Representatives of Swaziland’s trade union federation, TUCOSWA—who are in Washington, D.C., to receive a human rights award from the AFL-CIO in recognition of the courage and persistence of Swaziland’s workers in demanding their rights—say an alarming number of people are losing their jobs because of the country’s unwillingness to improve its poor human rights record.
Swaziland lost preferential access to the U.S. market under the Africa Growth and Opportunity Act (AGOA), on January 1, for violations of worker rights eligibility criteria, including laws that restrict freedom of association and speech. As a result, thousands of workers, especially in the textile sector, face layoffs, said Secretary General of the Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA) Vincent Ncongwane, at a briefing on working conditions in Swaziland at the Solidarity Center yesterday. Some employers are closing factories while others are moving production to subsidiary plants outside the country.
TUCOSWA has strongly criticized the Swazi government’s actions leading to AGOA suspension and has said trade benefits can be restored when the government chooses to meet benchmarks to become compliant under the Act’s eligibility requirements. In return, the federation’s activities have been disrupted, it was long denied (and only recently received) official registration, and many workers are afraid to get involved for fear of retribution, said Ncongwane.
However, international solidarity with Swazi workers and TUCOSWA has helped the labor movement remain a vibrant voice for workers, he said. The federation represents more than 36,000 workers, who do not have to see their jobs disappear.
“All that is necessary is the political will,” said Ncongwane.
This evening, Ncongwane and Patrick Mamba, TUCOSWA treasurer general, will accept the 2015 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of Swazi workers at a 6 p.m. ceremony at the AFL-CIO.
The recent firing of a union leader at a Chinese-owned oil refinery in Kyrgyzstan is the company’s latest attempt in the past two years to prevent workers from forming a union, according to the global union IndustriALL and workers.
Zhanaydar Ahmetov, leader of the trade union committee at China Petrol Company Zhongda was fired and locked out of the plant. Credit: IndustriALL
Zhanaydar Ahmetov, leader of the trade union committee at China Petrol Company Zhongda was fired and locked out of the plant on August 29, the second union leader dismissed in two years, factory workers say. Oil refinery workers created a union last December, elected Ahmetov as chairman and joined the Mining and Metallurgy Trade Union of Kyrgyzstan (MMTUK). Some 350 of the 400 Kyrgyz workers in the refinery have joined the union. Although they negotiated a contract with management in January, the company refuses to sign it.
(Take action to urge the company to reinstate Ahmetov.)
The company now is challenging the union’s registration in court. In March, management set up a company-controlled union, and workers report that managers are pressuring them to join it.
Hazardous, Even Deadly Workplace Conditions
Following Ahmetov’s dismissal, hundreds of workers rallied at the refinery, demanding his reinstatement and reiterating to management the need for improved safety and health measures, an increase in wages and a collective bargaining agreement. Workers say workplace hazards include plant machinery with instruction and warning signs posted in Chinese, posing serious and even deadly risks to the primarily Kyrgyz-speaking factory workers.
In July, management refused entry to MMWUK’s safety and health inspectors, according to workers.
MMTUK President Eldar Tadjibaev says if management will not negotiate with workers, the union will take the company’s repeated violations of labor and human rights to the Kyrgyz state prosecutor.
Workers Forced to Sign Contract Lowering Their Wages
Zhongda, which began operating in Kyrgyzstan in 2013, employs nearly 1,000 workers, including management staff. Workers first created a union in April 2014, and in May, union leader Nuraev Almazbek was fired and the union disbanded. Almazbek is suing the company over the illegal dismissal.
Last November, managers told workers if they did not sign a contract lowering their wages, their actions would be interpreted as unwillingness to work and they would be fired.
Workers also are seeking compensation for hazardous working conditions, transparency about the hazards posed by specific duties and adherence to government regulations stipulating 90 percent of the workforce be locally based.
Dozens of union members and their allies from across Mexico gathered today to celebrate the official launch of the country’s first domestic workers’ union, SINACTRAHO. The union’s formation culminated a 15-year struggle for rights on the job by those whose work often goes unrecognized, and today’s events marked the union filing for official government recognition.
