International Trade Union Confederation website, September 2007
Title: “2007 Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights”
Student Researchers: Carmela Rocha and Elizabeth Allen
Faculty Evaluator: Robert Girling, PhD
The first Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights to be published by the year-old International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) documents enormous challenges to workers rights around the world. The 2007 edition of the survey, covering 138 countries, shows an alarming rise in the number of people killed as a result of their trade union activities, from 115 in 2005 to 144 in 2006. Many more trade unionists around the world were abducted or “disappeared.” Thousands were arrested during the year for their parts in strike action and protests, while thousands of others were fired in retaliation for organizing. Growing numbers of trade union activists in Africa, the Americas, Europe, Asia, and the Pacific are facing police brutality and murder as unions are viewed as opponents of corporatist governments.
Colombia is still the deadliest country in the world for trade unionists. In 2006, seventy-eight people were murdered because of their union activities, an increase of eight from the previous year. There is strong and disturbing evidence of government involvement in these killings. Of 1,165 recorded crimes against trade unionists in Colombia, just fifty-six went before the courts, and only ten resulted in sentences.
In Mexico, two miners died and forty-one were injured when 800 police officers were sent to confront 500 striking miners and began a brutal evacuation of the mining company’s premises. Violent scenes erupted in Ecuador when police and the army aggressively repressed a union-organized protest against the negotiation of a free trade agreement with the US, leaving fifteen seriously injured.
Employers in the Export Processing Zones (EPZ) of Central America have managed thus far to thwart workers’ efforts to organize.
In the United States, a National Labor Relations Board ruling deprived millions of the right to organize by expanding the definition of the term “supervisor.”
Across Africa, the use of disproportionate force and mass dismissals in retaliation for strike action were a frequent occurrence in 2007. In Kenya, over 1,000 workers on a flower plantation were dismissed after going on strike over workplace injuries and discrimination. Mass dismissals were also reported at a diamond mine in Botswana and at a road-construction site in Cameroon. In Egypt, Libya, and Sudan, the single trade union system prohibits effective bargaining or representation, while in Equatorial Guinea the dictatorship is too absolute to allow organizing.
In the Middle East, some governments took steps towards the recognition of trade union rights, but overall, workers in the region still have fewer rights than anywhere in the world. For example, in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen, and Syria, laws impose an ineffective single trade union system. In Palestine, hostilities with Israel have made the organizing of trade unions virtually impossible. Migrant workers still make up the most vulnerable group in the region. At least twenty migrant workers at two factories in Jordan were arrested and deported for demanding improved wages and working conditions. In Saudi Arabia, the total lack of workers’ rights and protection means that migrant workers, particularly women, are frequently subjected to blatant abuse, such as nonpayment of wages, forced confinement, rape, and other physical violence.
There were more mass dismissals and arrests in response to collective action in Asia than in any other region in the world in 2007. In Bangladesh, the phased introduction of (limited) trade union rights in EPZs got off to a poor start, as employers routinely harassed, suspended, and fired leaders of Workers’ Representation and Welfare Committees during the year. In one incident, police opened fire on strikers at an EPZ garment factory, killing one worker and injuring others. In Malaysia police used batons, dogs, and water cannons to disperse a workers’ protest. The Philippines stand out as the most violent country in the region. In an attempt to crush popular protests against the president’s rule, labor leaders were among those targeted as “enemies of the state.”
There was no change in China where the law does not allow for any independent trade union activity. Over one hundred workers were arrested and detained for involvement in collective protest, while the official “trade union” did nothing to protect them.
A recent report published by the social audit company Vigeo, based on a study of 511 enterprises in seventeen European countries, shows that less then 10 percent of European companies are committed to freedom of association and the promotion of collective bargaining. Changes in labor legislation in several countries added to existing restrictions on trade union rights. The most serious change was announced in Belarus, where a draft trade union law would make it virtually impossible to establish trade unions outside the state-controlled Federation of Trade Unions of Belarus.
Despite all these difficulties, millions of women and men remain firm in their commitment to, or are discovering the benefits of, trade union action.