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Annual Survey of Violations of Trade UNION Rights

Since 2008, the global financial and economic crisis has had a massive impact throughout the world on the level of employment. Tens of millions of jobs have been lost, and many millions more workers are still feeling the threat of unemployment. This in turn has made the central task of trade UNIONs, defence and promotion of workers’ rights and decent jobs for all, even more difficult than at any time in recent history. Indeed, in many countries, despite a call by G20 leaders, public authorities and companies have continued to use the crisis as a pretext to weaken and undermine trade UNION rights.

The ITUC is adamant that the struggle for the universal respect of trade UNION rights enshrined in the ILO fundamental conventions is needed more than ever before. The ITUC Founding Congress in 2006 mandated the organisation to expose and denounce violations of workers’ rights, wherever they occur. The publication of this Survey is an important part of fulfilling that mandate.

This Survey again records an extensive list of violations suffered by trade UNIONists struggling to defend workers’ interests, this year in 140 countries. Other violations remain unreported, as working women and men are deprived of the means to have their voices heard, or fear to speak out due to the consequences to their jobs or even to their physical safety. The Survey provides detailed documentation of harassment, intimidation, persecution and, in the worst cases, murder of trade UNIONists. Killings of trade UNIONists actually increased by 30% compared to the previous year.

At least 101 trade UNIONists and labour activists were murdered in 2009 compared to 76 the previous year: 48 were killed in Colombia, 16 in Guatemala, 12 in Honduras, six in Mexico, six in Bangladesh, four in Brazil, three in the Dominican Republic, three in the Philippines, one in India, one in Iraq and one in Nigeria. Colombia was yet again the deadliest country in the world: 22 of the trade UNIONists who died were senior trade UNION leaders and five were women. The rise in violence in Guatemala and Honduras is deeply worrying.

A further ten attempted murders and 35 serious death threats are recorded, again mostly in Colombia and Guatemala. Furthermore, many trade UNIONists remained in prison and were joined by around hundred others in 2009. Many others were arrested in Iran, Honduras, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey and Zimbabwe, in particular. The general trade UNION rights’ situation has continued to deteriorate in a number of countries, including Egypt, the Russian Federation, South Korea and Turkey.

Trade UNION rights continue to be infringed, in many cases with total impunity, and the repression of trade UNIONists goes on while governments fail to meet their responsibility to ensure that trade UNION rights are respected and that the people defending these rights are protected. In a number of countries, governments again showed that they are intent on keeping trade UNIONs under their firm control.

Anti-democratic forces continued to target UNION activity, aware that UNIONs are often in the front line in the defence of democracy. This was evident in Honduras during the post-coup violence and in Guinea during a protest demonstration against the ruling junta which turned into a terrible massacre on 28 September.

Numerous cases of strike-breaking and repression of striking workers were documented in each region. Thousands of workers demonstrating to claim wages, denounce harsh working conditions or the harmful effects of the global financial and economical crisis have faced beatings, arrest and detention, including in Algeria, Belarus, Burma, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Honduras, India, Iran, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan and Turkey. Dismissals of workers due to their trade UNION activities were reported in many countries. In Bangladesh, six garment workers on strike for a pay increase and settlement of outstanding wages died after a police intervention.

UNION busting and pressure continue to be widely used by employers. In several countries, companies threatened workers with closure or transfer of production sites, should they organise or join a trade UNION. Often employers simply refused to negotiate with legitimate workers’ representatives while the authorities did nothing. Some labour codes were amended to permit more “flexibility” and to unravel social welfare systems which often impacted the existing industrial relations systems and thus curtailed trade UNION rights.

Another negative effect of the economic and financial crisis is that more and more workers are forced into various forms of precarious work. Indeed, the ILO now estimates that 50% of the global workforce is involved in vulnerable work. This affected workers in export processing zones, especially in South East Asia and Central America, domestic workers (especially in the Middle East and South East Asia), migrants as well as agricultural workers. It is worth mentioning that women represent a significant majority of the workforce in these sectors. Furthermore, the growth of informal employment and the development of new “atypical” forms of employment was seen across both regions and industrial sectors. The difficulties these workers face to organise or exercise their trade UNION rights are directly related to their highly vulnerable position in the labour market.

Where legislation protects some trade UNION rights, this often comes with restrictions. Fundamental rights remain restricted for many categories of workers, including public employees in several countries. Severe restrictions or outright prohibition of strikes also exists in a large number of countries. Furthermore, complex procedural requirements, imposition of compulsory arbitration and the use of excessively broad definitions of “essential services” provisions often make the exercise of trade UNION rights impossible in practice, depriving workers of their legitimate rights to UNION representation and participation in industrial action.

2009 was the 60th Anniversary of the ILO Convention on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, 1949 (no. 98). Countries such as Canada, China, India, Iran, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam have still not ratified it. Thus, approximately half of the world’s economically active population is not covered by the Convention. Even when ratified, implementation of this vital Convention is frequently weak. Respect for the rights to organise and bargain collectively are crucial to restoring purchasing power and economic growth around the world, and governments must act to ensure that these rights are respected in law and in practice. The alternative is greater inequality, and deeper recession.

The free exercise of fundamental trade UNION rights by independent trade UNIONs is also essential to the functioning of a democratic society and to a global economy based on social justice. The ITUC will continue to fight for the protection of these rights, and bring support and solidarity to the men and women who risk their jobs, their freedom and even their lives to defend workers’ rights.