Around the world, trade unions are championing LGBTQI+ rights in the workplace

Across the world, trade unions – like these members of CUT Brazil’s national LGBTQI+ policy secretariat – are working to protect and advance the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex people in the world of work. (Roberto Parizotti/CUT Brazil)

LGBTQI+ workers still face discrimination and harassment in the workplace, exclusion from the labour market, poor working conditions and lower wages, while homophobia limits the inclusion and participation of LGBTQI+ workers within the trade union movement itself.

While significant progress has been made in recent years towards the rights of lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer and intersex (LGBTQI+) people, the political resurgence of the far- and extreme-right across the world is having a deleterious effect on these advances. At present, 64 countries worldwide still have laws criminalising homosexuality, leading to discrimination, repression, violence and other forms of harm against people simply because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity.

Many countries have reported huge spikes in hate crimes against LGBTQI+ people and other minoritised communities in recent years, while an increasing number of countries are enacting discriminatory policies and laws. For example, in March Uganda passed a new bill that criminalises same-sex conduct and just last month in Hungary, a bill that would have allowed people to anonymously report same-sex couples that are raising children to the authorities was blocked at the last hurdle.

In this context, trade unions – which generally consider solidarity and the respect of the human rights of all people as fundamental principles – have a crucial role to play in challenging discriminatory laws, supporting the LGBTQI+ community at work and ensuring that we live in a more inclusive and respectful world.

Unfortunately, however, LGBTQI+ workers still face discrimination and harassment in the workplace, exclusion from the labour market, poor working conditions and lower wages, while homophobia limits the inclusion and participation of LGBTQI+ workers within the trade union movement itself. As Public Services International states on its LGBTQI+ resource page: “There are still too few LGBT+ trade union leaders, internal groups of LGBT+ employees, or union engagement in Pride struggles.”

Despite those challenges, there are many good examples of trade unions’ best practices in supporting LGBTQI+ workers around the world. From the resource page, www.lgbtiworkers.org, which provides up-to-date information on what unions affiliated to the Global Council of Unions are doing to make trade unions stronger and more inclusive, to the Spanish trade union CCOO’s detailed guide for trans people at work, including specific recommendations on the gender transition process and the protection of rights through collective bargaining, trade unions have always been at the forefront of defending and advancing LGBTQI+ rights. Below are case studies from three very different countries – Italy, South Africa and Brazil – which offer a view on how trade unions are ensuring that an injury to one really is considered an injury to all.

CGIL Italy: facing up to the far-right with worker solidarity

In recent years, Italy’s biggest and oldest union confederation, CGIL, has been increasingly active in its bid to support LGBTQI+ rights – a task that has become even more urgent with the election of the far-right prime minister Giorgia Meloni in September 2022.

“In this historical moment, it’s vital to give more attention to those who are most under attack by the right-wing, even in our country: homosexual families and trans people,” says Sandro Gallittu, head of CGIL’s national New Rights Office. In the latest in a string of attacks against same-sex families, while campaigning to lead Italy, Meloni told supporters at a rally: “Yes to natural families, no to the LGBT lobby!” Then, as prime minister, Meloni recently told Milan’s city council to ban the registration of children of same-sex parents. There are now fears among the LGBTQI+ community that their rights will come under further attack under this administration.

According to advocacy group ILGA-Europe, Italy ranks 22nd amongst the 27 member-states of the European Union in terms of legal protections for LGBTQI+ people and is one of just a few countries in Western Europe that has not legalised same-sex marriage. In this context, CGIL’s efforts to protect LGBTQI+ rights have been particularly important. CGIL works on multiple fronts, for example providing assistance to employees who are victims of discrimination on the grounds of sexual orientation and/or gender identity, or supporting them in drafting contractual agreements.

But its work began more than 30 years ago when CGIL became one of the first trade unions in the world to launch a specific service for LGBTQI+ workers, the New Rights Office. As well as striving to raise awareness and protect those discriminated against because of their sexual orientation and/or gender identity, the New Rights Office also provides guidance for inclusive collective bargaining, and has achieved a number of collective agreements which give same-sex couples the same rights as heterosexual couples, long before such legislation was introduced at a national level. In addition, while Italian law does not recognise full parental rights for same-sex parents, CGIL has been able to achieve this in a number of collective agreements, including in the banking, food and manufacturing sectors.

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For example, in 2019 at STMicroelectronics – Europe’s largest semiconductor manufacturer, with more than 8,000 workers – FIOM-CGIL decided to create a help desk inside the factory to help combat discrimination against LGBTQI+ workers and provide workers with information about their rights. Since then, it has issued more than 200 pieces of guidance, dealt with 16 cases of homophobia and discrimination, and helped various rainbow families, particularly on childcare as same-sex families are not able to access parental leave for both parents.

“This example is so important because all good practices can pave the way for similar examples in other workplaces,” Gallittu explains. “It is also crucial because unions created by delegates in companies are tangible and can intervene in situations where people are impacted by discriminatory phenomena.”

CGIL has also been fighting for the rights of trans workers, who are particularly exposed to discrimination in sectors such as delivery and logistics. “Trans people in the delivery sector, for example, are exposed to discrimination when there is no correspondence between their personal name and their gender identity. This can lead to potentially aggressive consequences on the part of the customer,” Gallittu explains. “In response, we succeeded in getting companies that did not yet allow the use of a chosen name to enact corporate policies to this effect.”

