.
Upon completion of his annual leave, Ziyad returned to the resort and was admitted by hotel security. Unaware of a further notice by the MHPA that restricted all forms of travel, which was circulated internally to hotel staff on March 18, Ziyad was visited in his quarters by the human resources manager and resort doctor who said that he was in violation of MHPA orders and would have to remain in isolation pending the resort doctor’s clearance.
The following evening Ziyad was arrested by police and sentenced to a 15-day prison term pending investigations. He was terminated from employment a day later.
On March 25, the MHPA issued a new notice allowing resort employees to travel between resorts for employment and on holidays.
Sabina, a domestic worker from Bangladesh, has worked in Jordan for the past eight years, sending money home each month to her mother, sister and 11-year-old son who rely on her to survive. But with the COVID-19 crisis, she has been out of work for more than a month.
“I haven’t eaten for five days,” she said. And neither has her son or family.
At least one-third of the 75,000 migrant domestic in Jordan have lost their incomes and in some cases, their jobs—a scenario repeated around the world as migrant workers, who often work in poverty-level jobs in countries that offer no legal protections or afford them safety nets such as unemployment pay are left stranded during the pandemic.
Some countries like Jordan even make it difficult for migrant workers to receive private contributions, with donations required to be coordinated through the Ministry of Social Development. Organizations such as the Alliance Against Violence and Harassment created a low-profile initiative to distribute packages to migrant workers, especially undocumented migrant workers who are most likely to be without employment now, by coordinating with private donors who provide food and other necessities.
Labor activists around the world report that migrant workers are sharing similar experiences during the coronavirus pandemic. Although they pick our food and clean our houses, migrants and refugees are disproportionately vulnerable to exclusion, stigma and discrimination, particularly when undocumented. More than 200 million migrant workers live and work in other countries, supporting another 800 million family members in their origin countries.
“The coronavirus is blind to borders, citizenship and migration status,” a global coalition comprising dozens of civil society organizations, including the Solidarity Center, say in a statement. “To save lives, public officials must take the lead in respecting non-discrimination and ensuring equal treatment for all, regardless of migration status.” The Solidarity Center also has joined its partners, the Women Migration Network and a coalition led by the Migrant Forum in Asia, in urging governments and employers to uphold the rights of migrant workers.
With the COVID-19 crisis, many are trapped in their destination countries, unable to return home because of closed borders or lack of money to pay for the trip. Often they are trapped by legal restrictions such as the kafala system, which ties workers to a single employer in many Gulf countries. Some are sent to crowded detention camps, where the coronavirus could rapidly spread. Others are forced to live and work in unsafe and unsanitary conditions, picking produce, manufacturing “essential” products, cleaning shops or laboring in construction. They are left out of government support measures, without pay, access to health services or even food.
Unions and their allies are elevating the rights of migrant workers during the COVID-19 crisis, providing direct assistance even as they push for government recognition and support for those without jobs. They are negotiating with employers to provide masks, gloves and other safety gear, and are providing migrant workers with information on taking steps to protect themselves and their families. Below is a snapshot reported by Solidarity Center staff working with unions around the globe.
The Alliance Against Violence & Harassment in Jordan, a Solidarity Center partner, is demanding the government grant migrant workers legal residency during COVID-19, as many permits will expire during lockdown. The Alliance is also urging the government to grant assistance to migrant workers, who have little or no pay but cannot return to their country of origin. The Alliance also asks for safety gear for migrant workers still on the job. The domestic workers solidarity network in Jordan shares information on COVID-19 and its impact on workers in multiple languages on its Facebook page.
The Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan, a Solidarity Center partner, converted a hotel it owns into a field hospital for nearly 200 migrant workers who returned from other countries and were ordered into quarantine. Union members provided food and care for the returned workers. Kyrgyzstan migrant workers provide more than one-third of the country’s GDP in money they send home. The Solidarity Center, in coalition with labor and human rights groups, is gathering information on worker rights abuses throughout Central Asia, including migrant worker exploitation.
In Bangladesh, BOMSA, a migrant rights NGO, created COVID awareness-raising leaflets specifically for migrant domestic workers returning to Bangladesh from abroad. Members are distributing soap, disinfectant and other cleaning supplies, and encouraging workers to maintain social distance. Another migrant rights NGO, WARBE-DF, is distributing COVID-19 awareness-raising leaflets to returned migrant workers and their communities; and as thousands of migrant workers return, the organization is engaging in local government coronavirus response committees to ensure inclusion of migrant-specific responses. Both are longtime Solidarity Center partners.
