Conflict & Justice

Labor Lowdown: This week in workers' rights


Co-workers of 34 miners shot dead by South African police during a violent wage strike pray during a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of their deaths on August 16, 2013 in Marikana. Today marks a year after police opened fire on thousands of strikers at platinum producer Lonmin's mine, northwest of Johannesburg, which killed 34 and injured 78 people. The August shooting was described as the worst police brutality since the end of apartheid two decades ago.



Recent, ongoing protests, boycotts and civil action have largely grown from a shared root: workers rights and labor abuse. Citizens and activists around the world are demanding better working conditions, pay, and legal protections.

In India, sex workers have opened their own banks, this week saw the biggest fast-food workers walk out in the US, South Africa’s economy is at the mercy of a major “strike wave,” and a new study reveals Australia’s fashion industry to be “without” in workers’ rights.

As Labor Day weekend begins, here are some continuing issues to keep in mind:


New York, Chicago, Detroit and over 50 other cities saw massive fast-food workers protests on Thursday in a demand for higher wages.

Workers are calling for the right to form unions without any interference from employers, and for a pay raise of up to $15 an hour—more than double the current federal minimum wage, which is $7.25 an hour.

According to the GlobalPost, Ryan Carter, a 29-year-old buying a $1 cup of coffee at one New York McDonald's where protesters demonstrated, said he "absolutely" supported the group’s demands.

"They work harder than the billionaires in this city," he said.

Proponents of establishing a higher minimum wage say that employees must pay enough for workers who support families.

The restaurant industry, according to GP, says it “already operates on thin margins and insists that sharply higher wages would lead to steeper prices for customers and fewer opportunities for job seekers.”


The National Union of Mineworkers, which represents 64 percent of South Africa’s gold miners, has called for a strike, to begin next Tuesday, for higher wages.

This comes a week after a “strike wave” hit South Africa, Reuters reported, when “the labor unrest threatened to hit its struggling gold industry,” which is already being economically constrained.

Since last week, the National Union of Mineworkers had been warning that its members who work in the construction sector would “down tools” despite President Jacob Zuma’s demand that they consider “peaceful wage negotiations.”

Discussions with the National Union about strikes within the gold industry, which started this week, resulted in a final offer to boost pay by six to six and a half percent, while strikers want starting salaries increased as much as 60 percent.

Last year’s mining industry strikes cost the country billions of dollars in lost output, “dented economic growth, and led to damaging downgrades of South Africa's credit rating.” More than 50 people were killed in mine protests as well—one protest, which just this month saw its one-year anniversary.


Australian fashion retailers, according to a recent article on The Guardian, “score low marks on workers’ rights.”

It’s been found that only five percent of clothing brands operating in Australia report efforts to ensure suppliers are paid a living wage, while only seven percent even know the source of their cotton—a product which is closely associated with child labor, the Australian Fashion Report has found.

The report takes special interest in the companies’ relationship to cotton. Baptist World Aid has said that some more responsible companies have chosen to boycott cotton from Uzbekistan, whose cotton cultivation has been tied to problematic child labor practices.

“Cotton is an important one to look at due to abuses in its production," Gershon Nimbalker, co-author of the report, told the Guardian. "Uzbekistan is one of the worst examples as the country has a dictator that has taken hundreds of thousands of children out of school to harvest cotton in the fields in horrible conditions. He uses the money to keep the dictatorship flush with funds, so it's hugely problematic."

The new study, compiled by Baptist World Aid, condemns several major brands’ policies for partnerships with garment factories, and their workers, in the still-developing world. A lack of transparency and poor supervising of standards are also being criticized.


Sex workers in India who had previously been denied by local banks for accounts and loans, have opened their own bank—the bank “run by and for sex workers,” according to the Times of India.

Rita Rai, a sex worker and one of the representatives from 13 states affiliated to the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW), said the idea of the bank arose when and others realized that banks would not open accounts for them due to the stigma that comes with being a sex worker.

“In the end,” she said, “we found the solution ourselves.”

Rita is now also a board member for the new bank, which is intended to “pave the road to social security for themselves and lay the foundations of a future for their children.”

For many women, poverty is the driving force in deciding to work in the sex industry.

The All India Network of Sex Workers is now in the capital for a two-day meeting on the "protection of dignity and rights of sex workers". The assembly, according to the Times of India, will conclude with the launch of India’s first-ever national campaign for rights and entitlements of sex workers.

Bharati Dey, All India Network president, said the new bank is a sign that sex workers are standing up for themselves, and it is now the state’s turn to stand up to them.

“A state-level regulatory board must be constituted to prevent trafficking of girls and violence against those who are in sex work of their own accord," Dey, who is also a member of the Supreme Court-appointed committee on anti-trafficking and rehabilitation of sex workers, said, adding that lawmakers must come to terms with the fact that “coercive action and punitive laws” will not end sex work. "They need to engage with challenges such as poverty, gender discrimination, social inequities and the incessant violence that marginal communities face," she said.