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Violence At Work

June 28 2010 - A recent survey by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) identified a 30 per cent increase in the number of trade unionists murdered in the preceding 12 months with 101 dying in 2009. The Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights also found increasing pressure on workers’ rights as the global economic crisis deepened.

The survey records that forty-eight of the murdered trade unionists came from Colombia. Other countries involved were:

  • Guatemala (16)
  • Honduras (12)
  • Mexico (6)
  • Bangladesh (6)
  • Brazil (4)
  • Dominican Republic (3)
  • Philippines (3), and
  • one each from India, Iraq and Nigeria

Twenty-two of the Colombians were trade union leaders; five were women. The report notes the ongoing pattern of violence in Guatemala and Honduras.

Guy Ryder, ITUC general secretary said:

"Colombia was yet again the country where standing up for fundamental rights of workers is more likely than anywhere else to mean a death sentence, despite the Colombian government’s public relations campaign to the contrary.  The worsening situation in Guatemala, Honduras and several other countries is also cause for extreme concern."

The report lists 140 countries where violations were committed against trade unionists in the course of attempting to do their work. The survey cautions that many instances of harassment or intimidation go unreported through fear of the consequences for employment and/or personal safety.

In addition to the 101 deaths, ten attempted murders and 35 death threats were recorded, the majority in Colombia and Guatemala. Many trade unionists remained in prison in 2009, with approximately 100 additional new known cases. Many other trade unionists were arrested, particularly in Iran, Honduras, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey and Zimbabwe. The report notes a general deterioration in trade union rights in a number of other countries including Egypt, the Russian Federation, South Korea and Turkey.

The fact that unions often adopt a high profile in defence of democratic rights has resulted in their employees and activities being targeted. The report cites recent examples in Honduras (post-coup violence) and Guinea (deaths during a protest demonstration).  

The survey found that strike action is prohibited or severely restricted in many countries. Strike-breaking and repression of workers on strike is widespread. Demonstrating in respect of wage claims, working conditions or the effects of the global economic downturn resulted in violence, arrest and detention in countries such as Algeria, Argentina, Belarus, Burma, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Honduras, India, Iran, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan and Turkey. Workers were sacked as a result of trade union activities in many countries. The report records the death of six garment workers in Bangladesh after police intervened in strike action over pay.

The report notes that union busting tactics continue to be widely used. Employers threatened workers with closure or relocation of production if they organised or joined a trade union. Despite existing codes to the contrary, some employers refused to enter negotiations with legitimate workers’ representatives. There were examples of adverse effects on existing industrial relations systems. For example, regulations amended in the name of increasing flexibility in reality led to restriction of trade union rights and social welfare provision.

Erosion of internationally-recognised labour standards is associated with increasing levels of insecurity in the workplace. The survey estimates that this currently affects about 50 per cent of the global workforce with certain sectors particularly vulnerable:

  • export processing (especially south east Asia and Central America)
  • domestic work (especially in the Middle East and south east Asia)
  • migrants
  • agricultural workers

Many of the worst affected sectors have disproportionate numbers of women employees. Unregulated and 'atypical' forms of employment increased across regions and sectors. Workers in insecure employment are less able to organise or exercise their trade union rights.  

The survey highlights examples of legislatively-protected trade union rights suffering from lack of enforcement. The exercise of these rights is further impeded by factors such as complex procedural requirements, compulsory arbitration and unduly broad definitions of 'essential services'.

The report notes that sixty years after the International Labour Organization Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining was agreed in 1949, it has not been ratified by numerous countries including Canada, China, India, Iran, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. Thus about half of the global workforce remains unprotected by its principles.

Guy Ryder commented:

"This year’s ITUC survey shows that the majority of the world’s workers still lack effective protection of their rights to organize trade unions and bargain collectively.  This is a major factor in the long-term increase in economic inequality within and between countries.  Inadequate incomes for much of the world’s workforce helped cause the global economic crisis, and is making it much harder to put the economy on a path of sustainable growth."

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