Many migrant workers do not cross borders, but travel from rural villages to cities seeking employment. In Bangladesh’s Konbari area, garment workers who are internal migrants are not eligible for relief aid, which relies on voting lists for distribution. The Solidarity Center-supported Worker Center is connecting with local government officials and has provided nearly 200 names for relief, and is fielding more calls from internal migrant workers seeking assistance.
Across Tunisia, unions and civil society organizations have joined to collect and distribute in-kind donations to assist migrant workers. The Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) is among civil society organizations, Parliament members and other public leaders urging the government step up protection of migrants and refugees in Tunisia to ensure their right to health is guaranteed in the same way as all Tunisians. The group also called on the government to examine alternatives to detention of refugees and migrants who are vulnerable to disease and stranded in the El Ouardia and Ben Guerdan centers.
The UGTT defends all citizens and migrant workers, says UGTT spokesperson Sami Al-Tahiri.
“We are all human beings, irrespective of gender, race or religion. Diversity does not negate the unity of humanity across the world.”
In Sri Lanka, where borders closed March 19, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs implemented an online portal, Contact Sri Lanka, so migrant workers could register and be connected with embassies in the countries where they work. Some 17,000 registered last week, more than 6,000 of whom are working in Gulf countries. The Sri Lankan Embassy in Kuwait is making travel documents available online so migrant workers will not need to apply for them in person.
Kuwait has offered an amnesty period through April enabling migrant workers without documents to travel home, and the Kuwait Trade Union Federation is urging the government to quickly address migrant workers basic needs, including facilitating access to health care. The workers are now housed in 12 shelters until travel arrangements are made.
Solidarity Center partner, Turkmen.News, produced a widely distributed video on migration, the coronavirus and state indifference to their plight.
While workers around the world scramble for physical and economic safety amid the global pandemic, some factory owners in Southeast Asia see the crisis as an opportunity to attack workers’ unions to increase profits and deny worker voice.
On March 28, the Myan Mode garment factory in Yangon, Myanmar, permanently fired all 520 union members working in the factory and withheld March wages, citing a decrease in orders due to COVID-19. However, the owners kept all 700 workers who are not members of the union, and the factory continues to operate.
The Myan Mode union is one of the strongest in the country’s garment industry, with a history of strikes to improve wages and working conditions. For the Myan Mode garment worker and its president, Maung Moe, the blatantly discriminatory firings send a clear message: “They want to get rid of our union, get rid of our voices, get rid of the requirement to treat us like human beings, once and for all.” He added, “They see the coronavirus as an opportunity get away with it.”
The firings came just minutes after union leaders held a contentious meeting with management in which workers demanded an end to mandatory overtime due to fear of contracting COVID-19. Shortly after, management announced the immediate termination of all union workers over the factory loudspeakers.
Workers Globally Fear Employers Will Use COVID-19 to Silence Them
In recent years, employers have increasingly used temporary factory closures to break unions. In many unionized garment factories around Southeast Asia, owners briefly close the factory only to quickly reopen with new, non-union workers. Owners often change technical registration details such as the factory’s name or registrant to circumvent labor laws while maintaining the same core operation. The only change is the elimination of the unions.
With such a tactic already pervasive in the industry, garment workers fear that the global pandemic—with factories forced to temporarily close far and wide—will become a pretext for eliminating their unions. Myan Mode’s Korea-based owner did not wait for the factory’s full closure but simply cited the need for a partial workforce reduction as grounds to dismiss all of its unionized workers.
The Myan Mode workers, mostly young women from rural villages (Myanmar’s garment workforce is more than 90 percent women), refused to accept their dismissals. Hundreds of union members established a camp in late March in front of the factory gates, a common union tactic in Myanmar. Union members eat, sleep, sing union songs and otherwise live at the camp, sitting on the sun-baked dirt with nothing more than a nylon tarp to shield them from the hot sun.
Factory ownership has offered compensation to union members who accept termination and leave the protest camp. As a result, the union has seen its membership numbers diminish. A core group, however, refuses to leave for anything short of reinstatement. Nearly 100 fired union members remain and were joined on April 6 by 40 non-union workers, who elected to strike in solidarity.
Protest camp ranks have also been reinforced by workers from nearby garment factories who are members of the same union federation, the Federation of Garment Workers Myanmar (FGWM). So far, the union has chosen not to physically block the factory gates to shut down production, another common tactic in the country. A swarm of security around the factory patrols to intimidate union leaders from doing so, and many of Myan Mode’s union leaders already face legal charges from assisting strikes at other unionized factories in recent months.
