Food systems workers in South Asia call for urgent action to end child labour in food supply chains

Food systems workers in South Asia call for urgent action to end child labour in food supply chains

On the International Day for the Elimination of Child Labour, 30 union leaders from agriculture, fisheries, and food and beverage processing unions from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Pakistan called for urgent action to end child labour in the food supply chains and implement the Durban Call to Action on the Elimination of Child Labour. Union leaders reported on the use of child labour in agriculture and factories, highlighted the key drivers of child labour and discussed strategies to eliminate child labour.

In addition, unions highlighted the impact of climate change contributing to climate migrations and increased risk of child labour.

Sister Sharmin Sultana, President of the Bangladesh National Women Farmers & Workers Association (NWFA), observed that:

Due to rising sea levels, flooding, river erosion, coastal erosion, and extreme weather in Bangladesh, people are forced off their lands resulting in loss of livelihood and income. In rural areas children previously engaged in agricultural activity on family farms are increasingly accompanying their parents in paid work as migrant workers or are hired directly.

Sister Rafia Gulani, President of Sindh Nari Porihayt Council (SNPC) in Pakistan, added that:

This year’s heat wave in Pakistan has made working in field very challenging for SNPC members and it was more hazardous for children who accompany their parents to work in the field. Families are under debt and work on piece rate systems which forces them to bring children to work.

Sister Vineetha Sailesh, youth leader from Gujarat Agriculture Labour Union (GALU) in India reported on the employment of child labour in potato farms in Gujarat, India in the supply chain of TNCs and in cotton farms under hazardous conditions:

Recognizing agriculture as a hazardous sector, governments must take measures to improve health & safety conditions and to immediately stop children from working on agricultural farms where pesticides are used. Along with that effective implementation of the right to education which will reduce child labour from farms and rehabilitate them by enrolling them into schools and by providing an adequate living wage and employment opportunities for adults.

Brother Raja Reddy, Council President from Andhra Pradesh Vyavsaya Vruthidarula Union (APVVU) India, highlighted the use of piece-rate wage systems in seed companies and fields forcing parents to bring children to work.

We must end the quota system in seed companies where we have found substantial use of child labour and we must create year-round employment opportunities in rural areas with guaranteed living wage.

Brother Balu Gadi, a youth leader of APVVU added that:

The increased food prices are contributing to children dropping out of schools and are forced to work. The government’s failure to take measures to control prices and protect food security is increasing child labour and children may never go back to school.  

Sister Megha Desai from the Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA ) reiterated the importance of stable income and livelihood for adults, right to education, right to healthcare and tackling climate change as key strategies to eliminate child labour in agriculture.

Unions from food and beverage processing highlighted the need to investigate child labour in the supply chain and committed to include elimination of child labour in their collective bargaining agreements and support unions in agriculture to end child labour.

Brother Abdul Mannan from IUF Food Workers’ Council in Bangladesh recalled the Hashem Food Fire tragedy which killed 19 children working in the factory on July 8 and reported the use of child labour in other factories in Bangladesh.

The IUF Food Workers Council will investigate the use of child labour, workers’ rights violation and hazardous working conditions in other food factories and is committed to ensure that children are not exploited in the factories. Along with that the council will support workers in food factories to organize and form unions.

Brother Khaista Rehman, General Secretary of the Pakistan Food Workers’ Federation (PFWF) added:

PFWF is committed to support unions working to eliminate child labour, we will include a clause on eliminating child labour in the supply chain in union collective agreements.

Brother Amol, President of Sunfresh Agro Industries Kamgar Sanghatana in India said:

Companies should take responsibility to tackle child labour in their supply chain and the companies will not take it seriously unless we make the issue of child labour a priority.

Brother Anwer Zeb, youth leader from the Tobacco Growers’ Association (TGA) in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan, where the prevalence of child labour in tobacco growing is high, reported that the TGA has changed their constitution of include eliminating child labour in tobacco farming and membership to the association will depend on members’ commitment to end child in tobacco farms.

We need to put the effort in monitoring child labour in our farms as it is a continuous process and whenever we become unfocused use of child labour may return.

All of the participating unions highlighted the importance of freedom of association in ending the conditions that forces children to work in hazardous conditions and unions in food sector working together to eliminate child labour.