On 16 May, CGIL is hosting a national meeting to call for the annulment of a 1982 law which requires that one’s legal gender can only be changed in public registries after surgical reassignment. “This outdated law contradicts WHO guidelines and creates immense difficulties for the transgender community, including in employment,” says Gallittu, who adds that CGIL is also fighting to ensure that workers waiting for new documents can, in the meantime, use a preferred name corresponding to their chosen identity.

COSATU: leading the way for LGBTQI+ rights in South Africa

South Africa has long been regarded as a leader in LGBTQI+ rights around the world, having become, in 1994, the first country in the world to enshrine LGBTQI+ rights in its constitution as well as legalising same-sex marriage in 2006. Transgender people can change their legal gender without undergoing surgery and there are laws in place to protect LGBTQI+ people against hate speech and hate crimes.

But despite progressive laws, LGBTQI+ people in South Africa still face violence, discrimination, and stigma, as Gertrude Mtsweni from the Congress of South African Trade Unions (COSATU), which has been at the forefront of promoting LGBTQI+ rights for years, explains.

“Due to ongoing killings and violence against LGBTQI+ people around the country, the federation realised the urgent need to engage with programmes to promote gender equality and include LGBTQI+ issues in all its work,” says Mtsweni, who works as a gender co-ordinator.

Steps taken by COSATU to advocate for LGBTQI+ rights include adopting a resolution on sexual orientation and hate crimes against the community. Through this resolution, unions are compelled to advocate for tools to address LGBTQI+ issues, such as discrimination in the workplace and advocacy awareness campaigns.

COSATU is also working with a trade union in neighbouring Lesotho in the garment sector on addressing gender-based violence and harassment at work, with promising results.

“The first time when we were in Lesotho introducing the topic of LGBTQI+ rights in the workplace, there was tension, but we continued with the workshop and ended on a good note,” Mtsweni says.

“For the first time this trade union in Lesotho organised a round table on LGBTQI+ rights, and the Lesotho workers have also confirmed that they want us to do a special workshop on LGBTQI+ issues targeting LGBTIQ+ workers,” she says.

COSATU also joined a picket at the Ugandan consulate and the United Nations offices in South Africa in March 2023 to call for accountability on countries that are members of the United Nations but which contradict the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. This action followed the news that Uganda was introducing new anti-gay legislation that would institute draconian penalties for same-sex relationships.

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Other steps taken by COSATU include training their leaders on LGBTQI+ issues, for instance through capacity-building dialogues for provincial gender officers and shop stewards in nine provinces, as well as by collaborating with the Gay and Lesbian Memory in Action (GALA) archive and education centre to raise awareness and tackle cultural stereotypes and norms.

CUT Brazil: groundbreaking PRIDE project promotes diversity and inclusion in the workplace

With reports of increasing violence against the LGBTQI+ community in Brazil, the Unified Workers’ Central (CUT) recognises that LGBTQI+ people often face discrimination at work and are excluded from opportunities available to other employees. However, in a country where there have been steps backwards in terms of LGBTQI+ rights – after in 2019 the country’s then president Jair Bolsonaro removed LGBTQI+ issues from the responsibilities of the Human Rights Ministry and repeatedly made derogatory remarks – CUT has taken a number of important actions.

In 2021, CUT launched a document outlining International Labour Organization (ILO) conventions and national legislation related to the protection of LGBTQI+ people, as well as information on how to report cases of homophobic violence and harassment. The trade union has also been working to pressure the government into creating policies that protect and create opportunities for LGBTQI+ people.

“Before the 2022 elections, in which Lula emerged victorious, the Popular Council [editor’s note: In Brazil, since 2002, there has been a system of popular participation through national councils, linked to government ministries for all public policy issues] launched a document called Brazil of All Colors, detailing all the necessary policies for the protection and creation of opportunities for LGBTQI+ people,” explains Jandyra Uehara, CUT’s national secretary for social policies and human rights.

“With the Lula government’s victory, the LGBTQIA+ Policy Secretariat was created within the Ministry of Human Rights and Citizenship, and the National Council for LGBTQI+ Policies was reactivated, in which CUT will compete for a spot.” CUT has a National LGBTQI+ Collective offering training and is working to set up collectives in all Brazilian states to include LGBTQI+ people in the labour struggle.

The trade union has also taken an important step towards promoting workplace diversity and the inclusion of trans people.

In 2022, in partnership with the ILO, CUT launched the PRIDE project aimed specifically at trans people, recognising that the life expectancy of a trans person in Brazil is just 35 years. “This was the fundamental factor for this project to focus on trans people. They are not only discriminated against; they are being eliminated,” Uehara warns.

Uehara explains that not only do trans people find it more difficult to find work, but also that many also face multiple, intersecting layers of discrimination and prejudice due to being abandoned by their families, lacking education, being forced to live on the streets, and having to survive through prostitution due to the lack of other options open to them.

The PRIDE project includes training on labour and trade union rights, mentoring, job posting and referral services, as well as the sensitisation of all workers and human resources departments on the inclusion of trans people at work, for example, through the use of gender-neutral toilets.

As well as pointing to efforts needed to reverse the damage done during Bolsonaro’s presidency, CUT also recognises that there is a lack of representation of LGBTQI+ leaders in Brazil’s trade unions. “We need to change the balance of power in the labour market so that this is also reflected in the union movement,” Uehara concludes. “We have a lot to do, but this mainly involves changing society’s behaviour and including human rights for all people.”

This article was produced with support from the Ford Foundation and is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International licence.

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