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Global survey charts anti-union repression spread

Global survey charts the spread of anti-union repression

Brussels (ICFTU Online): With129 trade unionists killed worldwide and an upward swing in death threats, imprisonment and physical harassment; trade union rights continue to be violated across the world

This year's survey of trade union rights, published annually by the ICFTU, produces yet another catalogue of severe abuses of fundamental workers' rights in 2003. While the toll of 129 murdered trade unionists is less than the previous year, it still serves as a grim reminder of the dangers faced by trade unionists exercising their fundamental rights.

Painting a country by country account of trade union rights violations across the world, this year's survey covers 134 countries in total, highlighting assassinations, physical intimidation, arrests, death threats and dismissals for forming or joining trade unions, presenting collective demands or taking strike action.

Trade union rights continue to be undermined on two fronts - by employers and governments. The survey highlights how governments in numerous countries have installed complicated procedures to hamper trade union activity or strike action. The authorities' unwillingness even to enforce existing national and international legislation has further compounded the abuses. Equally, many employers have consistently resisted union organising and intimidated workers who dare take collective action to protect their rights.

The survey notes that growing global competition has been accompanied by deteriorating workers' rights. Governments, eager to secure short-term benefits that the global market may provide, see trade unions as an obstacle to their economic development. In Uganda, for example, President Musoveni publicly admitted to the mass dismissal of striking textile workers because their "action would scare off investors". Workers in Venezuela were also punished for striking - 19,000 oil workers were fired for participating in a general strike, serving as a warning to other Venezuelan workers.

At continental level, the figures are just as alarming. In Asia, over 300,000 workers were dismissed for their union activity, primarily for going on strike. Furthermore, as the survey points out, these figures doubtless fall short of reality. Such is the level of intimidation in many countries that workers are often too frightened to report violations of their rights.

In 2003, Colombia proved yet again to be the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, for which it is fast developing a reputation. A total of 90 people were killed for their trade union activity in the Latin American country, and their families were also caught up in the violence, in some cases murdered in cold blood together with their trade unionist partner. Disturbingly, 95% of reported cases remain unpunished and most murder cases are not properly investigated, if at all. The survey also notes that women have increasingly become targets for attack, as more and more women seek to join unions.

In 2003, Burma continued its total repression of trade union activity and in November sentenced three representatives of the Federation of Trade Unions- Burma (FTUB) to death. In China, economic development has not been accompanied by any sort of improvement in fundamental workers' rights. The Chinese authorities continued to suppress all signs of independent trade union activity, again sending individuals to prison for their trade union activities.

The report shows that a record 1,900 trade unionists were arrested in the Republic of Korea. A total of 201 of these arrests led to prosecution. The effects of new forms of repression were evident in the case of Bae Dal-ho, a 50-year-old boiler worker and union activist at the shipbuilding firm Doosan Heavy Industries and Construction (DHIC), who burnt himself to death in January 2003. A suicide note left in his car said, "due to the company's provisional seizure of my wage I have not received any pay for more than six months. No wage will be paid to me on this pay day either." His wages had been withheld and access to his bank account restricted by court order as a result of his role in a 47-day strike during the previous year.

The Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe continued to show its total intolerance of trade unionism. A total of 2,800 postal workers were fired for taking part in a jobs boycott, representing almost half of the 6,566 African workers dismissed in 2003 because of their union activities. Elsewhere in the continent, there were disturbing stories including a case of soldiers entering an electrician's house in the Democratic Republic of Congo, raping his 13 year old daughter and attacking an elderly neighbour following strike action to protest at the non-payment of salaries for eight months.

The Middle East remains the most restrictive region, placing limitations on trade union rights, however there has been a gradual thawing of intolerance of trade unions in some countries. Oman, for example, now allows workers to form representational committees and the United Arab Emirates drafted a bill for the creation of a national labour federation. Iraqis began to organise again, marking the end of total trade union repression under Saddam Hussein, holding the first democratic workplace elections of trade union representatives in 35 years. Yet the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the US-controlled body governing Iraq, had still not repealed any of Saddam-era labour laws which remained technically enforceable. Saudi Arabia maintained its total ban on trade unions.

Nine of the ten new European Union member states were cited in this year's survey, largely for disparities between labour legislation, which recognises trade union rights, and the reality. For example, employers in the Czech Republic withheld wages from trade union representatives. The management of a car depot in Lithuania forced each of their workers to sign a letter of resignation from their union or face dismissal. Outside the European Union, the International Labour Organisation (ILO) set up a Commission of Inquiry to investigate violations of freedom of association in Belarus, where, for example, the authorities imprisoned trade union leaders such Aleksandr Yaroshuk, President of the independent Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BCDTU). Elsewhere, workers were pressured to leave their union organisations and join puppet confederations, as in the case of Moldova and Georgia.

In the industrialised world, union busting is big business, notably in the United States where the use of union-busting consultants by employers is common practice. . The survey underlines that 40% of all public sector workers in the country are still denied basic collective bargaining rights, meaning that alongside to some 25 million private civilian workers, 6.9 million federal, state and local government employees do not have the right under any law to negotiate their wages, hours or employment terms. In Canada meanwhile, provincial labour legislation excludes entire sectors, leaving agricultural and horticultural workers exposed to exploitation, and as this year's report shows, the rights of some public sector workers have been further restricted.

The ICFTU survey highlights how migrant workers are exposed to some of the worst forms of exploitation. In the Gulf States, for example, they have no trade union rights whatsoever. In countries such as the United Arab Emirates, migrants make up 85% of the workforce, many of them women working in domestic service.

The unrelenting attack on workers' rights in export processing zones shows no signs of abating this year. Multinational businesses operating in Export Processing Zones (EPZs) continued to contravene internationally recognised trade union rights, for example in the garment factories of Asia and Central America. Women form the majority of the 50 million workers worldwide in these factories, often subject to poverty wages, exhausting work schedules and hazardous working conditions, often without any opportunity to protest collectively or join a trade union. There were small breakthroughs, however, including for garment workers in Honduras and Sri Lanka who won union recognition, while the first and only collective agreement was signed in a Guatemalan EPZ.

Link to Middle East press release

Link to Asia press release :

Link to Americas press release

Link to Africa press release

Link to Europe press release

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