Foreword

2011 was a year of dramatic change, with the Arab Spring heralding new opportunities and new challenges. Trade union rights are more heavily repressed in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else on the globe. As people rose up to demand the recognition recognition The designation by a government agency of a union as the bargaining agent for workers in a given bargaining unit, or acceptance by an employer that its employees can be collectively represented by a union. of their long-suppressed democratic rights, trade unions played a leading role, notably in Tunisia and Egypt. Sadly they paid a heavy price for that involvement, being among the many hundreds killed and the thousands arrested and detained. The struggle continues, both to remove other authoritarian regimes and to build real democracy where they have already fallen, creating an environment in which independent trade unions can flourish. The spirit and determination of the people remains unbowed, as shown (...)

2011 was a year of dramatic change, with the Arab Spring heralding new opportunities and new challenges. Trade union rights are more heavily repressed in the Middle East and North Africa than anywhere else on the globe. As people rose up to demand the recognition recognition The designation by a government agency of a union as the bargaining agent for workers in a given bargaining unit, or acceptance by an employer that its employees can be collectively represented by a union. of their long-suppressed democratic rights, trade unions played a leading role, notably in Tunisia and Egypt. Sadly they paid a heavy price for that involvement, being among the many hundreds killed and the thousands arrested and detained. The struggle continues, both to remove other authoritarian regimes and to build real democracy where they have already fallen, creating an environment in which independent trade unions can flourish. The spirit and determination of the people remains unbowed, as shown by the huge turnout in the November elections in Egypt, and the continued protests in Bahrain and Syria, despite the repression.

The world economic crisis continued to impact unfairly on workers, as many governments persisted in favouring austerity measures over stimulating growth and employment. Unemployment rose to record levels in 2011, with over 205 million people out of work. In Europe, trade unions felt the impact of the Eurozone crisis, with Portugal, Hungary and Romania all further restricting workers’ rights as part of their austerity measures. The most dramatic changes were in Greece however where unemployment rose to 21%, wages and living standards fell sharply and collective bargaining collective bargaining The process of negotiating mutually acceptable terms and conditions of employment as well as regulating industrial relations between one or more workers’ representatives, trade unions, or trade union centres on the one hand and an employer, a group of employers or one or more employers’ organisations on the other.

See collective bargaining agreement
rights were severely curtailed.

The rise in precarious work, a term used to describe work that is not-permanent, indirect, informal and/or otherwise insecure, is the result of employment practices meant to maximise short-term profitability and flexibility at the expense of the worker. Unions in many countries cited the high level of contract and casual labour as one of the biggest challenges to organising organising The process of forming or joining a trade union, or inducing other workers to form or join one. and protecting workers’ rights, notably in South Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Pakistan. In Korea, unions report that employers systematically hire workers on precarious contracts to prevent them from forming trade unions.

For some workers, defending their trade union rights can cost them their life. In 2011 at least 76 workers died directly as a result of their trade union activities – in addition to those killed during the repression of the Arab Spring protests. There were 56 deaths in Latin America alone, including 29 in Colombia and a further 10 in Guatemala, crimes committed with almost total impunity. At least eight trade unionists lost their lives in Asia. Four were killed in the Philippines, all shot and killed, in four separate incidents, but all had played a prominent role in defending workers rights. A garment union leader and activist was brutally killed in Bangladesh, two years after the government had severely beaten him for his activity. And a one-year-old child died in Zimbabwe after spending a night on the roadside in the rain because its family was among the farm workers summarily evicted for daring to organise.

Some of the deaths occurred as a result of excessive police violence. In South Africa a municipal worker died in clashes with police, two workers were killed in Indonesia when police opened fire on strikers and in Bangladesh one worker was killed when police attacked protesting chemical workers. Other incidents of police violence leading to injury and death were reported in Sri Lanka, Pakistan, India, Egypt and Nepal.

The repression of strike strike The most common form of industrial action, a strike is a concerted stoppage of work by employees for a limited period of time. Can assume a wide variety of forms.

See general strike, intermittent strike, rotating strike, sit-down strike, sympathy strike, wildcat strike
action through mass dismissals, arrests and detention was widely reported, including in Georgia, Kenya, South Africa and Botswana, where 2,800 workers were dismissed after a public sector strike strike The most common form of industrial action, a strike is a concerted stoppage of work by employees for a limited period of time. Can assume a wide variety of forms.

