‘THE FACTORY IS GREEN, THE JOB IS NOT’—BANGLADESH GARMENT WORKER

‘THE FACTORY IS GREEN, THE JOB IS NOT’—BANGLADESH GARMENT WORKER

A new Solidarity Center study finds that, although Bangladesh claims the global lead in eco-friendly ready-made garment (RMG) manufacturing, government officials, factory owners and global fashion brands are not adequately addressing unhealthy working conditions, dangerous pollutants in the factory-adjacent communities in which garment workers are trapped by poverty wages, long working hours, or the negative effects of garment manufacturing on the environment.

Even in so-called green factories, “different stages of garments production may have serious impact on the physical and mental health and safety of the workers—emanating from yarn dust, excessive heat, use of chemicals, accidents, communicable diseases, lack of basic amenities and excessive workload,” says report author University of Dhaka International Relations Professor Dr. Syeda Rozana Rashid Rashid.

Bangladesh is the world’s top global sourcing location for international fashion brands. Of the country’s estimated 5,000 garment factories, in 2022 only 155 were certified as Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) green factories.

A comprehensive green solution, finds the report, requires engagement with workers and their unions as social partners in the design and implementation of environmental practices that also improve conditions for workers through collective bargaining and policy development. Partnership with workers and their unions will promote properly implemented climate-protection laws, policies and processes that better protect RMG workers from unhealthy and unsafe workplaces, factory-adjacent community members from garment production pollutants, and all citizens from climate change impacts, such as flooding and drought.

Also, to protect their health and well-being, garment workers must earn wages sufficient to pay for housing located away from their jobs, and work hours that make transportation from greater distance possible. More than 4 million people work in the RMG sector, most of whom are young women living near the factory where they work.

“The area is full of odorous waste and chemicals,” says a union leader about workers’ living conditions in her community.

“Even local drinking water takes different colors due to the nature of different chemicals disposed of in the river. Situations become intolerable during the rainy season when roads are overflown by the toxic water under heavy rain. Workers get infected by skin diseases.”

The Bangladesh government has declared three Dhaka rivers biologically “dead” due to the untreated effluent flowing into them.

Interviews with 20 union members and leaders, and other experts from Dhaka and Gazipur, Savar and Chattogram regions also found that:

  • Not all green factories are labor rights compliant.
  • Garment workers’ vulnerability to environmental degradation and climate change will increase until their basic rights and needs are addressed by government and employers.
  • The communities surrounding RMG facilities are significantly impacted in terms of health, quality of life and, in many cases, by associated impacts on their livelihoods from farming and fishing.
  • Suffering due to excessive heat has become pervasive in RMG factories due to climate change, especially in the hot summer season, where lack of ventilation increases workers’ risk of being infected with communicable diseases, including COVID-19.
  • Many factories will not allow workers to organize, impeding their education on how production, climate change impacts and environmental degradation are linked to their health and well-being.
  • Global fashion brands largely do not take responsibility or accountability for environmental degradation, instead putting the responsibility on suppliers.
  • Although global fashion brands use their code of conduct as a voluntary policy tool to focus on international standards, they mostly ignore climate issues and their impact on workers and their communities.
  • The impact of climate change on factory workers is overlooked by formal inspection and monitoring mechanisms.
  • Union respondents cannot engage global buyers in pressuring local producers to implement measures to improve workers’ living conditions.
  • Without implementation demands and effective implementation processes, global brands’ prescribed eco-friendly standards appear to exist for appearances only in a process known as “greenwashing.

“The factory is not green for the workers. We see a rosy picture; we hear nice stories. In reality, you would hardly hear workers’ voices in a green factory,” reports a union leader.

Bangladesh’s RMG sector accounts for 84 percent of the country’s exports. RMG exports more than doubled from 2011 through 2019—from $14.6 billion to $33.1 billion.

With long-term experience in people-centered policy and legislative rights-based advocacy, workers and their unions in Bangladesh are uniquely positioned to push forward a rights-based climate agenda as well as participate in a global climate justice movement.

“Without a union to safeguard workers’ interests and freedom of expression, no factory can properly be considered green,” says Sonia Mistry, Solidarity Center climate change and just transition global lead.

