From Tue Jun 10 09:00:27 2003
Subject: ICFTU Online: ICFTU Survey 2003: 213 trade unionists assassinated or disappeared worldwide
Date: Tue, 10 Jun 2003 14:01:29 +0200
To: “ICFTU Online” <>

213 trade unionists assassinated or disappeared worldwide

ICFTU Online…, 103/100603, 10 June 2003

A stain of anti-union repression is spreading across the map of the world

Killed because of their trade union activities, the murders of 213 trade unionists around the world in 2002 are documented by the Annual ICFTU Survey on Trade Union Rights Violations. 206 killings took place in Latin America alone. The ICFTU report denounces violations in 133 countries, pointing to the devastating effects of crude free market globalisation on workers' rights and showing how the world map of trade union rights violations is expanding in size. The report lists almost 1000 union activists attacked and beaten, 2,562 detentions, 89 prison sentences, 30,000 trade unionists sacked and some 20,000 victims of harassment.

Brussels, 10 June 2003 (ICFTU OnLine): On January 8 2002, Carlos Alberto Bastidas Coral from the Colombian Teacher's Union SIMANA-CUT was assassinated in NariƱo province, thus becoming one of the first confirmed cases amongst the 184 Colombian trade unionists murdered during that year. With its appalling toll of murder, beatings, “disappearances” and intimidation carried out with virtually total impunity, Colombia remained the most dangerous place on earth for trade union activity. Along with the killings, the ICFTU survey documents a further 27 attempted assassinations, 189 death threats against Colombian union officials and members, 9 “disappearances”, 139 arbitrary arrests and 27 abductions. 80 trade unionists were forced to flee the country into exile.

Workers in Thai clothing company Gina Form, producing well known underwear brands for export to global markets, were victims of continuous harassment and intimidation, instant dismissal and beatings. They were forced by the management to sign a blank paper which the management then filled in with a letter of acceptance by the workers of reduced rights and conditions. In Egypt, a chemical factory worker in an industrial zone tells how “most of the employers force their workers to sign resignation letters when they accept a job”, giving the employer complete authority to sack employees at will.

The ICFTU report is full of similar examples showing how export processing zones in many countries have become a symbol of the current free-market model of globalisation, where “free market” means “free” of trade union rights. Millions of workers, the large majority of them women, work for miserable salaries in deplorable health and safety conditions, sometimes at the cost of their lives. Possibly the most striking such example was the case of Bangladesh, a country with an appalling record of workers killed by factory fires, in workplaces where the workers are locked in so there is no way of escape once a fire starts.

The report details how tens of thousands of workers waited in vain for their wages to be paid, and describes a haemorrhage of jobs from formal, protected employment into a growing informal economy as IMF and World Bank inspired policies continued to eat into the social fabric of developing countries. Around the world, in particular in Africa, more and more workers had a daily struggle for survival, leaving them little chance to defend their most fundamental rights. Like the pregnant South African woman giving birth, whose twin babies died at her workplace because she was locked in and deprived of any medical attention.

Killings, beatings, intimidation, harassment…

Burmese trade unionist and human rights activist U Saw Mya Than was killed in cold blood by soldiers in reprisal for a rebel attack. A victim of forced labour, a widespread practice in the country, he was designated to serve as an army porter (in fact a human shield). As with Burma, one of the world's most repressive dictatorships, the ICFTU report shows once again the links between the authoritarian nature of certain regimes and the magnitude of trade union rights violations in the same countries.

Long terms in prison and labour camps, beatings, psychiatric internment, and harassment of families took place in China, where repression of independent trade unionism is systematic. In 2002, dozens of independent trade unionists languished in Chinese gaols, in appalling conditions. It was a year of social conflict in China, as massive retrenchments from state enterprises led to protests which were often suppressed with great force.

In the dead of night, a Zimbabwean trade unionist and his family were assaulted at their house by government agents. While his wife was being attacked, he himself was forced outside, beaten with chains, pipes and whips, then left for dead. Even though they were identified, the attackers are still at large, and the trade unionist had no choice but to go into hiding. The passing of a January 2002 law reinforced President Mugabe's powers, and led to yet more arrests, detentions, beatings, kidnappings, death threats and other forms of anti-union repression.

Despite some legislative improvements, the Kingdom of Swaziland remained one of the African countries most ferociously hostile to unions, while in Europe, President Lukashenko of Belarus led the most anti-union government in the region, using the power of the state to install his own Chief of Staff to head the national union confederation in an effort to take total control of the union movement. Elsewhere in the same region, the survey also notes that collective agreements were frequently flouted in Russia, Bulgaria and Croatia, along with unreasonable limitations on the right to strike in Latvia, Russia, Serbia and Montenegro, and Slovakia.

In Haiti, a reign of terror against trade union activity was carried out by armed thugs linked to the Aristide regime, and employers did not hesitate to use these gangs to terrorise workers in factories and on farms around the country. Rural workers in many Latin American countries suffered violence and repression by landowners, and in Brazil, at least 16 agricultural workers were murdered for daring to stand up to the power of the rural elite.

Starting a union: a hard road…

In many countries, forming a trade union can be a hard road, given the numerous legal and practical obstacles and the physical perils for those involved. In South Korea for example, when public sector employees tried to get around legal obstacles in an effort to form a union, a thousand police “visited” their inaugural congress. 178 delegates were arrested and 5 imprisoned. Also in South Korea, a hospital strike met with a heavy response from anti-riot police. 20 workers were sacked, 573 subjected to “disciplinary measures” and 7 sentenced to prison.

In February, a man in police uniform entered the head offices of the Brazilian trade union centre CUT at night, followed by an armed gang which ransacked the premises, stealing valuable equipment. In Mexico, members of the Pilot's Union ASPA in Mexico City and Tijuana were brutally assaulted by thugs linked to the AVIACSA company as they voted on the terms of a collective agreement. Also in Mexico, the Maquiladoras (export processing zone) Association of Cuidad Juarez announced in the national press that it had offered its member companies lists of names of workers who had made claims for better wages and conditions, so that they could be kept from getting jobs in future. Even though this was illegal, the government did nothing.

In order to try and keep up with relentless global competition, more and more employers are resorting to intimidation and even force, often with the tacit or explicit support of governments. The report points to Indonesia, where increasing aggression against workers by paramilitary groups, supported by elements of the army and the police and paid by employers, was used to intimidate workers and break strikes. On strike in protest at the privatisation of a gold mine, two South African miners were killed, and four of their colleagues seriously injured, by security guards acting under orders from the management.

Industrialised countries too …

Workers in some of the most industrialised nations also experienced serious violations of their rights, especially in the USA where sacking workers was seen by many employers as the best way to stop any union activity. At least one in every ten workers trying to form a union in 2002 was dismissed. In Denver, managers at Wal-Mart advised all their employees that any trade union activity would be monitored, and encouraged workers to spy on their colleagues. Workers showing trade union sympathies were subjected to interrogation and verbal harassment. In Canada and in Australia, legal restrictions deprived large numbers of workers of their full rights.

In conclusion—the struggle of migrant workers…

In Jordan, 50 Indian employees in an industrial zone, deprived of their salaries for three months, and having eaten virtually nothing for a week, were forced to leave the country, with nothing but debt and misery to show for their willingness to travel so far for the promise of work. The Middle East remained a dangerous place for migrant workers, often treated as virtual slaves as is the case for many female domestic workers. But from Hong Kong to Africa, in Thailand, Europe and the USA, migrant workers suffered from discrimination and abuse. Violations of the trade union rights of migrant workers exist in every region of the world, and they are amongst the most marginalized exploited workers on the face of the earth.