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U.N. Strike Shows Convergence of Labor and Middle East Politics

1:24 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Cross-posted from In These Times

In the Kingdom of Jordan, conflict erupted in the Palestinian refugee community, but it’s not the kind of unrest you might expect in a society of survivors of war. The protesters were employees of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian refugees (UNRWA). They launched a strike to press for fairer wages and working conditions, which led to a sit-in at the agency’s Amman headquarters and affected a workforce of about 7,000 that provides health, education and social services to a Palestinian refugee population of about 1.5 million. The dispute was apparently just settled, following “mediation” by the Jordanian government, with a deal for a pay raise of about $70 (USD).

"Welcome," reads the artwork scrawled on the wall outside of an UNRWA girls school at the Jerash Palestinian Refugee Camp in Jordan. (Photo by Omar Chatriwala via Flickr)

The local press reported earlier that the representatives of UNRWA workers’ councils had issued further demands, including “promotions for teachers, directors and supervisors and the filling of vacancies in all the agency’s sectors, as well as the improvement of UNRWA employees’ work conditions.”

In a way, this was a classic labor conflict between a public agency and workers in a relatively poor country. But UNRWA is a unique international bureaucracy, with a global budget crisis intertwined with the politics of the conflict-ridden regions it serves.

UNRWA in Jordan faced a similar strike over pay rates in 2008. In Gaza last fall, the agency was besieged by calls for a general strike by the Local Staff Union of UNRWA in Gaza City. More than 240 schools in Gaza were affected by protests against the  suspected politically motivated suspension of union head Suhail Al-Hindi. Teachers were among the most vocal protesters:

Hamas sources said the UN agency had accused Hindi of meeting with Hamas political officials.

Buses took some 7,000 teachers employed at UNRWA-run schools to UN headquarters in Gaza city where they held a sit-in, calling for an end to “UNRWA political punishment of employees.”

“Death rather than humiliation” read a banner held by striking teachers. “Deception, lying and hypocrisy have become the core values of UNRWA,” read another.

Read the rest of this entry →

Will the Arab Spring Leave Migrants Out in the Cold?

1:17 pm in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

Despite some reform efforts in Arab nations, South Asian migrant workers often suffer brutal abuse. (Image courtesy Bahrain Center for Human Rights)

Cross-posted from In These Times:

The uprisings of the “Arab Spring” have been by turns inspiring, frustrating and tragic for activists around the globe. And they are still horribly incomplete—not just because the emerging revolutions have been in many cases squelched by authoritarian regimes, but because the movements for freedom and justice have left out whole swaths of the affected populations. While citizens push for their rights and have broken into the foreground of the Western media, the throngs of migrants who fuel the regional economy continue to face their own struggles against abuse and impunity, mostly ignored inside and outside their adopted communities.

Earlier this month, Saudi Arabia executed eight Bangaldeshi migrant workers, convicted of killing of an Egyptian man. After the public beheadings, advocates globally denounced the trial (reportedly based on a violent workplace dispute in 2007) as a sham. Executions are up sharply in Saudi Arabia this year, reports Amnesty International, and 20 of the roughly 58 have involved immigrants.

An Indonesian maid met a similar fate in June, as did a Sudanese man last month (on allegations of witchcraft). The reports suggest that state violence against migrants shares the cruel mechanics of much more public government crackdowns on street demonstrations.

Calling for a moratorium on executions in Saudi Arabia, Amnesty notes that aside from the general barbarity of the practice, migrant defendants have no access to legal counsel or language translation, and “In many cases they are not informed of the progress of legal proceedings against them.”

So is the push for more democratic government in the Arab world going to change the plight of migrants, who in many ways have even fewer rights than citizens? Read the rest of this entry →

Target Comes Under Fire Around the World

4:55 am in Uncategorized by Michelle Chen

VALLEY STREAM, NY - JUNE 17: Shoppers enter a Target store on June 17, 2011 in Valley Stream, New York preceding a unionization vote. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

Cross-posted from In These Times

The retail giant Target is under fire from all sides, for union-busting at home and labor violations overseas. The reports that have come out in the past several weeks highlight a continuum of cruelty in the global supply chain.

Though WalMart has long served as labor’s arch nemesis, United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) has lately zeroed in on Target as a new battlefield—with its hundreds of thousands of employees and recent expansion into the supermarket sector. Although UFCW Local 1500 recently lost a vote to unionize a branch in Valley Stream, New York, their campaign deftly exposed Target’s arsenal of intimidation and smear tactics, which ranged from anti-union websites to leaflets warning that a yes vote might ruin the company and force the store to close.

Now plastered across the blogosphere, the propaganda campaign has steeled the outrage at the company’s resistance to unions. Organizers have announced they will keep up the fight:

Target’s honeymoon is over, the national attention from the election at Valley Stream showed the American public the type of company they really are, one who has little respect for the hard working people who make their company so successful.  Target still has the opportunity to change, and they should start by respecting their employees. Read the rest of this entry →