About four thousand workers staged a sit-in outside parliament in Rabat yesterday in a show of popular protest against socioeconomic policies that are economically harmful to working people, among them planned pension reforms, a freeze on talks with civil society groups and ongoing violations of worker rights–including the government’s refusal to negotiate with trade unions on wages and working conditions for public service workers.
Protesters expressed solidarity with student teachers beaten by police last week while peacefully marching against the decision to reduce their stipends and block their path to teaching jobs.
The sit-in is a follow-up to last month’s nationwide strike by national and local public-sector workers, organized by the four largest trade union confederations in Morocco.
Miloudi Moukharek, general secretary of the Union Marocaine du Travail (Moroccan Labor Union, UMT), said all four federations are united against the government’s unpopular policies and its unwillingness to engage in dialogue with workers on wages and other issues.
Images and video footage of police attacks on young protesters around the country on Thursday last week went viral on social media, inspiring condemnation from local and international sources.
The sit-in was organized by the Confédération Démocratique du Travail (Democratic Labor Confederation, CDT), the Federation Démocratique du Maroc (Democratic Federation of Labor, FDT), the Union Générale des Travailleurs du Maroc (General Union of Moroccan Workers, UGTM) and UMT. Solidarity Center partners with the CDT and the UMT.
At least four garment workers lost their lives yesterday and dozens more were injured when the two flat-bed trucks they were commuting to work on collided, according to Solidarity Center staff at the site of the incident. One of the trucks was carrying 50 people and the other more than 70 workers. The deaths left at least eight children without their mother.
Agence France-Presse reports that 13 of the injured workers are in critical condition.
The incident happened as the Solidarity Center’s legal team was in court overseeing disbursement of the settlement to victims and surviving families of a bus crash that killed 19 workers and injured another 20 people last spring. Families of the deceased and workers injured in the May 2015 incident attended the court session, where they received meager payments of between $1,500 and $3,000 for the loss of their loved ones or their pain and suffering. After almost a year, a number of workers who survived say they have not received compensation due them from the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
Cambodia’s garment sector features notoriously dangerous and largely unregulated transportation for its workers, who crowd onto open-air trucks to save money. According to Women’s Wear Daily, “73 garment workers died from traffic accidents while going to work, while 789 were injured” in 2014. Meanwhile, more than 7,000 garment workers were injured and 130 killed while they were being transported to and from factories in 2015, according to the National Social Security Fund (NSSF).
“The extremely high number of fatalities and injuries is completely unacceptable,” said William Conklin, Solidarity Center Cambodia program director. “Garment workers, or any other workers, should not have to fear for their life each day on the commute to and from work. Yet they do because of the confluence of low wages and high disregard for the lives of workers on the part of authorities and factory owners. Labor here is just a commodity.”
Cambodian unions say wages are vital to safe transport for Cambodian workers, and freedom of association is crucial to collective bargaining for higher wages. Just a short distance from the site of Tuesday’s crash, workers at a sweater factory continued their strike demanding, among other things, a $3 increase in the monthly transport allowance. The response from the factory and the authorities was a violent crackdown on striking workers, arresting five and injuring about 30 people, two of them seriously.
Whether building a towering office building in downtown Zimbabwe, sewing garments in a Bangladesh factory or digging for phosphate in Mexico mines, the world’s unsung working people demonstrate, time and again, the dignity of work. Here, we celebrate some of the amazing women and men we partnered with in 2015, and showcase their efforts to improve their lives and livelihoods and tip the scales toward greater equality in their countries.
As Mervat Jumhawi, a former garment worker and union organizer working with the Solidarity Center in Jordan, described her own experience: “When I became member of the union, I became stronger.”
As a young union activist in Tunisia’s railway industry, Kalthoum Barkallah was not convinced that there was a need to work for gender equality. After all, she thought, unions did not distinguish between male and female workers. But one day when she pointed out that access to day care should be among the demands unions include in their efforts to improve worker rights, a union colleague told her it was out of order to address such an issue with management.
“This incident made me realize that there are problems specific to women and only women can understand and defend. This incident pushed me to join the women’s committee and I was elected at the national level, to defend their cause and their rights,” says Barkallah.
Now a Tunis-based Solidarity Center senior program officer and master trainer, Barkallah has not stopped championing the rights of women workers since that day back in the 1980s.
The First Step: Developing Confidence
As a trainer in gender equality, Barkallah has conducted workshops in nearly one dozen countries, including Morocco, Algeria, England and France. Frequently, the first barrier she must overcome is enabling women to get past their fears. “Often, women participants do not have enough confidence to start talking, to express themselves,” she says.
