With Unions, Informal Economy Workers Gain Rights

With Unions, Informal Economy Workers Gain Rights

Taxi drivers in Ghana, tortilla vendors in Honduras and Asian domestic workers in countries across the Gulf region—all are part of the world’s informal economy, comprising 2 billion workers or 61 percent of the global workforce.

Although informal economy workers create more than one-third of the world’s gross national product, most are either not covered or insufficiently covered by laws or working arrangements guaranteed to formal workers, and have little power to advocate for living wages and safe and secure work.

But by joining in unions or other worker associations, workers in the informal economy can gain the collective power they need to make change, according to a new International Labor Organization (ILO) study.

“Interactions Between Workers’ Organizations and Workers in the Informal Economy: A Compendium of Practice,” highlights 31 examples of how unions around the world have reached out to workers in the informal economy, improved their working conditions, and supported their transition into the formal economy.

“Most people enter the informal economy not by choice but as a consequence of a lack of opportunities in the formal economy and the absence of other means of livelihood,” according to the ILO’s 2015 Transition from the Informal to the Formal Economy Recommendation (No. 204). “The transition to formality is essential for inclusive development and decent work for all.”

Collective Power for 100,000 Zimbabwe Informal Economy Workers

The vast majority of workers in Africa, nearly 86 percent, depend on the informal economy to make a living.

While globally, more men (63 percent) than women (58 percent) work in informal employment, in regions such as sub-Saharan Africa, the reverse is true. In Africa, nearly 90 percent of employed women are in informal employment compared to 82 percent of men. Women working in the informal economy are often in more vulnerable situations than their male counterparts, for example, as domestic workers who labor in private homes away from the public.

In Zimbabwe, where the proportion of informal employment is more than 94 percent of total employment (including agriculture), the Compendium of Practice explores how the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), undertook a pathbreaking partnership with informal economy workers to advocate for legal changes that would improve their working conditions and livelihoods.

In 2002, ZCTU, a Solidarity Center partner, joined with the Employers Confederation of Zimbabwe and the Ministry of Labor to form the Zimbabwe Chamber of Informal Economy Associations (ZCIEA). The association now has 30 territories, each with between five and 10 chapters of 500 informal economy members each. As of 2019, there were 100,000 members in 150 associations.

Market Vendors Harassed, Bullied by Authorities

One of the key challenges informal economy workers face in Zimbabwe is harassment and criminalization of the informal economy. Most informal workers often lack the required licenses to operate, which often cost more than they can pay or only can be procured in cities hundreds of miles from where they live.

As a result, informal workers report widespread harassment and bullying by authorities. In a 2016 ZCIEA survey, 81 percent of 514 informal workers said they have been bullied, with 22 percent specifying that the harassment involved both confiscation of goods and threats of violence. Some 36 percent noted the source of harassment stemmed both from the local authorities and the Zimbabwe Republic Police, the national police force of Zimbabwe.

In highlighting the Zimbabwe example among its case studies, the Compendium of Practice points to how ZCIEA has negotiated for and come into agreement with various local government authorities on new approaches, such as reviewing laws to regularize informal workers.

“ZCIEA has increased the engagement of informal economy workers in policy discussions,” according to the study.

Working with partners like ZCTU throughout the world, Solidarity Center provides trainings and programs to help informal economy workers better understand their rights, organize unions to mitigate job vulnerabilities, and learn to bargain for improved conditions and wages. We connect workers with unions, legal services and pro-worker organizations to challenge exploitation.

Zimbabwe: Abductions Targeting Worker Rights Defenders

Zimbabwe: Abductions Targeting Worker Rights Defenders

Doctors in Harare are protesting the abduction and disappearance of the acting president of the Zimbabwean Hospital Doctors Association (ZHDA), Peter Magombeyi. His disappearance is part of a pattern of violence against civil society defenders in the country, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) and other rights groups.

More than 50 trade union leaders and opposition activists have been abducted in the middle of the night, many of them tortured, in Zimbabwe since January of this year, according to rights groups.

The  death threats Magombeyi received before his disappearance closely parallel those targeting ZCTU President Peter Mutasa and Secretary General Japhet Moyo.

“What is frightening to some of us,” says Moyo, “[is that] the network cell phone numbers used are the same as those that were used in sending threats to myself previously.”

