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Domestic Workers Sow a New Global Movement

2:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Members of the International Domestic Workers' Network show support for the groundbreaking International Labor Organization's Convention 189, signed in 2011. (Courtesy of WIEGO)

Originally posted at In These Times

In Argentina and Brazil, a sector of workers that has long labored invisibly is moving out of the shadows and gaining legal protections. Their counterparts in Jamaica and Uruguay are sparking a new political consciousness from the friction between tradition and globalization. Around the world, private homes are becoming labor’s latest battleground as domestic workers stake out their rights.

Despite stretching into every region of the world, domestic work has historically been excluded from conventional labor laws, regardedly merely as “women’s work.” A breakthrough came in 2011 with the passage of the groundbreaking Convention 189 on domestic workers’ rights by the International Labour Organization (ILO), the UN special agency for labor rights. The convention lays out principles for fair treatment at work, including the right to a fair labor contract and a safe work environment, freedom from exploitation and coercion, and legal recourse against abusive employers.

The Convention was adopted in 2011. Since its establishment on an international level, domestic workers have been organizing more comprehensively on the ground. Advocates in various countries have been building up national frameworks for codifying the rights of domestic workers. The ILO reported this month that “Since the Convention’s adoption, a total of nine countries have passed new laws or regulations improving domestic workers’ labour and social rights, including Venezuela, Bahrain, the Philippines, Thailand, Spain and Singapore.”

In Brazil, new legislation enshrines the ILO Convention’s principles, including an 8-hour workday and overtime. Significantly, the legislation targets a sector that has historically been dominated by black women, building on the government’s other recent efforts to dismantle racial barriers in the economy. The measure has been hailed by activists as an extension of the nation’s abolition of slavery in the 19th century.

In Argentina, where 17 percent of working women are domestic workers, the legislature passed an act in March granting domestic workers standard labor protections, including limits on working hours. In the official announcement of the bill’s passage, Labor Minister Carlos Tomada described it as a corrective for an entrenched social imbalance:

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All Work and No Pay: Recognizing Women’s Unpaid Labor in the Global South

7:23 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

A Pokot woman with her child, tending to an aloe vera crop. Women around the world spend a great deal of time on unpaid care work every day, but such work often remains invisible. (Des Willie/ActionAid)

Originally posted at In These Times

Imagine being asked to work seven days a week, for free, without breaks or even a thank you. Those conditions might seem outrageous in any workplace, yet they are typical in our homes, where women are regularly expected to serve as faithful unpaid caregivers. Our recognition of the first scenario as a serious violation of labor rights, while the second can be brushed off as “tradition,” is a measure of the sexism still embedded in our thinking about economic equity in the U.S. and around the world.

While many of these debates have taken place in a Western context—the post-Feminine Mystique universe of fights over glass ceilings and parental leave policies—a different conversation is beginning in the Global South about how respect for women’s household labor factors into a wider movement for economic justice.

A new analysis by the advocacy group ActionAid looks at case studies of women’s uncompensated work in Nepal, Nigeria, Uganda and Kenya as mothers, wives, managers of households and caregivers. The report concludes that women’s unpaid daily tasks amount to a massive amount of time, energy and ingenuity that has been historically exploited and undervalued.

The report defines unpaid care work as home-based tasks like “cooking, cleaning, collecting water and firewood, and caring for the ill, elderly and children,” which are typically woven into interdependent relationships within communities and family structures. Not only is such work essential to maintaining the household; it is deeply interwoven with social development. Stability at home provides a base of security that enables other forms of economic advancement. Care work is of course crucial for children’s development (as well as their future education), but it also enables male family members to engage in wage labor in the mainstream economy. Read the rest of this entry →

Qatar Launches Into 2022 World Cup on Backs of Abused Migrants

12:44 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

(Cocoate.com / Flickr / Creative Commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

Qatar sits like an oasis of hypertrophic capitalism amid a landscape barren in all respects except for its oil reserves. The emirate sustains itself by pumping out vast fossil fuel resources while importing human ones, in the form of legions of migrant workers from Bangladesh, Nepal and other Global South countries.