Barkallah says it is important that both women and men take part in the gender equality trainings, which begin by differentiating between the terms “sex” and “gender.”
Unions “stand for liberty and democracy” and are especially important for women, says Barkallah. Credit: Solidarity Center/Imane Zaghloul
“We explain that gender is determined by society, by community, and the meaning of gender changes from one society to another,” says Barkallah. “Sex is something we are born with. We explain to women there is no reason there should not be equality between men and women, and they have to challenge their male colleagues to achieve equality and justice for all.”
Aida Sbai participated in one such training. It “strengthened my capacity and gave me confidence in myself as a woman activist with the right and the capacity to hold leadership positions with men to defend the cause of working women,” she said.
Sbai, a union member in the food and tourism sector and coordinator of the Women’s Department in the Federation of Food and Tourism Workers of Tunisia (FGAT), says, “Thanks to this training, I was able to convince workers in my sector (tourism) to join the union and to stand for union election.
“I also campaigned next to men to elect women, and the result we have today is that many women are now union leaders with the federation (FGAT).”
Ultimate Goal: Changing Conditions for Women
Numerous women who have participated in these workshops have gone on to take leading roles in their unions—one is member of her union’s executive committee in Tunisia, as is another woman in Jordan, Barkallah says. Such accomplishments fulfill what she sees as the trainings’ short-term objectives: to enable a woman to “be a citizen who is engaged in the social, political and economic life of the country and have confidence in herself.”
Ultimately, says Barkallah, “the goal is to change the conditions of work for women, to establish social justice and democracy between men and women.”
Barkallah says her union experience has reinforced the cultural, political and economic convictions she developed through the influence of her father, an active trade unionist, and by her participation as a university student in the struggle for democracy in the mid-1970s.
She sees unions as particularly important for women because a union is a “unique organization that defends the civil society, economy, society and the political rights of women. It allows women to be liberated and emancipated, opens horizons at the national and international levels, and allows her to change her conditions. Unions stand for liberty and democracy.”
‘Change Comes with Women and Nothing Can Stop Them’
As an activist with the Tunisian General Federation of Railways, Barkallah was first elected deputy general secretary in 2000, heading up training within the union. She later was elected deputy general secretary in charge of international relations and, in 2006, elected president of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF)–Arab Women’s committee. Barkallah has been an active union leader with Tunisia’s union federation, the Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail (UGTT). Throughout, she balanced both work and family duties, raising two sons who each now have their own children.
Barkallah says the most moving experience in her 25 years of activism revolves around the success women achieved after the 2011 uprising. Tunisian women first helped spur protests and end autocratic regimes in Tunisia and throughout the Arabic-speaking world and then organized a democratic coalition to successfully defeat a proposed change to Tunisia’s constitution that would have reduced the legal status of women.
“Women built alliances with civil society, labor organizations, and we were able to change the law. I found this experience really moving. Women can change their situation—and that change comes with women and nothing can stop them.”
Hundreds of union leaders and members, including at least 250 teachers, have fled Burundi while dozens more have been jailed, as the east African country roils in widespread violence. In October, a journalist and his family were shot dead at their home by security forces, according to the International Federation of Journalists. Broadcast media workers also were attacked with heavy weapons in May.
“I was part of a teacher’s union and because I was helping teachers fight for their rights, I was seen as an opponent,” according to one teacher, now in internal exile in the country’s Makamba Province. “A friend in the police told me that I was on the ‘list’ to be arrested so I had to flee.”
The refugee’s story is among those collected in a Refugee International report which found that Burundians were threatened by police due to their membership in civil society organizations perceived not to be supportive of the government, such as human rights organizations and unions.
Unions and their members also are being targeted in other ways. For instance, the Syndicat des Travailleurs de l’Enseignement du Burundi (STEB), which represents teachers, reports that its bank account was ordered closed last week.
Over the weekend, 87 people were killed. Since April, some 220,000 people have fled Burundi and 15,000 people have been displaced within the country. The violence stems from protests that began after President Pierre Nkurunziza decided to run for a third term.
The United Nations Human Rights Council approved a resolution yesterday calling for the quick deployment of experts to Burundi to look into abuses amid the growing violence. The UN high commissioner for human rights has called on Burundi’s leaders to disarm pro-government militias, halt torture and resume political dialogue, saying that sanctions, asset freezes and travel bans should be imposed on those responsible for abuses.