The Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-K) and the Kuwait Trade Union Federation (KTUF) signed a cooperative agreement last week in Kuwait City, formalizing the federations’ effort to jointly address issues affecting workers who migrate from Kenya to Kuwait for employment.
“It is crucial to bring together unions from countries on both ends of the migration spectrum to promote a deeper understanding of the challenges workers face along their journey and into the workplace,” said Solidarity Center Director of Middle East and North Africa Programs Hind Cherrouk. “This agreement, which affirms the rights of migrant workers from Kenya in Kuwait, is an important step forward in that regard.”
The majority of some 34 million Africans are migrants move across borders in search of decent work—jobs that pay a living wage, offer safe working conditions and fair treatment. Often they find employers who seek to exploit them—refusing to pay their wages, forcing them to work long hours for little or no pay, and even physically abusing them. Kenyan women signing on for domestic work in Saudi Arabia, for example, were told they would receive 23,000 Kenya shillings ($221) a month, only to find upon their arrival that the pay was significantly less and the working and living conditions inhumane. Through the Kenya Union of Domestic, Hotel, Educational Institutions, Hospitals and Allied Workers (KUDHEIHA), COTU-K is supporting a multi-year effort to protect domestic workers migrating from the coastal area surrounding the city of Mombasa to homes in the Middle East.
Unions around the globe are increasingly taking joint action to create community and workplace-based safe migration and counter-trafficking strategies that emphasize prevention, protection and the rule of law. KTUF spearheaded a groundbreaking 2015 domestic worker law that granted enforceable legal rights to 660,000 mostly migrant workers from Asia and Africa working in Kuwait as domestic workers, nannies, cooks and drivers, and urged further protection for migrant workers in Kuwait and other Gulf countries. That same year, unions in Asia and the Gulf signed a landmark memorandum of understanding (MOU) that promoted and outlined steps for coordination among unions in organizing and supporting migrant workers in those regions. The Solidarity Center and its partners in the Americas in 2017 crafted a worker rights agenda for inclusion in the United Nations Global Compact on Safe, Regular and Orderly Migration.
“There is a potentially powerful role for union-to-union, cross-national and, in this case, cross-regional solidarity in protecting the dignity of migrant workers traveling from Africa to the Middle East. The Solidarity Center is proud to be a partner in this process and trade union-centered approach between the trade union movements of Kuwait and Kenya,” said Solidarity Center Director of Africa Programs, Hanad Mohamud.
The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) launched a general strike across eight provinces Wednesday as a warning to South Africa’s governing party, the African National Congress (ANC), to address rampant job losses and unemployment across the public and private sectors.
“We are tired of economic growth that does not create employment opportunities, that increases inequality, ignores and undermines cultural identities, and that squanders resources needed for future generations,” COSATU said, in a press statement.
Later this month, workers in the Western Cape province will mobilize to pressure Finance Minister Tito Mboweni to include labor’s views on downsizing in the budget speech he will deliver in Cape Town on February 20.
After failing to convince government to declare a moratorium on downsizing workers, COSATU hopes its strike will slow the shedding of more jobs from the health care sector and South Africa’s state-owned enterprises—including energy company ESKOM, where retrenchments last year began without consultation with the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA).
“[S]ince 2012, government gave the private sector corporate tax breaks,” said COSATU spokesperson Sizwe Pamla in an interview with SABC News. “Now we were saying to them, don’t you think it’s fair… to put a moratorium?”
The strike is supported by all major COSATU-affiliated unions, including the Democratic Nursing Organization of SA (Denosa), the South African Democratic Teachers` Union (SADTU), the South African Municipal Workers` Union (SAMWU), the South African Transport and Allied Workers` Union (SATAWU), the Communication Workers Union (CWU), the Police and Prisons Civil Rights Union (POPCRU) and the South African Commercial, Catering and Allied Workers Union (SACCAWU).
COSATU, with more than 1.5 million members, is a Solidarity Center ally in South Africa. As the strongest voice in civil society, the South African labor movement enables workers to join together for better wages, pro-worker economic policies and increased standards of living.
Tens of thousands of Bangladesh garment workers waged weeks-long strikes in December and January to protest low wages and unequal pay increases—and now workers say factory employers are using the walkouts to further repress their efforts to form unions and collectively bargain better wages and working conditions.
More than 11,000 garment workers have lost their jobs or faced repression as a result of the wage protests, and employers and the police have filed cases against more than 3,000 workers, according to the global union IndustriALL. Many workers fired say they were not involved in the protests.
Factory walkouts began the second week of December, when mostly nonunion garment workers from roughly 350 factories in Gazipur, Ashulia and Narayanganj protested the elimination of the 5 percent annual wage increase for 2018 and a basic wage increase applied unequally to workers with various skill levels.
Recent Repression of Worker Rights Part of Longer Trend
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.
At the same time, Bangladesh’s highest court threatens the expulsion of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh established after the Rana Plaza disaster. The legally binding agreement between hundreds of primarily European corporate retail brands and unions conducted safety inspections at more than 1,000 factories and educated workers on safety and other workplace rights.
Bangladesh is the biggest producer of garments in the world after China, with apparel exports totaling more than $30 billion last fiscal year. Although the Bangladesh RMG industry is by far the country’s biggest export earner, wages remain the lowest among major garment-manufacturing nations. Yet the cost of living in Dhaka is equivalent to that of Montreal.
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.
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.”
Nearly half of the 4 million workers who labor in Morocco’s agricultural fields are women, yet they receive less pay and are granted fewer opportunities to improve their wages or working conditions than their male co-workers.
But through their union, the Confédération Démocratique du Travail (CDT), women workers in Morocco’s fertile Meknes region are leveling the playing field, as a new Solidarity Center video illustrates.
More than 1,000 workers at the Domaines Brahim Zniber agro-industrial complex in 2015 negotiated a landmark collective bargaining agreement that raised wages, and provided access to health care and bathroom and meal breaks.
Under the collective bargaining agreement, the country’s first in the farm sector, “when we are sick, we can go to a doctor,” says Maskini Fatiha, a farm worker on the Domaines Zniber.
Crucially, because women were at the bargaining table, the agreement protects women from being fired when they marry and includes access to maternity leave and time off to care for sick children. Women now can receive training for higher paid jobs, like tree pruning, from which they were previously excluded.
“The gap between male workers and female workers used to be huge,” says Hayat Khomssi, a farm worker at Domaines Zniber. “Men were eligible for bonuses that weren’t granted to women, which made them feel inferior.” Women are now allowed to prune and trim trees, she says, “and enjoy equal wages as men.”
Years of gender equality training by the CDT and Solidarity Center and their ongoing support for collective action led to women taking a strong role in negotiating the agreement, which has set a standard that other agro-industrial complexes are set to follow.
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