 

Coca-Cola union president in Bangladesh abducted and severely beaten as union protests company’s attempts to secure exemption from labour laws

Coca-Cola union president in Bangladesh abducted and severely beaten as union protests company’s attempts to secure exemption from labour laws

On June 7, three days into a peaceful protest by workers over Coca-Cola Bangladesh management’s refusal to negotiate in good faith and the company’s application for exemption from the labour law, the union president, Abdul Kalam, was abducted and severely beaten by thugs.

The thugs work for a 3rd party contractor, Md. Shahidul Islam Shahid also known as Haji Shahid, who has several contracts with Coca-Cola Bangladesh including scrap metal recycling and waste management.

On June 6, Haji Shahid entered the Coca-Cola factory and met with management. The following day a gang of thugs approached the protesting union members outside the factory, demanding that the union president, Abdul Kalam, come and meet Hazi Shahid. Abdul Kalam refused, saying it was a labour dispute between the union and Coca-Cola management. That afternoon Abdul Kalam was taken off a public bus by Hazi Shahid’s goons and taken away. Several hours later Abdul Kalam was discovered by police and taken to hospital. He suffered serious injuries and is unable to walk.

The legally registered Coca-Cola Employees Union (CCEU) was formed in March 2021. The union submitted its first collective bargaining agreement proposal on September 8, 2021.

Although 14 negotiation meetings were held between September 20, 2021 and May 25, 2022, management made no offers or counter-proposals. Management simply told the union to revise or withdraw their demands. When the union insisted on weekly negotiation meetings to make progress, management avoided any record of the discussion by refusing to sign the meeting minutes and walked out.

At the same time Coca-Cola Bangladesh is attempting to reduce working conditions and standards by seeking a temporary exemption from Bangladesh labour laws.

On February 26, 2022, Coca-Cola management filed for a six-month exemption from the Bangladesh Labour Act , declaring the bottling plant a “seasonal factory”. This is despite year-round production. The union refused to provide a written “no objection” as required by law, preventing the company from securing its exemption.

CCEU requested an explanation of why the company is seeking status as a “seasonal factory” and how this affects job security and working conditions. Management refused to provide an explanation and instead threatened to cut workers’ incentive pay if the union does not provide a written “no objection” letter to support the company’s exemption from the labour law.

On April 12, 2022, management wrote to the  union stating that they are seeking exemption from implementing eight sections of of the Bangladesh Labour Act concerning working hours and leave. The union responded that these sections of the labour law are important for workers’ rights. Management tried to pressure the union president, but CCEU still refused to provide the “no objection” letter.

On May 26, 2022, when workers received their salary for the month of May their incentives were missing. It was stopped by management as punishment for the union refusing to agree to exemptions from the labour law. This constitutes financial coercion by the company to compel union members to accept exemptions from the labour law that are detrimental to workers’ rights and working conditions.

On June 4, the union started peaceful protest actions outside the Coca-Cola factory, demanding that management respect collective bargaining rights and respect the labour law. Management accused the union of “damaging the company’s image”, but refused to hold negotiations. Instead management filed a complaint with the labour department on June 6, accusing the union of “illegal activities”.

The protests continued and on June 7, the Coca-Cola contractor, Haji Shahid, carried out the abduction and beating of the union president. While the union president remains in hospital, union members are continuing their protest action.

Imprisoned trade unionists released on bail as NagaWorld and the Labour Ministry rush to create a fake union organization

Imprisoned trade unionists released on bail as NagaWorld and the Labour Ministry rush to create a fake union organization

In the face of growing international condemnation, Cambodian authorities have released eight of the 11 NagaWorld trade unionists from prison on bail. Eight union leaders of LRSU were arrested in January and another three union activists were arrested in February for exercising their internationally recognized right to strike. Eight women were released yesterday while three men remain in prison, with possible release tomorrow. Although released from prison, the charges against the union leaders – charges that effectively criminalize trade union activities – have not been dropped.

The eight union leaders in arrested in January sought release on bail in order to represent their 365 members still fighting for reinstatement and over 3,000 LRSU members denied the right to union representation. Thousands of workers and their families face severe economic hardship and debt due to the actions of NagaWorld and the Ministry of Labour.

To avoid negotiations with the released LRSU leaders to reinstate hundreds of union members, NagaWorld and the Ministry of Labour created a fake union organization on the eve of their release from prison.

