International Human Rights Day Statement

In 1950, the UN General Assembly proclaimed 10 December as Human Rights Day in order to call attention to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Importantly for trade unions, the Declaration provides:

Article 23

(1) Everyone has the right to work, to free choice of employment, to just and favourable conditions of work and to protection against unemployment.

(2) Everyone, without any discrimination, has the right to equal pay for equal work.

(3) Everyone who works has the right to just and favourable remuneration ensuring for himself and his family an existence worthy of human dignity, and supplemented, if necessary, by other means of social protection.

(4) Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.

Unfortunately, the fundamental right to join a trade union of one’s choosing has been under considerable attack around the world in 2013.

Most surprising was the decision by the UN Secretary General, Ban Ki Moon, to withdraw the right to collectively negotiate from the UN staff unions earlier this year. The UN, the institution charged with promoting rights human rights around the world, has turned its back on one of the fundamental rights enshrined by its own specialized agency – the International Labour Organization (ILO). UN staff often work in difficult and dangerous posts around the world, and the loss of a collective voice at the bargaining table could have significant repercussions.

In Europe, member states have sought to dramatically drive down labour costs by gutting national laws on freedom of association and collective bargaining that were the result of decades of struggle and social dialogue. This has led to a precipitous decline in collective bargaining coverage, and of course in wages. Despite these measures, these economies have not improved and unemployment remains extremely high. In some cases, these reforms were the direct result of loan conditions imposed by the “troika” – the IMF, the European Central Bank and the European Commission. International and regional bodies such as the ILO and the European Committee of Social Rights have confirmed repeatedly that these measures violate fundamental labour rights. Despite on-going international pressure, the trade union rights situation has worsened in Belarus. Not surprisingly, the European Union extended for another year its sanctions against Belarus on November 25th.

In Korea, President Park has in her few months in office attacked the Korean labour movement deregistering the largest teachers union, the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union, and refusing again to register the Korean Government Employees Union. The government has seized the computers of the latter on specious grounds. It has also announced a severe crackdown on Korean Railway Workers Union (KRWU) if they go ahead with a strike against rail privatization. Violence against trade unionists has again surfaced as a serious problem in the Philippines, with three trade unionists murdered in 2013. Fiji, which recently passed a constitution that grants complete immunity to the military government, continues to defy the international community by refusing to allow the ILO to undertake an investigation into widespread violations of the right to freedom of association.

In September, the ITUC organized a Global Inquiry Panel in Swaziland to hear testimonies from the workers themselves about conditions of work in Swaziland. Police detained trade union leaders and panellists (including Jay Naidoo) and prevented the event from continuing. Trade unionists in Swaziland were threatened and arrested throughout the year.

In Guatemala, the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist today, high-level pressure from the international trade union movement, the ILO and the US government has forced the government to adopt action plans to address widespread violations of workers’ rights. However, while some commitments have been made, there is little evidence of improvements in actual practice. Workers continue to face serious human rights violations, including death threats and murder. Similarly, action plans adopted by Colombia, including with the US, have brought about some changes in legislation, but serious violations, including assassinations, continue apace.

Today, 21 million people are working in forced labour conditions. This is more than ever before. There is an urgent need to address the scourge of modern day slavery through new binding international regulations that restore worker protection. Kafala, the migrant worker recruitment system found in the Gulf, is responsible for the forced labour exploitation of many of the roughly 1.5 million migrant workers in Qatar. Though the international spotlight is now on Qatar, the government still needs to make numerous legal and practical reforms necessary to ensure workers’ rights are respected – including lifting the ban on migrant workers from forming or joining unions.