Labor activists say this fierce imbalance between the elite and the laboring underclass is headed for catastrophe as the country prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup.

The event, and the massive infrastructure projects it will involve, will magnify Qatar’s international prestige as an ultra-modern kingdom, but labor and human rights activists say the country is neither ready nor willing to align its regressive labor practices with its ultra-modern development agenda.

An investigation by Equal Times, a publication supported by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), documents patterns of employers and labor agencies cheating workers, deceiving them into exploitative jobs in unsafe and precarious conditions.

As with many other wealthy Gulf countries, Equal Times reports, Qatar’s economy displays stunning inequalities:

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Flammable Material: How Garment Workers Can Respond to the Tazreen Factory Fire

5:47 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Bangladesh labor protest (dblackadder via flickr/creative commons)

Originally posted at In These Times

In a fashion industry where trends change by the minute, the lives of the workers who make the clothes are often valued as cheaply as the products they create. The devastating fire at the Tazreen factory in Bangladesh, which killed more than 110 people, is tied to what labor advocates describe as a powder keg: the manufacturing system in the Global South, where countless factories are one spark away from catastrophe.

A new report on factory safety by the International Labor Rights Forum documents the story of one teenager who survived a deadly fire in 2006, which left dozens of workers to burn in a sealed death trap:

I think that they used to lock the doors all the time because most of the workers were my age, and they thought that we might leave the factory any time, as we were kids. That is why they always locked the main door.

Of course, it would be children who lacked the discipline to stay put, whose natural impulse to resist restraint required the industry to literally lock them in.

Today, the charred Tazreen factory represents the extreme end of a long continuum of anti-worker oppression and violence, beginning with multinational brands that build their profit model on cheap overseas labor, to the brutalization of workers who dare stand up for their rights on the job.

The cost of treating these workers humanely doesn’t add up for brand-name manufacturers. The garment industry death toll in Bangladesh has risen to about 700 since 2005, and seems on track to grow as more foreign business flock to the South Asian country for rock-bottom wages and a burgeoning workforce willing to earn as little as $43 a month, far less than typical wages in China or India. Read the rest of this entry →

Bangladesh Factory Fire: Workers Burn, Walmart Ducks Responsibility

8:11 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

 

Fire at Tazreen Fashions (International Labor Rights Forum)

Originally posted at In These Times

Perhaps the images no longer have the power to shock. Charred bodies and wailing families appear in the news with grim frequency, giving the numbing impression that industrial fires are simply a necessary toll for poor nations on the road to “development.” The latest factory inferno in South Asia should prompt us to ask why this keeps happening, but once again, challenges from local and international labor advocates are being dodged by the global apparel-manufacturing machine.

The fire this weekend at the Tazreen factory outside Dhaka, Bangladesh, which killed more than 110 of the 1,000-plus workers, bears the stamp of some of the world’s most iconic fashion labels. According to labor advocates, the Western brands linked to the factory included Disney, Sears, Dickies, Sean Combs’s Enyce and Walmart’s Faded Glory.

According to initial reports, the workplace was fraught with fire-safety issues, including the lack of a viable road for rescue workers to approach the facility and a lack of safety exits. Before workers could flee, some managers reportedly “stopped them running to safety after the fire alarm had gone off.”

Just about everyone who could be held responsible has a story to deflect the blame, and some are even implicating workers.

