Middle East: widespread repression of union rights, particularly for migrants

The Middle East remains a region fiercely opposed to the exercise of trade union rights and the case of Iran is particularly concerning given the sheer severity of the anti-union repression.

Brussels, 20 November 2008: The Middle East remains a region fiercely opposed to the exercise of trade union rights and the case of Iran is particularly concerning given the sheer severity of the anti-union repression. Despite the progress in legislation reported in several countries in the region, many workers continue to live under threat of arrest, dismissal, imprisonment and even violence. Many migrant workers are still denied their most basic rights, in particular female domestic workers, many of whom are still facing terrible conditions.

A number of countries - Bahrain, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates - have introduced labour laws over the last eight years, but usually with severe shortcomings. In Saudi Arabia and Qatar the new labour codes grant very limited trade union rights. On the positive side, in Oman trade unions have been recognised together with the right to strike and collective bargaining, although restrictions are still imposed.

Granting labour rights often amounts to window dressing, since the governments concerned in fact keep a tight hold on organising. That applies particularly to Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon and Qatar. In Jordan, government permission must be obtained before a strike can take place. In Lebanon workers are not protected against anti-union discrimination. In Syria, civil servants who disrupt public services can be punished with forced labour. Another means of control is to stipulate that there can only be a single trade union, over which the government usually has jurisdiction, as in Bahrain, Jordan, Kuwait, Qatar and Syria.

Most countries in the region, though particularly Bahrain, Israel, Kuwait, Jordan, Lebanon, Oman, Qatar, Syria, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, depend on migrant labour to keep their economies going. However these migrants are living and working in very harsh conditions and sorely lack any legal protection. The report highlights the awful living conditions experienced by the workers in camps in Kuwait. In Qatar, the living and working conditions in the construction sector led to the death of several foreign construction workers. In Oman, the police repressed a strike by Indian and Nepali workers protesting about non-payment of salaries, and many were then deported. In the United Arab Emirates, the Survey also reports the cases of deportation of Asian workers who had had the temerity to demand higher wages. Domestic workers are at the bottom of the ranks of migrant labour and are shamefully exploited. In Saudi Arabia employers beat four Indonesian women so badly that two died, and police forcibly removed the other two from hospital. The ITUC Survey notes some positive progress in Jordan and Kuwait, which adopted a standard employment contract for non-national domestic workers.

The region is also afflicted by political conflicts that have had a negative impact on trade union and workers’ rights. In the Lebanon, the Confederation of Trade Unions’ call for a general strike in protest at the government’s economic programme was hijacked by the Hezbollah-led opposition. In Palestine, there were assassination attempts on a leader of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, and union offices were bombed. In Israel, where a large portion of employers reportedly breach labour laws, Palestinian workers who enter the country to look for work face discrimination.

In Iraq, trade unions were targeted by Iraqi militias and terrorist groups. Hassan Hamsa, President of the Hotel and Tourism Employees Union was murdered after receiving death threats from Islamic Sunni extremists and troops ransacked the offices of the General Federation of Iraqi Workers. Najim Abd-Jasem, General Secretary of the Mechanical Workers Union was abducted and tortured to death.

Iran remains the country in the region with the most widespread repression of trade unionists and the Survey listed 40 trade unionists behind bars in 2007. The Iranian government strictly controls trade union activity, cracking down on activists. The teachers’ unions were a focus of government repression. Mahmoud Salehi, of the Coordination Committee for the Establishment of Workers’ Organisations, was imprisoned for "conspiracy". Mansour Osanloo, the leader of the Tehran and Suburbs Company bus drivers’ union, was abducted, held in solitary confinement and mistreated. His family was also targeted. At the time of writing of this report, this leading figure in the union movement is still in prison and denied visits by his lawyer and family, despite his very worrying state of health.

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


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