As many as one in every seven–or at least 16 million—people in Bangladesh could be on the move by 2050, potentially causing the largest forced migration caused by climate change in human history. Bangladesh is one of the 10 countries most vulnerable to climate change, at risk from climate disasters such as floods and cyclones. Situated on a floodplain, with a low-lying coastline and a host of rivers, the country and its people are threatened by rising sea levels, flooding, riverbank erosion, cyclones, storm surges and ever-hotter summers. These phenomena are exacerbated by climate change and contribute to loss of livelihoods, migration and poverty.
Against this backdrop, the Solidarity Center conducted a study investigating the intersection of climate change, economic activity and migration in Khulna and Jashore, Bangladesh. The study used primary and secondary sources of data, including surveys and first-person interviews with 50 Khulna- and Jashore-based workers who were employed in shrimp and fish processing and hatcheries, transport and domestic work sectors, and returnee migrant workers.
The report finds that increased salinity and flooding has driven people of both areas into new economic activities—primarily away from previously profitable farming into poverty-wage, non-farm economic activities that study participants describe as a hand-to-mouth existence. Cross-border migration of people from Khulna and Jashore to India for better economic prospects was found to be common and recurring, with international migration growing. Workers forced to transition into new jobs were found to lack information, training and financial resources to adapt to employment changes, and were mostly relying on friends and family for information and other types of resources to find new jobs. There was a low level of understanding about climate change and how it impacts their own livelihoods and the local economy.
“Climate change is forcing already-vulnerable people into often exploitative, precarious and poorly paid work, including migrating abroad for unsafe jobs where their rights are often unprotected,” says Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer Sonia Mistry.
The report offers recommendations to mitigate the impact of climate change on workers in the region, including raising awareness among residents about the impact of climate change; devising strategies to recover bodies of water and develop equitable and sustainable land-use solutions; providing skills training for workers; and reducing wage discrimination between women and men.
The report, “Tashkent’s Reforms Have Not Yet Reached Us,” finds that a state-imposed cotton quota, labor shortages, lack of fair and independent recruitment channels, and weak accountability systems contribute to the continuation of forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton fields—and that broader reform efforts in the country are being limited by slow progress on civil society freedoms.
The report’s findings are based on more than 100 in-depth and hundreds of short interviews with people involved in the cotton harvest, as well as field visits, farm monitoring in six regions, and data and analysis from a nationwide online survey conducted in partnership with the Solidarity Center and public polling/research firm RIWI Corp.
Employees of state and privately owned enterprises in interviews consistently reported being unable to refuse orders to pick cotton by government officials or employers for fear of dismissal or other job-related consequences. About half of online survey respondents said they could not refuse when asked to go to the fields or pay for a replacement picker. This testimony underscores the pressing need to establish effective recruitment systems free from interference or coercion by the government or the authorities, says the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights.
The report also documents that reform of civil society freedoms has lagged far behind the pace of reforms in other key areas, inhibiting the freedom of citizens to form civic associations such as nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) and independent trade unions empowered to fight forced labor in Uzbekistan. The report notes with concern the small number of independent, self-initiated NGOs registered in the country and the high number of rejections for registration.
“Independent NGOs, unions and civic activists have a central role to play in the reform process in promoting transparency and accountability,” says Solidarity Center’s Eastern Europe/Central Asia Director, Rudy Porter. “There is a pressing need to guarantee basic civic freedoms to empower activists to conduct independent monitoring and ensure labor practices are in line with international standards.”
The U.S. State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons reportyesterday specified that Uzbekistan will remain on its Tier 2 watchlist because the country does not yet meet the minimum standards set out in the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Act. The report noted that, “During 2019, the government continued to demand farmers and local officials fulfill state-assigned cotton production quotas or face penalties, which caused local officials to compel work in the annual cotton harvest.”
The Cotton Campaign, of which Solidarity Center is a member, is a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor and business organizations dedicated to eradicating child and forced labor in cotton production in Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan. A Cotton Campaign roadmap for the government of Uzbekistan to dismantle the forced labor system of cotton production was presented to government officials during high-level meetings in Tashkent in May 2018.
Photo: Tashkent region, 2019. Credit: Uzbek Forum for Human Rights
More than 500 political, civil leaders, Nobel Laureates and pro-democracy institutions—including the Solidarity Center—are calling for the defense of democracy and warning that fundamental freedoms are under threat from governments using the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten their grip on power.
In a letter released today, the signatories from around the world and a broad political spectrum said, “Repression will not help to control the pandemic. Silencing free speech, jailing peaceful dissenters, suppressing legislative oversight and indefinitely canceling elections all do nothing to protect public health. On the contrary, these assaults on freedom, transparency and democracy will make it more difficult for societies to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis through both government and civic action.”
