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Respect at Work Has to Become the New Normal: ILO Convention 190 and Rebuilding for a Fairer Economy

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The COVID-19 pandemic has thrown into stark relief the direct correlation between the exploitative labor model that fuels our global economy and the systemic racism and discrimination that leads to attacks on Black people’s bodies and lives. It is a system rooted in discrimination and oppression, one that strategically devalues and dehumanizes Black and Brown workers, particularly women. Returning to “normal” is not an option or even desirable—we must instead rebuild an economy designed to meet human needs and protect fundamental rights, including safety and respect on the job.

After years of campaigning by the global labor movement, workers, governments and employers came together June 21, 2019, at the International Labor Organization to negotiate a global standard to end violence and harassment in the world of work. The ILO Convention that resulted from those discussions, C190, was the first international treaty to recognize the right of every worker to be free from violence and harassment, including gender-based violence and harassment, and the responsibility of governments and employers to ensure safe, respectful workplaces. Uruguay recently became the first country to ratify the convention, and others are soon to follow its lead. One year later, as we confront racial, economic and health crises, the convention takes on an even greater role in addressing the many forms of work-related violence and harassment workers are reporting related to the pandemic. 

With increased incidence of domestic violence and health and safety violations during the current crisis, unions are using the C190 framework to negotiate with employers and governments for policies that address the forms of violence they confront. Female workers throughout the global economy often are the first to lose their jobs as the economy contracts or are forced to work in low-paid positions with few health and safety protections. C190 requires that employers recognize gender-based violence and harassment in their safety and health protections. It is clear the convention provides an important framework for addressing the systemic discrimination and exploitation workers face around the world.

Rebuilding our economy will require that we proactively design and implement systems that empower and protect workers and address systemic power imbalances. As countries shape policies for reopening and rebuilding economies, the C190 framework provides guidance on how to ensure workplaces are safe and address the continuum of violence workers often experience. C190 calls on all governments to address the root causes of violence and harassment at work, including discrimination, and develop strategies to address the underlying factors that support these systems.

Women, particularly women of color, have been on the front lines of the pandemic, many working for very low wages. Overall, front-line workers are 64% women and disproportionately people of color. According to the National Domestic Workers Alliance, 73% of Black immigrant domestic workers report not being provided with any form of personal protective equipment (PPE) by their employers. Women particularly are overrepresented in care work, making up more than 85% of child care workers and 75% of health care workers. Caring for others sustains our communities and allows our economy to function, but it has long been dismissed as women’s work and systematically devalued, informalized and underpaid. Not coincidentally, these professions also face high rates of violence and harassment on the job. 

In addition, women, along with marginalized groups such as migrant workers, Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC), LGBTQ and gender-nonconforming individuals, are disproportionately pushed into the precarious workforce. And while precarious work arrangements—aka corporations using subcontractors, franchises and gig models to avoid a formal employment relationship and escape liability for some or all labor rights—predate COVID-19, the pandemic has spotlighted how these jobs operate with little to no regard for worker safety. 

C190 explicitly requires governments to address precarious work arrangements and ensure that everyone in the working world has legal protections from violence and harassment. It also contains protections for others in the workplace who are often left unprotected by labor laws and social protection systems, including people looking for work, unpaid interns and apprentices. As unemployment rises and state reopenings foreclose many from qualifying for emergency assistance, people will become increasingly desperate for income and can be forced into more dangerous and exploitative situations.

Critically, C190 also recognizes the importance of addressing underlying power relationships at work. Ending violence and harassment requires shifting more agency and control into the hands of workers themselves. This pandemic has made clear that far too often, workers are not viewed as human beings deserving of dignity and safety, but as expendable cogs in a machine. Violence and harassment exist in this system not as a glitch, but as a feature—tools of control used to reinforce hierarchy both in the workplace and in society.

To get all of this done, we need to build alliances across our movements. Feminist, worker, climate, racial justice, migrant and human rights organizations must build joint analysis and campaigns that work toward ratification and implementation of C190. All workers must have the ability to organize collectively to proactively shape their own working conditions. A union is how change is made, and one of the few inspiring outcomes of the pandemic has been the rise of new waves of worker and community organizing. Going forward, we must create an enabling environment for organizing to demand respect on the job by protecting everyone’s fundamental right to come together and act in concert to demand better. 

One of the most heartbreaking elements of the COVID-19 crisis is that so much of the suffering is the result of political choices, made to prioritize the stock market and uninterrupted markets, rather than human life. C190 provides us a framework for a worker-centered response and recovery that builds systems for all workers and addresses the power imbalances created by systemic discrimination. We can and must make different, better choices—choices to recognize the inherent dignity and value of all workers, to require respectful, safe working conditions, and to allow people more agency in shaping their working lives.

This blog originally appeared at AFL-CIO on June 23, 2020. Reprinted with permission.

About the Author: Cathy Feingold is a leading advocate on global workers’ rights issues. As director of the AFL-CIO’s International Department, Feingold is a committed and passionate advocate, strategic campaigner and policy expert. In 2018, Feingold was elected Deputy President of the International Trade Union Confederation, the organization representing 200 million unionized workers worldwide. She brings more than 20 years of experience in trade and global economic policy, and worker, human and women’s rights issues. Her work in both global and grassroots fora reflect her commitment to strengthening the voice of working people in global policy debates.

