Speaking up for trade union rights on Human Rights Day
Thousands of trade unionists around the world have lost their lives standing up for workers’ rights and social justice. Countless others have suffered, and continue to suffer persecution and denial of their fundamental rights to freedom of association and assembly.
Every 10 December many of us around the world observe the United Nations Human Rights Day. Workers’ rights are synonymous with human rights, and as such, merit protection. That is why we are speaking up for workers’ rights today.
A ‘route of shame’ is taking place in London today, naming and shaming countries that systematically deny rights to their workers, and that actively seek to undermine, or ban outright, trade union movements.
The embassies or high commissions of Bahrain, Colombia, South Korea, Qatar, Swaziland and Turkey are being presented with letters of protest by TUC President and UNISON Assistant General Secretary Liz Snape. These countries, according to the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), are amongst the worst violators of workers’ rights. In its most recent Global Rights Index the ITUC ranks them as countries with a complete absence of workers’ rights.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights protects the right to freedom of assembly and association, and the right to join a union. The International Labour Organisation (ILO), an agency of the United Nations, has, for nearly 100 years adopted conventions that promote and protect workers’ rights, including the right to strike.
Despite many countries’ paper commitments to guarantee these rights, the reality for many people, especially those who choose to join a union, is the opposite. Systematic abuses of workers’ rights have resulted in trade unionists being the victims of murder, kidnap, violent attack, intimidation, harassment and blacklisting. More recently, a number of countries including the UK, which is currently debating the Trade Union Bill, have sought to legislate to limit the ability of unions to operate as free, civil society organisations. These developments contravene international law and must be challenged.
On the UNISON route of shame was Turkey – where the government has repeatedly banned unions from taking strike action, and restricted numerous protests. It has displayed a growing intolerance towards critical journalists, arresting many, as it attempts to censor information on a number of issues, including the plight of the Kurdish people. Trade union confederations DISK and KESK have been subjected to particular harassment. Amnesty International said the authorities have become more authoritarian in responding to critics.
In Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist, hundreds of political prisoners languish in jail. Many of them are trade unionists such as Huber Ballesteros of agricultural union FENSUAGRO and the Colombian TUC, the CUT. Huber was arrested in August 2013 as he was about to leave to attend the annual TUC in Britain. He was charged with funding rebellion, and sedition. He was the subject of an urgent action on Human Rights Day 2014 as part of a collaborative effort by UNISON, Justice For Colombia and Labour Start. Despite repeated calls for his release, Huber Ballesteros continues to languish in jail, and after 28 months in prison he has still not been tried. This is a clear denial of his human rights, as is the refusal of the prison to allow him a diabetic diet and access to an ophthalmologist for an eye condition that is probably related to his diabetes.
In Bahrain teachers’ union leader, Mahdi Abu Dheeb has been in prison since 2011. Amnesty International made him a prisoner of conscience, and is campaigning for his release. They said his imprisonment is solely because he defended teachers’ rights.
Today in Korea there is tension outside a Buddhist monastery where Han Sang-gyun, leader of the beleaguered KCTU in South Korea, is currently taking refuge as the police gather outside. Han and hundreds of trade unionists in South Korea have been identified by the authorities because they took part in a demonstration last week protesting against the government’s labour reform bill, which will make it easier for employers to dismiss workers, cut wages and create more precarious employment
In Swaziland, the Trade Union Congress has finally being recognised due to continued domestic and international pressure, but attacks on freedom of association continue. At the end of November public service unions were prevented from marching to the Ministry of Public Service to demand the release of a salary review report. Mario Masuku and Maxwell Dlamini remain on stringent bail conditions after being charged under the Suppression of Terrorism Act for comments they were alleged to have made at a May Day rally in 2014.
In Qatar there is a complete denial of trade union rights, and workers, over 1.5 million of whom are foreign, are subject to an employment system called Kafala that ties a worker to the sponsor (normally the employer). This system has been widely criticised, and the ITUC and human rights organisations have called for its abolition. In the letter to the ambassador of Qatar, UNISON said: “The State of Qatar has an opportunity to show to the world its respect for workers’ rights. The Kafala system must be abolished, workers must be allowed to join trade unions, and they should be treated as human beings and not commodities to further the economic aspirations of the state.” Qatar tried to block a vote at the ILO recently, and now has to respond to the ILO’s decision to send in a high-level mission to conduct an investigation into the appalling conditions migrant workers endure in the wealthiest country on earth.
There are 140 countries of the United Nations with diplomatic offices in London. UNISON could have chosen many of these for special attention as attacks on workers’ rights means hard-won rights are being abolished across many countries. As the UK government seeks to downgrade trade union rights and protection for people at work here, it is imperative that the union movement sticks together to ensure that rights are not eroded further, and those workers with no rights have some form of protection in law. It is our moral responsibility to stand in solidarity with workers to ensure their rights are upheld.