 

­­NIGERIA UNION LEADERS MURDERED IN TRAIN ATTACK

­­NIGERIA UNION LEADERS MURDERED IN TRAIN ATTACK

Two union leaders were killed on Monday during a violent attack on a train headed to north-central Kaduna from Nigeria’s capital, Abuja. Musa-Lawal Ozigi, secretary-general of the Nigeria Trade Union Congress (TUC), and Akin Akinsola, chairman of TUC-Kwara State, are two of at least eight people left dead. Dozens were wounded while an unknown number of those who were abducted remain missing.

“Nowhere is safe now—we cannot travel by air; the road is not safe and neither is the rail. Is Nigeria a failed state?” said TUC President Quadri Olaleye.

The TUC–one of two major labor federations in the country—together with other labor groups and pro-poor and pro-democracy organizations are engaged in a transformative governance campaign to better protect citizens’ security and access to adequate public services and civil and labor rights. In Nigeria, 93 percent of working people toil in the informal economy for low wages, unprotected by labor law and without social services such as pensions and healthcare.

Together with other labor groups, the TUC and its affiliates are engaged in Solidarity Center-supported campaigns for legal recognition of app-based workers to improve their wages, working conditions and safety, and ratification of ILO Convention 190 to prevent and address gender-based violence and harassment in the world of work (GBVH).

Nigeria’s unions are familiar with challenges posed by violence in the country. In northern Borno state—where an uneasy but relative peace following more than a decade of violence has left over 7.5 million people still in need of humanitarian assistance—unions have played a key role in supporting their members, including returning teachers, healthcare workers and civil servants.

“The loss of Secretary General Musa-Lawal Ozigi and TUC-Kwara State Chairman Akin Akinsola is a severe blow to unions’ efforts to protect the interests and welfare of Nigeria’s working people,” said Solidarity Center Africa Regional Program Director Christopher Johnson.

UNION WOMEN FIGHT FOR CLIMATE AND GENDER JUSTICE

UNION WOMEN FIGHT FOR CLIMATE AND GENDER JUSTICE

Brazil and Honduras Solidarity Center partners raised union women’s voices in three civil society sessions of the UN Commission on the Status of Women last week, focusing on issues including femicide in the world of work, climate change as a root cause of migration and women workers in the climate justice struggle.  Speakers representing diverse organizations, sectors and regions addressed the challenges that arise from the lack of gender-sensitive justice and rights-based responses to climate-related migration, and shared how migrant women are leading with resilience and in solidarity.

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Iris Munguía, women’s coordinator for the Honduran Federation of Agro-industrial Unions (FESTAGRO), told the audience attending “Migration, Displacement and Women’s Human Rights in the Climate Crisis,” a virtual parallel event, that women are bearing the brunt of extreme climate events in Central America. The panel explored the impacts of climate change at the intersection of migration and gender.

“The women were the most affected,” said Munguía describing the impact of devastating back-to-back hurricanes Eta and Iota in 2020 on women working in the banana sector. In addition to trying to recover from the loss of possessions, home and work, “we have the full responsibilities of families on our backs.”

In the aftermath of the two hurricanes, which impacted 90 percent of Honduras’ agricultural sector, more than 10,000 women employed by commercial banana growers immediately lost their income, said Munguía. Struggling to rebuild communities and homes leveled by hurricane winds and flooding while waiting up to nine months for their jobs to return, many women and girls were forced to migrate north to earn their livelihoods—a dangerous passage that exposed them to sexual assault and other forms of gender-based violence. Women who remained behind while partners or other family members took the perilous journey north struggled to keep children and other dependents safe, sheltered and fed while waiting for remittances that might never come.

Munguía highlighted the role of banana sector unions in fighting for their members’ rights, describing outreach efforts to secure and coordinate international hurricane relief and recovery efforts and encouraging multinational banana companies to compensate women banana packers while they were waiting for production to come back online.

Honduran unions are working with the country’s government to address climate crisis effects and resultant migration, said Munguía, such as river maintenance to better prevent flooding and labor rights improvements so that desperate and disenfranchised workers are not forced into dangerous migration.

Honduras is one of the world’s most vulnerable countries to the effects of climate change, where climate changes and severe weather events are increasingly pushing people north. One in four Hondurans works directly in agriculture—including commercial production and packing of the country’s two main economic drivers, bananas and coffee. The country’s people and economy are weathering a four-decade rise in average temperature and bearing the brunt of increasingly frequent severe weather events. A 2016 drought left 1.3 million Hondurans in need of humanitarian assistance; from 2014 to 2016, people who migrated from the country’s so-called “dry corridor” most frequently cited lack of food as their driving factor.

