Women, people of color, indigenous and other disenfranchised and marginalized groups have been hit especially hard by the increasing concentration of transnational corporate power and escalating global economic inequality—but a new report showcases how women and oppressed people are shifting the dynamic through their own power of resistance.
Key to the success of such movements, according to the report, “Challenging Corporate Power: Struggles for Women’s Rights, Economic and Gender Justice,” is “a deliberate effort to unite experiences and struggles across different movements.”
“Each struggle … uses cross movement collaboration in some way to defy corporate power,” according to the report.
“Challenging Corporate Power” stems from an early 2016 cross-movement dialogue convened by the Association of Women’s Rights in Development (AWID) and the Solidarity Center. Facilitated by Just Associates (JASS) in São Paulo, Brazil, the meeting brought together women trade unionists, women workers, feminists, indigenous and black women, lesbian, bisexual, trans, queer, Intersex (LBTQI) activists, av nd women human rights defenders to discuss, debate and share understanding of corporate power, and what it means to their struggles and their lives.
The report will be released September 10 at AWID’s 13th International Forum in Bahia, Brazil, where more than 1,800 participants are gathered this week to strategize around “Feminist Futures: Building Collective Power for Rights and Justice,” the report’s key finding. Cross-movement initiative sessions throughout the conference include the Solidarity Center-sponsored “Building Alliances to End Gender-Based Violence in the World of Work,” a three-hour discussion how gender-based violence at work links to larger struggles for economic and gender justice. The Solidarity Center also is holding a panel on “Women’s Economic Empowerment and Worker Rights,” moderated by Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.
Women Workers Form Unions to Reverse Tide of Inequality
At the January meeting, participants discussed five successful movements to demand accountability—for labor rights violations, ecological damage, trade liberalization and privatization. Women beer promoters in Cambodia, for example, are increasingly forming unions with the Cambodian Food Service Workers Federation (CFSWF) to protest against poverty wages, sexual harassment and violence, long working hours and toxic working conditions in bars and restaurants.
They are some of the 70 million women organized in trade unions today, with many millions more in cooperatives and other worker rights associations, according to the report. Increasingly, there “is a call to scale up struggles of resistance, build bridges between different social movements, and foster and grow people’s power to build new forms of production, consumption and distribution of the world’s social and economic resources,” the report finds.
Through a lens of power analysis developed by JASS, the report examines how corporate power—defined as an excessive control and appropriation of natural resources, labor, information and finance by an alliance of powerful corporations and global elites in collusion with government—affects gender justice, women’s rights and lives through its influence on police that shape the global economy.
The power analysis lens illustrates how corporate power operates and its impacts on women and oppressed peoples. For instance, 63 percent of the top 175 global economic entities are transnational corporations, not countries, a concentration of power that affects gender justice, women’s rights and lives through its influence on policies that shape the global economy.
At the same time, some 70 percent of workers are in vulnerable employment. Women from racially and ethnically marginalized groups and migrant women worldwide, including those living in the global North, have less access to education and skills training, are responsible for an unequal share of unpaid work and domestic homes and are more likely to be in low paid and informal employment without social security benefits.
The recommendations and reflections emerging in the last moments of the Cross Movement Dialogue speak to how women trade unionists, LBTQI activists, feminists, indigenous women and women human rights defenders can sustain their victories by consolidating the power within their movements, nurturing collective power with other social movements, and exerting power over corporations and governments acting in their interest.
Although Sri Lanka’s labor code sets the minimum wage, the maximum number of work hours per day and work days per week, and establishes rules around overtime and benefits, many employers in Jaffna, the country’s northern province, are flaunting the statutes. The vast majority of workers are unaware of their rights regarding pay, benefits and a written contract.
On a hot, damp morning in Hlae Ku Township, Myanmar, Kyin San surveys the rice fields spread below her, as Mg Zaw, knee deep in mud, drives two oxen to plow the remaining plot. For many years, Kyin San, like most of the farmers in the area, worried that her land would be confiscated for large-scale development, as had so many other farms over the years.
Burmese rice farmer Kyin San says by joining a union, farmers can share strategies and techniques to improve their craft. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
But now, Kyin Sun says, farmers are no longer hesitant to negotiate with the government to settle disputes. Along with 10,000 other farmers in the township, Kyin Sun has joined the Agriculture and Farmer Federation of Myanmar (AFFM), part of the Confederation of Trade Unions–Myanmar (CTUM).
“Through CTUM, we have made much progress,” she says, speaking through a translator.
Farmers across Myanmar are the fastest growing group of workers forming unions since 2011, when a new law allowed creation of unions. Within weeks of the law’s passage, farmers, woodworkers, garment workers, hatters, shoemakers and seafarers quickly registered their unions.
