Asia-Pacific: Blatant anti-unionism is squashing workers’ rights

Assassinations, beatings and dismissals … many Asian government and employers stop at nothing in their attempts to silence the unions. The latest edition of the ITUC’s Annual Survey on Violations of Trade Union Rights pours shame on the barbarous deeds against tens of thousand Asian workers in 2007.

Brussels, 20 November 2008: Assassinations, beatings and dismissals … many Asian government and employers stop at nothing in their attempts to silence the unions. The latest edition of the ITUC’s Annual Survey on Violations of Trade Union Rights pours shame on the barbarous deeds against tens of thousand Asian workers in 2007.

The Philippines hosted some of the most serious violations on the Asian continent, with more murders and abductions of trade unionists in 2007, albeit in lower numbers than in 2006. The ITUC Survey also points the finger at Cambodia where, following the murders of Chea Vichea and Ros Sovannareth in 2004, a third leader of the FTUWKC, Hy Vuthy, was assassinated in February 2007. The Cambodian justice system also issued the ludicrous ruling that Born Samnag and Sok Sam Oeun, the two innocent parties accused of the murder of Chea Vichea, should remain in prison. The situation is equally disturbing in Sri Lanka, where the Supreme Court called into question a number of ILO principles and some trade unionists were abducted whilst others received death threats.

Several Asian countries declared states of emergency that suspended freedom of association in the course of 2007. In Bangladesh the state of emergency declared by the President on 11 January had a very negative impact on workers, who were banned from holding meetings and carrying out union activities. Employers took advantage of these restrictions to engage in systematic harassment of trade union leaders.

In Pakistan too, a state of emergency declared on 3 November 2007 by General Musharraf was accompanied by the suspension of the freedoms of association and assembly. Many trade unionists, opposition members, lawyers and human rights activities were arrested as a result. And despite longstanding promises to the ILO, the Pakistani government has still made no progress towards bringing its legislation into line with international standards.

The new ITUC Survey shows that despite the image China was trying to portray during the recent Olympic Games, things are not all rosy for its workers. The merest attempts to engage in independent trade union action are still harshly repressed. Chinese law bans workers from joining any union not belonging to the ACFTU, which is bound by its Constitution to accept the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party. In 2007, the Chinese police frequently used violence to disperse workers’ protests, causing grievous injuries, and arrested union members and leaders. Dozens of independent labour activists and leaders jailed in previous years remained in prison, in re-education through labour camps or in psychiatric institutions.

In Burma, the merciless repression of any form of trade union activity continued. The independent Federation of Trade Unions-Burma continued to be outlawed. The Burmese military junta sentenced six workers to 20 years in prison for taking part in activities linked to the 1st May and imprisoned a leader of the railway workers’ union.

In Australia, the industrial relations legislation of the Howard government remained a real burden for workers and the unions. The Howard government has fallen since then, partly due to its labour legislation. The employers used this to remove some workers from the coverage of collective agreements and make them sign individual contracts instead. Tough fines were imposed on workers and unions in the construction sector for organising protests drawing attention to safety problems.

Asian governments and employers sometimes conceal their anti-union repression by paying thugs to commit violence on their behalf. This happened in 2007 in Bangladesh, the Philippines and Indonesia, amongst others. The ITUC Survey quotes a similar case in China, too: in June some 300 building workers employed at a hydroelectric power station in the province of Guangdong went on strike to demand four months of unpaid wages, but were attacked and beaten up by more than 200 “gangsters” armed with spades, axes, steel pipes and sabres.

The government of South Korea also carried on with its anti-union repression. Police violence against strikers continued, resulting in serious injuries in several cases. The government’s labour law reforms did not meet international standards or Korea’s own commitments to the OECD. Although the Korean Government Employees Union was finally recognised in October, after many years’ struggle, the aggressive anti-union campaigns against it barely decreased. Civil servants saw major restrictions of their union rights in many other Asian countries, in particular Thailand and Cambodia. In Japan the ban on strikes in the civil service remained in place.

The ITUC Survey shows that organising peaceful strike pickets can be a dangerous activity in many Asian countries. In Indonesia, for instance, military personnel hired by employers fired blanks at a union picket. Anti-union violence also broke out on 17 April in Malacca (Malaysia), when police used force to disperse a peaceful picket organised by workers in the Panasonic company. That multinational was not the only one to be denounced for violations of union rights, however, as similar behaviour by British American Tobacco in Malaysia and Unilever in India and Pakistan was also reported.

Across Asia, and particularly Southern Asia, restrictions on union rights in the export processing zones were compounded by harassment, dismissals and other regular violations by employers. In Pakistan, unions were banned from entering the zones, whilst in India, Bangladesh and Sri Lanka, the authorities turned a blind eye on the systematic campaigns by employers against union organisers.

Migrant workers rarely enjoy even basic protection in Asia. In Malaysia, for instance, a volunteer corps of civilians was involved in a series of human rights violations against migrant workers, who make up 15 to 20% of the workforce. Migrant workers in Thailand, Singapore and Brunei Darussalam are not allowed to form or lead trade unions. In South Korea three leaders of the migrant workers’ union were arrested and deported.

The ITUC represents 168 million workers in 155 countries and territories and has 311 national affiliates.

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