COVID-19: ‘We need a new social contract founded on rights and the principle of shared prosperity’
CIVICUS speaks about the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and emergency measures on labour rights, and the civil society response, with Owen Tudor, Deputy General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). Recognised as the global voice of the world’s working people, the ITUC works to promote and defend workers’ rights and interests through international cooperation among trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within major global institutions. The ITUC adheres to the principles of trade union democracy and independence and encompasses three regional organisations in Africa, the Americas and Asia and the Pacific, while also cooperating with the European Trade Union Confederation.
What have been the major impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic on labour rights?
The ITUC surveyed its national trade union affiliates regularly in the first few months of the pandemic, and we quickly identified that, while many countries were seeing positive engagement between governments and unions, others weren’t. In many countries, like those in Scandinavia and the rest of Europe, and often building on existing forms of social dialogue, governments, employers and unions worked together to develop measures to tackle the pandemic and its effects on workplaces. That also happened in some countries where such cooperation has been less common, such as Argentina, Georgia, Nigeria and the UK. At a global level, the International Labour Organization (ILO) stressed the importance of social dialogue as one of its four pillars for action on the pandemic, alongside stimulating the economy and employment, supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes, and protecting workers in the workplace.
But in some countries, rogue employers and neoliberal governments thought they could use the pandemic to restrict workers’ and unions’ rights, such as limits on working time, or security of employment. In countries such as Croatia and Lithuania, we campaigned in support of our affiliates to push back against those changes, but we weren’t successful everywhere. In India, for example, state governments implemented a widespread deregulation of employment protections.
Has this led to any changes in union organising?
In far too many countries, jobs have been lost and unemployment has soared. That has an inevitable impact on union organising. But in several countries, including those that have seen membership reductions in the recent past and those where membership is already strong, the key role played by unions in defending employment and wages and campaigning for decent health and safety at work has led to membership gains. Bluntly, working people have seen more clearly the importance of union membership to protect them against management inadequacies and violations of their most fundamental rights.
In some cases, the pandemic has accelerated the experience of virtual organising – over Zoom or other internet platforms. And that technology has in some cases led union organisers to change their point of view, from explaining the benefits of membership to listening to what potential members want. Again, this just accelerated a trend, from offering people a model that solves their problems to letting workers define what works for them. As one Australian union leader put it, “finally we started contacting our members the way they wanted to be contacted.”
How have unions worked to defend rights and help their members and communities during the pandemic?
The daily work of unions intensified with the pandemic. Unions represented workers threatened with being laid off, pushed for adequate severance pay, sought expanded access to social protection and raised the concerns of women workers who faced even greater discrimination and of migrant workers denied equal access and equal treatment. In many cases unions won breakthroughs previously not thought possible, and we now need to defend those gains for the long term.
Unions have been actively involved with international institutions like the International Monetary Fund and the World Health Organisation (WHO), with national governments on every continent and with employers from the workplace to the multinational boardroom to ensure that workers and their jobs are protected. From negotiating national short-term working schemes in Germany, to ensuring contracts are honoured in the global garment industry, and arranging sectoral policies for the safe return to the workplace in Belgium, unions have been busting a gut to ensure workers’ interests were recognised. Sadly, whenever we hear about community transmission of COVID-19, it’s often a workplace that people are talking about, such as in hospitality, healthcare or meat processing plants. Unions have been emphasising the need for occupational health to be as important as public health, including the provision of personal protective equipment as well as access to paid sick leave.
Unions have also been negotiating fiercely with employers to stop redundancies, which have taken place, disgracefully, even in companies that were bailed out with taxpayers’ money. In some countries, employers have been prevented by law from laying workers off. We have negotiated arrangements for homeworking, which is becoming more common than ever, even after the pandemic has subsided. A new teleworking law in Argentina was negotiated with unions, providing innovations like workers deciding if they want to revert to working in their workplaces.
What has the pandemic told us about underlying economic and labour problems and the changes that need to happen?
Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, massive inequality – including income disparities, racial injustice and gender discrimination – was already driving an age of anger, characterised by civil unrest and distrust in democracy. Along with the destruction resulting from extreme weather events due to climate change, the risks to economies and societies were already clear. Added to that, we face the choices associated with the best and worst impacts of technology, devoid of a rights base.
The pandemic has highlighted the cracks that were already present in the social contract. Inadequate healthcare provision made the early weeks of the pandemic particularly worrying, with fears that hospitals would be overrun. Similar funding gaps in care for older people and appalling employment arrangements required workers to shuttle between residential facilities, unable to take sick leave when they showed symptoms. Insecure employment and inadequate social protection forced many to keep working while infectious to put food on their families’ plates. The failure to provide adequate personal protective equipment was just the most visible sign of occupational health and safety shortcomings.
For the economy as a whole, the ILO’s dire predictions for hundreds of millions of job losses among the formal labour force were dwarfed by the number of informal sector workers whose livelihoods were wrecked. In each of these areas of systemic failure, it was women whose jobs were most vulnerable and whose health was least protected, with lockdowns forcing many into additional unpaid childcare and some into the trap of violence and abuse.
We need to build back better, including a new social contract for recovery and resilience that provides job protection and a universal labour guarantee whether you’re a full-time employee at Amazon or a precarious Uber driver. Occupational safety and health must become a fundamental right at work, like freedom from slavery or the right to strike. We need adequately funded, quality public healthcare, education and water, as part of universal social protection. And we need to regulate economic power, with the freedom of association and the right to bargain collectively, minimum living wages and mandated due diligence in supply chains for human rights and environmental standards.
Unions and the millions of members we represent can help deliver all these through collective bargaining with employers, social dialogue with governments and engagement in international and multilateral institutions.
What do governments and businesses need to do to work better with unions, and what role can the international community play?
Governments and businesses need to recognise the vital role that unions play in representing working people – not just at elections, or when pay deals are negotiated, but all year round, and in every corner of the economy. They need to respect the fundamental rights and freedoms that unions need to operate, including the freedom of association, the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike. When they make decisions that affect millions – if not hundreds of millions – of people, they need to abide by the slogan of ‘nothing about us, without us’ – and that means working positively with unions.
At the same time, we face a crisis of multilateralism, often driven by nationalist, populist politicians but in part the result of the collapse in public trust for globalisation driven by the rapacious profit-seeking behaviour of global multinational corporations and powerful technology companies.
The world is facing a convergence of crises, yet global institutions established to underpin and reinforce rights, equality, inclusive growth and global stability are at their most fractured. They need to be reinforced and refocused on responding to the needs of people and the planet.
The WHO has proved itself a necessity in the global response to COVID-19, but even so, science must be the basis of managing health risks and ensuring universal access to treatment, without political compromise.
The World Trade Organisation presides over a global model of trade that has failed both people and their environment. And Bretton Woods institutions have strayed far from their mandates by promoting neoliberal structural reform and austerity, the interests of dominant countries and corporate greed. This must change.
The ILO, with its unique tripartite system, is as necessary today as it was when it gave birth to the social contract based on a mandate of social justice. Its constituents need to be as committed to ensuring a global floor of rights and shared prosperity as its founders were 100 years ago in 1919, and as was reaffirmed in the Declaration of Philadelphia in 1944.
Working with our allies in broader civil society, unions want to construct a new social contract founded on those principles. If we can do that, we can create a better economy, a better society and a better world.
GLOBAL CAMPAIGN: ‘The future of work requires a shift away from a focus on time’
CIVICUS speaks about the proposal for a four-day working week with Hazel Gavigan, Global Campaigns and Activation Officer of 4 Day Week Global.
4 Day Week Global is a civil society organisation (CSO) that advocates for a move towards a four-day working week to improve both workplace productivity and the wellbeing of employees.
How would the proposed four-day week work, and why do you advocate for it?
At 4 Day Week Global, it’s our ambition to make a four-day week the new default and reduced working time the new standard. The four-day week that we advocate for is very much a flexible model, not a rigid, ‘one-size-fits-all approach’ and is based on the general principle of the 100:80:100™ model – 100 per cent of the pay, for 80 per cent of the time and, crucially, in exchange for 100 per cent of the productivity or output.
The disruption to societal and workplace norms by the COVID-19 pandemic has illustrated the potential for very different models of work, for both workers and employers, and reinforced the need to rethink old, established patterns. We believe the future of work requires a shift away from a focus on time, as this is not an effective way to measure people’s contributions at work. Instead, we need to focus on measuring and rewarding collective outputs.
