Unions throughout Morocco are negotiating wage guarantees and other measures to safeguard the livelihoods of the tens of thousands of workers in the country’s hospitality industry—cooks, wait staff, hotel cleaners, tour operators—who have been furloughed or lost their jobs as travel and tourism shut down due to the COVID-19 crisis.
“Workers in the tourism sector have suffered from this pandemic, as the tourism season had just begun in a number of regions, and the infections led to mass cancellations even before the government of Morocco introduced containment measures at a national level,” says Naima Hilali, a staff member of the hotel union affiliated with the Union of Moroccan Workers (UMT) who works at Hotel Lulido in Casablanca. “The hospitality sector will face a massive challenge in recovering for many months or up to a year after the crisis.”
Backed by the UMT, workers say they will not take unpaid “holidays” during furloughs and are demanding a three-month wage guarantee until June. Unions also are negotiating three-months’ wages for temporary and seasonal workers and are assisting laid-of workers employed by subcontracting agencies in getting necessary documents to qualify for a $200 monthly support payment from Morocco’s social security fund. Some subcontractors have not submitted documents needed for workers to benefit from the fund, created for private-sector workers who lose their jobs due to the coronavirus.
“The very strict requirements of collecting unemployment benefits means that many workers will not benefit from the allowances,” says Mohamed Aji, union general secretary at Hotel Farah.
Unions Advance Safety Guidelines for Workers
Unions also are negotiating with employers to ensure safety measures are in place for workers still on the job and are reaching out to workers with information on protecting themselves against the coronavirus.
“UMT shop stewards have taken measures to sensitize workers on the necessary precautions and health measures developed by the Ministry of Health,” says Zakaria Himer, general secretary of the union at Hotel Sofitel. “Other measures include adopting work rotation to reduce the number of workers at the workplace, and giving priority to people with immunity diseases.”
Travel and tourism contributed some seven percent of Morocco’s GDP in 2018, and the likely long-term closure of hotels, restaurants and tour operating companies across the country mean workers will need considerable support for many months.
“The government is making a significant effort through establishing the fund, but this solution does not respond adequately to the massive needs of workers,” says Hilali. “This requires a social and legal strategy to support the workers and employers in the sector. So, we demand the state and public officials to intervene to rescue the sector and its workers.”
The COVID-19 crisis is especially devastating for the 50 million workers who make clothes, shoes and textiles in factories around the world. With declining sales, corporate retailers are canceling orders and factories are laying off workers, most without pay. Those forced to work often must do so in unsafe factories to support themselves and their families. The majority of garment workers are women who are their family’s primary wage earner.
But through their unions, tens of thousands of garment workers in Bangladesh are successfully standing up to employers to ensure they are paid during plant closures and have proper protective equipment if they must report to work.
In Gazipur, factory-level unions and worker union leaders representing 10,000 garment workers at Hop Lun Ltd. factories negotiated key pay and safety measures. Workers will receive their full month’s salary for March as the factory closes from March 26–April 5 during the government lockdown. When they are back on the job, they will have access to hotlines to call if they are ill and need guidance. The phone numbers of the union president and top management also are available so workers can directly access assistance in case of emergency.
The Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) union had recently negotiated a collective bargaining agreement with Hop Lun Ltd. factories that includes a 10 percent annual pay increase.
At Natural Denims Ltd., where some 8,200 workers signed a collective bargaining agreement in January, SGSF worked with factory management to ensure workers receive their full pay during the factory closure. Management also has established a 10-member committee of union members and management volunteers who will assist workers who become ill or face any emergency during the closure, and are developing plans to address worker safety in coming months.
In Ukraine, as workers face employer efforts to shortchange their pay, lay them off or take other adverse actions during the COVID-19 crisis, many are turning to Labor Initiatives, a Solidarity Center-supported Ukrainian NGO that provides legal assistance to workers.
Teleworking from home under Ukraine’s COVID-19 quarantine, the six-member staff, along with eight legal student interns, are fielding questions from e-mail, Facebook, Viber and the organization’s hotline.
“We are working until 1 or 2 a.m. each day,” says George Sandul, Labor Initiatives legal director.
In the first week of the quarantine, Labor Initiatives lawyers provided some 100 consultations, and the organization’s FAQ page on labor rights during the quarantine now has more than 60,000 views. The website, Our Kyiv, also posted the FAQs and reports 100,000 views, says Sandul.
