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Many factory workers denied basic human rights, says ILR event speaker

Investors in Europe are pouring money into Chinese companies with factories in Africa, where workers making less than $200 a month produce goods bought by Americans.

Shawna Bader-Blau

Examples of global capitalism like this show how a few benefit while millions of others are robbed of a basic human right: the ability to work in a safe environment for equitable wages, Shawna Bader-Blau said in the ILR Union Days keynote address March 21 in Ives Hall.

“The challenge for everyone in the human rights community is to stand together to fight to create more decent work opportunities, better livelihoods and more human dignity and freedom,” said Bader-Blau, who leads the Solidarity Center, affiliated with the AFL-CIO. An audience of more than 100 attended the event, sponsored by ILR’s Worker Institute.

In impoverished countries, many welcome the opportunity to work in a factory, but a dark picture usually emerges, said Bader-Blau. Many women are the victims of sexual violence, for instance.

People are desperate to work – millions crossed borders last year to find work in another country – but they often sacrificed their human rights, she said.

The Solidarity Center works in dozens of countries with hundreds of labor unions, nongovernmental organizations, legal aid groups and other coalitions to support worker rights and to fight exploitation.

Despite flagrant abuses of worker rights worldwide, Bader-Blau said, it is possible to fight for social justice and build democracy. “Global solidarity can solve this,” she said.

Allied grassroots organizations across the globe could build a radical agenda of inclusion that would lead to a just future for workers, she said. In places such as Brazil, South Africa and Tunisia, labor unions have led groundbreaking cultural change, she said.

Bader-Blau attributes her career path to her family. Her grandfather fought discrimination against Mexicans in California schools. Her father worked to help janitors, and her mother organized nurses.

Now, Bader-Blau travels the world to empower workers in building a collective voice, to help develop safe jobs and workplaces, and to seek governmental justice.

Cornell helped Bader-Blau on her journey when she participated in the Worker Institute’s National Labor Leadership Initiative in 2013. 

“The three-week program gave me the skills I needed to take on my global leadership role,” she said. “I met labor leaders across the U.S. and Worker Institute consultants who became partners. We still are connected and the partnership is strong.”

Co-sponsors of Union Days, an annual ILR series of events, included the People’s Organizing Collective, Cornell Organization for Labor Action, ILR Graduate Student Association, Catherwood Library, Cornell’s Law and Society minor, the Undergraduate Labor Institute, ILR Office of Career Services, ILR Office of Student Services, Cornell Farmworker Program and the Tompkins County Workers’ Center.

Mary Catt is assistant director of communications at the ILR School.

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Rebecca Valli