The four-day week we are campaigning for has countless cross-society benefits in terms of gender equality, sustainability and general improvements to health and happiness. Where implemented, it allows for better distribution of caring responsibilities, as reduced working time enables men to carry out a greater portion of labour within the home. This, in turn, helps remove barriers to women achieving senior positions in work, taking on leadership roles and pursuing training opportunities.
Research also suggests that moving to a four-day week will reduce carbon emissions by around a fifth, by cutting back on commuting time and energy use in buildings. In her recent TED talk, one of our research partners, Professor Juliet Schor, also makes the point that when people are time-stressed, they tend to choose faster and more polluting modes of travel and daily life activities. Whereas when we get time rather than money, we tend to have a lower carbon footprint.
And crucially, with an extra free day in the week, workers report feeling happier and less stressed and are more productive. This alone is an excellent outcome, but it also has a positive impact on businesses. Employers find that productivity is maintained, or in some cases, increased and they also have less costs associated with employee sick leave due to stress and burnout, and recruitment and retraining, as workers are satisfied in their jobs and less likely to leave for elsewhere.
How are you advocating for the four-day week?
Previously, we established national campaigns to generate interest and conversation in a country and then built on that to run a pilot programme there. However, the pandemic has turbocharged an organic momentum and now our pilot programme is the main driver of the campaign.
Up to now, most case studies on the four-day work week were conducted at an individual company level, with a few exceptions, such as Iceland. The purpose of our pilot programmes is to demonstrate that the positive outcomes achieved by individual businesses we’ve observed can be replicated on a much broader scale in a variety of countries and industries.
If we can prove the positive impact of reduced-hour, productivity-focused working on business outcomes, employee wellbeing and society in general, those results will be the driver of change that will get more and more big corporations and governments interested.
So currently, the data and evidence our pilots produce is central to our approach in influencing the policy agenda.
4 Day Week Global is currently running coordinated six-month trials of the four-day working week in Australia, Canada, Ireland, New Zealand, the UK and the USA, with numerous others planned in the coming months.
As part of this, we have developed a package of support for employers who agree to participate in the pilot, which provides those organisations with access to the expertise, tools and resources they need to run a smooth and successful trial.
We offer a specialised training programme, designed and delivered by companies who already operate a four-day week. Companies receive mentorship and advice from a panel of experts and business leaders from around the world. There are networking opportunities with other companies participating in the trial and participants get access to world-class academic research and expert analysis.
Leading scholars work with each participating company to define and establish their research baseline and relevant productivity metrics for the trial. The economic, social and ecological impact of the four-day week is also monitored throughout, assessing productivity, employee wellbeing and gender and environmental impacts, both through direct carbon emissions and indirect behavioural changes. Ultimately, the key to success is recognising that time invested in work actually matters less than the results produced.
We also have hundreds of advocates who volunteer to help grow the movement, offering everything from starting a national campaign for a four-day week in their own country to simply sharing some content on social media. It’s through this network that we can sustain and expand our level of growth, so if anyone reading this article would like to join the cause, they can sign up here.
How did you win support for the four-day work week trial currently happening in the UK? What do you hope to get out of it?
There’s a 4 Day Week Campaign in the UK which has been active for a number of years and quite high profile in terms of commissioning research and engaging in debate in the public square. So that definitely played a role in priming the audience and generating interest and support for the trial that recently launched.
This is also an idea whose time has come and the support seen for the four-day week in the UK is largely down to an exponential growth in the conversation about how we work.
Business leaders are drawn to this for recruitment and competition purposes in the midst of the ‘great resignation’ – a time when many people are looking to switch jobs. Managers are more open-minded because they were forced to trust their workers during the pandemic and figure out how to measure actual output as opposed to how long employees were spending in the office. And workers now see that a four-day week is possible in a way that they previously didn’t.
What kind of challenges have you faced?
The biggest challenge is convincing business leaders that the four-day week can work for them. Many people like the concept but argue that it wouldn’t be possible in their organisation. However, almost all companies that move to a four-day week do three big things: radically shorten and reform meetings, use technology more thoughtfully and mindfully, and redesign the workday to build in distinct periods for focused work, meetings and social time.
Studies show that the average worker loses between two and three hours each day to useless meetings, poor technology implementation and just plain old distraction. So, the four-day week is actually already here; we just can’t see it because it’s buried underneath these old and thoughtless practices.
Sometimes when companies do commit to trialling a four-day week, they overthink it in the preparatory phase and try to come up with a solution to every potential problem, which is of course impossible. So, our advice in that situation is to trust your workers to solve issues as they arise. That’s what a trial is all about.
Are you receiving support from other CSOs?
Yes, we are. One good example of this is the 4 Day Week Ireland campaign, where a coalition of trade unions, businesses, environmentalists, women’s rights groups, other CSOs, academics and health practitioners all joined forces with 4 Day Week Global to start a national conversation about the widespread benefits of reduced-hour, productivity-focused working.
The results of this saw widespread media coverage on the issue which, in turn, primed the public for the launch of the Irish four-day week pilot programme, which got underway earlier this year. The coalition was also afforded the opportunity to present to key political stakeholders in an enterprise, trade and employment context, the outcome of which resulted in a government-sponsored research tender seeking to better understand the social, economic and environmental implications of reduced working time.
We’ve had great success up to this point with the rollout of our international pilot programmes. However, in order to secure widespread change, there are four areas which feed into the overall success of the movement: labour market competition, public demand, collective bargaining and government intervention. All four of these players have different degrees of influence depending on the sector, but we need collaboration from all parties if we’re to see a broad implementation of the shorter working week.
INDIA: ‘We have achieved a historic labour rights win for female Dalit workers’
CIVICUS speaks about a recent labour rights victory in India’s garment industry with Jeeva M, General Secretary of the Tamil Nadu Textile and Common Labour Union (TTCU).
TTCU is a women-led independent and majority Dalit trade union of textile workers that represents 11,000 female workers in Tamil Nadu, India. Jeeva, who hails from the Dalit community, has worked for more than five years in the Tamil Nadu textile industry, including at Eastman Exports. She is a founding member of TTCU and has led struggles for decent work and violence-free workplaces in the garment industry for more than a decade.
What is the Dindigul Agreement, and how significant is it?
The Dindigul Agreement was signed in April 2021 by TTCU and Eastman Exports, one of the largest textile producers in India, which supplies knitwear, apparel and accessories to major global clothing brands. Its aim is to end caste-based and gender-based violence and harassment (GBVH) at Eastman factories and spinning mills in Dindigul, a city in India’s Tamil Nadu state.
This is a historic labour rights win for around 5,000 mostly female Dalit workers, who are placed at the bottom of India’s caste system.
The Dindigul Agreement includes an enforceable brand agreement (EBA), a type of legally binding agreement in which multinational companies commit to use their supply chain relationships to support a worker-led or union-led programme at particular factories or worksites. In this case, TTCU, the Asia Floor Wage Alliance (AFWA) and Global Labour Justice-International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF) have signed an EBA with the multinational fashion company H&M, which requires H&M to support and enforce the Dindigul Agreement. If Eastman Exports violates its commitments, H&M must take steps to penalise the company, including by reducing business, until it comes into compliance.
This agreement is the first of its kind in India, the only EBA to cover spinning mills and the first to include explicit protections against caste-based discrimination, a problem that intensified during the pandemic.
The Dindigul Agreement is in line with the International Labour Organization’s Convention 190 concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the workplace. It creates structures that will empower female workers, supported by their union, to monitor and seek redress for GBVH. It also provides a new model for brands, suppliers and trade unions to cooperate to prevent and respond to GBVH in garment supply chains.
What tipped the balance in favour of the agreement after so many years of efforts?
Civil society has advocated for better working conditions for Dalit workers for many years, but it was not until the murder of Jeyasre Kathiravel, a Dalit woman garment worker and member of TTCU, that we succeeded in addressing the extreme problems of GBVH pervasive in this industry. The killing of Jeyasre by her supervisor in January 2021 prompted TTCU to shed light on the situation at the factory where she was killed.
In response, TTCU, AFWA and GLJ-ILRF formed a unique partnership and launched the #JusticeforJeyasre campaign in India and other Asian countries as well as in Europe and the USA. Over 90 international unions, labour groups and women’s rights organisations joined to urge international brands and Eastman Exports to sign a binding agreement to end GBVH.
