There were again small glimmers of hope in the Middle East as some governments took timid steps towards the recognition of trade union rights, but overall workers in the region still have fewer trade union rights than anywhere else in the world.
The government of Bahrain sent mixed messages, issuing a Royal Decree prohibiting dismissals for trade union activities, followed a few weeks later by a ban on strikes in many sectors. There was good news from Oman where decrees were passed allowing workers to form trade unions, engage in collective bargaining and take limited strike action.
Elsewhere trade union rights are still severely restricted or non-existent. In the United Arab Emirates the bill allowing for the formation of trade unions had still not been adopted by the end of the year. In Saudi Arabia a new labour code came into force but trade unions and strikes are still banned. Even where workers do have the right to form trade unions there is little freedom of association as the law imposes a single trade union system, for example in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Syria.
Workers who dared to exercise their trade union rights faced heavy repression, notably in Iran. The leader of the Tehran and Suburbs Company bus drivers’ union, Sherkat-e Vahed, Mansour Osanloo became an emblematic figure in the struggle for the respect of workers’ rights. Protests in January at his continued detention led to the arrest of about 1000 union leaders, members and supporters. They even arrested children, including a 12-year-old girl beaten and thrown into a police van. Many others were injured during police raids on their homes to force them back to work. Mr. Osanloo himself was held in the notorious Evin prison in Teheran until August, spending over four months in solitary confinement, at times with his eyes blindfolded and his hands bound. He was again arrested and beaten in November, before being released on exorbitant bail one month later.
Trade unionists in Iraq faced countless dangers, at the hands of militias, terrorist groups, occupation troops and others. Among the many trade unionists who fell victim to violence there were at least two leaders targeted specifically for their trade union activities, including Thabet Hussein Ali of the health workers’ union. He was abducted and his bullet ridden corpse discovered the following day, bearing signs of severe torture, including wounds caused by an electric drill.
In Palestine the hostilities with Israel and inter-Palestinian violence have made the exercise of trade union rights virtually impossible. The complex restrictions on Palestinians’ movements within and between the occupied territories simply add to their difficulties. Members of an ILO mission experienced this first hand as they sometimes had to use phone or video links to contact Palestinian trade unionists and employers. In a direct attack on the trade union movement, a group of masked men entered a building housing a local PGFTU office and its radio station in October. They first threw a grenade, injuring four people, and then set fire to the offices.
Migrant workers still make up the most vulnerable group in the region. In some cases their rights are not protected by law, in others they are actually barred from union membership. Frequently they dare not organise or take part in collective action for fear of beatings, dismissal or deportation. That was the fate of at least 20 migrant workers at two factories in Jordan, who were arrested, beaten up in custody and then deported for daring to demand improved wages and working conditions. In Qatar many migrant workers were arrested following scuffles with police when they protested over the deaths of two colleagues, and three Nepalese workers were deported after protesting at long working hours and unpaid overtime. The United Arab Emirates (UAE) deported 50 migrant workers for protesting at low wages.
Most vulnerable of all among the migrant workers are the young women workers in domestic service, such as those in Kuwait who are subject to prosecution if they leave their employers, who often confiscate their passports. The women are frequently the victims of physical and sexual abuse. In Saudi Arabia too the total lack of union rights and protection means that migrant workers, particularly women, are frequently subjected to blatant abuse, such as non-payment of wages, forced confinement, rape and physical violence. Similarly in the UAE migrant workers are bound by the sponsor system that puts them at the mercy of their employers and risk deportation if they try to organise or take strike action.