Htay Lwin, president of the Hlae Ku Township agricultural union, says farmers also have sought to join unions to learn new technical skills to improve their farming techniques, a goal Kyin San says has been advanced by union membership.
Union President Htay Lwin says many farmers are joining unions to protect their land from being confiscated for large-scale development. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
“Now we can communicate with farmers across the country and share our experience with others,” she says.
AFFM members are connected with the Asian Farmers Association for Rural Development, a regionwide organization based in the Philippines that provides training on seed production, food safety and other issues, says CTUM President U Maung Maung.
Speaking from CTUM offices in downtown Yangon, Maung Maung discussed how the federation is moving forward with the plan he nurtured for decades during his political exile in Thailand.
“We are doing what we wanted to do for the past 30 years—building unions, getting into negotiations with employers, trying to develop policies with labor and management,” he says.
Rebuilding Worker Power after Decades of Dictatorship
Maung Maung was forced into exile after a violent military crackdown targeted thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators and labor leaders, many of whom were sent to prison. He returned to Burma in 2012 and since then, CTUM has helped some 60,000 workers organize unions. CTUM received official government registration last year.
Now, CTUM is working with policymakers to enact social welfare reforms and drafting recommendations for revising the country’s labor laws, many of which were enacted when the country achieved independence from Britain in 1948. After decades of military rule, Myanmar trails many Asian nations economically, and Maung Maung sees much work ahead in modernizing the workforce and developing a culture of social dialogue among workers, business and government common in other countries.
Fundamental to effecting the change CTUM envisions is educating workers about their rights. Workers for many years had no freedom to improve their working conditions, and unions now are helping them understand that they can stand up for their rights—and how to do so.
Because, as Maung Maung says, it all comes down to the workers.
“The workers have to know what they want—and they have to push for it.”
Wage theft is widespread throughout the the public- and private-sectors, with Zimbabweans working months without a paycheck. Based on surveys at 442 companies, the report documents the vast scope of wage theft; outlines the responsibilities of the state under international standards and national legislation; documents extravagant salaries and benefits to middle and top management even as workers go unpaid; and presents recommendations for action to address the problem.
The murder of Brenda Marleni Estrada Tambito, deputy coordinator of the Legal Advisory Committee of the Trade Union of Workers of Guatemala (UNSITRAGUA / HISTORICA), was a “cowardly criminal attack” according to the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas (TUCA) union leaders, who strongly condemned her murder in a letter to Guatemala President Jimmy Morales Cabrera.
Estrada Tambito was shot five times and killed in Guatemala City June 19. She was followed from a bus terminal after dropping off her father, UNISTRAGUA leader Jorge Estrada y Estrada, who has been advising the negotiation of collective agreements in some of the banana plantations in the Department of Izabal. Several banana union leaders in Izabal have been murdered in Guatemala in recent years, and in 2014, 11 leaders from the UNSITRAGUA-affiliated banana workers’ union were fired on while at the plantation.
“This cowardly murder has again pushed families and the labor movement into mourning and reflects the climate and culture of fear of persecution and violent silencing that lingers in Guatemala and is suffered by workers, leaders and union officials,” TUCA (the Trade Union Confederation of the Americas) and its parent organization, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), wrote.
“This situation is intolerable.”
Union activists are frequent targets for violence and harassment in Guatemala. In the first quarter of 2016, one union member was murdered, another physically attacked and 12 instances occurred in which union activists were threatened or harassed, according to the Red de Defensores de Derechos Laborales (Labor Rights Defenders Network) in Guatemala.
Last year, the Network, a coalition of trade union confederations and human rights monitors, documented 14 incidents of anti-union violence in Guatemala, including the October 2015 murder of Mynor Rolando Ramos Castillo, a municipal worker in southeastern Guatemala.
62 Unionists Murdered in Guatemala in Eight Years
Some 62 union members and leaders in Guatemala have been murdered since the U.S. government pursued an April 2008 complaint against Guatemala for violating the labor chapter of the U.S.-Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA). The government acted after six Guatemalan unions and the AFL-CIO submitted a complaint with the Office of Trade and Labor Affairs (OTLA).
In an unprecedented move, the U.S. government last year agreed to take Guatemala to international arbitration for violating worker rights under CAFTA. The action was the first time that a country has sought international arbitration against another for a violation of labor standards and followed Guatemala’s failure to implement an 18-point enforcement plan to address worker rights violations. More than eight years since filing the complaint, labor rights violations and attacks continue, as the arbitration panel has announced another delay.
TUCA and the ITUC are urging the government to take steps to ensure the safety of trade unionists and to investigate and punish those responsible for Estrada Tambito’s murder. Despite ongoing violence against union members—murder, torture, kidnappings, break-ins and death threats—few perpetrators are brought to justice.