Labor unions around the world faced a difficult year in 2001 due both to direct and sometimes violent repression, as well as the continuing pursuit by major multinational corporations of cheap labor in poor countries, according to the latest in a series of annual reports by the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
As in recent years, the South American nation of Colombia accounted for the vast majority of murdered or "disappeared" labor activists during 2001, 201 out of a global total of 223. The ICFTU's 2001 Survey, which covers 132 countries around the world, described Colombia's performance as both unprecedented and "terrifying."
But Asia accounted for the greatest number of detentions and prison sentences given to trade union activists, 200 in South Korea alone, according to the report, which also noted that prison sentences for organizers were harshest in China where organizers are often singled out for torture and arbitrary extensions of sentences.
The Survey also noted serious setbacks in trade union rights in Africa, where it singled out the murders of unionists in Zimbabwe and Swaziland, and in Europe, where it said Belarus "stands out quite simply as an unabridged encyclopedia of trade union rights violations."
In many countries, especially single-party states, labor unions are simply banned outright, according to the report which cited a number of Mideastern countries, notably Syria and Iraq, as well as Asian nations, including North Korea, Vietnam, Laos, and Burma.
The year was not devoid of some union gains around the world, however, much of it due to pressure exerted on a number of governments by international solidarity efforts.
In El Salvador, for example, workers at a Taiwanese-owned textile factory in one of the country's four Export-Processing Zones (EPZ) won formal recognition for their union. The action marked a major breakthrough since EPZ-based plants in developing countries, and especially in Central America, are notoriously difficult to unionize.
In addition, international campaigns won the release of imprisoned or detained trade unionists in several countries around the world, including Thailand, Ghana, Belize, and Central African Republic.
But overall, a tough challenge for the international labor union movement was posed last year by a global economic downturn and the continuing pursuit by international financial institutions (IFIs) -- such as the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund -- of market-oriented economic austerity measures in some poor countries, the Survey found.
"[W]here workers have expressed their discontent [with these policies]," according to the Survey, "governments have been quick to respond with repression."
In Bangladesh, for example, the general secretary of the Jatiyo Sramik union, Iqbal Majumber, who led a battle against privatization and deregulation, was shot down when leaving his office in May 2001. While in Argentina, austerity and other measures taken by the government at the behest of IFIs resulted in demonstrations, violence, and the ouster of a succession of presidents.
Besides Colombia's performance -- which set a new record for killings of labor activists -- Brazil, Bolivia, and Guatemala all saw workers losing their lives while trying to organize fellow-workers, the Survey said. It also noted that EPZs and banana plantations in Central America were among those sectors where labor unions had the most difficult time.
In Asia, the Survey said strike breaking and union busting were "rife" throughout the region, particularly in China, South Korea, Indonesia, and Pakistan where "employers have no qualms hiring thugs to attack workers, especially when they are on strike or occupying their workplaces."
The Survey reported an a "huge increase" in repression of labor unions in Africa, noting that Zimbabwe, where organized workers have strongly opposed the government of President Robert Mugabe, accounted for a total of 223 of the 282 cases of injured and assaulted trade unionists recorded in the 37 African countries covered in the report. Three workers were killed at the Zimbabwe Iron and Steel Company last August when the army opened fire on striking workers.
The trade union situation throughout the Middle East remained gloomy, particularly for migrant workers. There were some glimmers of hope, however, in Bahrain, which is considering legalizing unions; Iran, where the authorities are showing increased tolerance for union organizing; and Yemen, one of the few countries in the region which has a functioning trade union organization.
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