The new organization, called Union for Rights and Common Interests of NagaWorld Employees, was registered in record time. What would usually take months was completed in a matter of hours. The fake organization was quickly established to act as a counterpart in “negotiations” with NagaWorld management. The next step is for the Ministry of Labour to grant the fake organization Most Representative Status (MRS), depriving LRSU members of their collective bargaining rights. It is also expected that NagaWorld management exploit the climate if fear inside the hotel casino megacomplex to forcibly deduct union dues for the fake organization from the wages of the majority of workers.

The actions by NagaWorld and the Ministry of Labour are a desperate attempt to show the world that the rights violations have ended and the dispute is over. Just in time for an international tripartite mission to Cambodia scheduled for the end of March. Yet the actions of NagaWorld and the Ministry of Labour in creating a fake union organization and continuing to persecute LRSU members once again violates ILO Conventions Nos 87 and 98 on freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

LRSU has once again made it clear that it seeks good faith negotiations with NagaWorld to secure the reinstatement of unfairly terminated union members and for those opting to accept redundancy to receive their full legal entitlement to separation pay. At the same time the international community must make it clear that all charges against the arrested union leaders must be dropped and comprehensive legal reforms must protect trade union rights and prevent criminalization of trade union activities.

The international community must also make it clear that setting up a fake union organization and creating a climate of fear to silence workers fools no one.

More union leaders arrested as Cambodian government violates human rights to protect NagaWorld profits

More union leaders arrested as Cambodian government violates human rights to protect NagaWorld profits

At 2:50PM on Wednesday, February 9, three union leaders wrongfully detained on Saturday under COVID-19 laws were charged and sent to prison for pre-trial detention. Chaup Channath, Sao Sambath and Seng Vannarith were among several striking union members detained on February 5 by authorities under COVID-19 laws. However, because of their role as strike leaders they were charged and sent to prison on February 9, as the government desperately tries break the 53 day strike and cover up the human rights violations at NagaWorld that led to strike action.

The detention of Chaup Channath, Sao Sambath and Seng Vannarith adds to the eight LRSU leaders already imprisoned a month ago and awaiting sentencing: Chhim Sithar (Union President), Chhim Sokhorn (Union Secretary), Kleang Soben (Union Negotiation Committee), Sun Sreypich (Union Negotiation Committee), Hai Sopheap (Union Negotiation Committee), Ry Sovandy (Union Negotiation Committee),Touch Sereymeas (Union Activist), and Sok Narith (Union Advisor).

The actions of the Cambodian government violate several international human rights conventions including the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and ILO Convention No.87 and Convention No. 98 on freedom of association and the right to organize and collective bargaining. This compounds the systematic violations of ILO Conventions No.87 and No.98 by NagaWorld management over the past year, when it imposed mass forced redundancies without negotiations with the union, LRSU, and selectively terminated the union leadership and active members. Ministry of Labour officials then colluded with NagaWorld management to prevent effective mediation by the Arbitration Council, forcing LRSU members to vote for strike action.

Instead of resolving this labour dispute during the one month cooling off period in November 2021, management refused negotiations and forced through the unfair termination of union leaders and members. Once strike action began on December 18, 2021, government authorities launched an attack on the union, raiding the LRSU office and arresting leaders and members.

In a further attack on the right to freedom of association, the right to strike and the right to freedom of assembly, new arrest warrants were issued for four women union leaders on February 6, 2022.

ACT NOW! Please support the call to release jailed union leaders!

 

Striking workers arrested using COVID-19 laws, a year after authorities colluded with NagaWorld to cover up COVID-19 outbreaks

Striking workers arrested using COVID-19 laws, a year after authorities colluded with NagaWorld to cover up COVID-19 outbreaks

In a blatant example of the injustice NagaWorld workers are fighting against, authorities arrested at least six striking union members under COVID-19 laws on Saturday, February 5. In contrast, no action was against NagaWorld management for covering up two COVID-19 outbreaks caused by casino customers (known to  have tested positive) in February last year. In fact, the mass termination of union leaders and members – which is the reason for the current strike – occurred shortly after the union demanded the company do more to protect workers’ health and ensure COVID-19 safety.