The pandemic and the global movement for racial equality have demonstrated that “democracy is more important than ever,” the group said in a press release. “Democracy allows for civil society to mobilize, for inequalities to be confronted, for policy issues to be openly debated, for trustworthy information to freely flow, and governments to be accountable to citizens—all essential tools for successfully dealing with the current public health emergency and its consequences.”
They added that the key elements of liberal democracy—credible and free flowing information, fact-based debate about policy options, voluntary self-organization of civil society and open engagement between government and society—are vital to combating the pandemic. When voices are suppressed, “the results can be deadly, not for just one country but for the entire world.”
More than 2,000 garment workers in Bangladesh are celebrating a new collective bargaining agreement that includes a 10 percent pay increase—double the amount required by law—and creation of a committee to prevent violence and harassment on the job. The pact, negotiated by the Hop Lun Apparels Ltd. Sommilito Sramik Union (HLALSSU), is retroactive to January.
The new agreement comes as many garment workers in Bangladesh and around the world are being laid off without pay because major fashion brands are canceling orders due to lack of demand during the novel coronavirus pandemic.
2,000+ Bangladesh garment workers have new contract that includes a 10 percent wage increase and a day care facility for their children. Credit: SGSF
“The guarantee of promotions for women to the higher posts and the establishment of the sexual harassment committee will empower the women and provide safeguards against sexual abuse and harassment in our factory,” says Aklima HLALSSU president.
Under the new contract, Hop Lun will set up a day care facility for workers’ children younger than age six, who will be guaranteed quality care and education. Factory management will provide free ultrasound tests for all pregnant workers, subsided food in the factory canteen, and guarantee a minimum of 20 women workers will be promoted annually.
Under Bangladesh law, women workers are entitled to 16 weeks’ maternity leave, yet employers often do not grant garment workers the required leave. The new contract provides enforcement of the law.
“It is because we have a strong union that we could maintain a good relation with the factory management and sign this collective bargaining agreement,” says Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) General Secretary Nahidul Hasan Nayan. “That is why, during this COVID-19 crisis, Hop Lun factory maintained the highest standard of safety for its workers and has provided each and every employee with proper protective equipment.”
The contract also includes provisions to streamline union representation, with the employer providing space for a union office and automatically deducting union dues. Union leaders will be involved in trainings and workshops and joint meetings with management.
In June 2019, the International Labor Organization adopted Convention 190, along with Recommendation 206, the first global binding treaty to address gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) in the world of work. The treaty calls on governments, employers and unions to work together to confront the root causes of GBVH, including multiple and intersecting forms of discrimination, gender stereotypes and unequal gender-based power relationships.
Women trade unionists and feminist activists campaigned for more than a decade to make this historic victory possible, led by the International Trade Union Confederation, the Solidarity Center and other labor allies. One year later, women from around the world who led the fight reflect on what has changed in the last year, discuss their current plans to ensure ratification and implementation of C190/R206, and envision the changes necessary to end GBVH in the world of work.
“We are commemorating the one-year of the passage of Convention 190, a vitally important convention that addressed one of the most pressing issues facing workers, violence and harassment in the world of work,” says Rosana Fernandes, at the Secretariat of the Committee to Combat Racism of CUT in Brazil. C190 “has translated into many victories—it has opened new areas of dialogue and negotiation for local unions with employers in their collective bargaining agreements, ranging from use of bathrooms to verbal abuse.” (See more videos with union activists on C190 here.)
Creating Space to End the Culture of Silence and Create Change in the Workplace
Since C190’s adoption by governments, employers and worker representatives one year ago, unions have conducted extensive education and awareness training among members, a process that has mobilized members to confront GBVH at their workplaces through collective bargaining.
“The Nigerian Labor Congress has strategically mainstreamed Convention 190 into all programs, activities and events to popularize and continuously sensitize our members and all workers,” says Mercy Okezie, chairperson of the NLC Women Commission.
The NLC has undertaken actions, including “media campaigns, advocacy and engagement with the government,” says Rita Goyit, head of the NLC Women and Youth Department and Secretary of National Women Commission. “There is increased outcry against gender-based violence. People are also ready to speak out to condemn such actions.”
In Indonesia, “many trade unions have also initiated keeping records of cases and victims of violence and harassment in the world of work, says Sumiyati, chairperson for Women and Children’s Affairs at the National Industrial Workers Union Federation (SPN–NIWUF), a Solidarity Center partner. “Another positive thing we have identified is that some companies, through their management, join our forces in campaigning for the elimination of all forms of violence and harassment in the world of work.”
“We have seen changes in the way some unions have negotiated their collective bargaining agreements,” says Rose Omano, national chair at the Central Organization of Trade Unions in Kenya. The union is planning to push for negotiations with employers “so that we can have a modern collective bargaining agreement that talks about GBV at the workplace. It is also very important for us to educate women, educate men, educate young girls and boys on the effects of gender-based violence on the workplace.”
“We are working on an education campaign with print materials and social media information to empower the working class and our members to stand up against violence and harassment,” says Francisco Xavier Santana, director of Bahia Domestic Workers Union.
