Zimbabwe: Abductions Targeting Worker Rights Defenders

Zimbabwe: Abductions Targeting Worker Rights Defenders

Doctors in Harare are protesting the abduction and disappearance of the acting president of the Zimbabwean Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), Peter Magombeyi. His disappearance is part of a pattern of violence against civil society defenders in the country, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and other rights groups.

More than 50 trade union leaders and opposition activists have been abducted in the middle of the night, many of them tortured, in Zimbabwe since January of this year, according to rights groups.

The  death threats Magombeyi received before his disappearance closely parallel those targeting ZCTU President Peter Mutasa and Secretary General Japhet Moyo.

“What is frightening to some of us,” says Moyo, “[is that] the network cell phone numbers used are the same as those that were used in sending threats to myself previously.”

An attempted fact-finding visit by a delegation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in February this year resulted in denial of visas for most of the delegation and the arrest of  ITUC-Africa Secretary General Kwasi Adu Amankwah by state security. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, yesterday began a 10-day visit to assess Zimbabwe’s performance regarding respect of citizens’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Ongoing death threats and a sustained government crackdown have forced Moyo and Mutasa into hiding, impeding ZCTU’s ability to effectively represent its members and ensure workers’ right to freedom of association. Citing failure to act, the ZCTU last month petitioned Zimbabwe police to investigate and bring to justice individuals who continue to threaten its leaders. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) dismissed reports of kidnappings Tuesday as “alleged abductions as a means to tarnish Zimbabwe’s image and compromise its security.”

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s economy flounders and inflation and price hikes  complicate Zimbabwean workers’ already difficult lives.

In the aftermath of a civil society protest against rising prices and a financial tax increase in October last year,  some trade unionists were beaten; Mutasa, Moyo and 33 other trade unionists were arrested; senior ZCTU leaders were forced into hiding; and ZCTU Harare offices were cordoned off by some 150 police.  After ZCTU helped organize a national strike in January this year to again protest price hikes, violent clashes resulted in 12 deaths and 320 injuries, blamed by human rights organizations on the army and police. Police seeking Mutasa after the protests allegedly assaulted his brother at his home and intimidated ZCTU staff. Arrested and charged with subversion for their role in the January protests, Mutasa and Moyo were left in legal limbo for months, after the Zimbabwe government repeatedly postponed their trials.

The majority of Zimbabwean workers eke out a living in the informal economy, struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Those with formal jobs often do not fare well either. A 2016 study by the Solidarity Center found that 80,000 workers in formal jobs did not receive wages or benefits on time, if at all. In many cases, they made only enough to get to work.

Bangladesh Garment Workers Raise New Fire Alarm

Bangladesh Garment Workers Raise New Fire Alarm

A devastating fire in Dhaka’s Jhilpar slum earlier this month highlights the deplorable living conditions suffered by low-wage workers producing clothing for the global marketplace in Bangladesh’s highly profitable garment sector. The August 16 fire destroyed thousands of tin shacks and left an estimated 15,000 families homeless. This week, Solidarity Center partners Akota Garments Workers Federation (AGWF), Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) and AWAJ Foundation distributed relief funds to 175 union families impacted by the fire but say that only higher wages can provide a long-term solution to dangerous housing.

“Garment workers, many of whom are young women supporting families, deserve wages that afford them reliably safe living conditions,” says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan.

Fire disasters are a regular occurrence in Bangladesh’s major cities, killing hundreds of people in recent years. Dhaka and Chittagong, where many garment workers live and work, are especially prone to fires. At least 100 people have died in Dhaka fires so far this year; more than 70 were killed in February when a fire razed several Dhaka apartment buildings also being used to warehouse chemicals.

While garment workers are safer on the job due to progress made through the Bangladesh Accord—an enforceable international agreement between unions and more than 190 global apparel brands and retailers that covered more than 1,600 factories last year—low wages are forcing garment workers to live in dangerous slums. Dhaka has more than 5,000 slums inhabited by an estimated four million people, including children.

Although Bangladesh’s garment worker minimum wage increased in 2018 to $95 per month—the first increase in more than five years—wages are not keeping pace with the rising cost of living in areas populated by the apparel sector and employers are not paying workers a living wage.

“Poverty wages are forcing garment workers into over-crowded slums, where fire and other health risks are high,” said Ryan.

Through the efforts of AGWF, SGSF and AWAJ Foundation, with Solidarity Center support, 175 union families whose homes were destroyed in the August 16 Jhilpar fire yesterday received relief funds to help them rebuild. Unions will continue to inventory their member’s losses and needs and distribute additional funds as they become available.

Relief recipient Shima, who lost her home in the fire, said that union assistance gives garment workers like her the strength and means to rebuild, but that workers must earn enough to afford safe housing.