Amid international outcry and local street protests in response to the fire, Bangladeshi authorities suggested that the incident was not a product of an industrial accident such as faulty wiring, but sabotage, pointing to another investigation of fires reportedly started by workers in a nearby factory. (Notably, Bangladesh’s garment industry is a bulwark of the country’s low-wage economy, employing about 3 million people.) Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina argued the Tazreen fire also appears to be the result of arson, perhaps tied to local political conflicts—a claim echoed by the Bangladesh Garment Manufacturers and Exporters Association. According to Hasina, the disaster ”was not an accident, (it was) planned. The incident takes place when it is the time for buyers to come and sign contracts.” Read the rest of this entry →

Criminalizing Condoms: Sex Workers Get Policed but Remain Unprotected

12:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Originally posted at In These Times

If you worked a dangerous job, you’d expect the law to help protect you from workplace hazards. But for many workers in the sex trade, protecting their health on the job could land them in jail.

A new report by Human Rights Watch reveals how the criminalization of sex work in U.S. cities undermines civil rights and puts lives at risk.

Researchers say regressive prohibitionist policies make sex workers more vulnerable to sexually transmitted diseases as well as mistreatment and violence, sometimes at the hands of the very authorities that are supposed to be protecting them. The report focuses on a controversial police practice for targeting prostitutes: profiling people who are “caught” carrying condoms.

Taking a human-rights centered approach that views the selling of sexual services as a form of work, HRW found that sex workers are often deterred from carrying condoms for fear of getting nabbed by the cops. In New York, Washington, DC, Los Angeles and San Francisco, an item that would in any other circumstance be seen as a reasonable—and responsible—protective measure against sexually transmitted disease or pregnancy becomes form of contraband in anti-prostitution crackdowns. As a result:

despite millions of dollars spent on promoting and distributing condoms as an effective method of HIV prevention, groups most at risk of infection—sex workers, transgender women, and lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) youth—are afraid to carry them and therefore engage in sex without protection as a result of police harassment. Outreach workers and businesses are unable to distribute condoms freely and without fear of harassment as well.

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Hating in Athens

7:49 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Anti-racist demonstrations in the southern suburb of Kalithea, where repeated racist attacks took place against Egyptian immigrants. Three persons where injured, one of whom was hospitalized with multiple injuries from beating. (Image courtesy Zalmaï for Human Rights Watch)

Cross-posted from CultureStrike

Douglas Kesse, a Ghanaian asylum seeker who recently landed in Greece, was bewildered by how he was received in the cradle of Western Civilization. Reflecting on the epidemic of anti-immigrant attacks, he told human rights investigators, ”As human beings, we shouldn’t be treated like this…. I am not an animal to be chased with sticks.”

When anti-immigrant violence flares up in our communities, it may seem irrational, crazy, sometimes outright barbaric. But there’s one universal rule that holds true around the world: xenophobic riots, purges, and state crackdowns throughout history have hewed to a chilling logic; people respond to real threats–primarily economic instability or social upheaval–by lashing out at make-believe threats–like the neighbor who came from Mexico to build your other neighbor’s house. This is hardly unique to the U.S.: the anti-immigrant hatred that has erupted across Europe is actually a chilling parallel to the bigotry exhibited toward immigrants in places like Arizona. And in a place like Greece, where economic crisis is tearing society apart, it’s open season for xenophobia.

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Migration as Ecology: How Culture Evolves

8:28 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Bossaso, Somalia (Photo: Celeste Hibbert, via IOM)

Cross-posted from CultureStrike

The immigration debate in the United States often centers narrowly around people who cross a border, and their social impacts on the “destination” country. But what if we viewed migration as a social phenomenon, or as a natural process? An ecological viewpoint can open a new frame for exploring the immigrant experience as a continual cultural and demographic transformation. This month, advocates at the Rio +20 earth summit took up the issue of migration as a form of ecology.

The environmental lens moves the immigration debate beyond the concept of rich countries “receiving” outsiders, or poor countries “sending” workers across borders. Seeing immigration as a zero-sum game ignores the humanity of the people who are driving, and are driven by, constant movement and resettlement. For the U.S. in particular, the focus on border enforcement–sanctifying artificial boundaries as a delimiter of citizenship–ignores the idea that migration is both an inevitable social process, and intimately connected with all other forms of social change, be they political movements, poverty, war, or, perhaps more acutely, environmental disaster.