“Climate disasters can be particularly devastating for women on the move—whether through involuntary displacement, voluntary migration, or some combination thereof,” said Sonia Mistry, panel moderator and Solidarity Center global lead on climate change and just transition. And, she added, failure to meet the needs of migrant and displaced women through policies and practices can be equally disastrous—creating additional marginalization and vulnerabilities.

Solidarity Center's Sonia Mistry moderates a panel discussion

Panel Moderator and Solidarity Center Climate Change and Just Transition Global Lead Sonia Mistry.

Women Empowered Can Drive Change

In Nigeria, unions are building the capacities of members who find themselves on the frontlines of the climate crisis, said Moradeke Abiodun-Badru, a former officer of Solidarity Center partner the National Association of Nigeria Nurses and Midwives (NANNM), health professional, gender expert and global union Public Service International’s (PSI) West Africa project coordinator.

“Women must be empowered as agents of social change,” says Moradeke Abiodun-Badru, global union Public Service International (PSI) West Africa project coordinator.

In Nigeria’s north, where 65 percent of surveyed families in Yobe state reported involvement in farming, two-thirds of last year’s crops were lost to drought.

“Women must be empowered as agents of social change,” said Abiodun-Badru, adding that refugee camps in the north are mostly populated by women and children fleeing regional violence caused in part by the hunger and poverty associated with ever-increasing drought conditions—including competition between farmers and herders for scarce resources.

Climate change impacts are increasing so rapidly they could soon overwhelm the ability of nature and humanity to adapt, concluded a report by a panel of experts appointed by the United Nations earlier this year.

Last year’s World Bank Africa’s Pulse report—which is focused on the economic impact of climate change adaption on sub-Saharan Africa—found that the African continent’s mean surface temperature has risen at an even faster pace than that of the rest of the world, with 2020 being the fourth-warmest year since 1910. Rises in temperature and rainfall changes have fueled an increase in the frequency and intensity of extreme weather events across the continent and at a faster pace than in the rest of the world. Drought frequency nearly tripled, the number of storms quadrupled and floods increased more than tenfold finds the report when comparing the period 1970-1979 to the period 2010-2019.

“We believe that human rights are at the core of solutions to people who are displaced or must migrate,” Abiodun-Badru said.

Event speakers included Elizabeth Ibarra, human rights defender with Asociación Coordinadora Comunitaria de Servicios (ACCSS) Guatemala; Alice Ncube, program director of the University of the Free State, South Africa, Africa Disaster Management Training and Education Centre (DiMTEC); Helena Olea, Alianza Americas associate director for programs and international human rights lawyer; Erika Pires Ramos, co-founder, South American Network for Environmental Migrations; Zoraya Urbina, regional advocacy and communications officer and gender focal point for Lutheran World Federation Central America; Alicia Wallace, director of Equality Bahamas; and Mariana Williams, director of the Institute of Law and Economics (ILE), Jamaica.

Panelists emphasized the importance of addressing environmental racism and applying the lens of intersectional environmentalism to a cross-movement fight for climate and gender justice. Intersectional environmentalism—a term largely inspired by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw and her work with intersectional feminism—is an inclusive form of environmentalism that advocates for the protection of all people and the planet, and identifies the ways in which injustices affecting marginalized communities and the earth are interconnected.

A recent analysis finds that, although the Global North is overwhelmingly responsible for the climate crisis, contributing 92 percent of excess global carbon dioxide emission, the Global South shoulders most of the devastation. For example, 80 percent of environmental impacts generated by Europe’s textile consumption takes place outside Europe.

Watch the recording here.

Activists Lift Uzbek Cotton Global Boycott, Say Progress Conditional

Activists Lift Uzbek Cotton Global Boycott, Say Progress Conditional

The Cotton Campaign—a global coalition of human rights, labor, responsible investor and business organizations—yesterday ended its call for a global boycott of Uzbek cotton at an event hosted by the country’s Ministry of Labor for media, activists and government officials in Tashkent, Uzbekistan. The announcement came as the Uzbek Forum for Human Rights released a report finding no central-government–imposed forced labor in the 2021 harvest, a success which the Campaign is proposing as a template for removing forced labor from the world’s supply chains. An estimated 2 million children have been removed from child labor and half a million adults from forced labor in Uzbekistan’s cotton sector since the multi-sectoral campaign formed.