On Friday, February 4, the Ministry of Health issued a letter declaring that a pregnant worker who went for a check-up tested positive for COVID-19. Without informing her directly the letter was issued publicly, disclosing her identity. She immediately responded on social media saying that due to her pregnancy she had not visited the picket line for the past 10 days. Ignoring this, the Ministry of Health called on all workers on the strike picket to have COVID-19 tests within three days.

The union, LRSU, agreed to comply with the instruction from the Ministry of Health and arranged for striking workers to go for COVID-19 tests in small groups for their own safety and security. Despite this effort by the union, local authorities moved to arrest striking union members on Saturday, February 5  – just 24 hours after the Ministry of Health announced that the workers had three days to be tested. To instill fear and disrupt the strike, authorities arrested six striking union members under COVID-19 regulations. In an attempt to create disorder and to provoke a confrontation with police,  the picket line was surrounded at 9:50PM on Saturday to prevent workers from leaving and the street lights were turned off. Union members maintained their peaceful demonstration and refused to be provoked.

Supporters of the union and human rights defenders condemned the government’s actions as hypocritical. In November 2021 the government of Cambodia declared a full reopening due to the successful vaccination rate (98.5%) and the country was also opened to fully vaccinated visitors with no quarantine required. Over the past three months the Ministry of Health has not issued any statement calling for contact tracing and testing. The public statements issued against the striking NagaWorld workers are clearly politically motivated.

The actions against striking union members are in stark contrast to the government response to COVID-19 outbreaks at NagaWorld in February last year. One outbreak was linked to guests who had tested positive but allowed to enter the Naga 2 casino complex on February 25, 2021. While police removed the guests who had tested positive, workers were locked in the casino and forced to keep working. The authorities took no action against the company and more outbreaks occurred.

On March 1, 2021, LRSU wrote to management urgently requested testing for the casino to be closed for cleaning and for members to be tested. The union made five demands:

1. The management to immediately apply comprehensive safety protocols and measures in accordance with WHO guidelines to limit the community spread of COVID-19 in the hotel casino complex [Naga 1 and Naga 2] and ensure the safety of all staffs.

2. All workers of NagaWorld should remain at home without any punishment and on fully salary until it is declared safe.

3. All places in both building must do deep cleaning and disinfecting from specialist group.

4. Stop putting pressure on workers at all forms and all workers must have covid-19 test and confirm negative before return to workplace.

5. Stop suppressing information and to have greater transparency in tackling the community spread of COVID-19

Management refused and health authorities did nothing, allowing the crisis to escalate to the point where the integrated hotel casino complex was forced to close temporarily. The next step was to terminate en masse the union leaders and members who raised health and safety concerns.

Only now – 50 days into a strike that is embarrassing both NagaWorld and the government – the COVID-19 testing and safety measures the union called for in March last year are being used politically to disrupt and disband the strike.

See Naga World Hotel Casino ignored union calls for stricter COVID-19 safety measures. Now hundreds of workers are paying the price – June 3, 2021

 

defending NR36 in Brazil is an international struggle with global consequences

defending NR36 in Brazil is an international struggle with global consequences

As we gradually emerge from this devastating global pandemic, there can be no doubt that protecting public health is an absolute priority. This not only means building better, more accessible and affordable public health care systems, but also dramatically improving occupational health and safety regulations to ensure safer workplaces for workers. This is precisely why the urgent call for recognition of ILO Convention No.155 on Occupational Safety and Health as a fundamental right has gained so much support in 2022.

For essential food industry workers working throughout the pandemic, the right to a safe workplace became absolutely vital. Meat and poultry industry workers in particular were understood to be at high risk of occupational exposure to COVID-19. Studies also showed that faster line speeds in poultry plants increased COVID-19 risk. Added to this is the fact that the coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 that causes the disease COVID-19 is a zoonotic disease (a disease that spreads between animals and humans) and greater efforts are needed to prevent the emergence of new zoonotic diseases. As the UN Environment Program (UNEP) pointed out in 2020, we must take several comprehensive measures to protect the environment and transform our food systems to prevent the next pandemic. This is even more urgently needed in industries where the risks of exposure to animal diseases – including slaughterhouses in the meat and poultry industry – are high.