“Relief funds after disasters are only temporary,” she said.

Workers attempting to secure their fair share of revenue generated by the apparel sector—$32 billion in 2018—have been met with blatant intimidation by factory owners. 11,000 Bangladesh garment workers were fired in the wake of strikes they waged in December 2018 and January 2019 to protest low wages. Many seeking to form unions or take collective action were physically threatened and attacked, and some were arrested on trumped-up charges.

At least 1,304 garment workers were killed and at least 3,877 injured in factory fires and other workplace incidents in Bangladesh from November 2012 through April 2019, according to data compiled by the Solidarity Center.


Liberian Rubber Workers Face Job Cuts, Rights Reversals

Liberian Rubber Workers Face Job Cuts, Rights Reversals

After more than 10 years of partnership with agricultural workers on the Firestone Liberia rubber plantation in Harbel, the company is increasingly backtracking, including the unilateral firing of 13 percent of its workforce, says the Agriculture Agro-Processing and Industrial Workers Union of Liberia (AAIWUL). As the country’s largest employer—and therefore its employment-standards trendsetter—the union says the company’s reversal is having devastating consequences on the livelihood, rights and dignity of Liberia’s workers.

“Although we want jobs, we want good jobs,”  said AAIWUL General Secretary Edwin Cisco. “Firestone Liberia is key.”

Workers’ gains on the Firestone Liberia plantation have increased in successive negotiated agreements with the company since 2008, including an end to child labor, improved pay, lower daily production quotas for rubber tappers, mechanized transportation of latex, improved housing, free education for workers’ children and access to medical clinics for workers and their families. The company’s partnership with its workers and subsequent improvements in conditions and pay have set country-wide standards for acceptable conditions of work.

“Generation after generation of workers suffered. We cannot go back,” said Cisco.

Unfortunately, since former president Ellen Johnson Sirleaf’s leadership ended in 2018, Firestone Liberia is increasingly reversing direction. The company, AAIWUL says, is reneging on its promises and undermining the union with unlawful dismissals of its leaders and large-scale layoffs of full-time union members, who are being hired back as contract workers.

“They are paid off with pain in their hearts,” said AAIWUL President Abraham Nimene.

Firestone Liberia is setting a bad example for other employers investing in the country, including multinational palm oil companies such as Golden Veroleum, which AAIWUL is organizing. Workers harvesting palm oil sought the union’s help to remedy appalling conditions—including workers’ use of dangerous chemicals without personal protection or other safety measures.

In the union’s most serious challenge, Firestone Liberia is increasingly funneling full-time union members into informal contract positions. 320 workers laid off earlier this year were rehired as contractors, joining 2,505 other contractors already working without the benefits accruing to full-time workers. Contract employees are doing the same work as full-time workers, says AAIWUL, for less pay, under worse conditions and without the wages, benefits and social protections enjoyed by full-time workers who are represented by the union. The company says that more layoffs are coming next month.

“They are going to turn the entire workforce into precarious work, and we can’t allow this to happen,” said Nimene.

By AAIWUL’s calculations, 830 jobs have been lost so far this year, after Firestone imposed transfers to contract positions, lay-offs and forced retirements. Although the company says job losses are caused by concessions it made to the country under the Sirleaf government as well as low natural rubber production and decreasing global natural rubber prices, AAIWUL criticizes the company’s lack of transparency in its financial hardship claim. Wages remain low, says AAIWUL. Although president and managing director of Firestone-Liberia, Edmundo Garcia, told the Liberia House of Representatives in 2018 that the lowest wage paid to locally hired workers is $8.36 per day, AAIWUL says that the company’s minimum daily wage for local hires is only $5.60 per day. Production on the plantation continues, said Cisco, but with increasingly exploited, precarious workers.

“We want … the basic labor rights of workers maintained,” he said.

Firestone Liberia, an indirect subsidiary of Bridgestone Americas Inc., is the largest contiguous natural-rubber producing operation in the world. The company supplies Bridgestone with raw and block latex with which to manufacture tires in the United States.

A series of agreements between workers and Firestone Liberia between 2008 through 2019 addressed conditions described in a 2006 human rights lawsuit against the company as “the modern equivalent of slavery.” After a more than one-year struggle, Firestone Liberia plantation workers signed their first agreement with the company in 2008, marking the first time the company’s workers were represented by an independent union in Firestone Liberia’s 82-year history. ­­

Death Threat: Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions

Death Threat: Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions

Bullets and an anonymous death threat were delivered to Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) President Peter Mutasa and Secretary General Japhet Moyo yesterday in an apparent attempt to discourage a planned labor action later this month.