“[We] have been looking forward to this day for over 14 years,” said Cotton Campaign co-founder and former U.S. Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor Bennett Freeman, who saluted the determination and courage of Uzbek-based activists and cotton-field monitors.

The historic achievement came after persistent engagement by Uzbek activists, who took on extraordinary personal risk to uncover and document forced labor, joined by multinational brands, international advocates and worker rights groups like the Solidarity Center, and a commitment by the government of Uzbekistan to end its use of forced labor. The boycott began in response to a 2009 petition by Uzbek civil-society activists that launched the Cotton Campaign’s Uzbek Cotton Pledge Against Forced Labor. Since then, 331 brands and retailers signed the pledge, including many of the world’s largest brands, among them C&A, Gap Inc. and Tesco.

“As a journalist and citizen of this country, I am proud to participate,” said Uzbek Forum for Human Rights cotton field monitor Muazzam Ibragimova, who added that her own children were likely headed to the cotton fields as recently as a decade ago.

Although Uzbek Forum’s report found that cotton was harvested without systematic state-imposed forced labor, monitors found cases of coercion and interference by local authorities, as well as individual cases of forced labor. Because independent groups that conduct field level monitoring and capacity building are unable to register and operate freely, progress is “at risk” says the Cotton Campaign in its press release. Given repressive policies that limit freedom of association in Uzbekistan and supply chain practices that have contributed to eroding labor standards in garment producing countries around the world, the Cotton Campaign is calling on the Uzbek government and brands to support worker rights as the industry is poised to grow, and for the government to open the country’s civil society to create the enabling environment necessary for responsible sourcing.

“We need a voice from the ground,” said the Solidarity Center Senior Program Officer for Europe and Central Asia Abby McGill, who added that workers must lead the charge if there is to be permanent success and continued progress in Uzbekistan’s fight against forced labor.

Cotton Campaign Steering Committee member, GLI-ILRF Forced Labor Program Director and human rights lawyer Allison Gill recognized the efforts and courage of Uzbek Forum monitors and pointed to the coalition’s success in Uzbekistan as a template for combating the use of forced labor in cotton sourced from other countries. More than one fifth of the world’s cotton is produced in China’s Xinjiang region where significant evidence of human rights abuses, including suspected forced labor, has been reported.

The Cotton Campaign, of which the Solidarity Center is a long-time member, is a global coalition of international human and labor rights NGOs, independent trade unions, brand and retail associations, responsible investor organizations, supply chain transparency groups, and academic partners. The campaign encourages responsible sourcing to ensure that reforms continue to benefit workers, farmers, and civil society.

GLJILRF is a newly merged organization that brings strategic capacity to cross-sectoral work on global value chains and labor migration corridors.

Uzbek Forum for Human Rights is a Berlin-based NGO dedicated to protecting and promoting human rights and strengthening civil society in Uzbekistan.

Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles

Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles

Solidarity Center News
Solidarity Center News
Women Leaders at Forefront of Key Worker Rights Struggles
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As the world commemorates International Women’s Day, women workers around the world are leading struggles to safeguard democracy and improve wages and working conditions, often facing arrest or violence.

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Haiti

Women garment workers are on the front lines of the fight for a living wage in Haiti, where four-fifths of their day’s earnings are wiped out by necessities like food and transportation. This year, after not receiving an increase for more than three years and despite punishing inflation,  workers took to the streets to peacefully demonstrate for a minimum wage increase. They were met with police violence, including tear gas and live ammunition.

Berinette, a worker who was part of the February 9 and 10 demonstrations, spoke about the shocking police violence. “We thought they were protecting us and they were destroying us,” she said. “They shot rubber bullets and they fired tear gas at us. They beat us but, despite this, we didn’t fear and we were never afraid.”

Mexico 

In February, General Secretary María Alejandra Morales Reynoso led the National Independent Union for Workers in the Auto Industry (SINTTIA) to a landmark election victory in Mexico, when the independent union won the right to represent over 6,000 workers at a truck plant in Silao. 

In a union election with a 90 percent turnout, SINTTIA won with 4,192 votes out of 5,389 valid ballots. SINTTIA defeated the entrenched CTM labor group that had held the contract at the plant for 25 years and derived its strength from cultivating relationships with politicians and corporations while keeping wages low.

SINTTIA General Secretary Maria Alejandra Morales Reynoso Credit: Solidarity Center

Workers succeeded in making their voices heard despite attempts to buy votes and threats of violence against union leaders and activists. Just before voting began, three individuals threatened Reynoso and her family with harm if she showed up to vote. 

