Annual Survey on Violations of Trade Union Rights
Three observations can be made when reading the 1997 edition of our Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights.
The first is that trade union leaders and members are being branded by the advocates of economic liberalism as the kill-joys of the great globalisation party. They have denounced growing inequalities, demanded the respect of hard-won workers rights and mobilised their members around proposals for alternative societies, making the human dimension of economic and social development a priority. In doing so, they have roused the fury of governments, who have chosen to bow to pressure from the financial markets rather than from their own electorate.
Governments thirst for investment is compounded by the insatiable appetite of employers for new markets and a "competitive" labour force, by which they mean cheap and endlessly exploitable. This combination of governments seeking to shed their powers of intervention in the economy, and employers and the business world striving to increase theirs, is one of the root causes of anti-union repression. The methods used may be less violent, but repression today is more insidious.
At best trade unions are seen as interest groups. Despite their representative nature and their links with the rest of civil society, their scope of action is being steadily curbed by new legislation, special powers and labour code reforms. At worst, trade unionists are treated as common criminals, accused of "subversion" and "sabotage", even "terrorism". Many are imprisoned (often without trial, or after a show trial) or simply eliminated. In 1996, even peaceful action in support of greater social justice and the defence of the legitimate rights of the producers of wealth to form trade unions and freely negotiate their working conditions still proved dangerous. The cases listed in the report, which does not claim to be exhaustive, provide ample illustration. Two hundred and sixty-four trade unionists were assassinated in 1996. More than half of these murders were committed in Algeria (in the persistent violence between armed Islamist groups and the governments security forces) or Colombia (where the ferocity of paramilitary groups and contract killers in the pay of the landowners, drug traffickers or employers is equalled only by the passivity of the government in dealing with these crimes, most of which remain unpunished). The new legal measures adopted in many countries have allowed governments to give full rein to their real intentions regarding workers demands: according to reports reaching the ICFTU, at least 4,264 people were arrested or questioned in 1996 for carrying out trade union activities recognised in international labour law codified by the International Labour Organisation. Many were tortured.
Strikes and peaceful demonstrations again resulted in police violence. At least 1,700 activists paid the price for their commitment. Tens of thousands of workers lost their jobs purely because of their trade union activities. The government of Zimbabwe had no hesitation in threatening 135,000 striking civil servants. Harassment, intimidation and death threats against trade union members rose sharply in 1996 (with 7,626 cases recorded), suggesting that 1997 will be another dangerous year for those who choose to stand up for a fairer society.
The second observation to be made from the report is that measures aimed at circumventing or marginalising trade unions, or simply reducing them to silence, in deference to the dominant principles of the day (flexibility, privatisation, deregulation) have proved devastatingly harmful to the world economy. The removal of obstacles to world trade and of the "rigidities" of the labour market, as well as total submission to the laws of the market and its invisible hand were supposed, promised the gurus of neoliberalism, to bring about renewed economic recovery which would benefit the whole of the population.
That is far from being the case. The fierce competition between enterprises in the new economic jungle has split the labour world of the industrialised countries into two classes: those who have lost their jobs, and those who fear losing the one that in many cases they have only been able to keep at the cost of wage concessions, deteriorating conditions and lower social protection.
Poverty and inequality have increased in the developing countries, which globalisation has drawn into a downward spiral of ever lower labour standards to attract investment and meet the demands of enterprises seeking a fast profit.
Last but not least, the third observation that emerges from the Annual Survey is that despite the repressive measures against them, and in spite of the ever more subtle methods deployed to marginalise them, trade unions made their presence felt in 1996. Trade unions all over the world have intensified their campaigns, have won the support of ever larger sections of the population, and have mobilised international trade union solidarity as never before. 1996 also saw trade unions on the five continents firmly asserting their demand for the inclusion of a social clause in international trade agreements. Their determination forced the ministers of the member states of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) meeting in Singapore last December to make a commitment to respect fundamental social rights. The trade union position is clear. Our movement will give its full support to a policy of constructive globalisation that will contribute to creating jobs, reducing poverty and inequality, and putting an end to discrimination in employment. The process we see today does not meet these objectives. On the contrary, globalisation has become synonymous with unemployment, underemployment and growing inequality. In the face of this devastation, the trade union movement is steadily emerging as the last bastion against injustice and an essential factor in economic and social progress. The trade union movement owes this new momentum to the activists who risked their lives and their freedom for justice. This report is dedicated to them. Let it also be a reminder to governments who are members of the International Labour Organisation, and have ratified its international conventions, that they must live up to their international obligations. Finally, let it be a warning to politicians, the business world and employers: there will be a social world market or no world market.