A year-long campaign ensued, including an international vigil for Jeyasre held across 33 countries and an 11-city speaking tour across the USA to raise awareness about her case and the need to address GBVH in global supply chains. This enabled the civil society coalition to lead the negotiations that concluded with the historic agreement.
What other challenges do Dalit workers face in India, and what needs to be done to improve their situations?
Caste discrimination permeates every aspect of society. Due to its systemic nature, workplaces and supply chains are likely to be affected by it unless special measures to counter it are put in place.
For instance, Dalit workers experience poorer working conditions than non-Dalits, including longer working hours, sexual harassment, lower wages, dirtier or more hazardous tasks and abusive language and gestures. We also face discrimination at the hiring stage – for instance, qualified applicants from Dalit communities are not considered for skilled jobs – and encounter discrimination in accessing services and utilities offered by the employer, such as housing, healthcare and education and training.
With approximately 80 per cent of the bonded workforce coming from the Dalit community, strong measures need to be put in place to address bonded or forced labour and to ensure that employment in this sector is not forced.
Important measures to advance Dalit workers’ labour rights include ensuring the freedom of association and collective bargaining, improving working conditions, paying living wages and implementing binding agreements such as the Dindigul Agreement to address caste-based discrimination and GBVH in sectors where the workforce is mostly made up of Dalit women.
What’s next for the civil society groups involved in the Dindigul Agreement?
Through the campaign and negotiation process, TTCU built strong forward momentum and gained respect from the factory and brands. TTCU, AFWA and GLJ-ILRF have built a powerful coalition of unions, women’s rights groups and Dalit rights advocates, among others. Now the agreements have been signed, we need to keep that momentum. We will continue to keep our allies engaged in the implementation phase and as we work to drive industry-wide change.
We see the Dindigul Agreement as part of a regional movement against GBVH in garment supply chains. We plan to use it as a model for organising against GBVH across the industry and the region. We are already calling on more brands to join this agreement and working with them to expand it. There will surely be challenges, but we are confident we will overcome them.
INDONESIA: ‘Communities have the right to have their opinions heard and considered’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent protests triggered by rising fuel prices in Indonesia with Kahar S Cahyono, vice president of communications of Konfederasi Serikat Pekerja Indonesia (KSPI), a trade union organisation that promotes social justice and the welfare of workers.
What triggered recent protests in Indonesia?
Workers’ protests were triggered by several government policies deemed to be detrimental for workers. The most recent was the increase in fuel prices, which lead to the increase of prices of basic necessities.
Previously, to determine the minimum wage for 2022, the government had used the regulations of a very problematic law, the Omnibus Law on Job Creation. As a result, the wage increase was at the minimum level. For workers in many areas there was no increase at all. The national average wage rise was roughly one per cent, while the inflation rate in September 2022 reached almost six per cent. In other words, wage increases could not accommodate the sudden increase of prices. The situation worsened due to the increase in fuel prices.
In this context, the government announced it would continue to use the same mechanism provided by the Omnibus Law on Job Creation to calculate the wage increase for 2023. On top of that, the government recognised that in 2023 there will be a global recession. When this happens, workers will likely be the main victims, not least because there will be massive layoffs.
In sum, the purchasing power of workers’ salaries, which already declined because the wage increase has been lower than inflation, will plunge further due to the fuel price rise. The situation will worsen even more because next year’s wage increase will also be the minimum, and will also likely be overcome by inflation. On top of all this, workers will also be haunted by the fear of losing their jobs due to a global recession.
What are your demands, and what tactics are you employing to put them forward?
KSPI has made four demands: cancellation of the increase in the fuel price, repeal of the Omnibus Law on Job Creation, a 13 per cent increase in the minimum wage for 2023 and measures to avoid job losses in a context of global recession.
On top of these four, KSPI has conveyed two additional demands: the implementation of agrarian reform and the adoption of the draft Law on the Protection of Domestic Workers.
Agrarian reform is important to achieve food sovereignty. If Indonesia is able to satisfy its food demand without depending on imported goods, it could avoid the worst impacts of a global recession. The draft Law on the Protection of Domestic Workers is key because domestic workers are typically employed in the informal sector and lack any protection.
KSPI employs a ‘CLAP’ strategy, which stands for concept, lobby, action and politics. Concept refers to developing thought and arguments regarding the issues, through discussion, seminars and other exchanges. Lobbying refers to conducting meetings with relevant officials to convey our position on each issue.
Action is conducted both through litigation – for example, we submitted a petition for judicial review to the Constitutional Court on the Law on Job Creation, as well as a petition to the Administrative Court on the determination of the minimum wage – and peaceful protest at both local and national levels – for instance, by demonstrating outside parliament or the office of the mayor or governor.
Finally, politics refers to campaigning so that people will not vote for a political party that supports measures that hurt workers, such as the Omnibus Law or the increase in fuel prices. This is in addition to establishing a political party representing workers, that is, the Labour Party as a tool for class struggle.
KSPI uses all these tactics jointly with organisations of farmers, fishers, young people, students, women, people living in urban poverty and academics.
Have protesters experienced any human rights violations?
Major human rights violations were recorded during theprotests against the Omnibus Law on Job Creation in 2020. An investigation byAmnesty International Indonesia documented at least 402 victims of police violence in 15 provinces and at least 6,658 individuals arrested in 21 provinces. People who protested online were also intimidated. Between 7 and 20 October 2020, at least 18 people in seven provinces were criminalised for allegedly violating the Information and Electronic Transactions Law.
As for workers, when KSPI urged a nationwide strike against the Omnibus Law, security force officers came to several factories, even entering production areas, to prevent workers joining the protest. Buses rented by workers to join the protest in Jakarta were suddenly cancelled for no reason, possibly as a result of intimidation or prohibition.
Rather than with repression, the government should respond to labour action by implementing mechanisms for meaningful participation, enacting the right of the community to have their opinions heard and considered and to receive reasoned responses to the opinions provided.
How did KSPI react to the football stadium disaster on 1 October?
More than 130 people died and more than 300 were injured on 1 October as a result of the violence that erupted at Kanjuruhan stadium in Malang during an Indonesian league soccer match when supporters from the losing team invaded the pitch and police fired teargas, provoking a stampede.
When this happened, we conveyed our deepest condolences to the victims’ families and to those who were injured. We also examined the facts and concluded there were procedural failures in handling the crowd, and condemned the unprofessional behaviour that led to the tragedy.
KSPI published a media release with a series of calls. First, we urged the head of Indonesian Police to strip the police head of Malang from his position due to his failure to police the incident adequately.
Second, we called for this case to be handled by the Indonesian Police Headquarters so that it is thoroughly investigated and those found responsible are punished through either criminal or administrative proceedings, according to laws and regulations.
Third, we urged the Football Association of Indonesia (PSSI) to suspend league matches until after the conclusion of the investigation of the tragedy. The PSSI should also ensure this won’t happen again by tightening its security protocol for football matches.
Fourth, we urged the public to raise the Indonesian flag at half-mast in their homes as a symbol to express condolences. And finally, we urged society to promote a healthier, more peaceful sports culture.
At KSPI we thought it was important for us to convey our position on this issue, not only because many football supporters are also workers, but also because we realise that the use of excessive force by the security forces is very easily directed against workers. Security forces also often use teargas to dissolve workers’ protests. We hope incidents such as this will not be repeated either inside or outside stadiums, in any mass protest attended by thousands of people.
Civic space in Indonesia is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Labour activists and unions stepped up to defend workers during the pandemic
By Josef Benedict, CIVICUS Monitor
Across the globe every year, workers and trade unions gather together on 1 May which is Labour Day to commemorate the hard-fought struggle for labour rights and to make demands of their governments’ where they are failing to protect workers.
The last year has been particular painful for workers across the Asia Pacific region. According to the International Labour Organisation, a total of 81 million jobs are estimated to have been lost in the region in 2020, due to the pandemic. The impact of the crisis was far-reaching, with underemployment surging as millions of workers were asked to work reduced hours or no hours at all.
Although there have been various commitments made at the national and international level to address inequalities exposed during the pandemic and to ‘build back better', in a number of countries in the Asia region, governments and businesses attempted to use the opportunity of the pandemic to erode and restrict workers’ and unions’ rights, deny them wages and force them to work in unsafe conditions and even remove them from their jobs.