“They just came by my house, two men and a woman, telling me to send a statement saying neither I nor any other worker should show up tomorrow, or if not there will be problems,” said Morales Reynoso.

In a podcast interview with Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, Morales Reynoso said the union’s victory “gave people hope, hope that it was possible to represent workers freely.

“We proved it’s possible to get organized and to fight for our rights and to leave behind the fear that we’re going to lose our jobs,” Morales Reynoso said. 

Myanmar

On February 1, one year after the overthrow of Myanmar’s democratically elected government by a military junta, Phyo Sandar Soe, general secretary of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar (CTUM), was among five-member presidium elected by the First People’s Assembly of the National Unity Consultative Council (NUCC). Sandar is the youngest person and the only woman elected to the presidium.

Women workers played a leading role early on in the protests against the Myanmar coup, in which the country’s 450,000 garment workers were especially active in organizing civil disobedience and factory shutdowns. They have asked international corporate fashion brands to cease doing business in Myanmar until democracy is restored.

Myanmar, Sandar, CTUM assistant general secretary, military coup, unions, Solidarity Center

CTUM General Phyo Sanda Soe, Credit: Solidarity Center

An estimated 1,500 people have been killed since the military coup, and nearly 12,000 imprisoned, most tortured. The military junta especially targeted union leaders, arresting dozens, and many others fled the country or went into hiding. Demonstrating workers continue to be arrested under the pretense of spreading Covid-19 as Cambodian authorities repeatedly abuse the country’s COVID-19 law to break up the strike

Speaking from a safehouse, in a podcast interview with Bader-Blau, Sandar spoke of the strength of workers standing together despite repression and personal danger.

“We are facing a bloody crackdown, but all people protect each other. We are finding solutions to fight back. That’s why I want to tell our brothers and sisters to endure this duration because we have very high motivation to fight back against the junta, she said.”

Cambodia

In early January in Cambodia, Labor Rights Supported Union of Khmer Employees (LRSU) President Sithar Chhim was one of nine union leaders arrested during a peaceful strike and was violently taken away when she attempted to join her colleagues in a picket line at the NagaWorld hotel and casino. 

Hundreds of slot machine workers, dealers, housekeepers and technicians are on strike to demand the reinstatement of 365 workers who were fired months earlier. While management claimed the layoffs were due to COVID-19, union leaders say nearly all of those laid off were union leaders or members. 

The layoffs took place shortly after the union won a wage increase that boosted pay between 18 percent and 30 percent and secured the reinstatement of Chhim, who was suspended from her job in September 2019 for defending the right of a union member to wear a shirt with a message that called for higher wages.

Striking workers petitioned several embassies and consulates to contact the government about the arrests of union leaders and urge officials to respect human rights. 

Haiti: Workers Demonstrating For Higher Wages Met with Police Violence

Haiti: Workers Demonstrating For Higher Wages Met with Police Violence

Violence broke out on Wednesday, February 23, as Haitian police opened fire on garment workers demonstrating for higher wages and killed a reporter, according to witness reports. Two other reporters were injured at the scene in Port-au-Prince.

Maxihen Lazzare, who worked for Haitian media group Roi des Infors, died of his wounds at a hospital on Wednesday. Haitian police responded to Lazzare’s death in a press release saying they are launching an investigation and that the police are implicated.

The union coalition released a statement denouncing Wednesday’s violence and condemning “the kind of conspiracy of the police and employers to block the mobilization to force us to accept a minimum wage that cannot meet our needs so that they can continue to suck blood and exploit workers.”

Protests have been ongoing since Haitian workers staged a peaceful demonstration calling for an increase in the minimum wage earlier this month. In January, a coalition of nine trade unions issued an open letter to the prime minister seeking a minimum wage increase from 500 gourdes (about $4.82 a day) to 1,500 gourdes ($14.62). They noted that wages have been stagnant for years while the increasingly high cost of living and rising inflation were eroding workers’ ability to live with dignity.

In response to garment worker demands, the government mandated a new minimum wage earlier this week, bumping pay to about $6.53 a day.

In 2019, the Solidarity Center conducted a wage assessment, with Haitian workers and their unions, and found that garment worker wages then covered less than a quarter of the estimated cost of living.

Unions around the world are pushing back against anti-union violence. Earlier this month labor leaders from several countries stood against anti-union violence in Mexico.

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