2006 is an historic year for the international trade union movement. A new trade union international will be created in November, bringing together some 200 million workers from around the world. This is the last year that the Survey will be published in the name of the ICFTU, as it will cease to exist when its member organisations become part of the new international. We will be stronger and more united than ever before, and we will use that strength to fight together for all workers struggling for their rights against exploitation and oppression. This Survey give a measure of how big that task still is.
Reading through this year’s edition, I was struck by the appalling level of brutal violence meted out to workers who have merely tried to stand up for the right to decent work, including the right to fair pay, acceptable working hours and safe conditions.
Workers were killed for their trade union activities in every single continent. Colombia as usual ensured that the death toll was highest in the Americas, with 70 deaths, a significant reduction compared to last year’s total of 99, but still an appalling indictment of the government’s failure or lack of good will to protect its workers. In the Middle East, at least three Iraqi trade unionists were the targets of hired assassins, as were four trade unionists in Asia, all in the Philippines. Elsewhere deaths were the result of the brutal repression of workers’ protests and strike action, such as in Bangladesh and South Korea in Asia and in South Africa and Djibouti in Africa. In Europe, a trade unionist in the Russian Federation was killed in unexplained circumstances. Hundreds of other workers were left injured when police used tear gas, batons and rubber bullets against striking workers, particularly in Asia and Africa. Many of those strikes were technically illegal, because the law of many countries makes it virtually impossible to hold a legal strike.
The right of workers to freely establish and join organisations of their own choosing was regularly violated. In addition to those countries where the law does not recognise the right to form trade unions, such as Oman and Saudi Arabia and Burma, there are others where it imposes a trade union monopoly, such as China, Egypt and Syria. In other cases governments try to coerce workers into joining the government-supported union, notably in Belarus and Moldova. Employers often used intimidatory tactics to prevent their workers forming trade unions, including mass dismissals, particularly in Latin America in the export processing zones and on the banana plantations. In the north of the continent, union busting remained rife in the United States, while WalMart carried those practices over into Canada.
Governments are often guilty of restricting the rights of those they directly employ. Several countries do not allow their civil servants to join trade unions, notably in Africa, in Lesotho, Eritrea, Ethiopia and Gambia. In Canada, provincial governments further undermined their employees’ trade union rights, including by imposing collective agreements by law.
In Australia the government severely restricted the trade union rights of all workers, bringing in new legislation that imposes heavy restrictions on organising and bargaining rights.
The extent to which women are the victims of violations of basic trade union rights is becoming increasingly clear. Restrictions on public sector workers’ rights to organise, bargain collectively and take strike action often apply to teachers and the health sector (Canada is a case in point). In the private sector, textile and electronics factories, particularly those in the export processing zones of Asia and Central America, are usually fiercely anti-union. All these sectors have a predominantly female workforce. Furthermore, a closer look through the survey shows that many of the targets of violence and even murder were women trade unionists, such as in Colombia and the Philippines.
Migrant workers are another vulnerable group, particularly of course in the Middle East where in many countries they form the majority of the workforce but have few rights, if any. In Asia too, migrant workers faced serious difficulties. The government of South Korea refused to recognise the newly formed migrant workers’ trade union, whose president was arrested and savagely beaten by police, while in Thailand migrant workers were threatened and blacklisted for their union activities.
I wish to pay tribute to all those workers who have made sacrifices in the fight against oppression. I would like to end on a positive note, taking heart from the World Bank’s latest World Development Report published in September 2005 which acknowledges the valuable role that trade unions play in the equitable distribution of economic growth. Long may that continue.
Long live international solidarity!Guy Ryder, General Secretary.