One glaring example has been in Indonesia where the authorities bulldozed a controversial job creation law through parliament during the pandemic. The government claimed the law was aimed to improve bureaucratic efficiency and cut red tape, particularly in regard to business permits and investment but has been criticised by workers, human rights activists, academics fearing that that it would erode workers’ protections and trigger job insecurity.
Thousands of workers and trade unions took to the streets in 2020 to protest the law but were met with arbitrary arrests, excessive use of force by the police. Even journalists were not spared. Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister for Political, Legal and Security affairs Mohammad Mahfud also attempted to smear the protesters, by telling a televised news conference that the protests were being led by anarchists “aimed at creating chaos and fear in society”.
In Malaysia, in March 2020, police arrested and charged five labour activists and supporters of the National Union of Workers in Hospital Support and Allied Services (NUWHSAS) who has organised a protest outside a hospital in Ipoh to highlight concerns about cleaners working in state-run hospitals who lacked adequate protective gear against infections, which puts them at risk during the pandemic. Health workers have also been subjected to harassment, victimisation and union-busting activities.
Malaysian union leader N. Gopal Kishnam also faced government harassment after speaking in a news report by a United Kingdom broadcast, Channel 4 News in June 2020 on the safety and health of workers exporting personal protective equipment at rubber glove manufacturer Top Glove.
Migrant workers have also faced the brunt of the pandemic with many forced to work in unsafe conditions or not paid wages and others facing racism and xenophobia. Often, they had very few avenues for redress and when they did speak up, often faced reprisals.
In the Maldives, in June 2020 migrant workers At least 80 persons – mostly migrant workers - were detained for protesting against unpaid salaries, inhumane conditions and labour rights violations. Authorities invoked national security to detain the workers.
Despite this, the CIVICUS Monitor, a global tool tracking civic space, documented how labour activists, trade unions and others also mobilised to push back on these violations despite attempts to silence their voices.
In South Korea, in November 2020, tens of thousands of workers demonstrated across South Korea calling on the government to withdraw a regressive labour law revision which would ban workers from occupying certain facilities at workplaces during strikes. These amendments were in violation of the principles of freedom of association existing recommendations by the tripartite ILO Committee on Freedom of Association.
Unions leaders also took on businesses trying to use the opportunity of the pandemic to target trade unions and sack workers. In Cambodia, Soy Sros, a female union leader, stepped up when approximately 100 workers in a handbag factory were told their jobs would not be renewed in March 2020 due to the coronavirus crisis. The factory also suspended unions members including a pregnant woman. When the management refused to meet her, she criticised the decision on social media. Subsequently, all the workers had their contracts renewed. However, Soy Sros ended in detention because of the social media post. After mobilisation by activists and trade unions, Soy Sros was subsequently released after being detained without trial for nearly two months.
In Taiwan, Migrants Empowerment Network in Taiwan (MENT), an alliance of migrant workers’ groups mobilised protests in May 2020 outside the Ministry of Labour in Taipei calling on the government to guarantee safer working conditions for migrant workers. The protesters said that employers had barred migrant workers from going outside due to the COVID-19 pandemic, while other workers have been unable to return to their jobs in Taiwan or visit their home countries.
According to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), the pandemic has shown the key role played by labour activists and unions in defending employment and wages and campaigning for decent health and safety at work. In some cases, the pandemic has also accelerated the experience of virtual organising – over Zoom or other internet platforms. Unions represented workers threatened with being laid off, pushed for adequate severance pay, sought expanded access to social protection and raised the concerns of women workers who faced even greater discrimination and of migrant workers denied equal access and equal treatment.
Instead of repressing their voices, it is crucial that moving forward that governments and businesses in the Asia region recognise the vital role that labour activists and unions play in representing working people , respect the fundamental rights and freedoms and engage them with them if they truly want to build back better.
LEBANON: ‘The world seems to be starting to forget Syrian refugees’
CIVICUS speaks about the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon withSerene Dardari, Middle East Regional Communications Manager, and Mahmoud Abdullah, Lebanon Bekaa Area Manager of American Near East Refugee Aid (Anera).
Founded in 1968, Anera is a US-registered civil society organisation (CSO) dedicated to helping refugees and others hurt by conflicts in Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine (West Bank and Gaza). Working with partners on the ground, it mobilises resources for immediate emergency relief and for sustainable, long-term health, education and economic development.
What is the situation of Syrian refugees in Lebanon?
The human rights situation of Syrian refugees is getting worse by the minute. Freedom to work is almost non-existent. Right from the start Syrians were officially not allowed to work in most sectors, so they typically rely on informal jobs in services, agriculture or construction, where they get no insurance or benefits and are exposed to all kinds of labour abuses.
While the situation for Syrian refugees in Lebanon has always been difficult, COVID-19 and the subsequent lockdown hit them very hard economically. As well as affecting host communities, the pandemic impacted on Syrian refugees with extra severity. Because Lebanese labour laws relegate refugees to the informal economy, they are dependent on gig work and daily jobs, usually in the service sectors. So they were particularly affected by the shutdown of the entertainment and food industries.
Because of school closures due to COVID-19 as well as ongoing teachers’ strikes to demand unpaid salaries, Syrian refugees have no place to study. Their freedom of movement has also been affected: everywhere in Lebanon there are notices warning that Syrians are only allowed to move around at certain hours. It’s starting to feel like full-blown segregation.
It should be noted that Lebanon is already extremely segregated politically and religiously and has an extremely toxic and traumatic relationship with Syria. The presence of a large, mostly Sunni Muslim, Syrian community only adds to the political tension, to the point that violent clashes could erupt any time.
With Lebanon’s ongoingeconomic crisis, the situation is hard for everyone, both locals and refugees. But on top of struggling economically, refugees are also facing growing xenophobia. Because Lebanese communities are struggling to put food on their tables, the narrative of refugees being a burden on society is becoming increasingly popular. When the Lebanese currency and politics were more stable, someone on an average salary could feed a whole middle-class family, but now they can barely get some petrol for their car. The idea that Syrian refugees are taking everything from Lebanese people is widespread, and reactions are becoming increasingly hostile and violent. When people see international funding going towards Syrian refugees, they get enraged.
Many people think refugees are taking away potential aid that should go to Lebanese people. So on top of the livelihood challenges, refugees also face stigma, negativity and hostility, all of which affects their psyches. This isn’t happening just in Lebanon.Turkey is another example of this. The scenario is the same throughout the region: Syrian refugees are being blamed for everything.
International factors such as fluctuations of the US dollar, political turmoil everywhere and the war in Ukraine are also affecting funding for Syrian refugees. So when it is most needed, funding is going to decrease. We have recently received a message that part of the assistance for Syrian refugees will be cancelled.
Which are the most vulnerable groups of refugees, and why?
Syrian women are for sure the most vulnerable among Syrian refugees, for several reasons. Their access to sexual and reproductive health centres, and to education, is truly low. There’s a general lack of knowledge and awareness of these issues and early marriage is frequent. In refugee camps such as those in Bekaa, Syrian women and girls are often exposed to gender-based and sexual violence. Those living in tent settlements know their chances of reporting sexual harassment and being heard are very, very low. Being a Syrian female refugee in Lebanon means dealing with toxicity and violence at all levels.
Children and young people are next in terms of their vulnerability. We are talking about early marriage, child labour and no prospects of accessing education or future employment opportunities. They have no access to proper medical attention either. If they get into an accident, they will wait in line for hours to be seen by a doctor. The most dangerous thing, however, is their lack of prospects.
What is Lebanon’s status regarding international refugee law?
Lebanon hasn’t even signed the1951 Refugee Convention and is violating refugees’ rights by pushing them to ‘willingly’ go back to Syria. Lebanon should be bound by international law to protect these refugees, not to return them to unsafe territory.
Unlike Turkey, the tents and places where Syrian refugees mostly live in Lebanon are privately owned. These private owners are Lebanese people profiting from refugees, who they make pay rent. They must pay electricity to have one bulb they can switch on and off inside the tents. They must be the only refugees on the planet who have to pay rent for the space they occupy!
These rights violations are enabled by the fact that Lebanon has not signed the Refugee Convention. Syrian refugees are not officially considered refugees, which deprives them of their basic rights as refugees. This grey area is very dangerous.
Refugees themselves aren’t aware of the laws that could protect them. They come from a country where they were never encouraged to inform themselves about and claim their basic human rights – which was one of the reasons they left. Upon arrival in Lebanon, they aren’t informed about their basic rights, so they are mostly unaware of them. And even if they knew what their rights are under international law, they have no guarantee these rights are going to be protected in Lebanon because nothing binds the Lebanese state to that law.