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Organizing Institute Apprentices Gear Up with Autoworkers to Ask for a Little Respect

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FullSizeRenderOrganizing Institute apprentices have hit the ground running to help autoworkers build a union at the Nissan plant in Canton, Mississippi—a fight that has been brewing over the past decade. This is the largest class of OI apprentices to be part of any one campaign. It’s important because this is a historic campaign to show that union organizing is a civil right and to show that #BlackLivesMatter.

It’s not always about wages. That’s what OI apprentices found out fast when talking to autoworkers about what troubles they face in the workplace. Though autoworkers in the South are paid meager wages compared to their counterparts in other regions and sometimes other countries, what workers really want in Canton is respect on the job.

The autoworkers at Nissan told OI apprentice Keith Crawford that they feel like they are treated like animals on the job. Hearing their stories has been challenging, but Crawford is emphatic, “You need to commit to help people’s suffering.” Crawford is from Memphis, Tennessee, where Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. died after marching with sanitation workers on strike against deplorable labor conditions. Crawford is as aspirational about the campaign with autoworkers, hoping they make history by winning here.

LaQuinta Alexander is another social justice advocate and OI apprentice with roots in student activism. When Trayvon Martin’s controversial death and the acquittal of the man who killed him sparked a sit-in at the Capitol in Tallahassee, Florida, that garnered national attention—she was there with the most committed student activists of Dream Defenders for the full 30 days and nights. The experience emboldened her, though the measure failed to change the state’s stand-your-ground laws.

“I love it; I love my people. I love the new challenges and how every day is different. I love every bit of it.” Alexander learned to recognize the power of collective action to stir the national, and sometimes, global conscience, such as the beautiful solidarity between Brazil’s autoworkers for those in Canton. “Your story has meaning: it has power.”

She wanted to be a teacher, but Beatriz Guerrero found another calling after she says the Union Summer internship changed her life. She worked on the Community Labor Environment Action Network’s carwash campaign in Los Angeles, an eye-opening experience of the daily abuse workers face, “You hear about the worker who gets run over by a car, see that he looks like your father and then feel the injustice when he’s fired and treated as expendable.” She also remembers how her own father was fired for organizing in the 1980s, and it inspires her to work harder to make sure workers’ spirits aren’t crushed with the challenges confronting them.

Another former Union Summer intern and current apprentice, Alex Rodie, was born and raised in Indiana. He was deeply affected by the personal and professional accounts he heard about the power of unions. Rodie remembers his grandfather’s words about how he could not have supported a family without his union’s support. And like Guerrero, Rodie’s father also had tried to organize his workplace, and even more significantly to organize with the UAW.

OI apprentice Stacy Gray was a part of an exodus from the North in the elusive pursuit of a decent job. She learned about the union difference when Michigan became a right-to-work state. She knows what it’s like to scrap together a living as a bus driver, saving on child care costs by driving her own kids’ route. Now, Gray is committed to move working people to action. “I’ve always been a mini-revolution person, but as soon as it got too hot in the kitchen I found myself standing alone. This apprenticeship will teach me to develop the support system and bring people in.”

Workers at Nissan plants around the globe—in Brazil, South Africa and Japan—have a voice on the job, but while corporations have been getting millions of dollars in tax incentives to set up shop down South, too many see it as grounds for exploiting cheap labor. That’s why autoworkers in Canton want to be able to come together in a union to voice their concerns and to work collectively to make Nissan better. Let’s help build up the union movement and #OrganizeTheSouth!

Learn more about the Nissan campaign.

This year’s full cohort of OI-UAW apprentices:

  •  LaQuinta Alexander (Oviedo, Florida)
  • Ronald Allen (Atlanta)
  • Keith Crawford (Memphis, Tennessee)
  • Rannie Fore (Atlanta)
  • Stacy Gray (Atlanta)
  • Tori Griffin (Knoxville, Tennessee)
  • Beatriz Guerrero (Los Angeles)
  • Danielle Holmes (Jackson, Mississippi)
  • Jacklyn Izsraael (Atlanta)
  • Ojeda Jarrett (Atlanta)
  • Brandon Marlow (Atlanta)
  • Cory McIntosh (Atlanta)
  • Alexander Rodie (Terre Haute, Indiana)
  • Susan Tewolde (Fredericksburg, Virginia)

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on March 9, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Sonia Huq is the Organizing Field Communications Assistant at the AFL-CIO.  She grew up in a Bangladeshi-American family in Boca Raton, Florida where she first learned a model of service based on serving a connected immigrant cultural community. After graduating from the University of Florida, Sonia served in the AmeriCorps National Civilian Community Corps and later worked for Manavi, the first South Asian women’s rights organization in the United States. She then earned her Master’s in Public Policy from the George Washington University and was awarded a Women’s Policy Inc. fellowship for women in public policy to work as a legislative fellow in the office of Representative Debbie Wasserman (FL-23). Sonia is passionate about working towards a more just society and hopes to highlight social justice issues and movements through her writing.

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