2009 Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights - Asia

Anti-unionism undermines Asia

Anti-unionism undermines Asia

Brussels, 10 June 2009 (ITUC OnLine): Whilst the economic crisis serves as a daily reminder of the importance of social dialogue, many employers and governments in the Asia-Pacific region remain bent on repressing trade union activity. The latest ITUC Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights denounces hundreds of cases of harassment, arrests, attacks and assassinations targeting trade unionists in 2008.

It was the Philippines that saw the worst of the anti-union violence during 2008. Four Filipino unionists were murdered, including Gerry Cristobal of the "Solidarity of Cavite Workers" union, who had already suffered two attempts on his life in 2006 and 2007. Another trade unionist was abducted and tortured by agents of the Intelligence Service of the Armed Forces of the Philippines. Two trade unionists were also killed by the police in Nepal whilst taking part in a protest.

According to the ITUC Annual Survey, many governments in the region make themselves a party to the trade union rights violations committed by employers by tolerating a range of practices such as the massive use of temporary contracts, recourse to legal provisions prohibiting ‘the obstruction of business’ as a means of attacking unions, and the use of hired thugs or private security guards to intimidate trade unionists, etc. In several countries the procedures to be followed before strike action can be taken are so laborious that they render it virtually impossible.

The violation of trade union rights and the exploitation of workers are also facilitated by the policy of starving labour inspectorates of resources, which often results in corruption among the inspectors. In some instances, such as in Sri Lanka’s export processing zones (EPZs), labour inspectors are not allowed to make unannounced workplace visits. In many countries in the Asia-Pacific region, the labour courts or industrial tribunals are slow and inefficient, or more inclined to mediation than to actually protecting workers’ rights.

The ITUC Annual Survey reveals that migrant workers are amongst the most frequent victims of fundamental rights violations. In South Korea, two leaders of the Migrant Workers’ Union were arrested and deported in 2008. In Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia and Taiwan, migrants are barred from holding trade union office. In Malaysia, the authorities are aided by a civilian volunteer corps to instil terror in migrant workers. Many of these migrants are domestic workers, who rarely have the chance to organise in order to defend their rights. The labour laws either deny them the protection guaranteed to other workers (as in Singapore) or prohibit them from forming unions (as in Taiwan and Cambodia).

The ITUC Annual Survey notes that the coming to power of a conservative government in South Korea has led to a worsening of relations with the trade union movement. Numerous trade unionists were arrested and imprisoned. South Korea has not ratified any of the ILO core Conventions on trade union rights. Police brutality against strikers continued during 2008, and several workers were seriously injured.

The authorities in China, North Korea, Laos and Vietnam continued to force all unions to join the government-controlled single national trade union confederation. In 2008, the Vietnamese government tightened its legislation restricting the right to strike (though this has not prevented a rise in the number of illegal strikes). Meanwhile, the ITUC Annual Survey noted some positive developments in China, where several legislative amendments that entered into force in 2008 provide greater scope for collective bargaining. However, China continues to ban independent trade unions. Those attempting to unionise groups of workers or organise protests are often arrested and, in some instances, sentenced to jail.

Hostility towards trade unions remains the norm in the region’s export processing zones, especially in South Asia. In Sri Lanka, union activists were suspended, demoted, fired and assaulted. The general secretary of one union was threatened with kidnapping. In Bangladesh, strikes are banned in EPZs. In India, as in many other countries, union representatives are not allowed to enter these zones, unless they are employed there.

The ITUC Annual Survey denounces the military junta’s fierce repression of any form of trade union activity in Burma. Dozens of trade union activists and members of their families are rotting in Burmese jails, where some are being tortured. The Federation of Trade Unions of Burma (FTUB), an ITUC-associated organisation, is still considered to be an illegal organisation.

The state of emergency in Bangladesh was lifted on 17 December. It had prevented normal union activity for nearly two years, exacerbating the exploitation of workers. Hundreds of workers were injured by police or factory guards during protests in 2008; one worker later died of his injuries.

In Australia, the new government introduced a reform of the law governing industrial relations, halting the conclusion of individual statutory agreements, which took precedence over collective agreements. However, most of the employment laws adopted by the previous government remained in force at the end of the year.

The ITUC Annual Survey reports that the year 2008 ended on a positive note in Cambodia: on 31 December the Supreme Court finally ordered the release (on bail) of Born Samnang and Sok Sam Oeun, who had spent nearly five years in jail after being falsely accused of killing the union leader Chea Vichea. The case has been referred to the court of appeal for a retrial.

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