Earlier this week, the National Union of Workers (UNT) approved SINACTRAHO’s affiliation. Domestic workers from states like Colima, Chiapas, Puebla, Guerrero, Mexico City and elsewhere around the country voted to form the union and elected an executive committee earlier in August.
“I am very excited for today because it is a historical victory for the domestic workers in Mexico,” says Isidra, a domestic worker who took part in today’s events. “From now on, we will have rights and no one will be able to take them away from us. Our rights will be respected, no more low salaries and disrespectful treatment. Our work is valuable.”
Domestic workers cast their vote on whether to form a union. Credit: CACEH
“This union was created to make the difference for domestic workers in this country. It is an historic moment for the more than 2 million domestic workers in Mexico,” says Marcelina Bautista, a former domestic worker who founded the Center for Support and Training of Domestic Workers (CACEH). CACEH’s outreach efforts among domestic workers led to the formation of SINACTRAHO, which launches with 60 members and plans to continue reaching out to domestic workers across the country.
Domestic Workers’ Union: A Dream Come True
The struggle by Mexico’s domestic workers for rights on the job is documented in the film, “Day Off” (Día de Descanso), which premiered yesterday, with SINACTRAHO executive board members taking part. Elizabeth Tang, general secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation (IDWF) and Jill Shenker, IDWF North America Regional Coordinator and international organizing director for the U.S.-based National Domestic Workers Alliance (NDWA) also joined the event.
Bautista says when CACEH was formed 15 years ago, she dreamed of creating a trade union, but the conditions were not favorable. “Today that dream will come true,” she says. Bautista is the IDWF regional coordinator for Latin America and from 2006 to 2012, served as general secretary of CONLACTRAHO, the confederation of Latin American and Caribbean domestic workers.
“Through this struggle, we’ve come to realize that we’re wise.”
Domestic workers celebrate with a green glove, the campaign’s symbol of rights and respect on the job. Credit: Adriana Paz
Domestic Workers Raising Awareness among Public, Lawmakers
In addition to organizing domestic workers, CACEH conducts training and education programs, with train-the-trainer workshops expanding CACEH’s network of domestic workers. CACEH has taken part in labor legislation advocacy at multiple levels of government and has spearheaded campaigns to raise public awareness about the value of domestic work and the rights of domestic workers.
“All the positioning work has been very successful, and today the Senate and Congress are aware of the issue,” Bautista says.
Going forward, domestic workers will ramp up efforts to push Mexico to ratify the International Labor Organization Convention (ILO) Convention 189 covering domestic workers.
“We didn’t know how to shout the first time we went on a march,” Bautista says. “Now they listen to us!”
A second Honduran union leader and participant in the Network Against Anti-Union Violence in Honduras has been threatened with death if he does not stop his union-related work, according to the human rights group Aci Participa.
Tomás Membreño Pérez, president of the agricultural workers union, Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Agroindustria (STAS), received death threats by phone and on Facebook in recent days and was followed as he traveled to the Santa Rita banana plantation where he is helping workers get a voice on the job.
One Honduran union leader has been murdered this year who also was a member of the anti-violence network and another union leader disappeared and is presumed dead. In July, the president of the health care union reported receiving death threats. (ACI Participa has documented more such cases.)
The network, comprised of union activists and ACI-Participa, was launched late last year to combat government corruption and stand up to increasing violence and threats against union activists. Among them, José Maria Martinez, an active union member who hosted a popular pro-worker radio show, was forced to flee Honduras twice because of death threats in 2013 and 2014.
Honduras: No Progress in Addressing Worker Rights
Pérez also is active on the Honduran labor movement’s Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA) Complaint Commission, which has received numerous documented cases of worker rights abuse in the banana and agricultural sectors in Honduras.
The United States passed the CAFTA agreement in 2005. In 2012, the AFL-CIO and 26 Honduran unions and civil society organizations filed a complaint under CAFTA’s labor chapter with the U.S. Department of Labor’s Office of Trade and Labor Affairs alleging the Honduran government failed to enforce labor rights under its labor laws. The trade and labor affairs office accepted the complaint in 2014, and the United States is waiting for the Honduran government to present its corrective plan of action. In a February 2015 report, the U.S. Trade and Labor Affairs office says Honduras has made virtually no progress since 2012.
