A milestone convening in Tashkent last week brought together stakeholders from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan government ministries and agencies, non-governmental and civil society sectors, and international organizations as a first step in developing a joint action plan to combat forced labor and advance worker rights in the region. Worldwide, 28 million people were reportedly trapped in forced labor in 2021.
The May 22 conference highlighted labor inspectorates’ role in protecting worker rights and combating forced labor in the region. Solidarity Center supported the event, which was organized in collaboration with “Partnership in Action,” an international NGO network of more than 30 Central Asian organizations, Kyrgyzstan’s Migrant Workers Union’s partner organization “Insan-Leylek” and Uzbekistan’s Istiqbolli Avlod.
“There is a crucial need for regional cooperation in labor inspections, because migration patterns are constantly changing,” says “Insan-Leylek” leader Gulnara Derbisheva.
Recognizing the importance of collective action, the conference hosts provided a forum for representatives of labor inspectorates from Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan to share their expertise and experiences within their respective countries. Government representatives from each of those countries reiterated their commitment to labor inspectorates working cooperatively with one another and with the region’s worker rights defenders to fight labor exploitation and promote safer working environments and dignified work for all.
Topics included international standards related to the work of inspectorates, issues surrounding forced labor in Central Asia and the importance of labor inspections given the region’s unique challenges. Participants identified a severe shortage of labor inspectors—Solidarity Center research finds that 250 labor inspectors oversee 280,000 legal entities employing 6.5 million people in Kazakhstan, 30 inspectors oversee thousands of enterprises in Kyrgyzstan and 315 inspectors oversee 578,000 registered entities in Uzbekistan—and discussed restrictions on inspectorates’ effectiveness. Although the International Labor Organization (ILO) standards specify that inspections be conducted without prior notification, all three countries require prior consent and advance notice for inspections and exclude small businesses from inspection mandates. Kyrgyzstan and Uzbekistan are currently considering legislative changes to rectify such loopholes.
“The outcomes of the conference have the potential to transform labor protection, ensuring safer and fairer working conditions for everyone in the region,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Regional Program Director Rudy Porter.
According to ILO data, some 2.3 million women and men around the world succumb to work-related accidents or diseases every year, including 340 million victims of occupational accidents and 160 million victims of work-related illnesses. The ILO reports 11,0000 fatal occupational accidents annually in the 12-member states comprising the Commonwealth of Independent States—Azerbaijan, Armenia, Belarus, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Moldova, Russia, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan—but points to “gross underreporting” of occupational accidents and diseases in the region.
“How could this factory have been a secret? Where were the labor inspectors? Where were the local government authorities? Where were the investors?” asked Amal El Amri, a representative in Morocco’s upper house of Parliament and Moroccan Labor Union (UMT) member.
“We must ensure a voice for these workers who have died, and for the many thousands more women workers who toil under the same dangerous conditions,” El Amri said. In January, a fire at another illegal textile factory in Tangier injured one person and destroyed the factory, where 400 people worked.
The UMT and Democratic Labor Confederation (CDT), both Solidarity Center partners, demanded an immediate investigation into the tragedy, and the CDT said in a statement that it holds the state, the government and the employers fully responsible for the workers’ deaths.
Operating outside national labor laws or standards, illegal factories are a direct response to the demands of the fast fashion industry, in which large brands demand quick response to fashion changes and customer demands and so draw on subcontractors whose workforce is cheaper and its work arrangements informal.
With no job stability and few social protections, garment workers in the informal economy are subject to exploitation and abuse, with no health coverage, pensions or other social and legal protections. Some one-third of Morocco workers are in the informal economy, which accounts for 14 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.
‘Companies Must Be Held Accountable’
As the global labor movement joins in calls for accountability in a supply chain where workers pay the price for cheap production, the Morocco Contribution Forum is urging the government to close all workplaces without health and safety protections and establish a policy to ensure severe penalties for companies operating outside the law.
Public officials must “improve the rights and living standard of marginalized people who are victims of oppression and violence, whether it is on the way to work, or in the workplace, and to provide them with the minimum conditions of human rights,” the Forum, a Solidarity Center partner, said in a statement.
A devastating fire in Dhaka’s Jhilpar slum earlier this month highlights the deplorable living conditions suffered by low-wage workers producing clothing for the global marketplace in Bangladesh’s highly profitable garment sector. The August 16 fire destroyed thousands of tin shacks and left an estimated 15,000 families homeless. This week, Solidarity Center partners Akota Garments Workers Federation (AGWF), Sommilito Garments Sramik Federation (SGSF) and AWAJ Foundation distributed relief funds to 175 union families impacted by the fire but say that only higher wages can provide a long-term solution to dangerous housing.
“Garment workers, many of whom are young women supporting families, deserve wages that afford them reliably safe living conditions,” says Solidarity Center Asia Regional Director Tim Ryan.
While garment workers are safer on the job due to progress made through the Bangladesh Accord—an enforceable international agreement between unions and more than 190 global apparel brands and retailers that covered more than 1,600 factories last year—low wages are forcing garment workers to live in dangerous slums. Dhaka has more than 5,000 slums inhabited by an estimated four million people, including children.
Although Bangladesh’s garment worker minimum wage increased in 2018 to $95 per month—the first increase in more than five years—wages are not keeping pace with the rising cost of living in areas populated by the apparel sector and employers are not paying workers a living wage.
“Poverty wages are forcing garment workers into over-crowded slums, where fire and other health risks are high,” said Ryan.
Through the efforts of AGWF, SGSF and AWAJ Foundation, with Solidarity Center support, 175 union families whose homes were destroyed in the August 16 Jhilpar fire yesterday received relief funds to help them rebuild. Unions will continue to inventory their member’s losses and needs and distribute additional funds as they become available.
Relief recipient Shima, who lost her home in the fire, said that union assistance gives garment workers like her the strength and means to rebuild, but that workers must earn enough to afford safe housing.
“Relief funds after disasters are only temporary,” she said.
At least 1,304 garment workers were killed and at least 3,877 injured in factory fires and other workplace incidents in Bangladesh from November 2012 through April 2019, according to data compiled by the Solidarity Center.
Today marks the six-month anniversary of the Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 1,200 garment workers, primarily women, and injured 2,500 more.
In the wake of this catastrophe, several steps have been taken to address workplace safety at the country’s thousands of garment factories: Some 100 major corporations have signed on to the Bangladesh Accord on Building and Fire Safety, a binding agreement that commits brands and the companies they source from to addressing building and fire hazards and ensuring unions are a key part of this process; and the Bangladesh government has moved toward allowing registration of unions at garment factories.
But on the factory floor, garment workers are reporting a torrent of employer resistance when they seek to form a union to ensure they have a collective voice to fight for workplace rights like job safety and health. Workers who spoke recently with Solidarity Center staff in Gazipur, Bangladesh, described the difficulties they face when seeking a union, even though forming a union would allow them to address deadly working conditions, such as those that led to the Rana Plaza disaster, where a multistory building pancaked in on workers.
Workers are the best monitors of conditions in their factories because they are on the shop floor every day, and many of those at Rana Plaza factories have told the Solidarity Center that they were threatened with the loss of their meager wages if they did not go back to their machines. If they had had a union, they could have had the strength to resist being forced into a death trap.
Workers also told Solidarity Center staff that at the center of what they want from their employers boils down to this: “respectful treatment.”
They know that with respect, all the rest—clean drinking water, sufficient wages to support their families, unlocked fire escapes—will follow.
Campaign and Media Communications Director
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