How does Anera promote the human rights of refugees?
Anera is a humanitarian and development organisation. We are not a rights-based organisation, but we contribute to the protection of the basic human rights of refugees. Our role is to fill in the gaps left by the government to help refugees access education, work and healthcare, among other rights.
We work across several sectors, from livelihoods to food security. We try to create synergies between them to address several needs at once. We work with refugee families in both the north and south of Lebanon through agriculture support. We provide them with tools and technical education to grow and sell their produce. As for food security, we have programme in partnership with the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs in Lebanon that provides hundreds of families with regular food parcels and cash assistance so they can purchase what they need.
One of our biggest programmes distributes free medicine. Each year we help mobilise medical supply shipments worth millions of dollars from international partners around the world and distribute them to refugee centres.
We work to prevent child marriage through a cash transfer programme, using cash assistance as an incentive for families to keep their girls in school. And throughout our operations, we make sure all our partners abide by all humanitarian guidelines and standards when it comes to child protection and protection from sexual exploitation and abuse. Towards that end, we offer training and constantly do monitoring work. While we don’t directly provide safe spaces for victims and survivors, we work closely with other CSOs and grassroots groups that do so.
It is worth mentioning that we always take the community aspect into consideration so as to balance things. For instance, our food programme also distributes food to the Lebanese population.
What challenges do you face?
Thepolitical situation in Lebanon is very challenging. The fact that the government often has a hostile attitude towards Syrian refugees and is trying to return them to unsafe territories is a big obstacle. Government corruption also has a negative impact on our work with refugee communities, as it affects us on an organisational and funding level.
We also face challenges coming from the refugee communities where we work. An example of conflict happened recently in the context of a project on child marriage that we implemented due to the increase in child marriages among Syrian refugees in Lebanon. Because of the economic crisis, more families are encouraged to marry off their daughters at a younger age. Our project faced pushback by the refugees themselves. It seems that toxic coping mechanisms such as child marriage are easier for them in the short term.
What support do organisations working with Syrian refugees need from the international community?
Everyone in Lebanon is vulnerable right now: Syrian refugees, Palestinian refugees and Lebanese people. The situation of Syrian refugees is stagnant right now, but everything else is worsening.
What’s needed is more advocacy and more funding for all communities to balance the help provided and avoid conflict. We need to calm things down and bring stability. We could also use some technical support at a government level when it comes to refugee management.
The narrative around Syrian refugees needs to change so they are not viewed as a burden but as human beings in need of help.
The question all Syrian refugees ask themselves is what’s next. If the situation in Syria doesn’t get better and Syrians are forced to leave Lebanon, they will try to get to Europe, or anywhere else offering some kind of opportunity. We need more global engagement to determine what will happen next. Collective work is vital.
The world seems to be starting to forget these refugees. The topic trended on social media for a while at the beginning but then attention was captured by floods in Nigeria, war in Ukraine andrepression in Iran. No one is talking about Syrian refugees anymore.
So much is going on in the planet. There are so many crises erupting all at once. But the fact that new crises are happening doesn’t mean the situation of Syrian refugees has improved and the issue disappeared.
The international community must remember Syrian refugees and the Syrian crisis. Human rights defenders must advocate for the rights of Syrian refugees – because if they don’t, who will?
Please help us change the narrative and remind people of Syrian refugees.
Civic space in Lebanon is rated ‘obstructed’ by theCIVICUS Monitor.
QATAR: ‘Labour reforms need to continue after the World Cup is over’
CIVICUS speaks aboutthe World Cup in Qatar with Vani Saraswathi, editor-at-large and director of projects at Migrant-Rights.org andthe author ofStories of Origin: The Invisible Lives of Migrants in the Gulf.
Migrant-Rights.org is aGulf-basedcivil society organisation that works to advance the rights of migrant workers in Gulf countries. It documents migrant narratives and promotes local discussion and campaigns to bring changes in policies, practices and attitudes towards migrant workers.
What human rights violations have you documented in construction works for the 2022 Qatar World Cup?
The economy of Qatar is heavily dependent on migrant workers, who make up over 93 per cent of the labour market. The construction sector iseven moreheavily dependent on migrant labour, and due to the nature of the work exploitation and rights violations are much more visible than in other sectors. This also happens in the hospitality sector, domestic work and fishing and agriculture, but tends to be more hidden.
Since 2000, Qatar’s population has grown very fast, from 700,000 people in 1999 to 1.7 million in 2010 to close to three million now. The infrastructure and the services needed to host such a large population have not kept pace: people were being recruited quickly, but support systems were not built fast enough.
Rights violations have shifted over the years from poor accommodation to crowded accommodation to rampant wage theft. As the scale of construction operations grew, corporations resorted to subcontracting, with worker recruitment, safety and welfare left in the hands of subcontractors and no effective legal mechanism for oversight, which enabled corruption.
Unfortunately, the narrative on corruption around worker recruitment focuses on origin countries because for one of the richest countries in the world it is easier to blame poorer countries than take responsibility for the problem. The fact that many of the kickbacks are filling the pockets of procurement officers and businesspeople in destination countries is overlooked.
This is the environment in which abuse takes place. Workers are entering the country already in debt and often do not receive the salary they were promised.
Certain steps have been taken to fix this issue. The Qatar Visa Centre, for instance, takes care of the last mile of recruitment so workers sign their contract and undergo medical testing before they come. Fees are also being paid in Qatar. But the bulk of the exploitation happens on the job, when people are not paid what they were promised, or they are made to work overtime with no extra pay. This is not being properly addressed.
Migrant workers’main concern is to be able to send money home, and as long as they get theirmoney they are often willing to tolerate many abuses: social isolation, cultural exclusion, terrible living conditions and lack of access to justice. These issues are ongoing.
On other issues, such as workplace safety and heat stress, Qatar has been working on upping standards. There is still a lot to be done, but in the context of the Gulf, summer midday work bans and heat stress regulations are a big step forward. But it is not sufficient.
A pending issue is health deterioration. Most construction workers are recruited when they are in their early 20s and usually undergo stringent medical tests to ensure they are in best health. But their health deteriorates quickly post-arrival. Due to the inhospitable and unhygienic living and working conditions, they often develop various comorbidities including high blood glucose levels and hypertension. There are also several cases of unexplained deaths of previously healthy, young men, but their deaths are attributed to natural causes or cardiac arrests, and Qatar has failed to investigate the real causes. In contrast to those who have accidents, whose injuries are assessed and who may get a disability allowance or insurance, those developing severe health conditions receive no compensation. Instead, they suffer the consequences when their productivity diminishes, and the burden is passed on totheir familiesand origin countries.
Do you think recent labour reforms will have a positive effect?
One of the main reforms has been the removal of the requirement for foreign workers to apply for an exit permit to leave Qatar. The other Gulf countries, except for Saudi Arabia, had already done the same, allowing for some freedom of movement.
Another important change has been the removal of the requirement of a no objection certificate. This means that all workers, including domestic workers, are allowed to change jobs at any point in their labour contract. This measure triggered a lot ofpushback.
A new online system was set up that allowed people to search and apply for jobs. It initially went well, but employers started pushing back when they saw the prospects of an exodus and feared losing control of their workers. The Shura Council, the legislative body, also weighed in, following which Qatar introduced a new requirement: to go through the online process to change jobs, workers must submit a resignation letter stamped by their employer. This became a de facto no objection certificate. There are strong power dynamics at play. For instance, there have been cases of workers getting approval to change jobs after not having been paid for months, changing jobs and then having their authorisation withdrawn and made to go back.
A non-discriminatory minimum wage has also been introduced. Although pretty low, it is still a minimum wage. The basic monthly salary amounts to approximately US$275, or around US$500 if thecompany does notprovide accommodation and food. It is not much in a country with a per capita GDP of above US$60,000, and hence applies only to low-income migrants from Asia and Africa.
Additionally, across Gulf countries there is a system in place for all workers to be paid electronically. It’s aimed at preventing non-payment but has repeatedly failed to do so. The system should spot non-payment cases early on, rectify them and hold the employer accountable, but it does not. Non-payment cases typically arise when workers who haven’t been paid for several months file a complaint. Setting aside the problem of domestic workers, a persistent problem of non-payment results from smaller companies at the bottom of the supply chain being unable to pay if they are not paid on time by their client.