Cida Trajano, president of the CNTRV national garment workers federation in Brazil, says “we have worked to build the capacity of workers, women and men, to confront and prevent gender-based violence in the world of work, and included these demands in our negotiating platforms. We are organizing to hold employers accountable for their responsibility to prevent and eradicate GBVH.”
“When we address gender inequality and violence as union issues, it means we, as women, can set an agenda in our organizations, in our collective bargaining agreements and in our political advocacy,” says Cassia Bufelli, vice president of the UGT confederation in Brazil.
COVID-19 Highlights Connection Between Violence at Home and Work
Many sisters from Solidarity Center partner unions reflected on the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, noting that it has left women in particular more vulnerable to GBVH, including the impact of domestic violence on the workplace.
“Gender-based violence has increased to the extent that in the first eleven days of the COVID-19 lockdown, we had 700 cases of gender-based violence, ” says Fiona Magaya, gender coordinator for the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).
C190/R206 explicitly recognized the profound impact of domestic violence in the workplace, and calls on governments and employers to address its impact on worker safety, dignity and health and its broader effects on the full and equal participation of women in the economy and society.
Women—the primary targets of domestic abuse—have struggled to protect themselves and their children, often while attempting to continue working or weathering recent unemployment in an unsafe home. For many women around the world, including child care workers, in-home healthcare workers, cleaners and other domestic workers, as well as many small enterprise handicrafters, a home already was their workplace.
“We need to ensure all our sisters and brothers and comrades can work free from violence,” says Andrea Morales Perez, secretary general of FETRADOMOV, a domestic worker union in Nicaragua. “This pandemic has left us even more vulnerable, and suffering even more rights violations—and highlights the importance of the work of domestic workers.”
“GBVH is so common that it has come to be seen as a normal part of our work or something that should not be questioned. Domestic workers are more exposed and vulnerable to violence at work than those in some other sectors for reasons including: asymmetrical power relationships, isolation, under-recognition of this occupation as work, and insufficient, ineffective legal protections,” says Maria Isidra Llanos, co-secretary general of SINACTRAHO Mexico.
“We face growing violence in the workplace in our society, especially in the context of the COVID crisis,” says Marcia Viana, secretary general of Sorocaba Garment Workers Union in Brazil. “In São Paulo, we are launching a campaign with all the unions in our state to combat violence against women, to create a moment to engage workers and employers to end violence in our workplaces and our society.”
Says Solidarity Center Equality and Inclusion Co-Director Robin Runge: “By raising broad awareness of the intricate connection between domestic violence and violence in the world of work, this unprecedented crisis offers a significant opportunity for the type of education and awareness-raising among among governments, employers and the broader public that can ensure the right to a violence-free workplace, one that is protected under international law.”
Unions Urge Ratification of C190 Around the World
Just as women trade unionists led the struggle to win C190/R206, they are now at the forefront of the struggle to ensure governments widely ratify and implement its framework. Uruguay recently became the the first country to officially ratify C190, with several others expected to do so in the coming months. Women trade unionists have been pushing governments around the world to ratify C190/R206.
“We urge our government to ratify, implement, and enforce Convention 190 on its one-year anniversary,” says Silma Perez, president of SINTRAHO in Honduras. “We are domestic workers and must defend our rights,” states Miriam Sanchez, also of SINTRAHO.
“Convention 190 is an important tool for us to be able to denounce abuses, the Brazilian government must ratify this convention,” says Luiza Batista, president of FENATRAD, Brazil. “The struggle continues.”
“This is especially important for us as women workers, who face constant harassment and violence, we need ratification in Paraguay, and we need real enforcement and implementation,” says Marcia Santander, Secretary General of SINTRADESPY in Paraguay.
In Ukraine, “we talk about C190 ratification at every government meeting,” says KVPU vice president and gender committee head, Nataliya Levytska. “We need to protect workers from violence at the workplace. Employers, government and trade unions must do everything to ratify the convention. Recently, we provided our proposals to the National Action Plan to the National Human Rights Strategy to ratify C190 and implementation of its norms into Ukrainian legislation. We hope that our proposals will be implemented.”
“We as trade unions must do everything to ratify C190 and to eradicate violence at the work. Our workers deserve protection.”
“In C190, we find the mechanisms that will enable us prevent and and defend workers against violence and harassment. Up with women! Together we will win!” says Selfa Sandoval, SITRABI Izabal banana workers union in Guatemala. Sandoval is also coordinator for Gender Equality of the Latin American Coordinating Body of Banana and Agricultural Unions (COLSIBA).
“In El Salvador, we are fighting to ratify Convention 190, a tool that will help us eliminate violence and harassment in the world of work,” says Marta Zaldaña, secretary general of FEASIES federation in El Salvador. “YES to ratification of ILO C190!”
Through education, mobilization and advocacy on a global scale, workers and their unions are taking the lead in this transformative change.
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