Press release: Anti-union repression increases in Asia-Pacific

The Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights in the world, published today by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), reveals that throughout 2010, employers and leaders in the Asia-Pacific region have once again chosen violence and the repression of trade union demands for social dialogue. More than 1,000 Asian trade unionists were injured and almost as many were arrested. There was an increase over 2009 in the number of labour activists murdered (12 in 2010, as opposed to 10 in 2009) as well as in the number of death threats directed against trade unionists.

2010 was a particularly harsh year in Bangladesh. Protests took place throughout the year in the clothing sector and were often met with violent repression. Six workers’ rights activists were killed at the hands of the police and of company thugs and scores were injured when the police broke the strikes. As in previous years, the Philippines is one of the countries where the violence was most deadly. Three Filipino trade union leaders were murdered in 2010. In India, the police killed two workers as they demonstrated against the death of a colleague. On 6 August, in Pakistan, a trade union leader from the garment sector and another trade union activist were murdered in the trade union premises immediately before the beginning of strike action.

In the majority of Asian countries, unionists and workers’ rights activists were arrested, often for taking part in protests and strikes. Of the approximately 900 arrests in the region in 2010, India accounted for more than half. In Vietnam three labour activists were arrested for distributing anti-government leaflets and organising strikes and were sentenced to between seven and nine years in prison. Many arrests also took place in Bangladesh, South Korea and Pakistan.

The ITUC Annual Survey denounces employers and authorities use of thugs to attack trade union leaders or activists. In addition to Bangladesh and China, this was notably the case in India and the Philippines. In India on 25 August, thugs attacked 60 workers from Viva Global (VG), a clothing manufacturer following a campaign to improve working conditions. 16 women were severely beaten. One of the thugs is a subcontractor occasionally employed by VG.

Anti-union repression often results in the dismissal of workers who are active in the defence of their rights. In Cambodia, 817 workers from the clothing sector were fired or suspended following a national strike in September. In Thailand, trade union members and leaders were dismissed under the false pretext of theft and negligence. Even the most prestigious companies use the same repressive practices. In the Maldives, for example, the luxurious Shangri-La Villingili Resort Hotel had no reservations about dismissing 14 trade unionists on the 14 April as they had protested against the arbitrary dismissal of four of their colleagues

Another widespread tendency in the Asia-Pacific region is the increasing use of temporary contracts, e.g. in Cambodia, South Korea or New Zealand. In many cases, the worker employed on a temporary contract does not dare to exercise his/her rights for fear that his/her contract will not be renewed. Peaceful protests against this practice can prove dangerous. In Pakistan, the Vice-President of the workers’ union at the Mari Gas company was kidnapped and tortured from the 9 to 11 March for his role in demonstrations calling for the regularisation of workers and the abolition of contract work.

The ITUC Annual Survey denounces many cases of harassment, threats and discrimination against workers who are members of independent trade unions. In South Korea, civil servant trade union members were harassed by such a degree by the authorities that their trade union could no longer function. In Thailand, where employers display an openly anti-union attitude, the government goes as far as providing training on trade union surveillance. The Survey also shows that the setting up of yellow trade unions is one of the techniques most frequently employed in Asia to weaken independent trade unions. This is particularly the case in Cambodia, South Korea, Indonesia and the Philippines.

Certain Asian countries like North Korea and Burma continue to ban in practice all independent trade union activity. In China, Laos and Vietnam, the law provides for a single trade union system. The ITUC Annual Survey also reveals that despite prison sentences for any attempt to form an independent trade union, more and more trade unions are being set up at company level in China. The number of strikes also continued to increase in China in 2010, particularly in private companies, despite brutal police repression or the use of “hired muscle”.

Read the complete survey