The IUF-affiliated Sindh Nari Porhyat Council [SNPC], a union of women agricultural workers, made tremendous progress last year in promoting COVID-19 awareness and safety protocols. The distribution of masks and posters in Sindhi on the proper use of masks helped to improve occupational health and safety on farms and public health in rural communities.
This year SNPC continued its COVID-19 awareness campaign by focusing on vaccine awareness. Through education sessions in fields and communities SNPC leaders tackled misinformation, mistrust and unequal access. SNPC has been successful in mobilizing women farm workers in July 2021 to assert their right to be vaccinated.
“Vaccination is necessary to protect our families and community. It is our right. We have been campaigning for health rights including the right to safe drinking water for so long. This is just part of the same struggle,” said Abida Khaskheli, a member of the SNPC Youth Committee from Sultanabad.
In Gujarat, India, young members of the Gujarat Agricultural Labour Union (GALU) are vaccinated in Panchmahal district, a tribal district with high level of vaccine hesitancy.
GALU’s youth organization Tarvariya Tarun Sangathan (TSS), which also runs its school of democracy and governance, is leading the COVID-19 vaccine awareness campaign among young farm workers. This is supported by the special contribution of the United Workers Union (UWU) in Australia through the IUF Asia/Pacific Regional Solidarity Fund.
After working hard throughout the pandemic as essential food industry workers, members of the IUF-affiliated United Workers Union (UWU) are on strike for decent wages and fair treatment.
For workers at the General Mills factory in Rooty Hill in New South Wales, Australia, there is no recognition or reward for their hard work or long hours as essential food industry workers making brands like Old El Paso Mexican Food and Latina Fresh Pasta. This includes casual workers working for more than five years in insecure jobs. Despite being essential in the pandemic, General Mills is refusing to make them permanent.
Yet in its announcement to investors in March this year, it was very clear that all this hard work created value for shareholders:
“In Europe and Australia, third quarter organic net sales grew 7%, primarily driven by growth in Old El Paso Mexican Food and Haagen-Dazs retail ice cream.”
Despite contributing to this sales growth and profit through their hard work, workers in Australia are being denied a fair wage.
IUF affiliates are mobilizing to support the strike at General Mills in Rooty Hill.
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After months of ignoring union calls to improve COVID-19 safety measures, Cambodia’s largest hotel leisure resort Naga World Hotel Casino announced the mass redundancy of over 1,300 workers for “business reasons”. The mass retrenchment includes over 600 union members and union leaders – including the union president, vice president and general secretary.
Only 18 months ago the union president Sithar Chhim was reinstated after strike action by union members against her unfair dismissal in September 2019. Now Sithar Chhim has been terminated again, along with union vice president Sokha Chun and union general secretary Sokhorn Chhim.
The integrated hotel casino resort is owned by the Hong Kong-listed NagaCorp which declares itself to be “one of the world’s most profitable gaming companies, and the largest gaming entertainment company in the Mekong Region.” On March 8, 2021 – exactly a month before the announcement of mass layoffs on April 8 – NagaCorp announced a USD 102 million profit and that 100% of the profits for the second half of 2020 will be paid out to “loyal” shareholders:
“As a reward to the Shareholders who believe in the long-term growth of the Group despite today’s difficult times and in order to alleviate any sufferings, if any, of these loyal Shareholders who have stayed on faithfully with us during the COVID-19 crisis, the Board has recommended an unprecedented 100% dividend payout of net profits generated for the second half of 2020 as final dividend for the year ended 31 December 2020.”
While millions were paid to shareholders for their loyalty, workers who worked throughout the pandemic received nothing for their loyalty. Instead the company chose to slash the jobs of over 1,300 workers. Unlike the company’s concern to “alleviate any sufferings” of shareholders, it created suffering for these workers and their families.
Under the guise of “consultation” management met with the union to announce its Rationalization Plan, but refused to explain why mass redundancy was the only option. Management also refused to explain how workers were chosen for redundancy.