See general strike, intermittent strike, rotating strike, sit-down strike, sympathy strike, wildcat strike
. In India, striking brick kiln workers were warned that the owners would “kill them and rape their women” if they did not return to work. In Georgia, a governor and dozens of police broke up a legal strike strike The most common form of industrial action, a strike is a concerted stoppage of work by employees for a limited period of time. Can assume a wide variety of forms.

See general strike, intermittent strike, rotating strike, sit-down strike, sympathy strike, wildcat strike
of steel workers, arrested the union’s leaders and forced the workers back to work. Strike strike The most common form of industrial action, a strike is a concerted stoppage of work by employees for a limited period of time. Can assume a wide variety of forms.

See general strike, intermittent strike, rotating strike, sit-down strike, sympathy strike, wildcat strike
action also came under attack in other ways. In South Korea, there was a continued use of law suits claiming huge amounts of damages against unions, while in Australia employers and governments successfully invoked laws forcing striking workers back to work.

Trade unions and their leaders were regularly persecuted, particularly the Swaziland Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU), the Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions (ZCTU), and the independent trade unions of Mexico. In Fiji the military junta launched an aggressive campaign to dismantle the trade union movement, and Felix Anthony, leader of the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) was arrested, threatened, insulted and beaten. Other incidents were reported in the Philippines, Belarus and the Russian Federation. Many members of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) faced arrested and imprisonment, and in November the government announced its dissolution.

Governments in developed democratic countries also attacked trade union rights. Canada’s conservative government has weakened freedom of association freedom of association The right to form and join the trade union of one’s choosing as well as the right of unions to operate freely and carry out their activities without undue interference.

See Guide to the ITUC international trade union rights framework
and collective bargaining collective bargaining The process of negotiating mutually acceptable terms and conditions of employment as well as regulating industrial relations between one or more workers’ representatives, trade unions, or trade union centres on the one hand and an employer, a group of employers or one or more employers’ organisations on the other.

See collective bargaining agreement
rights, while in New Zealand amendments to the Employment Relations Act reduced workers’ rights.

There is still no freedom of association freedom of association The right to form and join the trade union of one’s choosing as well as the right of unions to operate freely and carry out their activities without undue interference.

See Guide to the ITUC international trade union rights framework
at all in some countries, notably Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Eritrea, Sudan and Laos. Jordan has a tightly regulated single trade union system and in China and Syria the single trade union is still used as a means not to protect but to control workers. There was good news in Burma however, where the Labour Organisation Law was signed by the President in in October, laying the foundation for workers to form unions.

Problems persist in some export processing zones (EPZ export processing zone A special industrial area in a country where imported materials are processed before being re-exported. Designed to attract mostly foreign investors by offering incentives such as exemptions from certain trade barriers, taxes, business regulations, and/or labour laws. s), where organising organising The process of forming or joining a trade union, or inducing other workers to form or join one. is notoriously difficult. Legal restrictions are still in place in Bangladesh for example, and violations continued in Sri Lanka’s EPZ export processing zone A special industrial area in a country where imported materials are processed before being re-exported. Designed to attract mostly foreign investors by offering incentives such as exemptions from certain trade barriers, taxes, business regulations, and/or labour laws. s. Migrant workers represent another very vulnerable group, particularly in the Gulf States where they make up the majority of the workforce in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates but have few or no rights.

Perhaps the most vulnerable workers of all however are the worlds’ 100 million or so domestic workers, often young, women migrants with little knowledge of their rights and no means of enforcing them, suffering oppressive, even violent conditions. The ITUC warmly welcomed the adoption in June 2011 of the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO International Labour Organization A tripartite United Nations (UN) agency established in 1919 to promote working and living conditions. The main international body charged with developing and overseeing international labour standards.

See tripartism, ITUC Guide to international trade union rights
) Convention no. 189, the Domestic Workers Convention, which will at last give these workers the right to form unions and enjoy decent working conditions. The challenge now is to ensure the adoption of this convention by governments, and the ITUC is currently campaigning hard to that end, with its “12 by 12” campaign to get at least 12 countries to ratify the convention by the end of 2012.

The ITUC will be at its affiliates’ side as they continue to fight for the respect of internationally recognised labour standards, through solidarity campaigns, pressure on governments, its presence at international fora and above all using the mechanisms of the ILO International Labour Organization A tripartite United Nations (UN) agency established in 1919 to promote working and living conditions. The main international body charged with developing and overseeing international labour standards.

See tripartism, ITUC Guide to international trade union rights
. It will also continue to urge governments and the international financial institutions to adopt measures to promote quality employment and a global social protection floor as part of an income led recovery to the economic crisis.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary

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