The government of Qatar also set up a work insurance fund to protect workers when employers fail to pay them. When a worker’s complaint is resolved by either a court or the dispute settlements committee, a mechanism that handles workers’complaints, the fund must pay. There are certain criteria to qualify and there is a cap on how much a worker can receive that is lower than what most of them are owed. Itdoesn’tmatch the scale of abuse that happens, but it’s still something.
Finally, management-worker joint committees have been allowed within companies. This was presented as either a step towards allowing unionisation, or a substitute for it. But the power dynamics are so skewed there is very little scope for collective bargaining, and they do not remotely resemble unions, even if the joint committees have elected representatives.
What role has civil society played in raising awareness of these and other rights violations?
A transnational advocacy network comprising mostly trade unions and international human rights organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch was activated following Qatar’s designation as host of the 2022 World Cup.
The World Cup was a good entry point as it forced Qatar to allow for investigations. The network obtained access and produced reports. A lot of international journalists came in. This is something we must recognise, because other countries that held big events, such as theDubai Expo or the Formula One race in Bahrain,didn’t allow this kind of scrutiny.
But Qatar hasn’t always managed the attention well and sometimes got too defensive or complained that its efforts to open up and allow criticism were underappreciated. But while the government engaged with foreign or international trade unions speakingon behalf of Asian and African workers, it never allowed criticism to be voiced internally and never allowed those workers to organise. The same goes for civil society.
At the local level there are charitable institutions but there is not a rights-oriented civil society. The closest there is to this are organisations such as Migrant-Rights.org, working regionally. To nurture civilsociety, space would need to exist to speak about women’s rights, LGBTQI+ rights, citizenship rights and many other issues people are grappling with but cannot currently express. But the government knows this is a Pandora’s box. The most it will do is selectively open up some space for issues that are less threatening, such as the situation of migrants, as long as local activism around it remains suppressed.
The situation is different from what happens in Bahrain and Kuwait, where despite harsh oppression,there are still independent voices rising and fighting back. People are being jailed or forced into exile but there is still a civil society vibrancy thatdoesn’t exist in the open in Qatar. It is probably present behind closed doors and in smaller spaces. People are talking about these issues, but they are not speaking aloud. Qatar,however, recently held its first elections for the Shura Council, so things may be about to change.
Has there been any accountability for violations of workers’rights?
The problem in Qatar is that laws have been enforced and reforms have been implemented only in response to criticism. This time around, it was in response to the attention brought by international organisations under the spotlight of the World Cup. The problem with this kind of response is that it tends to stay on paper because it is not the result of dialogue with the key stakeholders, namely employers and workers, and an understanding of the system on the ground.
Enforcement is difficult because local employers are pushing back: they feel that workers’rights come at a cost that is being paid from their pockets. The government has made no attempt to talk to stakeholders on the ground, and it won’t be able to implement any reform without them. Qatar is a tiny country. We’re talkingabout a handful of extremely powerful families who are in business, in the security apparatus, in the Shura Council, everywhere. Some of their companies have a proven record of poor practices, including using short-term visas and not giving end-of-service payments, and they continue to be awarded new contracts over and over. They are not held to account.
What needs to be done so the rights of migrant workers in Qatar are not forgotten when the World Cup ends?
The World Cup is just one event and a starting point for limitless business ambitions. If you look at industry reports, it is clear that large-scale infrastructure projects are going to continue. I only hope that those who shone the spotlight on Qatardidn’t do it because of the sport, but because they really care about migrant workers. Because if that is the case, they should continue promoting reforms and monitoring their effective implementation after the World Cup is over.
Qatar needs to ensure workers get their wages and fair compensation and that nobody leaves the country in distress.Otherwise rights violations will continue to happen, and it’s not right. I hope the government at least realises that even when the World Cup is over, itdoesn’t need that kind of bad publicity.
Civic space in Qatar is rated‘repressed’by theCIVICUS Monitor.
Thousands of Bangladesh garment workers fired for demanding better wages
- Almost 5,000 workers producing clothes for international brands were sacked for participating in protests and strikes for improved pay
- At least one person was killed, and hundreds injured after police used excessive force against protesters
- Almost 100 have reportedly been arrested and charged for participating in labour actions
The firing of almost 5,000 low-paid garment workers in Bangladesh in reprisal for participating in protests and strikes for higher wages is a clear violation of fundamental freedoms, global civil society alliance CIVICUS said today.
Condemning the reported dismissals by factory bosses as disturbing, CIVICUS has called for the sacked workers to be reinstated immediately and for the charges against those arrested to be dropped.
Last September, the government promised garment workers an increase in their minimum monthly wage from 8,000 taka (US$100). Workers walked out in protest on January 6 and held demonstrations demanding decent wages after rejecting this offer. During the protests, Bangladeshi police used excessive force including firing rubber bullets and tear gas, which left one worker dead and at least a hundred others injured. There have also been reports of widespread arrests.
In an attempt to contain widespread anger over police violence as well as calls for further protests, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina appointed a tri-partite committee consisting of Bangladesh Garment Manufacturing and Exporters Association (BGMEA) representatives, trade union leaders and government ministers, address the issues. Although workers rejected the committee’s findings proposing minimal increases, on January 13 they returned to work in the face of union demands to end the strike and under threat of lockouts and further police repression.
Although the tri-partite committee agreed that no action would be taken against the workers, many learned they were sacked after arriving at work to see notices bearing their names and images attached to factory gates.
“These actions are clearly a retaliation by the companies against those speaking up and is an attempt to silence their voices,” said Josef Benedict, a CIVICUS Civic Space researcher.
“The Bangladesh authorities must put to a stop to this, in accordance with their international human rights obligations and hold these companies accountable for their actions,” Benedict said.
The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights state that businesses must respect internationally recognised human rights, including the right to expression and peaceful assembly which are provided for under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (ICCPR). They should also refrain from reprisals against those exercising their civic freedoms, and protest against the business or its interests.
Bangladesh is home to some 4,500 clothing factories employing 4.1 million workers, who have been fighting for a 16,000 taka (US$200) monthly minimum wage since 2016. Many have suffered unfair dismissals, brutal police violence and fabricated criminal cases for their involvement in protests and strikes. In most cases, there has been a lack of accountability.
In early January 2017, about 20 global brands sourcing clothing manufacturing from Bangladesh, including H&M, Inditex, Gap, C&A, Next, and Primark, wrote to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina supporting a wage review and expressing their concerns that union leaders and workers’ rights activists were being targeted.
“Instead of sacking the workers for exercising their civic freedoms and demanding better wages, businesses should instead engage in dialogue with them and their representatives. Global garment brands sourcing from Bangladesh should also press these companies to reinstate these workers,” Benedict said.
“It is extremely worrying to hear reports that some workers have been arrested and charged in round ups by the police for their involvement in the protests. The authorities must release these workers immediately and drop all charges against them,” he said.
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USA: ‘The Starbucks unionisation campaign has sparked the imagination of workers across the country’
CIVICUS speaks about unionisation efforts at Starbucks with Theresa Haas, director of global strategies of the labour union Workers United. Workers United coordinates the Starbucks Campaign in the USA. It is affiliated with theService Employees International Union, which has members in both the USA and Canada.
What role did Workers United play in the process leading to Starbucks’s first union vote in 2021?
When Starbucks partners – as the company calls its employees – in Buffalo, New York first started thinking about organising, they researched what they needed to do and how to go about doing it. Knowing that the Rochester Regional Joint Board, an affiliate of Workers United, had successfully organised another coffee chain in upstate New York, they reached out to that affiliate. Pretty soon, it was clear that the values held by Starbucks partners seeking to join a union aligned closely with the values of Workers United. Workers United and its predecessor unions have worked for more than 100 years to build a strong middle class, advancing the social, economic and political welfare of our members by empowering them to use their voices in their communities.
Workers United has a long history of standing in solidarity with low-wage workers across global supply chains and taking on powerful multinational corporations to demand that workers have respect and dignity on the job.
On the international platform, Workers United is deeply invested in ensuring safe and healthy working conditions for workers across the globe through our work with IndustriALL. We actively campaigned for US brands and retailers to join the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, now the International Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry, a ground-breaking programme that has dramatically improved safety conditions in the country’s garment industry. In 2019, Workers United fought for and became a signatory to an agreement with major denim corporations and local unions to address gender-based violence and harassment in Lesotho garment factories.
