Thousands of public-sector employees rallied and marched as part of a national strike yesterday in which workers in local agencies and up to 80 percent in government ministries walked off the job. Workers seek to draw attention to the unwillingness of the government to negotiate with them on such issues as wages and retirement.
The strike, held on International Human Rights Day, aimed to “defend the gains of retirement for workers, trade union freedoms, rights and dignity,” according to a joint statement by the four unions that called for the action.
Members of the Moroccan Labor Union (Union Marocaine du travail), the Democratic Confederation for Labor (Confédération démocratique du travail), the General Union of Moroccan Workers (Union Generale des Travailleurs du Maroc) and the Democratic Federation for Labor (Fédération démocratique du travail) also denounced the government’s unilateral decisions in the absence of social dialogue and the unilateral approach for the retirement reform.
Union members have sought enforcement of an agreement made in April 2011 with the previous government that improved civil servants’ salaries, boosted the minimum pension and promoted union freedom. The national strike follows a November 29 action in which tens of thousands of workers from all four unions rallied and marched to call attention to how the government’s inaction has eroded their ability to support their families. Workers also took part in a month of protest in May, and say they are planning another national strike in coming weeks.
Addressing unemployment and underemployment, especially for young workers, is the most pressing issue for trade unions across Africa, according to participants in an African Labor Leaders Exchange Program sponsored by the Solidarity Center.
Speaking at a December 9 panel discussion at the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C., six union leaders from Kenya, Liberia, Nigeria and South Africa discussed the challenges in securing economic prosperity for working people—and their strategies for empowering workers in the formal and informal economies.
“What faces us is high levels of unemployment, poverty,” said Edward de Klerk, deputy general secretary of South Africa’s United National Transport Union (UNTU).
“Unemployment is an African issue,” said Philip Kwoba, director of Youth Organizing with the Central Organization of Trade Unions (COTU) in Kenya. Unions in Kenya are reaching out to informal economy workers, which include many young workers, helping them form worker savings associations as a step toward unionization and gaining bargaining rights. “We are allocating resources to help,” said Kwoba.
Members of the panel, moderated by Solidarity Center Regional Program Director for Africa Imani Countess, said poverty also is fueled by low wages. “Wage inequality is this battle still we have got,” said de Klerk. In Nigeria, unions are tackling wage issues by addressing government policies that reduce the pay of public-employees, including teachers, said Muhammed Nasir Idris, National Treasurer Nigeria Union of Teachers (NUT).
Lack of employment opportunity and poverty in Liberia puts youth at risk of labor trafficking within the country’s borders, said Liberia Labor Congress (LLC) General Secretary David Sackoh.
Sackoh said labor recruiters take children from parents in their villages, promising the children will go to school in the city. Instead, the children are used in forced labor. “Even though our research shows (the children) want to return,” they are unable to do so for seven to 10 years,” he said.
Sackoh pointed to the Liberian trade union movement’s tremendous victory in eradicating child labor at the Firestone Natural Rubber Liberia plantation, and said the union movement now is working to address the issue at the seven other plantations across the country.
During questions with the audience, which included a packed crowd of union activists, policy experts and international experts, union leaders also discussed drawing more women into trade union leadership.
“Getting women elected to high offices is now on the union agenda,” said Boniface Kavuvi, general secretary of the Kenya Union of Commercial, Food and Allied Workers (KUCFAW). Kavuvi pointed to domestic workers in Kenya, represented by KUDHEIHA, as an example of dynamic organizing and strong leadership by women in Kenya. “They have done a tremendous job,” he said.
In Liberia, unions are pushing for 30 percent representation by women in union leadership, mirroring the country’s effort to increase women’s representation in the national legislature, said Isaac Grant, LLC organizing coordinator.
The six union leaders traveled to the United States for a South–South labor leaders’ exchange in which African labor leaders met with community and trade union organizers across the southern United States. The Solidarity Center worked with the U.S.-based labor education program, the National Labor Leadership Initiative (NLLI), to facilitate the exchange, sponsored by the U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs.
Marking International Human Rights Day, the Nobel Peace Prize was formally awarded today to the Tunisian “Quartet,” which includes the country’s labor movement for its role in brokering a peaceful path to democracy.
At a ceremony in Oslo, Norway, Houcine Abassi, general secretary of the Tunisian General Labor Union (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travail, UGTT) said, “Tunisia is an exception so far in the Arab Spring countries, but this doesn’t mean that it may not be replicated in other countries.”
Speaking last month at a ceremony in Washington, D.C., Abassi said “the Nobel Prize is not given just to us, but to all the labor movements in the world.” The award “sends a message that unions can play an equal role in government, in social dialogue … and many times can provide critical leadership.”
While in Washington, Abassi received the Global Fairness Initiative’s Fairness Award on behalf of UGTT, a long-time Solidarity Center ally.
The Nobel Committee recognized the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—comprised of the (UGTT); the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts; the Tunisian Human Rights League; and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers—for establishing “an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”
Their efforts led the country to democracy and the adoption of a Constitution based on fundamental human rights.
The recent murders of three Pakistani journalists in separate incidents highlight the dangers media professionals in that country face daily on the job. And like workers in all industries, reporters, photographers and other media staff need tools to effectively address safety and health issues at work and ensure their fundamental human rights.