‘Overwhelmed’ by Violence, Attacks on Worker Rights
The Santa Rita banana plantation is included in the 2012 complaint under its previous name, Tres Hermanas. As the AFL-CIO points out, Santa Rita, now a subsidiary of Chiquita, owes full-time and temporary workers nearly $50,000 for unpaid overtime and other wages.
In addition, Honduran unions reported that the Labor Ministry selected an employer-controlled union to represent workers at the plantation, even though it is documented that STAS is supported by 136 workers out of 145. In a July 2015 letter, the AFL-CIO asked the Honduran secretary of Labor and Social Security to address the issue.
Last October, a delegation of U.S. union leaders to Honduras reported that they were “overwhelmed” with the information they received from union activists about widespread noncompliance with laws, including attacks against labor leaders, a lack of compliance with minimum wage laws and an unresponsive government. The delegation issued a scathing report on the conditions.
Nurul Islam and three other men from his village in Burma’s Rakhine state believed the Rohingya brokers who promised to take them to Malaysia for jobs. Instead, the men were herded at gunpoint deep into a forest with 350 other migrant women, men and children, and told if they did not pay up to $2,300 each, they would be beaten and killed.
Beaten by his captors over four days, Nurul, 30, eventually called his uncle in Malaysia who agreed to pay the traffickers. But after he was released and contacted the police, he was taken to a government shelter where he again was deceived—a government official demanded $560 dollars for his release.
In a rare case of justice for survivors of human trafficking, the official, Anat Hayeemasae, a member of the Satun Provincial Administration Organization, was sentenced yesterday to more than 22 years in prison for human trafficking and ordered to pay Nurul $3,560.
Lawyers Working with HRDF Key to Prosecution
The success resulted from a more than year-long effort by lawyers working with the Human Rights and Development Foundation (HRDF), a Solidarity Center ally. They joined with the Rohingya Association of Thailand to investigate and file charges.
The result, says HRDF Secretary General Somchai Homlaor, “serves the objectives of HRDF’s Anti Human Trafficking in Labor Project to provide legal aid to a victim of human trafficking and to ensure the right of the victim of human trafficking to have access to justice process.”
Anat was found guilty of violating Thailand’s 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act and its 1979 Immigration Act, among other charges. He was among government officials from the Immigration Office who rescued Nural in March 2014 at Songkhla’s Hat Yai bus terminal.
Massive Human Trafficking in Thailand
Anat’s prosecution is especially noteworthy in an area where massive human trafficking occurs with impunity. In May, hundreds of bodies were found in 139 mass graves at suspected human trafficking camps on the border of Malaysia and Thailand. According to local news, Malaysian border patrol knew about the camps for 10 years, says Karuppiah Somasundram, education director for the Malaysian Trades Union Congress (MTUC). No arrests have been made.
Last month, the U.S. State Department retained Thailand on the bottom ranking of its annual Trafficking in Persons Report. The “Tier 3” ranking means Thailand is failing to comply with minimum standards to address human trafficking.
Migrant workers, primarily from Burma and Cambodia, work in slave-like conditions on Thai fishing boats, fueling the country’s $7 billion seafood export industry and making it the world’s third-largest exporter. Many migrant workers toil in forced labor and are held against their will on the boats where they are beaten and even killed. A Guardian series last year reported on the horrors endured by migrant workers who often are tricked by labor recruiters and sold into bondage. Estimates of migrant workers in Thailand range from 200,000 to 500,000.
A 2013 survey by the International Labor Organization (ILO) of nearly 600 workers in the Thai fishing industry found that almost none had a signed contract, and about 40 percent had wages cut without explanation. Children were also found on board. A 2009 U.N. report found that about six out of 10 migrant workers on Thai fishing boats reported seeing a co-worker killed. In another report, migrant workers say they were trafficked and forced to work for up to 20 hours per day with little or no pay. Many migrant workers in Thailand are in debt bondage.