An attempted fact-finding visit by a delegation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in February this year resulted in denial of visas for most of the delegation and the arrest of  ITUC-Africa Secretary General Kwasi Adu Amankwah by state security. The United Nations’ Special Rapporteur on the right to peaceful assembly and association, Clément Nyaletsossi Voule, yesterday began a 10-day visit to assess Zimbabwe’s performance regarding respect of citizens’ right to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.

Ongoing death threats and a sustained government crackdown have forced Moyo and Mutasa into hiding, impeding ZCTU’s ability to effectively represent its members and ensure workers’ right to freedom of association. Citing failure to act, the ZCTU last month petitioned Zimbabwe police to investigate and bring to justice individuals who continue to threaten its leaders. Meanwhile, the Zimbabwe Republic Police (ZRP) dismissed reports of kidnappings Tuesday as “alleged abductions as a means to tarnish Zimbabwe’s image and compromise its security.”

Meanwhile, Zimbabwe’s economy flounders and inflation and price hikes  complicate Zimbabwean workers’ already difficult lives.

In the aftermath of a civil society protest against rising prices and a financial tax increase in October last year,  some trade unionists were beaten; Mutasa, Moyo and 33 other trade unionists were arrested; senior ZCTU leaders were forced into hiding; and ZCTU Harare offices were cordoned off by some 150 police.  After ZCTU helped organize a national strike in January this year to again protest price hikes, violent clashes resulted in 12 deaths and 320 injuries, blamed by human rights organizations on the army and police. Police seeking Mutasa after the protests allegedly assaulted his brother at his home and intimidated ZCTU staff. Arrested and charged with subversion for their role in the January protests, Mutasa and Moyo were left in legal limbo for months, after the Zimbabwe government repeatedly postponed their trials.

The majority of Zimbabwean workers eke out a living in the informal economy, struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Those with formal jobs often do not fare well either. A 2016 study by the Solidarity Center found that 80,000 workers in formal jobs did not receive wages or benefits on time, if at all. In many cases, they made only enough to get to work.

Death Threat: Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions

Death Threat: Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions

Bullets and an anonymous death threat were delivered to Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) President Peter Mutasa and Secretary General Japhet Moyo yesterday in an apparent attempt to discourage a planned labor action later this month.

“This is the first time, for all we know in our history, that bullets are delivered at the homes of trade union leaders, said ZCTU in response.

Zimbabwe, death threats, unions, ZCTU, Solidarity Center

Union leaders in Zimbabwe say this is the first time leaders have been threatened with death for seeking to exercise freedom of association. Credit: ZCTU

The identical threatening letters warn Mutasa and Moyo not to participate in an upcoming July 22 work stoppage by ZCTU members who, with other civil society groups, have been protesting rising prices in the country—including a 150 percent fuel price hike.

If Mutasa and Moyo “mobilize the people” the letter warns, the letter’s authors have hired mercenaries “to take care of you once and for all,” “have got plenty of bullets for you and your families” and know where Mutasa–currently in hiding for his own safety—is living.

“It’s now game on,” the letter ends.

ZCTU has faced numerous threats from authorities while Zimbabwe’s economy continues to flounder and inflation and price hikes further complicate Zimbabwean workers’ lives.

Mutasa has been forced into hiding by ongoing violence and intimidation by authorities. After ZCTU helped organize a national strike in January this year to protest price hikes, police seeking Mutasa allegedly assaulted his brother at his home. ZCTU staff also reported intimidation by police. Arrested and  charged with subversion, Mutasa and Moyo have since remained in legal limbo as the Zimbabwe government repeatedly postpones their trials.

January’s violent clashes resulted in 12 deaths and 320 injuries, blamed by human rights organizations on the army and police.

In the aftermath of a similar protest in October last year, some trade unionists were beaten, Mutasa, Moyo and 33 other trade unionists were arrested, senior ZCTU leadership was forced into hiding and ZCTU Harare offices were cordoned off by some 150 policemen. The Zimbabwe Human Rights Commission found that torture of protesters by government forces before and immediately after the October national protest—consisting mostly of “indiscriminate and severe beatings”—was widespread.

An attempted fact-finding visit by a delegation of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in February this year resulted in denial of visas for most of the delegation and the arrest of  ITUC-Africa Secretary General Kwasi Adu Amankwah by state security.

