ITUC Annual Survey

101 Trade Unionists Murdered in 2009; Pressure on Workers’ Rights Grows as Crisis Hits Jobs

The ITUC’s Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights has documented a dramatic increase in the number of trade unionists murdered in 2009, with 101 killings – an increase of 30% over the previous year. The Survey, released today, also reveals growing pressure on fundamental workers’ rights around the world as the impact of the global economic crisis on employment deepened.

Of 101 murdered, 48 were killed in Colombia, 16 in Guatemala, 12 in Honduras, six in Mexico, six in Bangladesh, four in Brazil, three in the Dominican Republic, three in the Philippines, one in India, one in Iraq and one in Nigeria. Twenty-two of the Colombian trade unionists who were killed were senior trade union leaders and five were women, as the onslaught of previous years continued. The rise in violence in Guatemala and Honduras also followed a trend developing in recent years.

“Colombia was yet again the country where standing up for fundamental rights of workers is more likely than anywhere else to mean a death sentence, despite the Colombian government’s public relations campaign to the contrary. The worsening situation in Guatemala, Honduras and several other countries is also cause for extreme concern,” said ITUC General Secretary Guy Ryder.

This year’s report again records an extensive list of violations suffered by trade unionists struggling to defend workers’ interests, this time in 140 countries. Many other violations remain unreported, as working women and men are deprived of the means to have their voices heard, or fear to speak out due to the consequences to their jobs or even to their physical safety. Along with the appalling list of killings, the Survey provides detailed documentation of harassment, intimidation and other forms of anti-union persecution.
A further ten attempted murders and 35 serious death threats were recorded, again mostly in Colombia and Guatemala. Furthermore, many trade unionists remained in prison and were joined by around hundred newly imprisoned in 2009. Many others were arrested in Iran, Honduras, Pakistan, South Korea, Turkey and Zimbabwe in particular. The general trade union rights’ situation has continued to deteriorate in a number of other countries, including Egypt, the Russian Federation, South Korea and Turkey.

Anti-democratic forces continued to target union activity, aware that unions are often in the front line in the defence of democracy. This was evident in Honduras during the post-coup violence and in Guinea during a protest demonstration against the ruling junta which turned into a terrible massacre on 28 September.

Numerous cases of strike-breaking and repression of striking workers were documented in each region. Thousands of workers demonstrating to claim wages, denounce harsh working conditions or the harmful effects of the global financial and economical crisis faced beatings, arrest and detention, including in Algeria, Argentina, Belarus, Burma, Côte d’Ivoire, Egypt, Honduras, India, Iran, Kenya, Nepal, Pakistan and Turkey. Dismissals of workers due to their trade union activities were reported in many countries. In Bangladesh, six garment workers on strike for a pay increase and settlement of outstanding wages died after a police intervention.

Union busting and pressure continued to be widely used by employers. In several countries, companies threatened workers with closure or transfer of production sites if they organised or joined a trade union. Often employers simply refused to negotiate with legitimate workers’ representatives while the authorities did nothing. Some labour codes were amended to permit more “flexibility” and to unravel social welfare systems, which often impacted the existing industrial relations systems and thus curtailed trade union rights.

The undermining of internationally-recognised labour standards saw more and more workers facing insecurity and vulnerability in employment, with some 50% of the global workforce now in precarious jobs. This affected workers in export processing zones, especially in South East Asia and Central America, domestic workers, particularly in the Middle East and South East Asia, and migrants and agricultural workers. Many of the worst affected sectors have high concentrations of women workers. Furthermore, the growth of informal employment and the development of new “atypical” forms of employment were seen across both regions and industrial sectors. The difficulties faced by these workers to organise or exercise their trade union rights are directly related to their highly vulnerable position in the labour market.

The Survey also highlights many cases where, while trade union rights are officially protected in legislation, restrictions on legal coverage and weak or non-existent enforcement added to the vulnerability of workers already struggling in the depths of the crisis. Severe restrictions or outright prohibition of strikes also exist in a large number of countries. Furthermore, complex procedural requirements, imposition of compulsory arbitration and the use of excessively broad definitions of “essential services” provisions often make the exercise of trade union rights impossible in practice, depriving workers of their legitimate rights to union representation and participation in industrial action.

The ITUC report notes that 2009 was the 60th Anniversary of the ILO Convention 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, which has still not been ratified by countries such as Canada, China, India, Iran, the Republic of Korea, Mexico, Thailand, the United States and Vietnam. Thus, approximately half of the world’s economically active population is not covered by the Convention.

“This year’s ITUC survey shows that the majority of the world’s workers still lack effective protection of their rights to organise trade unions and bargain collectively. This is a major factor in the long-term increase in economic inequality within and between countries. Inadequate incomes for much of the world’s workforce helped cause the global economic crisis, and is making it much harder to put the economy on a path of sustainable growth,” said Ryder.

To read the survey in full

To see the survey video

To see the Multimedia page of the Report

To read the press release on Africa

To read the press release on Asia and Pacific

To read the press release on Europe

To read the press release on Middle East

To read the press release on the Americas

For more information, please contact the ITUC Press Department on: +32 2 224 0204 or +32 476 621 018