After five days of sit-down protests, factory ownership finally agreed to negotiate with the union, but has refused to reinstate the fired workers.
Undeterred, the protest continues, and union leaders have begun reaching out to high-profile European brands whose goods are produced at the factory. The protesters recently traveled en masse to both the Korean consulate and the Myanmar labor conciliation office to push for reinstatement.
On April 3, the factory owner finally agreed to pay the dismissed workers their March salaries. But many union members continue to sit firmly in front of the factory gates to demand reinstatement.
“If we don’t win our jobs back, I don’t know how we can feed ourselves or our families back in our home villages,” says Moe, the union president. “If we don’t protect the union at the factory, the wages won’t be enough, the workload will destroy our bodies, and there will be no safety protections. There’s no future for us without the union.”
Employers Target Union for Improving Working Conditions
The minimum wage for garment workers in Myanmar is roughly $3.50 per day. Myan Mode workers, through several hard-fought strikes, won a union-negotiated agreement that provides for approximately $4.75 per day. A typical one-bedroom apartment in Myanmar industrial areas costs roughly $100 per month. The notorious dormitories employers frequently rent to workers typically demand half of their total wages.
According to workers, the union is being targeted because of its recent success addressing egregious working conditions. “With the union, we have some rights and some freedom as workers, unlike before,” said Moe. “For example, our union won the right to ‘gate passes’ to leave the factory when we need to during work hours, whereas before we were not allowed to leave, literally locked in. We’ve also won more reasonable production targets, so our bodies aren’t quickly broken.”
More than half a million people in Myanmar work in garment factories, and a wave of strikes over the past year increased the number of garment workers in unions, to about 50,000 members. While many have hailed the growth of the industry as a sign of Myanmar’s economic development, harsh poverty persists: Myanmar’s minimum wage is near the lowest in Asia, life expectancy is the lowest on the continent, rampant sexual harassment is reported in the factories, and workers frequently live in company-owned dormitory-style slums. In a country with little to no safety net and weak labor laws, the union movement in the garment industry represents workers’ best hope of escaping lives in sweatshops and winning anything resembling decent living conditions.
The National Health Workers Union of Liberia (NAHWUL) warns that healthcare workers and other citizens are at increased risk as President George Weah’s increasingly unpopular administration continues to shed public-sector jobs—including 448 healthcare workers last month—even as the COVID-19 pandemic gathers steam. As of April 5, 2020, Liberia is reporting 13 confirmed cases and three deaths, which NAHWUL says includes one healthcare worker’s confirmed diagnosis and the death of another.
“This is no time to reduce medical capacity, especially during a global pandemic,” said NAHWUL Assistant Secretary-General, Deemi T. Dearzrua, adding that the union is concerned not only about the livelihoods of its members and their dependents, but the lives of citizens needing medical care.
NAHWUL reports that 448 of its members—or almost 4 percent of the union’s membership—last month were forced to leave their jobs and accept a pension without the legally-required notice period and even though they did not meet the criteria for forced retirement. Under the law governing public sector workers in Liberia, workers are entitled to three-months’ notice and are not eligible for compulsory retirement until age 65 or completion of 25 years’ service. Those who lost their jobs include doctors, nurses and pharmacists.
“Nobody knew the jobs were gone until our pensioned-off members called to inquire about their unpaid February pay,” said Dearzrua, adding that the union needs government to communicate with NAHWUL about changes affecting its members.
NAHWUL says the capacity of its remaining members is also at risk because they are being expected to report for work without adequate personal protective equipment (PPE), training on how to safely treat contagious patients or government-provided COVID-19 information. During the 2014-2016 Ebola outbreak, Liberia lost 8 percent of its doctors, nurses and midwives to Ebola. A 2015 WHO survey found that healthcare workers in three West Africa countries were between 21 times and 32 times more likely to be infected with Ebola than people in the general population.
The Liberian government has not paid many public-sector workers’ February and March salaries, including those of healthcare workers, whose salaries were reduced last year under a so-called wage harmonization program. The salary-reduction program, which the government claims was necessitated by loan conditions imposed by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), last year led to strikes by teachers, healthcare workers and others.
In Liberia, the Solidarity Center supports NAHWUL’s advocacy for bargaining rights, conducts basic trade union training for its members and educates healthcare women workers about gender issues and their rights.
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