Although management claims that the job roles of 1,300 workers will no longer exist, over 700 casual workers in insecure jobs will be re-deployed to fill these roles. Similarly, management’s assertion that job cuts are due automation hide the fact that the company deliberately accelerated its plans to introduce new technologies, displacing workers in a pandemic.
After years of refusing to recognize the right of the union to represent its members, management declared that any negotiation over redundancies would be individual not through the union, leaving each worker alone without any representation to be bullied by a multibillion dollar company. Without representation, information or options, and facing economic hardship after months of reduced wages, hundreds of workers were compelled to accept “voluntary” redundancy.
More than 600 union members refused redundancy and are demanding the right to negotiate the terms and conditions of restructuring through their union. Having already terminated the union leadership, management refuses to negotiate.
Over 2,000 union members have signed a mass petition to be submitted to the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training as a formal complaint, demanding reinstatement and an end rights violations and forced redundancies.
With the surge of COVID-19 in cities across India, millions of migrant workers returned to their villages in rural areas. They feared a repeat of the 2020 crisis when they lost their jobs and livelihoods during the strict lockdown. Around 20 per cent of migrant workers who returned in 2020, stayed in their villages. This added to the employment crisis in rural areas.
In this crisis the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has proven to be a vital source of livelihood for rural communities. In most cases it is the only work available for rural workers.
NREGA provides 100 days of paid employment on public works for unemployed rural workers. This work includes building public wells, irrigation ditches, and working on their own land. This in turn supports access to potable water and food security in rural communities.
The IUF-affiliated Gujarat Agricultural Labour Union (GALU) assisted more than 20,000 members and returned migrant workers in six tribal districts to gain paid work under NREGA. Rural workers in tribal districts are the most vulnerable, with a high rate of out-migration due to poverty. After returning to their villages the paid work under NREGA is crucial to their livelihoods.
COVID-19 testing at NREGA sites
GALU ensures that NREGA pays for marginal farmers to farm their own land for food crops and rural communities have access to food grains under National Food Security Act. While promoting mask wearing, distancing and washing hands at NREGA worksites, GALU also arranged for COVID-19 testing with local authorities.
GALU is now focused on promoting vaccine awareness and access to vaccines. GALU is organizing vaccination drives in rural communities through its awareness campaign and arranging free & safe transportation to vaccination centres for women workers. Initially this transportation will be arranged for 2,000 women.
In the COVID-19 era NREGA will continue to play a vital role in rural workers’ access to the right to food and nutrition and the protection of livelihoods. GALU along with other IUF-affiliated unions such as SEWA are demanding that NREGA coverage is extended to 200 days of paid work.
In the early stages of the pandemic in 2020, women’s self-organized Water, Sanitation & Health Committees on tea plantations in West Bengal and Assam included COVID-19 awareness in their ongoing fight for health and safety rights.
From April 2020 they ensured physical distancing and wearing masks, assisted home-based workers to make three-layered masks and distributed them to workers in the plantation. They also formed teams to inspect company-run hospitals for pandemic preparedness and met with the plantation management to secure quarantine and isolation facilities in the plantations.
The women’s Water, Sanitation & Health Committees are now playing a vital role in encouraging workers and their families to be vaccinated. They met with the management in plantations in Assam and West Bengal to ensure equitable and safe access to vaccines within the plantations.
The women’s committees are also working closely with government women health workers (ASHA workers) to ensure that when vaccines are available, plantation workers are ready and willing to be vaccinated.
The women’s committees will also maintain a list of names and dates to ensure workers and their families return for their second dose.
A Water, Sanitation & Health Committee member in the Nowera Nuddy tea plantation in West Bengal commented: “Despite the shortage of vaccines, we are getting some. So we must make sure that as many as people as possible in the plantation are vaccinated. No vaccine allotted for the plantation should be returned unused.”
So far 146 workers and family members in the Nowera Nuddy tea plantation are fully vaccinated.