ICFTU: 2003 Survey - Asia: harsh and violent anti-union behaviour

10 June 2003

Extracts from the ICFTU Global Survey

With trade unionists harassed, sacked, assaulted, imprisoned and sometimes even killed, the survey covering 30 countries in the Asia and Pacific region deplores the depressing continuation and even partial worsening of trade union rights violations in the region. All the countries criticised in the previous edition of the survey again come under scrutiny. During 2002, 4 trade unionists in the region were killed and over 1250 were arrested and/or imprisoned.

Brussels 10 June 2003 (ICFTU online): In Thailand, workers from a textile firm sub-contracted to produce a leading brand of underwear have been subjected to constant intimidation, dismissals and beatings. They have even been forced by management to sign blank documents on which the manager has subsequently written that the workers in question have agreed to changes weakening their rights!

This is just one example of the fact that the working conditions in most Asian countries are still very insecure and the right of workers to organise is constantly breached by employers, often with the tacit or direct complicity of the authorities. This is particularly common in the export processing zones, which are all too often synonymous with union-free zones. From the Philippines to Malaysia, Sri Lanka, China and Vietnam, millions of workers, the vast majority of whom are women, are doing backbreaking jobs on poverty wages with disgraceful health and safety conditions. In the worst cases, this has even cost workers their lives, e.g. in Bangladesh, which holds the depressing world record for deaths of workers owing to fires at their workplaces, and where workers often have no means of escape when fires break out.

Obstacle courses and strike breakers

In the Philippines, 15,000 workers from the electronics firm Cebu Mitsumi have been struggling for eight years just to obtain the recognition of their trade union. Extremely long delays in examination of applications are the rule in Malaysia, whilst excessive numbers of members are required in the Philippines and whole sectors are excluded in Cambodia, Taiwan and Thailand. In many Asian countries forming a union is a real obstacle course, given the sheer number of legislative and practical barriers, and it can actually be a dangerous business for trade unionists.

In South Korea, for instance, when public sector employees tried to ignore the legal restrictions and attempted to form a union, one thousand police officers stormed their inaugural congress, arrested 178 delegates and sentenced 5 of them. In South Korea again, a strike in 5 Catholic hospitals led to an armed intervention by the anti-riot police, the sacking of 20 trade unionists, the “disciplining” of a further 573, and 7 of the 93 who stood trial were sent to prison.

In Fiji, several dozen trade unionists were sacked in the luxury hotels sector.

The survey denounces Indonesia for the growing number of attacks on trade unionists by paramilitary groups, which are supported by the army and the police and paid by employers to intimidate workers or break strikes. Such violence can also lead to loss of life, e.g. in India where the police opened fire on a demonstration at a tea plantation, killing one demonstrator and injuring five others.

Both in legislation and practice, the right to strike is generally not respected in the region. It is banned in law in Pakistan and prohibited de facto in whole sectors in certain regions of India. In Vietnam, the management of furniture factory attacked their striking employees with iron bars and four of the latter ended up in hospital.

The survey also points out the heavy price paid by teachers in the armed conflict dividing Nepal, since at least 52 teachers have been killed.

Under the yoke of dictatorships

The Burmese trade unionist U Saw Mya Than had just been elected head of his village, had followed a training course on trade union rights and had acquired a fine reputation in the region as a defender of human rights. However, on 4 August 2002, soldiers shot him in cold blood, as a reprisal for an attack by rebel forces. As a victim of forced labour, which is very common in the country, Than had been designated as a porter (in reality, a human shield) for soldiers.

In Burma, China, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam, the established trade unions are simply political instruments for controlling workers and have negotiating rights, whilst free trade unions are strictly forbidden and any hint of free union activity is very harshly repressed.

Long-term imprisonment, beatings, internment in psychiatric hospitals or labour camps, and harassment of families are systematically used in China to stamp out any free trade unions. In 2002, dozens of independent union activists were still languishing in Chinese jails in degrading conditions. To take just one example, Zhang Shanguang, a teacher and labour activist from Hunan who has been imprisoned since 1998, was made to do forced labour despite suffering from tuberculosis and heart disease. Owing to the mass redundancies in state enterprises, the year 2002 saw a large increase in social conflicts in China, all of which were harshly suppressed. Particularly strong repression was used in the oil town of Daqing and in Liaoyang, where workers’ representatives were thrown into prison and beaten up.

Legislation not applied

What little legislation there is ensuring respect of union rights is hardly ever applied, owing to lack of resources or lack of political will. In Cambodia, for instance, where the survey reports positive developments on respect of union rights, free trade unionists are still being sacked on a frequent basis and labour inspections are generally inadequate. Azerbaijan, which has some of the best legislation in the former USSR, nevertheless gives primacy to agreements reached, often with a total lack of transparency, between companies and the state. Worse still, in Hong Kong, article 23 of a law that is due to be adopted seems nothing other than a political instrument aimed at destroying all legitimate union activities.

In Japan, the survey denounces the aggravation of the severe restrictions on the union rights of civil servants, as well as the increase of anti-union attitudes during restructuring exercises in the private sector. In Australia, potential harmful effects on trade are used as a pretext for very severe restrictions on union rights. Most workers covered by individual “agreements”, in line with the policy advocated by the authorities, earn between 100 and 200 dollars less per week than colleagues covered by union-negotiated collective agreements.

Glimmers of hope

The survey does, however, highlight some positive developments in the region, such as the final abrogation of a drastic Sri Lankan law on essential services that severely restricted the right to strike. The report stresses the positive impact of international union campaigns, e.g. the one supporting the dozens of Thai workers, mainly women, sacked by the Light House Company, or indeed the one supporting the South Korean trade unionists released early from prison following worldwide demonstrations in front of embassies on 27 June 2002.

In the 133 countries and territories covered by the 2003 Annual Survey, the ICFTU has listed a total of 213 deaths or disappearances of trade unionists, with 2000 trade unionists arrested, some 1000 injured and 30,000 sacked during 2002.

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