2011 was a difficult and often dangerous year for workers throughout world, with those who dared stand up for their trade union rights facing dismissal, arrest, imprisonment and even death. That in essence is the picture that emerges from the annual survey of trade union rights violations published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). This year's survey examines 143 countries.
Most dangerous regions
Colombia is once again the most dangerous country in the world for trade unionists. Of the 76 people murdered for their trade union activities, not counting the workers killed during the Arab Spring, 29 lost their lives in Colombia. And in Guatemala yet again trade unionists paid a heavy price, with 10 assassinations committed with impunity. A further eight trade unionists were murdered in Asia.
Arab Spring paid dearly
The year 2011 was of course the year of the Arab Spring and the revolutions surrounding this in North Africa, the Middle East and the Gulf States. The repression of trade union rights has been particularly harsh in these regions. Trade union organisations played a leading role in the revolutions, notably in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain. They paid a heavy price. Hundreds of activists were killed in the clashes and thousands were arrested. Today however the road to democracy is getting smoother, as could be seen from the massive turnout for the Egyptian elections in November and the continued protests in Syria and Bahrain. The creation of an independent trade union movement is well underway, although there is still no freedom of association in some nations, such as Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Eritrea or Sudan.
The worldwide trends highlighted in the survey include the non respect of labour legislation by governments, the lack of funding for labour inspection and workers' protection, the lack of rights and the abuse faced by migrant workers throughout the world, particularly in the Gulf States, and the exploitation of the largely female workforce in the export processing zones around the globe. Among the most vulnerable are the 100 million domestic workers.
Effects of the economic crisis
The world economic crisis continued to impact unfairly on workers, as governments persisted in favouring austerity measures over stimulating growth and employment, says the ITUC survey. The consequences have been devastating, particularly for the young. Unemployment reached 205 million in 2011. In Spain, 40% of young people are out of work while Greece has an unemployment rate of 21%.
The measures taken to optimise profits and flexibility at the expense of the workforce have failed. One consequence of this failure is the increase in precarious forms of working, making it extremely difficult for trade union organisations to defend workers rights, for example in South Africa, Bangladesh, Cambodia and Pakistan.
Disturbing, says ITUC
"The situation of hundreds of thousands of workers is very disturbing," said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the ITUC.
"Most of them do not enjoy the fundamental rights of collective bargaining and freedom of association, and are in precarious employment. Their lives are thrown into disarray because they have to work long hours in dangerous and unhealthy conditions, in return for salaries so low they cannot meet their own needs or those of their families. That partly explains the worldwide recession."
The ITUC survey reveals how strikes are fiercely repressed in many countries, by means of mass dismissals, arrests and detention, including in Georgia, Kenya, South Africa and Botswana, where 2800 workers were dismissed after a public sector strike. Trade union rights do not only come under attack in the developing world however. They are also under threat in many industrialised countries, including Canada, whose conservative government has repeatedly sought to undermine union organising and collective bargaining rights.
Organising workers in the export processing zones remains very difficult, according to the ITUC survey. Legal restrictions persist and trade unions are still banned in most of them.
Migrant workers remain another very vulnerable group, particularly in the Gulf States where they represent the majority of the workforce in Kuwait, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates but have few or no rights.
Among these migrant workers are some 100 million domestic workers, the great majority of whom are women with little knowledge of their rights and no means of enforcing them. The ITUC has therefore welcomed the adoption of the International Labour Organisation's (ILO) Convention no.189 on Domestic Workers, which gives these workers the right to form unions and enjoy decent working conditions. The international trade union confederation is campaigning vigorously with its "12 by 12" campaign, aimed at getting 12 countries to ratify the convention by the end of 2012.
Click to read the whole Survey from ITUC