As with all campaigns Workers United is involved with, this Starbucks Workers United campaign has been driven by the recognition that Starbucks partners are seeking corporate accountability and a voice in their workplace. Since the beginning, Workers United’s role has been simply to empower Starbucks partners through guidance and support.
What progress has been made since then?
Since a store in Buffalo filed the first petition with the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) for the right to form a union in August 2021, more than 280 stores in 37 states across the USA have filed petitions to join Workers United. We continue to assist many other stores that have yet to announce publicly their intent to form a union.
The first store to win its election was in Buffalo. Since that win in December 2021, more than 120 other stores have won their elections to join Workers United. There have been more than 140 elections held so far – ten are pending based on challenges, and 12 stores voted not to join the union by slim margins.
It should be noted that there are only six Starbucks Reserve stores in the world – three in the USA, one in China, one in Japan and one in Italy. Two of the three in the USA have voted to join Workers United.
This campaign has sparked the imagination of hourly wage workers across the country. It derives its strength from being fuelled from the bottom up by workers who have found solidarity among each other. Working together, across the country, they are building strength, and with each election victory their collective voice grows.
Workers around the world, including unionised Starbucks workers in several countries, have also expressed solidarity with Starbucks workers fighting to organise in the USA.
What challenges does Workers United face in southern states?
Like every other union, we must overcome the anti-union history of the US south, which makes any organising campaign much more difficult. Stores in the south have had a tougher win-loss record compared with other parts of the country. Overall, Workers United has won 90 per cent of all Starbucks elections. In the south, our win rate is 67 per cent. We are still very happy with this win rate, considering this is the traditional south we are working in.
Starbucks’ anti-union activities are also pervasive in the south. There have been more firings in this region than any other place – in Estero, Florida; Memphis, Tennessee; and Raleigh, North Carolina. We know the company does this to chill organising efforts, as a way to scare people so they will be too afraid to support the union.
In response to the company’s aggressive anti-union actions, Workers United has filed numerous unfair labour practice charges against the company for actions such as holding captive audience meetings, intimidation and unjust firings, which the union alleges are illegal under the US National Labor Relations Act.
The NLRB recently declared illegal the actions of the company to fire seven workers in Memphis, and is petitioning the courts to make the company reinstate them.
How has Starbucks responded to unionising efforts across the USA?
Starbucks has aggressively fought against letting their partners have a voice in the workplace. Partners have a very simple ask: they want the right to form a union so they can have a voice in their workplace. They are the ones who interact with customers and the ones brewing the coffee and providing the service the company prides itself on. So they are the ones who know first-hand the issues that need to be fixed and the improvements that need to be made.
Starbucks has waged an aggressive anti-union effort, going as far as holding captive audience meetings, providing false and misleading information, cutting partners’ hours so they don’t qualify for certain benefits, and even firing workers for engaging in union activities. The company has hired a team of lawyers known for their aggressive anti-union stance to fight its partners every step of the way, to slow the momentum of this movement.
Despite its stated values and mission, the company has shown through its actions that it is not what it claims to be – a warm and welcoming company that encourages growth within its workforce, challenges the status quo, conducts itself with transparency, dignity and respect, and holds itself accountable for results and through a lens of humanity.
In response to the company’s activities, in recent months Workers United has filed more than 180 unfair labour practice charges with the NLRB.
NLRB regional offices have been investigating Starbucks’ anti-union conduct across the USA and have so far issued nine1 complaints charging it with violating labour laws. In Memphis, Tennessee, the NLRB has charged that the company fired five of six members of the union organising committee and is now prosecuting the company. In Buffalo, New York, the NLRB found ‘serious and substantial’ misconduct by Starbucks, and has charged it with over 200 violations of US labour laws in one of the largest complaints in US history.
How do your efforts relate to unionising efforts at Amazon?
Both Starbucks and Amazon are companies that have tried to portray themselves as responsible, ethical corporate citizens that care about our planet and society – even as they blatantly mistreat and exploit their employees.
We are hopeful that the grassroots efforts driven by workers who are tired of their exploitative and unjust working conditions have set in motion a push towards transformative change for improved conditions for hourly wage workers to include dignity and respect in the workplace.
Workers all over the world should be afforded the right to organise, seek improvements and speak up against injustice and inequality wherever they see it.
How can the international community best support Workers United’s Starbucks campaign?
We face a company that has proven to be determined to silence its partners’ voices at whatever cost and by whatever means. It does not seem to recognise that partners are fighting to improve the company rather than seek its demise. Partners are seeking to help make the company the progressive employer it claims to be. They want to improve the climate and culture of the company, which they say has deteriorated over the years.
In return for these efforts, the company is seeking to squelch their voices, and international civil society and the wider international community should recognise the company’s actions for what they are.
Partners who are organising should be recognised as courageous champions of the working class. They are buoyed by acts of solidarity, through words and actions.
We need international civil society and the broader international community to amplify partners’ calls on Howard Schultz, Starbucks founder and chief executive officer, and Mellody Hobson, chair of the Board of Directors, as well as the entire Board of Directors of Starbucks to stop their union-busting practices. They are threatening workers, firing them, threatening to withhold raises and waging a war on their own employees. The international community should call out Starbucks for not being a progressive company and let workers at Starbucks stores in the USA know they support them.
Let them know that the world is watching and cheering them on. Show your support online by following the organising effort on Twitter and check for the latest news coverage of this historical movement on the Workers United website.
UZBEKISTAN: ‘Advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint’
CIVICUS speaks about the recent civil society victory in eliminating state-imposed forced labour in Uzbekistan’s cotton industry with Allison Gill, a human rights lawyer and Forced Labour Director at the Global Labour Justice - International Labour Rights Forum (GLJ-ILRF).
GLJ-ILRF is a civil society organisation (CSO) that provides strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labour migration corridors. It coordinates the Cotton Campaign, which since 2007 has fought against state-imposed forced and child labour in the cotton industries of Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan.
What prompted the Cotton Campaign to lift the boycott on Uzbek cotton?
We have advocated for an end to child and forced labour in the Uzbek cotton sector for almost 15 years, and the 2021 harvest was the first in which we did not observe state-imposed forced labour since our frontline partner, the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights, started conducting annual independent monitoring 11 years ago. This crucial development followed several years of progress in the implementation of legal and policy changes that our campaign advocated for, including reforming the forced labour system, imposing liability for the use of forced labour and raising payments to cotton pickers to attract voluntary labour, and raising awareness among the population of the forced labour ban.
Despite this landmark achievement, significant labour risks continue to exist. We continue to warn against the use of coercion and threat of penalty in labour recruitment as well as about the interference of local officials in recruitment and cotton production. We are also worried about restrictions on the freedoms of association and expression, and specifically about the ability of independent groups to register and operate. In addition, farmers in the cotton sector continue to be subjected to exploitative conditions.
The situation is quite different in Turkmenistan, the other country covered by our campaign, where the government has systematically used forced labour during the most recent harvest season, in autumn 2021. It maintains total control over the cotton sector, and forcibly mobilises civil servants, including teachers, medical workers and others, to pick cotton or make them pay for a replacement picker. It forces farmers to meet official production quotas under threat of penalties, including loss of their land. Worse yet, it exerts control over all aspects of civil society work and has taken harsh action against those who report abuses in the sector.
What advocacy tactics has your campaign used, and what lessons have you learned?
Over the past 15 years, we have used a wide range of advocacy tools, including direct actions, policy engagement, accountability tools and support for civil society and labour rights monitors.
A centrepiece of our work and strategy is independent monitoring through our partner, the Uzbek Forum, which is based in Berlin but operates a network of independent monitors on the ground in Uzbekistan. Our advocacy has therefore been shaped by direct information collected from the ground through in-depth interviews with cotton pickers, people in forced labour, local officials and other stakeholders.
Another key advocacy tool is the Uzbek Cotton Pledge, a commitment by more than 330 brands and retailers not to use Uzbek cotton in their supply chains until forced labour has been eliminated. We formalised the Pledge after companies began to adopt sourcing policies to exclude Uzbek cotton and Uzbek activists called for an international boycott in 2009.
We launched complaints against the World Bank and the International Finance Corporation’s investments in the Uzbek cotton sector. We advocated with the US government, the European Union and its member states, the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the United Nations, using specific policy mechanisms to bring pressure on the government of Uzbekistan to end forced labour. We also have advocated with the government directly, including by issuing a Roadmap of Reforms at the government’s request.
