Europe - Global - Anti-union discrimination and repression on the rise (2010)

Europe has seen a significant rise in anti-union discrimination and repression; this is the chief conclusion emerging from the «Europe» section of the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2010 survey of trade union rights violations around the world. This trend is equally visible in Western Europe’s traditional trade union strongholds and the transition economies of Eastern Europe. Furthermore, over 60 workers were arrested for taking part in trade union activities in Europe during 2009, mainly in Turkey and Belarus.

Europe, which until recently was still being portrayed as a social model on the world stage, is feeling the full impact of the global economic and financial crisis. Millions of workers throughout the continent have lost their jobs and mass protests broke out in several countries following the authorities’ inability to tackle the crisis. Workers are unquestionably paying for the crisis, and at a heavy price.

Another trend revealed by the ITUC survey is the restriction in many countries on the right of trade unions to engage in collective action. The report explains that several complaints were filed in response to anti-union practices. In the Russian Federation, a complaint was filed with the International Labour Organisation (ILO) concerning the continuous attacks on trade union leaders, government interference, the refusal to register and recognise trade unions, and the overall lack of effort in investigating trade union rights violations. In Belgium, trade union organisations lodged a complaint with the European Committee of Social Rights over national legislation allowing employers to oppose strike action by obtaining civil court intervention in collective disputes.

Turkey was the scene of numerous anti-union practices, and trade union rights violations are widespread. Aside from the almost complete lack of progress in bringing the legislation on trade union rights into line with EU standards and ILO Conventions, the right to strike and collective bargaining remain heavily restricted. Employers apply pressure to compel workers to leave unions and interference in trade unions’ internal affairs is common practice. Another worrying development is the increasingly frequent judicial harassment of trade unionists, who face being tried on «terrorism» charges, as seen with the trial of 31 members and leaders of KESK, the national public sector workers’ union.

The ITUC survey once again highlights the anti-union character of the political regime in Belarus. The trade union rights situation further deteriorated and despite the efforts made to remedy issues such as the denial of trade union registration and anti-union dismissals, the Belarus authorities have still not acted on the action plan to implement the ILO Commission of Inquiry recommendations. Legal tools are also used against unions, such as in Albania, where the government took legal measures to strip the trade unions of their assets, thereby depriving them of the ability to effectively carry out their legitimate activities. In Georgia and Ukraine, employers waged an outright offensive against trade unions, filing a total of 106 lawsuits against unions and their leaders, in a bid to destroy their organisations. In the United Kingdom, a major blacklisting operation was uncovered in March.

Along with transfers, demotions, wage cuts, harassment and manipulation, one of the main scourges in Europe continues to be the dismissals aimed at obstructing trade union activities.
This tactic was seen in Croatia, Switzerland, Poland, Ukraine and, not least, in Russia, where 60 trade unionists were sacked on account of their trade union activities.

The right to strike, an action of the last resort, although an essential and recognised right, was unduly restricted in many European countries. The most common obstruction consists in the drawing up of «essential services» lists that go far beyond those defined by the ILO, and are used to block or seriously limit the possibility of staging strike action. In Serbia, if strike action is held despite it being declared illegal, the union calling the strike and the workers taking part in it face heavy legal sanctions.

Despite beliefs to the contrary, civil servants are by no means sheltered from anti-union practices. In Estonia, Greece, Germany, Turkey and Ukraine, laws prohibit civil servants from engaging in collective action, or place excessive restrictions on their ability to do so. As regards collective bargaining, this right is prohibited outright for civil servants in Bulgaria and Germany.

The ITUC survey highlights that the practical application of the laws on trade union rights remains ineffectual in many countries. In Georgia and Croatia, the monitoring and follow up of workers’ rights violations is totally inadequate. Finally, in the Balkans, over 700 workers were the victims of labour trafficking to Azerbaijan.

«Europe has a duty to set an example, by respecting trade union rights,» said Guy Ryder, general secretary of the ITUC. «The economic and financial crisis is all too often used as a pretext for making the weakest pay, especially workers.»

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