The majority of Zimbabwean workers eke out a living in the informal economy, struggling to survive on less than $1 a day. Those with formal jobs often do not fare well either. A 2016 study by the Solidarity Center found that 80,000 workers in formal jobs did not receive wages or benefits on time, if at all. In many cases, they made only enough to get to work.

Zimbabwe State Security Releases ITUC Africa Director

Zimbabwe State Security Releases ITUC Africa Director

Hours after state security agents forcibly removed and detained ITUC-Africa Secretary General Kwasi Adu Amankwah in Harare, Zimbabwe, Amankwah was released and allowed to continue his official visit, according to the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU).

State security agents took Amankwah to Robert Mugabe International Airport in the early morning hours today where he was held for nearly 12 hours without access to a lawyer. Global condemnation over the action and the intervention of ZCTU legal team resulted in his release, says ZCTU. Union leaders confirm he was not injured while in detention, but say he was never given a reason for his detention.

Amankwah was set to meet with ZCTU leaders and representatives of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and employer groups and had just arrived at his hotel when state security showed up. Other ITUC representatives from Brussels who sought to travel to Zimbabwe with Amankwah were denied visas.

Among those condemning Amankwah’s detention are the three largest trade unions in Africa: the Central Organization of Trade Unions-Kenya (COTU-Kenya), the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) and the Nigerian Labor Congress.

The regionwide union organization, the Southern Africa Trade Union Coordination Council (SATUCC), also condemned the action and strongly urged the government “to stop interfering in trade union work and criminalizing trade union activities and actions.”

Amankwah’s detention follows protests by thousands of Zimbabweans over a 150 percent fuel price hike and the arrest and release of  ZCTU Secretary General Japhet Moyo, President Peter Mutasa and dozens of others who now are restricted from travel and must check in with police.

In a statement, ZCTU calls on the government to “prioritize dialogue instead of resorting to cowardly intimidatory tactics where it feels there are discrepancies.”

ITUC Africa Director Forcibly Detained in Zimbabwe

ITUC Africa Director Forcibly Detained in Zimbabwe

Kwasi Adu Amankwah, general secretary of the African Regional Organization of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC-Africa), was forcibly taken from his hotel at 2 a.m. today in Harare, Zimbabwe, where he had just arrived.

Amankwah was set to meet with leaders of the Zimbabwe Trade Union Confederation (ZCTU) when state security agents took him to Robert Mugabe International Airport, where he has been held for hours.

Officials refused to allow a lawyer from ZCTU to see Amankwah at the airport, according to ZCTU.

“It’s a sad development,” ZCTU President Peter Mutasa told the media. “We are in trouble as human rights defenders and trade unionists.”

Other ITUC representatives from Brussels who sought to travel to Zimbabwe with Amankwah were denied visas.

In addition to the solidarity visit to ZCTU, Amankwah was scheduled to meet with the Zimbabwe Ministry of Labor and representatives of the International Labor Organization (ILO) and employers’ federation.  Amankwah has not been charged nor informed of the reason for his detention, according to ZCTU.

“It is not clear why such a senior trade union leader was detained at his hotel in the early morning hours and whisked away to the airport without his belongings—and even denied food brought to him by his lawyer and trade union colleagues as he was detained at the airport,” says Solidarity Center Africa Region Director Hanad Mohamud. “This after lawfully entering Zimbabwe. Why is Kwasi being targeted like this?”

In January, after tens of thousands of Zimbabweans protested a 150 percent fuel price hike, ZCTU Secretary General Japhet Moyo and Mutasa were arrested on charges of subversion and beaten in detention. They since have been released but are restricted from travel and must check in with police.

The January crackdown on worker rights’ activists follows the arrest and release of Moyo, Mutasa and 33 other union leaders in October, as government officials attempted to end a nationwide protest against a financial tax increase and rising prices. Some union activists were beaten, ZCTU Harare offices were cordoned off by more than 100 police, and ZCTU leaders not already in jail were forced into hiding.

In a letter to Zimbabwe President Emmerson Mnangagwa, ITUC-Africa asks for Amankwah’s release and “an unreserved apology for this action” from the Zimbabwe Department of Immigration.

The Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) is among unions around the world decrying Amankwah’s detention and likely deportation, condemning the move “in the strongest terms” and demanding his immediate release and freedom to meet with ZCTU and others.

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