We have remained convinced of the importance of centring our campaigning around the demands of affected workers and civil society and the need to be guided by independent monitoring and reporting. And we have learned that advocacy for labour and human rights is a marathon, not a sprint. There is power in collective action and commitment by broad coalitions united with a purpose, which is what makes it possible to make progress even on seemingly intractable problems.
What are the conditions for independent civil society monitoring in Uzbekistan?
There are activists inside Uzbekistan who have tried to form their own organisations, but they have faced many obstacles. The ILO, which has included civil society monitors for several years, has concluded its monitoring of the cotton harvest with the intention of transitioning monitoring to local civil society organisations (CSOs).
Unfortunately, local CSOs are unable to register to operate. One of the monitors that had previously partnered with the ILO and intended to carry on monitoring work was denied registration nine times and was ultimately forced to register as an enterprise instead of a CSO.
Civic space in Uzbekistan remains tightly restricted. The authorities continue to impose excessive and burdensome registration requirements on independent CSOs, in violation of their freedom of association. They have repeatedly and arbitrarily denied registration to nearly all independent human rights CSOs, including those that monitor forced labour.
Although Uzbekistan ratified the 1948 ILO Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise in 2016, it has made little progress on meaningful implementation. Farmers, farmworkers and cotton pickers are vulnerable to abuse by cotton companies (known as ‘clusters’) as well as local officials. They are not represented by independent labour unions or other representative organisations.
In March 2021, cotton workers held the first democratic union election in Uzbekistan, organising hundreds of cotton workers at Indorama, an international company growing and spinning cotton. The union faced harassment and intimidation around the time of its formation and, experiencing significant barriers against registration, ultimately took the decision to affiliate with the government-aligned trade union federation, which is far from independent.
All these impediments leave Uzbekistan with one million hectares of land under cotton production and no independent local CSOs with the skills, capacity and legal status to conduct credible independent monitoring, which is ultimately necessary to provide assurances to international buyers in line with their obligations.
How can the international community best support labour activism in Uzbekistan?
Companies interested in sourcing cotton products from Uzbekistan must do so responsibly, in a way that meets their obligations and ensures that labour rights are respected at every tier of the supply chain. The Cotton Campaign has developed a Framework for Responsible Sourcing that provides for co-governance, independent monitoring and reporting, access to grievance and remedy, and a space for workers to ensure their interests are represented.
Uzbekistan must undertake reforms to allow workers and farmers to exercise their right to the freedom of association, particularly to organise and form representative organisations. It must also lift restrictions, both in law and in practice, which prevent civil society groups from operating. International stakeholders, especially governments, international organisations and multilateral development banks, must urge Uzbekistan to follow through with these reforms.
Worker’s rights activism and human rights activism must be linked
Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center, the largest worker rights organisation based in the United States speaks to CIVICUS about challenges facing workers, Solidarity Center’s work and the response of professional NGOs to worker’s rights. Follow her on @Shawna_SolCntr
1. What do you see as the biggest challenges for workers in 2017? What are the key drivers behind these challenges?
Workers around the world are confronting serious challenges to whether they can exercise their rights and work with dignity. Among them are labour markets and systems that generate, rather than alleviate, poverty; and governments that fail to protect workers, either through omission or deliberate act. In addition, weak legal environments—national and international—tend to reward exploitative supply chains, permit human trafficking, allow discrimination to flourish and generally disenfranchise workers. Lastly, the toxic spread of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and fear marginalizes millions of migrant workers and refugees—further disenfranchising people whose jobs do not lift them from poverty, afford them safe workplaces or uphold their dignity.
I see four key drivers behind these challenges. One is downward pressure on wages along global supply chains combined with greater barriers to workers exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association—to organize and promote their issues, protect their wages from eroding and exercise their rights. Another driver is the increasing informalization of work and the gig economy, which limits wages, workplace protections and workers' ability to improve either, as well as strips workers of the benefits that come with full-time jobs. A third is the fact that governments around the world—to attract investment—are taking deliberate actions to weaken worker rights or simply not enforcing laws designed to protect workers. The last would be widening inequality coupled with resurgent authoritarianism, closing space for people to have a voice on the job and in their community, and curtailing worker and human rights.
2. How is the Solidarity Center and its network responding to these challenges?
The Solidarity Center stands with workers as they defend their right to freedom of association, supporting them as they organize, advocate and build worker voice. Our work is explicitly pro-equality, anti-racist, pro-migrant, class conscious and inclusive. We support freedom of association as a foundation of democracy and ensure the centrality of worker self-organizing and leadership across our efforts. In addition, we see justice and rule of law as an alternative to exploitation and arbitrariness—a leveler of inequality of power and wealth—and are putting greater emphasis on developing legal capacity among our partners and supporting innovative legal processes at the national, regional and international levels.
With our partners, we are building a grassroots movement for work with dignity and respect for workers’ human rights. We work with 400-plus labour unions, pro-worker nongovernmental organizations, legal-aid groups, human rights defenders, women’s associations, advocacy coalitions and others to support workers—in garment factories, home service, seafood processing, mining, agriculture, informal marketplaces, manufacturing, the public sector and beyond—as they exercise their rights, including organizing for safer work sites, demanding living wages and improving laws (and the enforcement of existing laws) that protect working people, and fighting exploitation and abuse. We are, quite deliberately, building broad alliances with other organizations fighting the forces of repression and all forms of discrimination and violence against people, communities and the environment.
Specifically, we provide training and technical expertise that can help workers take on societal ills such as child labour, human trafficking, unfair labour laws, infringement of women’s rights, dangerous workplaces and the exploitation of the vulnerable. We focus on supporting women as they challenge the systems and organizations that deny them voice. We also work to ensure that the rights of migrant workers and refugees of any category are respected, and help connect them to protective networks. In addition, we implement legal-assistance programs, including the training of paralegals, to help workers recover stolen wages or benefits illegally denied them, and we push to broaden legal norms, protections and cultural space for the freedom of association necessary to sustain a vibrant civil society
3. What are your thoughts on global protections for the rights to protest and strike?
The right to strike goes part and parcel with the rights to freedom of association and assembly. It also is established international law, supported by ILO core conventions and international human rights conventions, and specifically covered in the constitutions of at least 90 countries.
The right to strike is a collective mechanism through which workers speak truth to power, whether to rectify poor wages and working conditions at a factory, or to push back against government policies that perpetuate poverty, discrimination or persecution. In many cases, going on strike is one of the only ways workers can hold ruling or corporate elites accountable, protest injustice and serve as a check the concentration of power. It is a civil liberty that we all should strive to protect.
4. Are you satisfied with the response of professional NGOs (working on development and human rights matters) on workers’ rights issues? If not what could be done to improve the situation?
No. For a long time, worker rights and human rights have been seen as different issues, by both human rights NGOs and the global labour movement. Because of that, we are all far less effective in confronting the current global human rights crisis perpetuated by the resurgence of authoritarianism, the crackdown on the public sphere and the greatest expansion of multinational and investor rights in modern human history. These three trends have created a perfect storm for workers and citizens, greatly impeding their ability to stand up for their rights, improve their lives and livelihoods, and expand democracy.
An increasing number of human rights advocacy groups have begun to take on worker issues, looking to improve corporate respect for rights. Very often, however, NGOs fail to involve workers, the major stakeholder, in the process or leave worker rights, including freedom of association, off the table while focusing on a company’s “social responsibility.” At the same time, they fail to involve unions or labour advocates, who have 30 years of experience with corporate social responsibility efforts—including many mistakes—in campaigns. They could easily avoid some of the pitfalls the labour movement has already encountered.
Worker are up against powerful forces. And while they are the first line of defense against workplace exploitation, it will take a global network of worker rights defenders—NGOs, human right activists, trade unions—to oppose the stifling of civil society, staunch the erosion of workplace rights and protect human dignity and freedom.
5. Are there any particular mobilisation strategies that you are focusing on in light of current political trends when human rights and social justice concerns appear to be taking a back seat?
The Solidarity Center has joined with labour unions and women's rights activists to push for an end to gender-based violence at work. In addition, we are supporting safe migration policies and building networks to support migrant workers and refugees. We also are seeking out new ways to help informal-economy workers access and exercise their rights. And, of course, we will not rest until freedom of association for all workers is a given. That is our core challenge in this era of closing space for civil society.
6. What advice would you give to the CIVICUS alliance?
Worker rights activism and human rights activism must be linked if we are to push back the forces that drive inequality, poverty and injustice. There is no time like the present to begin.