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Rampant violations of core labour standards, says ICFTU

by Someshwar Singh


Geneva, June 10 -- Akin to what happened more than a century ago during the Industrial Revolution, under pressure from the transnational corporations, the world is witnessing a revival of the demands to contain 'draconian labour laws', Mr. Bill Jordan of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) said here Thursday.

Releasing the ICFTU's 1999 Trade Union Rights Survey, Jordan said that at the time of the industrial revolution, the British government was asked to undo the draconian labour laws as they were undermining the forces of competition.

"The story of one country (Britain) then is becoming the story of all countries today," Jordan said. "Transnational companies are already telling countries desperate for their investments - 'if you want our investments, liberalise your laws, introduce more flexibility, do away with draconian labour laws.' That is the price for investment."

According to Jordan, the core labour standards enshrined in the ILO Declaration - relating to freedom of association and collective bargaining - were being violated all around the world.

The report said that 123 trade unionists were murdered in 1998, about 1650 individuals were attacked or injured, 3650 were arrested and a massive 21,427 were sacked for trade union activities. A record 119 countries have been cited this year. And these figures represent only 'the tip of the iceberg,' says the ICFTU.

According to the report, nowhere is a workers' rights clause in trade agreements more urgently needed than in the Americas, where the most appalling abuses still take place. Negotiations for the Free Trade Area of the Americas have steadfastly ignored that need.

Deregulation, privatisation and austerity measures continue to be the order of the day, leading to job losses, price rises and wage ceilings. Workers protests against their deteriorating situation are often met with violence, even death.

Behind the headlines about the banana trade war between the US and the European Union, said the ICFTU report, another battle was being fought - for the rights of the workers on the plantations. They are still forced to work long hours in dangerous conditions, exposed to toxic substances that have caused ill-health and the birth of genetically deformed babies.

For example, in Guatemala, there were repeated cases of workers being sacked for trying to form a union. Strikers were arrested, riot police were used, and two workers were shot and injured by a security guard. In Honduras, a union leader was shot dead. He had been calling on a US company to compensate the workers affected by pesticides.

"The overall picture in the Americas is of the growing power of transnationals, at the expense of workers' rights," the report said. "It is time they used their power positively, and they could start by agreeing, together with governments, to abide by the ILO's core conventions."

On the United States in particular, the survey notes that the US labour legislation does not adequately protect the right to organize and the right to strike. The law is unable to protect workers when the employer is determined to destroy or prevent union representation.

The procedures of the National Labour Relations Board (NLRB), the body which governs industrial relations in most of the private sector, do not provide workers with effective redress in the face of abuses by employers. Many workers, including those fired illegally, do not use available legal procedures because they take too long and fail to provide adequate compensation to redress the wrong done to them.

A poll conducted in 1994, notes the ICFTU survey, found that 79 per cent of Americans believe workers are likely to get fired if they try to organize a union at their workplace. The NLRB is estimated to have a backlog of almost 25,000 cases involving unfair labour practices committed by employers opposing trade union activity.

On Canada, the survey notes that the federal government and the various provincial governments continue to use legislation to interfere into the collective bargaining process in violations of the trade union rights of public employees.

In Western Europe, there were improvements in the United Kingdom where a government White Paper set out proposals to restore legal recognition to collective bargaining to representative trade unions. However, restrictive legislation of the 1980s and early 1990s remained in force, enabling an airline company to sack 300 striking employees.

In France, workers in small and medium-sized enterprises experienced difficulties in setting up unions and carrying out union activities. Strikes are still banned in the oil industry in Norway, and Germany persisted in its long-standing strike ban for many categories of public servants, despite repeated ILO criticism.

Much of the Middle East is still a black spot as far as the trade unions are concerned, particularly the Gulf States.

In Africa, workers in most countries are paying the cost of a debt crisis that was none of their making. Unemployment continues to rise, as privatisation and public spending cuts cause more large scale redundancies, often without compensation, while structural adjustment programmes impose wage freezes for workers already on poverty wages.

Asia was still reeling from the effects of the financial crisis in 1998. A rapid rise in bankruptcies and mass redundancies led to a massive increase in unemployment and poverty. Hundreds of thousands lost their jobs in Thailand, unemployment doubled to 8% in the Philippines, tripled to 9% in South Korea, and reached an all-time high of 16% in Indonesia. In Hong-Kong too workers were laid off, without compensation.

Amidst such grim statistics, Jordan described the latest trends as a 'very gradual victory.' While trade union rights were being undermined in the short run, Jordan had hopes the situation would improve in the long run.

Concerns have also been expressed by the ILO's Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations. In the light of information provided by governments, it notes that 'certain States which have been members of the ILO for many years, including countries with large populations representing approximately half of the workers and employers of the world, still appear to be reluctant to move towards a position which would allow ratification of these two instruments.'

The Committee has reminded governments of the great importance of ratifying the ILO freedom of association Conventions, given that the principles on which those instruments are based form one of the foundations of tripartism and should be at the heart of any democracy.

The most advanced country - the United States - has not yet ratified either of the two relevant ILO Conventions i.e the right to organize and collective bargaining or the freedom or association and protection of the right to organize.

The United States escapes the scrutiny of the Committee of Experts on conventions. But in 1995, the ILO Governing Body, decided to extend the activities of the ILO supervisory machinery to all seven basic ILO human rights instruments, and has been taking up each of these instruments and asking countries (whether they have ratified the conventions or not) to send reports. This year, the two conventions on Right to Organise (No.87 of 1948) and Right of Collective Bargaining (No.98 of 1949) were taken up for survey and report.

On the right of workers to organize, the US government has reported that the US Constitution guarantees this right to set up an organization, without prior government authorization or sanction, and while there has been no in-depth tripartite examination of the convention, the US Federal legislation appears to be compatible, and "no further steps, including with regard to ratification, are planned.

On the right of collective bargaining, the US government said that its Constitution and the National Labour Relations Act protected workers against acts of anti-union discrimination and organizations against acts of interference. No new measures are planned including with regard to ratifications, it has blandly added.

The Experts report and comment notes that on the right of freedom of Association, the leading US trade union, the AFL-CIO, has regretted the substantial decline in trade union membership among US workers, and said that this was due to the refusal by many American employers to fulfil their legal obligations regarding trade unions. The AFL-CIO has also referred to the growth of "management consultancy" industry in the US, with an annual turnover of $300 million, and which advises companies on remaining "union free".

On collective bargaining too, the AFL-CIO said that while the US legislation might seem to comply with the terms of the Convention, the actual practice in the US is quite different and "it is standard practice for employers to refuse to enter into collective bargaining."

The ICFTU survey said that in the US, the law is unable to protect workers when the employer is determined to destroy or prevent union representation. At least one in ten union supporters campaigning to form a union is illegally fired. There are also double standards in rights of employers and workers. In nine out of 10 union representative elections, employers use mandatory closed-door meetings conducted on their own premises to campaign against collective bargaining and trade unions. And trade union representatives are often denied access to employers property to meet employees during non-working time.

The NLRB procedures do not provide effective redress to workers in face of abuse of their rights by employers. The NLRB takes an average of 557 days to resolve a case.

And since trade union organizing in the US often involves excessive and costly litigation, the right to join trade unions and participate in collective bargaining is in practice denied to large segments of the US labour force, the ICFTU survey adds. (SUNS4454)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).

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