Unions play a key role in finding solutions to many social issues such as unsafe food, discrimination against women, and child labor. According to the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, “Over 250 million child laborers are being exploited for profit or are forced to work in order to survive. Whole generations of children are being deprived of the chance to take their rightful place in the society and economy of the 21st Century. If recruitment of new child workers ends now, child labor will disappear in a decade.” These children have no say regarding their desperate situation. Unions can pressure authorities to enforce laws against this practice as well as construct alliances with other unions and international organizations to collectively fight for children’s right to education.
The right to organize a trade union and to collective bargaining are defined by the International Labor Organization as fundamental rights at work and are also protected by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Workers around the world, however, face systematic barriers to organizing, including egregious acts of violence and intimidation. According to the International Trade Union Confederation's Annual Survey, at least 101 labor activists were killed as a result of their actions defending workers' rights worldwide in 2009, a number that has increased by 30% since 2008. Thousands of workers were physically and verbally harassed, arrested, and abducted for their involvement with unions as they continue to be denied their fundamental, internationally recognized right to freedom of association and collective bargaining. ILRF's Freedom at Work campaign fights to protect the rights of workers to have a voice on the job and an opportunity to strive for a better life by securing their freedom of association.
Within the Toolkit, readers can learn about hard working laborers such as Amanda Camacho. Amanda is a single mother and the president of her union, Asopapagayo. She has worked in the cut-flower industry in Colombia for the past 17 years. She and her coworkers determined to unionize when they realized that long-term employees were being fired and replaced by subcontracted workers.
Amanda explains, “Flower workers often get illnesses and work injuries such as carpel tunnel syndrome. The pesticides also make people sick. We get nauseous and vomit. In other plantations where I have friends, plantation management often tells workers they are taking out their health insurance payments, but when they go to the doctor, it turns out they never paid into the system. They are left with nothing to do when their kids get sick.”
She continues, “We started talking about forming a union because we thought we’d lose our jobs otherwise. The company started to replace many of the formal workers who had worked at the company for over ten years with temporary workers from cooperatives or other agencies who have no rights. They also gave the employees who remained more work to make up for those that got fired. They exploit the temporary workers more because they don’t have signed contracts and they don’t pay them for overtime, vacation days, or the right to medical coverage. The Colombian government says that we have the freedom to join unions but it really isn’t true. [After a long struggle], we finally won union recognition and they reimbursed all the union members for all that we had lost, such as the education and nutrition benefits and our annual raise. We also gained a small increase in our salary that will last for the next two years. In our union we’re 23 women and three men so I want to send the message to all the women out there who are exploited that when we fight for our rights, we can be victorious in the end!”
Within the Toolkit readers can also learn about abused laborers such as Salim. Salim, a 28 year old man who has been working at the Capital soccer ball stitching center in Pakistan for 13 years, is (unbelievably!) still considered a temporary worker without access to the social security system. He lives with his family in a small mud house and has no other facilities except electricity and water. He works non-stop from 9am to 5pm and earns 5,200 PKR (US $64) monthly at most. However, this is not even close to sufficient as the total household expenses are at least 10,000 PKR (US $123) per month. He is unable to send his children to school in order to learn skills other than stitching because he is unable to afford the cost of education. Situations such as this one could be avoided if Salim had access to a union to fight for his right to be a permanent worker and consequently receive the much-needed benefits associated with that status.
If you would like printed copies of the F@W Toolkit, email laborrights [at] ilrf.org. ILRF is committed to circulating more than 2,000 copies by Labor Day 2011. We are also available to assist with educational workshops that educate others about how labor unions are essential not only to promoting rights in the workplace but also for ensuring environmental protection, consumer safety and fair trade.
Worker empowerment through union formation, freedom of association, and collective bargaining is the answer to ending child labor and discrimination and to improving working conditions, wages, and social protections for all workers! Please join ILRF in supporting workers rights around the world, as workers rights are human rights!