“This is the first time, for all we know in our history, that bullets are delivered at the homes of trade union leaders, said ZCTU in response.

Zimbabwe, death threats, unions, ZCTU, Solidarity Center

Union leaders in Zimbabwe say this is the first time leaders have been threatened with death for seeking to exercise freedom of association. Credit: ZCTU

The identical threatening letters warn Mutasa and Moyo not to participate in an upcoming July 22 work stoppage by ZCTU members who, with other civil society groups, have been protesting rising prices in the country—including a 150 percent fuel price hike.

If Mutasa and Moyo “mobilize the people” the letter warns, the letter’s authors have hired mercenaries “to take care of you once and for all,” “have got plenty of bullets for you and your families” and know where Mutasa–currently in hiding for his own safety—is living.

“It’s now game on,” the letter ends.

ZCTU has faced numerous threats from authorities while Zimbabwe’s economy continues to flounder and inflation and price hikes further complicate Zimbabwean workers’ lives.

Mutasa has been forced into hiding by ongoing violence and intimidation by authorities. After ZCTU helped organize a national strike in January this year to protest price hikes, police seeking Mutasa allegedly assaulted his brother at his home. ZCTU staff also reported intimidation by police. Arrested and  charged with subversion, Mutasa and Moyo have since remained in legal limbo as the Zimbabwe government repeatedly postpones their trials.

January’s violent clashes resulted in 12 deaths and 320 injuries, blamed by human rights organizations on the army and police.

In the aftermath of a similar protest in October last year, some trade unionists were beaten, Mutasa, Moyo and 33 other trade unionists were arrested, senior ZCTU leadership was forced into hiding and ZCTU Harare offices were cordoned off by some 150 policemen. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission found that torture of protesters by government forces before and immediately after the October national protest—consisting mostly of “indiscriminate and severe beatings”—was widespread.

An attempted fact-finding visit by a delegation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in February this year resulted in denial of visas for most of the delegation and the arrest of  ITUC-Africa Secretary General Kwasi Adu Amankwah by state security.

The majority of Zimbabwean workers eke out a living in the informal economy, struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Those with formal jobs often do not fare well either. A 2016 study by the Solidarity Center found that 80,000 workers in formal jobs did not receive wages or benefits on time, if at all. In many cases, they made only enough to get to work.

Zimbabwe: Abductions Targeting Worker Rights Defenders

Worker Rights Assailed Worldwide: Report

The number of countries that exclude workers from the right to form or join unions increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019, and 80 percent of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining rights, according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index 2019 released today.

“Democracy is in crisis, as governments continue to roll back workers fundamental rights,” ITUC General Secretary Burrow said at a press conference releasing the report today in Geneva. “But our solidarity and defense of workers is also unprecedented.”

ITUC Global Rights Index report cover, Solidarity CenterThe report documents escalating repressive actions against workers worldwide as part of a global environment in which democracy is being increasingly restricted.

In addition, the report finds:

  • Union members and leaders were murdered in 10 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
  • 85 percent of countries have violated the right to strike.
  • Workers had no or restricted access to justice in 72 percent of countries.
  • Authorities impeded the registration of unions in 59 percent of countries.
  • The number of countries where workers are arrested and detained increased from 59 in 2018 to 64 in 2019.

“The three global trends for workers’ rights identified in the 2019 Global Rights Index show that democracy is in crisis, governments are attempting to silence the age of anger through brutal repression, but legislative successes for workers’ rights are still being won,” the report states.

‘We Will Claim Our Rights!’

Speaking at the press conference, Bernice Coronacion, senior leader of the union federation SENTRO in the Philippines, choked up as she recounted the violent escalation against union members there, including the murder of a union leader.

“Trade union work very dangerous in the country,” she said. “We don’t just need good rights on paper for workers, we need them to be actualized. And we will claim these rights!”

The Philippines is among the 10 worst countries for workers’ rights in 2019, according to the report. The others are Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Zimbabwe.

But the report makes clear that worker rights are endangered across the spectrum: The greatest increase in the number of countries excluding workers from the right to form unions occurred in Europe, where 50 percent of countries now exclude groups of workers from the law, up from 20 percent in 2018.

Also speaking at the press conference, Vagner Freitas, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT) in Brazil, said although the rights of women workers are being rolled back, “women have been at the forefront of the struggle against these anti-democratic actions against women workers and women in our country. We will restore democracy in Brazil.”

The ITUC Global Rights Index 2019 ranks 145 countries against 97 internationally recognized indicators to assess where workers’ rights are best protected in law and in practice. The ITUC has been collecting data on violations of workers’ rights to trade union membership and collective bargaining around the world for more than 30 years.

Read the full report.

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