Pakistan journalists say they have not been trained in basic physical and online security techniques. Credit: Immad Ashraf
Following the launch of a recent series of Solidarity Center workshops that covered safety as well as gender equality, more than 60 journalists from around 15 local unions in Pakistan came away with the resources and information they need to better protect themselves against physical danger, online threats and gender discrimination and harassment.
“Journalists in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (in northwest Pakistan) are facing a lot of problems, especially female journalists, who face many issues in the field as well as in their offices,” says Samina Naz, a reporter for Radio Pakistan. “This training has broadened and clarified the concept of safety for me. Now I am more careful about my safety when I go to cover any story.”
Naz, who plans to share the techniques she learned with her colleagues, took part in the two-day training, Gender Equity & Physical Safety. The October workshop was the first in a series planned by the Solidarity Center in conjunction with the Pakistan-based Journalists for Democracy and Human Rights (JDHR) and the International Federation of Journalists (IFJ).
‘We’re Also Workers. What about Our Rights?
A second workshop in October covered physical safety and digital security. Dara Zafar, vice chairman of the All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation-Karachi chapter and a layout assistant at The News International, took part and says he intends to “be more cautious about his physical safety and digital security” and noted he had previously received no training on security issues.
In fact, nearly all participants surveyed prior to the trainings said their organizations do not provide security assessment or analysis. Further, they said neither they nor their organizations had made safety plans for reporting in the field or working online.
Nighat Rafaq, Solidarity Center monitoring, evaluation and reporting manager for Pakistan, says the Solidarity Center developed a two-year training and development program after journalists asked: “We’re also workers. What about our rights? Who will talk about our rights?
“Previously, there were a lot of opportunities for journalists, but on their professional side—for example, improving reporting skills—but not on their rights as workers,” she says.
In 2002, Pakistan legalized private media ownership, which previously had been state owned. The action sparked a surge of electronic and print news outlets, and the number of journalists in Pakistan increased from 2,000 to more than 18,000 today, while the number of other media industry workers skyrocketed from 7,000 to more than 300,000.
“The rapid growth in the industry has been accompanied by a decrease in respect for journalists’ basic labor rights, including fair wages, decent employment conditions, trade union rights and physical safety on the job,” says Immad Ashraf, Solidarity Center program manager in Pakistan.
At least 70 journalists have been killed in Pakistan since 2002, 14 of whom were murdered last year, leading the International Federation of Journalists to name Pakistan as the most dangerous country for journalists.
Safety Trainings Set for Hundreds More Media Workers
Following the workshops, participants report being able to develop a safety plan and utilize survival tips when working in difficult environments. Nearly 80 percent say they now will be able to conduct security assessments and analyze a potentially dangerous situation for themselves and their colleagues before jumping into an assignment, and 86 percent report increased knowledge about their digital security-related vulnerabilities.
The Solidarity Center worked with the IFJ to develop a train-the-trainer manual for participants, so journalists can share tactics and knowledge with their colleagues. Similarly, another manual on gender equity and physical safety for women journalists and media workers also has been developed. The Solidarity Center will hold dozens more trainings in coming months, including workshops on paralegal education for 120 journalists and union leaders, and 14 two-day follow-up trainings for at least 340 journalists and other media workers.
Along with its allies, the Solidarity Center also will convene five one-day dialogue sessions for 250 representatives of journalists’ and media workers’ unions, media organizations and government agencies to discuss improving laws and policies on working conditions in the media sector. Another goal is to establish a legal fund to support individual and collective legal cases with potential to impact worker rights, working conditions and the physical security of journalists and media workers.
In Pakistan, where journalists often report on human rights issues, media professionals now have the opportunity to focus on their own human rights as workers. Siddiq Anzar, chairman of the Islamabad & Rawalpindi chapter of All Pakistan Newspaper Employees Confederation and president of Islam Press and Workers Union, put it this way:
“After the training and having been exposed to the content and techniques, I now feel empowered.”
For its role in brokering a peaceful path to democracy, Tunisia’s labor movement today was named a co-recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
The Nobel Committee recognized the Tunisian National Dialogue Quartet—comprised of longtime Solidarity Center ally the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT), the Tunisian Confederation of Industry, Trade and Handicrafts, the Tunisian Human Rights League and the Tunisian Order of Lawyers—for establishing “an alternative, peaceful political process at a time when the country was on the brink of civil war.”
The Quartet, formed in 2013, was “instrumental in enabling Tunisia, in the space of a few years, to establish a constitutional system of government guaranteeing fundamental rights for the entire population, irrespective of gender, political conviction or religious belief,” Nobel Committee Chairman Kaci Kullmann Five said at the presentation ceremony.
“This is a great joy and pride for Tunisia, but also a hope for the Arab World,” UGTT chief Houcine Abassi told Reuters. “It’s a message that dialogue can lead us on the right path. This prize is a message for our region to put down arms and sit and talk at the negotiation table.”
In 2012, the UGTT received the AFL-CIO’s 2012 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award along with the labor federation of Bahrain, the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions, for their mobilization of thousands of people in their countries to carry forward a message of social justice during the popular uprisings that swept the Middle East in 2010 and 2011.
This is the second year in a row that worker rights activists have been honored with a Nobel Peace Prize. Last year Kailash Satyarthi, head of the Global March against Child Labor, also a Solidarity Center ally, shared the prize with girls’ education activist Malala Yousafzai.