All this means that globally we are at a critical turning point in which public health, and health and safety at work, must be given priority. Yet it is at precisely this juncture that Brazil is heading in the wrong direction. The government is moving to amend and thereby erode the protection of workers’ health and safety in the meat and poultry industry. Specifically, Regulatory Norm 36 (NR36) Health and Safety at Work in Slaughter Houses and Processing Meat and Derivatives is under attack.

NR36 was adopted in 2013 after 15 years of campaigning to improve the working conditions of meat and poultry workers and ensure their right to a safe workplace. NR36 includes everything from the length and timing of rest breaks, standing and sitting while working, work rotation, limiting exposure to cold temperatures, and the use of appropriate and adequate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) that foremost protects workers’ health, not just the product. There are also provisions on biological hazards and biosecurity measures that are even more relevant today with the resurgence of Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza (HPAI) – including outbreaks of H5N1 – and a surge in Antimicrobial Resistance (AMR).

The objective of NR36 is: “… to permanently guarantee safety, health and quality of life at work.” Few would doubt the importance of this objective in 2022. Yet the meat and poultry conglomerates in Brazil want the government to erode NR36, reversing this objective. This means not guaranteeing safety, health and quality of life at work, and setting lower standards at a time when we are striving to protect human health. It means taking away the right to safety and health on the eve of its global recognition as a fundamental right.

As with our urgent efforts to prevent a climate catastrophe, reverse biodiversity loss and stop new pandemics, we must follow the science. Science must drive our actions, not politics. Yet the attack on NR36 is precisely that – a political assault on health and safety in the meat and poultry industry that defies science. Since the introduction of NR36 in 2013, dozens of studies have shown the substantial improvement in human health and hygiene and the quality of life of meat and poultry workers.[1]

Studies comparing work in poultry processing factories in Brazil before and after the introduction of NR36 demonstrate lower occupational risk and reduced incidence of long-term injury and illness. The importance of NR36 requirements for PPE, work rotation and rest breaks is cited again and again in international studies as examples of the qualitative improvement in human health.[2]

Science tells us that NR36 is working. Politics tells us that the multi-billion dollar meat and poultry conglomerates can squeeze some more profit if workers stand longer, reach higher, have shorter breaks, use cheaper PPE, and suffer in cold temperatures.

The global consequences of the reversal of NR36 cannot be underestimated. Brazil is the world’s largest exporter of beef (23% of the total) and the second largest producer of chicken meat in the world. Chicken meat production grew to 14.35 million tons in 2021 and saw a 51% jump in exports. Meanwhile Brazil-based JBS is the world’s largest chicken producer and processor, the world’s largest protein supplier, and the second-largest global food company. So a reversal and erosion of health and safety standards in the meat and poultry industry is a global reversal.

Across the Asia-Pacific region and internationally we must protest to the government of Brazil and express our outrage. We must defend NR36 as a standard that exemplifies our fight to recognize ILO Convention No.155 as a fundamental right. We must at this critical historical juncture turn towards the protection of public health, workers’ health and the environment – not away from it. Yes we must also challenge and transform the the meat and poultry industry as a major contributor to climate change, biodiversity loss and as a key “disease driver”. But we can only do so through the organized strength of meat and poultry workers and their communities. We can move from safety to the environment and ensure a just transition. But such a transition is made impossible if the meat and poultry industry is cast backwards into a past of brutal, unsafe working conditions. There is no hope in that. No justice. And therefore no possibility of a just transition.

Hidayat Greenfield, IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Secretary

NOTES

[1] Diogo Reis, Antonio Moro, Elaine Ramos, Pedro Reis, “Upper Limbs Exposure to Biomechanical Overload: Occupational Risk Assessment in a Poultry Slaughterhouse”, in Ravindra S. Goonetilleke and Waldemar Karwowski (eds) Advances in Physical Ergonomics & Human Factors: Proceedings of the AHFE 2018 International Conference on Physical Ergonomics & Human Factors, July 21-25, 2018, pp.275-282. See also Dias NF, Tirloni AS, Cunha Dos Reis D, Moro ARP. “The effect of different work-rest schedules on ergonomic risk in poultry slaughterhouse workers”. Work. 2021;69(1), pp.215-223.

[2] See the papers published in Nancy L. Black, W. Patrick Neuman, Ian Noy (eds), Proceedings of the 21st Congress of the International Ergonomics Association (IEA 2021), Volume V: Methods & Approaches. Springer, 2022.

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