Labor Initiatives staff are addressing questions from many workers reporting their employer is not providing safeguards against the novel coronavirus. Railroad drivers, grocery store workers and health care workers, especially in small cities, say they have no personal protective equipment. Ukraine’s occupational safety and health law stipulates that if working conditions could result in employees becoming sick or injured, an employee may refuse work if the employer does not provide safe conditions.
Yet many employers are not abiding by the law, says Sandul—unless workers are represented by unions. For instance, at Nova Poshta, a logistical company where 14,000 of the 30,000 workers are union members, the union successfully pushed the employer to provide antiseptics and protective masks and gloves, in addition to paid leave.
All Nova Poshta delivery offices are now equipped with special transparent barriers to better protect operators working with clients. In addition, Nova Poshta provided one month’s health insurance for all employees, telework options and paid leave. Labor Initiatives lawyers provided legal assistance to workers during an organizing campaign at the company in 2018, and also helped them negotiate a strong collective bargaining agreement.
Although Parliament passed a temporary law effective during the quarantine that provides for telework and unlimited vacations, Sandul says the measures are implemented at employers’ discretion, and the law does not offer guidance on how to implement it. The varying company policies that result, and the challenges in ensuring employers honor requirements for some paid leave, mean the calls, messages and Facebook posts keep pouring in for Labor Initiatives staff.
Shutdown Hits Ukrainian Workers Hard
Up to 40 percent of workers in Kyiv, Ukraine’s capital, could end up unemployed due to COVID-19. Gig workers—the informal sector comprises up to 35 percent of Ukraine’s economy—are especially vulnerable, and are not covered under the emergency legislation. Many will continue working through the quarantine, risking their health, without any protective guarantees from their companies.
The coronavirus crisis “showed the giant systemic problems with informal work,” says Sandul. While the government is fining employers $1,700 for each informal worker who lost a job, “informal workers are very vulnerable in this situation because they have no wages,” he says.
Another government move also may make it more difficult for workers to get by. Small employers received a moratorium on their required contributions to the country’s social insurance fund through April 30, along with tax breaks. The new policy may reduce the insurance fund and make it more difficult to pay sick leave and even pensions, says Sandul.
A ‘Tragic Situation’ if Proposed Labor Law Was Enacted
The COVID-19 crisis brings into stark relief the potentially harsh outcome of labor law revisions the Ukrainian Parliament has considered in recent months, one that Sandul and other legal experts say will be back on the table after the pandemic is contained.
“The [proposed] law doesn’t cover OSH [occupational safety and health] at all,” says Sandul. If the proposed law were in place now, “the front-line workers who keep critical services running during this crisis would have no way to protect their own lives. It would be a tragic situation.”
One draft law, still in Parliament, would create an at-will employment system with no collective bargaining in which employees may be fired at the employer’s whim. It has been denounced by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and other global bodies as violating the freedom to form unions. It also would result in short-term individual labor contracts and zero hours contracts; and overtime paid at a fifth of current rates.
“We need to provide people with wages to eat something, literally,” says Sandul. “If this law was passed, Ukraine would be vulnerable.”
Across the Middle East and North Africa, unions and worker associations are mobilizing to educate workers about their rights during the COVID-19 crisis, provide them with resources to protect themselves and their families, and push for fair treatment at the workplace.
The Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) convened a meeting in recent days with leaders of migrant worker associations and the Solidarity Center to discuss such issues as expired residency, late salaries and unsafe living arrangements—migrant workers there, as in many countries, are housed in crowded conditions, with eight to 12 people per room, or even dozens sleeping in dormitory settings. KTUF, which is hosting an office of migrant community volunteers and educators (MOVE), plans to work closely with the Public Authority for Manpower to solve urgent issues.
Participants then donned gloves and masks and fanned out to grocery stores to help distribute some of the 100,000 copies of “Healthy Measures to Protect Yourself from Coronavirus,” a brochure available in Tagalog, Hindi, and Bengali. KTUF now is translating it into Sinhala and French to distribute among the more than 3 million migrant workers in Kuwait who are engaged in construction and as domestic workers.