The International Organization for Migration, which aids refugees and displaced populations, hosted a side event at the Rio +20 summit focused on the ecological implications of migration:

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Unwelcome Guests: Work Visa Programs Cheat Global Labor, Build Global Capital

6:44 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Workers with the New Orleans Workers Center for Racial Justice and the Alliance of Guest Workers for Dignity demonstrate against "sub-human working and living conditions" at the contractor Signal International. (Photo courtesy of Jobs With Justice via Flickr)

Cross-posted from In These Times. 

When immigration comes up in Washington, politicians either politely ignore the issue or engage in lively debate on how best to punish and get rid of undocumented workers. Yet lawmakers give a strikingly warm embrace to certain types of immigrants. Those are the “legal” ones who enter with special visas under the pretext of having special skills or filling certain labor shortages–like Silicon Valley tech jobs or seasonal blueberry harvesting. So what makes one kind of immigrant valuable and another kind criminal?

So-called guestworker programs attest to the arbitrary politics of immigration that has generated a perfectly legal, global traffic in migrant labor. A new report by the advocacy group Global Workers Justice Alliance reveals how various federal visa programs funnel workers into special high-demand sectors, like amusement park staff or computer programmers. Like their “illegal” counterparts, these workers are inherently disempowered: they may be dependent on employers for legal status in the U.S., have their wages regularly stolen, or suffer sexual or physical abuse. Many lack the access to the health care and overtime pay that citizen workers often take for granted. As products of globalization, they’re sometimes compelled to endure virtual indentured servitude to provide critical wage remittances to their families back home.

The economic logic is simple, according to the report: externalize the costs to those who can’t afford to challenge authority.

Especially of note are the visas outside Department of Labor supervision. Under these visas, workers who enter are structurally cheaper than U.S. workers, because employers are legally exempted from certain payroll taxes, legally able to pay wages lower than fair market wages, and/or legally empowered to pass on many basic costs associated with employment – such as transportation, visa fees, housing and more – to the workers.

Companies can also outsource unscrupulous labor practices to third-party manpower agencies, which are known to recruit workers with deceptive job advertising or discriminate against female job applicants. Read the rest of this entry →

Child Labor and Agribusiness Churn Washington’s Food Fight

10:13 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Image: Human Rights Watch

Cross-posted from In these Times

For a moment in Washington, it seemed like the White House was finally getting serious about reforming the agricultural labor system, with a common sense rule about preventing harm to child workers. But under pressure from the agribusiness lobby, the administration appears to have retreated from an initiative to tighten protection for childrens’ safety and health in agricultural jobs.

As we’ve reported previously, the move was seen by labor and child rights groups as a shameless pander to anti-regulatory forces in Washington. Activists have for years reported on the systematic exploitation of children on farms. Last year many hoped the Labor Department would finally respond to alarming injury and death rates by curbing the most hazardous forms of agricultural work for kids under 16, including restrictions on high-risk work in tobacco production, and limiting dangerous tasks involving certain farm equipment and animals.

Then advocates were distressed when the proposed reforms were held up under review by the White House Office of Management and Budget, the administration’s gatekeeper for regulatory proposals. The final affront came in April when the Labor Department announced that it was pulling the proposal in response to opposition from producers.

While the new rules would have explicitly exempted family farms, critics painted the measure as an assault on the rural way of life, glossing over the need to shield kids, many from migrant families, from the day-to-day brutality of industrial farm labor. The administration not only recycled these whitewashed arguments, but even scrubbed its own website of information explaining the proposal, according to the Pump Handle.

Actually, the migrant children in the fields today, facing severe poverty and limited educational opportunities, starkly represent how far modern industrial farming has drifted from the bygone bucolic ideal of the family farm. Read the rest of this entry →