The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is less than a year old as we go to press. This is the first Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights to be published by our new organisation. The Survey itself is well established of course, and the format it follows remains the same. Sadly, the story it tells is also very similar, and depicts the enormity of the challenges before us.
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.
Colombia is still the deadliest country in the world for trade unionists. Yet instead of using its resources to tackle the real problem, the Uribe government is spending millions of dollars on a massive public relations campaign, sending top officials abroad to tell the world that the situation is Colombia is improving. They are lying. In 2006, 78 trade unionists were assassinated, eight more than in 2005, while many others faced threats, abduction or “disappearance”. Colombia is one of the biggest challenges to be faced by our new trade union international, and we are gearing up for this by preparing a major ITUC plan of action.
Another challenge is the sharp increase in the number of deaths in both Asia and Africa. The targeting of labour activists in the Philippines, where 33 were murdered, is of increasing concern to the international trade union community. Trade unionists in Nepal also faced heavy-handed repression. Three were shot dead during mass demonstrations that eventually brought the king’s absolute rule to an end.
Literally thousands of trade unionists were arrested during the year, for their part in strike action and protests to protect their rights, while thousands more were dismissed, in some cases for simply trying to form or join a union. The statistics for 2006 show that Asia is ahead in both categories, with Africa in second place, but all figures must be seen as only a conservative estimate, with many cases going unreported.
In the industrialised countries, several governments sought to restrict trade union rights through changes in labour legislation, removing or restricting collective bargaining rights, the right to strike or even the right to organise. In the United States a National Labour Relations Board Ruling deprived millions of the right to organise, extending the definition of the term “supervisor”, while in Australia the Howard government implemented its “Work Choices” legislation, seriously undermining collective bargaining rights and heavily restricting industrial action. Governments in some of the transition countries of Europe pressed ahead with their plans to impose a state-controlled trade union monopoly, with Belarus foremost among these. The ILO scrutiny of its abuse of workers’ rights led to the withdrawal of the country’s trade preferences by the European Union. In the Middle East, many workers, and particularly foreign workers in the Gulf States, still have no trade union rights. Those that do try to exercise their rights face heavy repression, notably in Iran. And dozens of labour activists were kept in jail in China, Burma and Cuba on account of their independent trade union activities.
Yet there is also a hopeful message. Despite all the difficulties, millions of women and men remain firm in their commitment to, or are discovering the benefits of trade union action. Many of them are fighting for their rights, against all the odds. People like the trade unionists of Colombia, or Wellington Chibebe, Lovemore Matombo and Lucia Matibenga of the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU) in Zimbabwe, the women and men workers in the textile factories of Asia, or Mansour Osanloo, the Iranian bus drivers’ leader currently in prison in Tehran. He has continued to fight for his members’ rights, knowing his life is in danger. As the ITUC President, Sharan Burrow, said during Mansour’s visit to our General Council meeting last June: “It takes the courage of people like Mansour Osanloo to stand up to repression against free trade unionism”.
Among those who stood up to repression were the workers of Guinea, where the killing of at least 20 demonstrators by the security forces during the June national strike proved to be just a forerunner of things to come. As we now know, a staggering 137 people were killed and 1,700 wounded in the fierce repression of the strikes and protests of January and February 2007. This was the first major emergency to be faced by the ITUC and a test of our new trade union internationalism. We sent a series of missions, recorded a video, ensured on-going lobbying and organised an international conference with the Guinean unions that put forward practical proposals for sustainable development in the country.
Thanks to the unity and solidarity that led to the creation of our new international, we were able to show that we mean business. Anyone seeking to abuse workers will have to deal with us.