Teachers Union Creates Fund to Help All Workers
In Jordan, where the government suspended all public and private enterprises, the Teachers’ Union in Jordan created a $705,218 fund—half of the union’s liquid assets—to assist workers throughout Jordan, and called on the government to launch a health fund to combat the pandemic, urging unions, affiliates and business to donate. During a televised speech from the union’s emergency meeting, union Deputy Director Nasser Al-Nawasrah offered the union’s unlimited assistance to the government to combat the pandemic.
“This ‘holiday’ should not be counted toward employees’ annual vacation days, or considered as unpaid leave, nor should any actions be taken that would detract from his/her labor rights, or the termination of his/her services,” Nijmeh said in a statement.
Sadaqa, a Solidarity Center partner, urged the Jordanian government to allow flextime for parents who must care for their children with schools closed, and the Phenix Center, an economic research organization and Solidarity Center partner, urged employers and the government to ensure workers are protected at the workplace, called for workers to receive wages when infected with the coronavirus, and urged employers to allow teleworking to limit spread of the disease.
Palestine Union Members Assist Workers in Staying Safe
Beginning in early March, the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU) undertook an array of outreach to safeguard workers’ health. The PGFTU distributed sterilizers, masks, and informational fliers to Palestinians at areas where they cross to Israel to work, including Qalandia, Tarqomya, Al-Thahriya, Qalqilia, Burqan, Al-Khan Al-Ahmar, Ne’elein, Al-Taybeh and Dir Al-Ghsoun. The federation launched a long-term campaign to sterilize commercial buildings, taxi stations and institutions in Ramallah and union members sterilized public transport vehicles and taxi stations in partnership with the Ministry of Health in Jericho.
Union members visited the Barta’a barrier and conducted medical examination for workers and distributed fliers on coronavirus prevention, and the PGFTU also distributed food packages and sterilizers to families in Bethlehem. The PGFTU urged employers to pay workers normal wages during the emergency in accordance with labor law.
Probationary workers in Tunisia won back their jobs at a Dutch-owned call center after an employer fired them under the pretext of the novel coronavirus. The General Federation of Information Technology and Services, the union that represents the workers, enlisted the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), which sent a letter to the CEO and conducted a Facebook campaign to ensure the workers were reinstated. Together with the technology workers union, the UGTT, which has called for all call centers to be closed, and is demanding workers be paid and teleworking be implemented.
The UGTT has pledged 100,000 Tunisian dinars ($32,240) toward a fund to combat the coronavirus and support workers who lost income due to the virus. UGTT is calling on workers to donate a work day, and their pay will be directed to the special fund, which it says could be as much as 90 billion dinars ($31 billion). The UGTT and various government agencies will oversee the fund. The federation plans to postpone all planned strikes.
The UGTT is demanding the government continue social protections during the crisis, and guarantee the wages and rights of private-sector workers and in hard-hit businesses, such as restaurants and tourism.
Kurdistan United Workers Union (KUWU) leaders discussed COVID-19 in interviews on popular satellite channels as Rudaw and K24 and encouraged union members to follow the prevention procedures to avoid spreading the infection.
A leader of Colombia’s national petroleum union barely escaped with his life following an early-morning assassination attempt Monday.
The attack on Jonathan Urbano Higuera, president of the USO local for Puerto Gaitán, in Meta Department, occurred as he traveled in a vehicle assigned by the National Protection Unit, a government entity that assigns protection to endangered social leaders.
The USO reports that two armed men on motorcycles approached the vehicle and fired. Bullets shattered the rear window, and it was the quick thinking of the driver who saved lives and prevented injuries.
Urbano Higuera and four other USO leaders in Puerto Gaitán all have received harassing phone calls and death threats this year—as have fellow leaders from across Colombia, including in Huila, Magdalena Medio, Putumayo, Tolima and the capital, Bogotá.
In a statement, the union is calling on authorities to full investigate this incident and all threats against union leaders, as well as to guarantee that their ability to exercise union rights be protected. The USO is a Solidarity Center partner. In early February, the Colombian Workers Federation denounced acts of intimidation and overt threats—including a flier distributed by the Black Eagles, a far-right paramilitary group—to union leaders, members of the National Strike Committee and other social leaders.
Meanwhile, Colombian teachers are in the streets today in a “Strike for Our Lives,” to denounce the murders of and threats to social justice, rights activists and community leaders.
Within the first 52 days of this year, 51 Colombian social leaders—including union leaders and worker rights advocates—have been murdered.
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