IPS World News
LABOUR: World's Trade Unions Under Siege
By Marwaan Macan-Markar
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MEXICO CITY, May 28 (IPS World Desk) - The lot of workers
around the globe is a sorry one, with many intimidated,
threatened and even murdered if they attempt to form trade
unions to bargain for their collective rights, states a new
report released by the International Labour Organisation
This is largely the result of the failure of the ILO's 175
members to meet their commitments to protect such fundamental
rights as the freedom of association and the effective right
to collective bargaining, adds the report, titled 'Your Voice
'We are still a long way from universal acceptance of these
fundamental principles and rights in practise,' the Geneva-
based body observes, adding that governments, as guardians
of democracy, need to do more than 'pay lip service' to
For Juan Somavia, the director general of the ILO, such a
global reality leads to one conclusion. 'A global economy
in which people do not have the rights to organise will
lack social legitimacy,' he says. After all, he points out,
people organise themselves to make their voices heard so
they can express such fundamental rights as their human
rights and their developmental rights.
This report, the first-ever global study conducted by the
ILO on the freedom of association and the right to collective
bargaining, comes out strongly against oil-rich Arab nations
such as Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates for
the 'outright prohibitions on trade unions ..' In nearby
countries such as Bahrain and Qatar, it adds, government
constraints have denied committees of workers or labour
councils the opportunity to form independent workers'
Violence against labour rights activists, on the other hand,
has prevailed in several developing countries. In countries
ranging from Ecuador and Guatemala, in Latin America, to
Zimbabwe and Sudan, in Africa, 'physical assaults' have been
a common form of intimidation.
While in 20 other countries - China, El Salvador, Morocco
and Pakistan including - 'arrests and detention' have been
evident, in seven others, among them Nicaragua, Lebanon and
Senegal, trade union premises and property have been attacked.
During the past 10 years, the report declares, the ILO has
also documented the allegations of murder of trade unionists
in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala and
According to the authors of 'Your Voice at Work', equally
disturbing has been another global trend to deny a large
category of workers any form of legal protection due to the
type of their labour or their legal status. They include
agricultural, domestic and migrant workers.
In the United States, India and Honduras, for instance,
national legislatures have either failed to 'legally
protect agricultural workers or (denied) them the right
to organise', the report says. And domestic workers, who
are overwhelmingly women, have been denied the right to
organise in countries like Brazil, Jordan and Canada.
Migrant workers, furthermore, have been 'seriously
restricted in forming or joining trade unions in Kuwait,
effectively prohibited from holding office in Mauritania,
Nicaragua, Rwanda and Venezuela, and not covered by
labour legislation in Kyrgyzstan'.
The current crop of export processing zones (EPZs) also
came under the critical gaze of the ILO report for anti-
union acts, which include 'harassment, blacklisting and
massive dismissals' of the labour force.
EPZs in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Sri Lanka were
singled out for going against the grain of labour rights
in an effort to attract foreign investments.
But while local authorities may believe that very low
wages and no labour regulations will attract business,
'the investor may well be ready to accept higher costs
if there is political stability, infrastructure,
domestic demand for produced goods and services, and
well-functioning industrial relations', the report says.
The impact of the prevailing trend on women working in
both the formal and informal global economy was not lost
on the authors, either. 'These changes have had an
inherent gender dimension,' they say.
Surveys done for this report reveal that women form 'the
majority of workers in subcontracted, temporary or casual
work, part-time work and informal occupations'. As a
result, 'more women than men are in unorganised and
unprotected jobs which lack security of tenure',
perpetuating poverty in families.
But for that to change, the report calls for two immediate
Firstly women must be granted the right to join trade
unions, to have their interests represented on par with
their male colleagues, and to enable them to 'take their
place at the negotiating table' during the collective
Likewise, in addressing the broader global picture, the
report advocates change in three areas to ensure that the
right to trade union activity is guaranteed across the
globe. Such action, it stresses, requires collective
effort on the part of workers, employers and governments.
These changes are: a guarantee that all workers can form
and join a trade union of their choice without fear of
intimidation or reprisal; the need to encourage an open
and constructive attitude by private business and
public employers to freely choose worker's representatives;
and the recognition by public authorities that good
governance of the labour market, based on respect for
fundamental principles and rights at work, makes a major
contribution to stable economic, political and social
This report, which forms part of the follow-up to the
ILO's Declaration on Fundamental Principles of and Rights
at Work, adopted in June 1998, is the first in an annual
series to provide a global picture of core labour
standards. It will be followed by a report on forced
labour in 2001, child labour in 2002, and discrimination
in employment in 2003.
According to Somavia, the strength of this inaugural
effort is the evidence it provides to expose the
oppression workers around the world have been subject
to. 'Workers in many countries continue to face
intimidation or reprisals should they exercise (their)
rights by joining a trade union of their choice.'