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Press release: Very sombre situation for social and trade union rights in the Arab world in 2010, on the eve of the Tunisian spark.

Against the backdrop of extremely severe restrictions on the freedom of association, trade union rights remain largely violated in 2010 in the Arab world. In addition to authoritarian governments who deprive the people of their fundamental freedoms and the constant precariousness of the job market, the excessive number of violations revealed in the Survey gives us an understanding of the explosive nature of the prevailing situation in 2010. Migrant workers in particular, continued to suffer discrimination and inhumane working conditions. Despite repeated promises of improvements in a number of countries, the actual progress made in 2010 was extremely limited.

Sharan Burrow, the ITUC General Secretary said that “The Arab world in 2010 remains a particularly sombre zone for trade union rights. From the Gafsa mining basin in Tunisia to the industrial zones in Egypt, the mounting social protest revealed by this Survey highlights both the social desperation and the courageous mobilisation of trade unionists from the area who would play a key role in the Tunisian revolution and subsequently in Egypt. This survey sheds light on the causes and the actors involved in the revolutions and the aspiration for a wind of change that continues to sweep through the region, despite the bloody repression in Bahrain, Libya and Syria”. Sharan Burrow concluded by saying that “The fight for the respect of trade union rights is one of the essential cornerstones in the fight for democracy and social justice in the Arab world”.

The Survey also gives details of the repression by the Ben Ali regime and the social protests prior to the revolution, particularly in the Gafsa region. For example, on 25 November, Gafsa primary school teachers protested against the longstanding injustice in the Redeyef mining basin (non-reinstatement of many teacher trade union activists, on-going detention of demonstrators from 2008, surveillance and constant harassment of their families). Three weeks later, the immolation of a young unemployed man Sidi Bouzid would spark a series of demonstrations across the country, in which the regional federations of the Union générale tunisienne du travail (UGTT) played a very active role, first, taking control of the capital and culminating in the fall of the Ben Ali regime.

In Egypt, despite the wave of dismissals by employers and the constant repression by the government of the first independent trade unions, the wave of worker revolts which began in 2006, remains active in 2010. For example, with the massive strike by workers at the Tanta Linen clothing factory during the anti-Moubarak revolution, 2010 had already been characterised by many social conflicts which are detailed in the Survey.

In Iraq, where the labour legislation dates back to the era of Saddam Hussein, trade unions have been forbidden in the public sector for many years, this is also the case in Kuwait. Even though a new law is being prepared, it has not been implemented as yet. Furthermore, the electrician’s trade union was dismantled and the President of the journalist’s trade union survived a second attempt on his life.

Elsewhere, as a consequence of the limitations on freedom of association, both the right to bargain collectively and the right to strike are severely restricted in the region.
Strikes, when they are legal, are often difficult to carry out. In Jordan and Yemen, authorisation is required from the authorities, whereas in the United Arab Emirates and Palestine, the authorities can simply decide to cancel the strike.

In particular in the regions’ oil-producing countries, migrant workers make up a large portion of the working population (70% in the United Arab Emirates and Kuwait). Migrant workers are typically confined to the least well paid and difficult jobs, particularly in construction. Many have their passports confiscated, suffer from late or non-payment of wages and even forced labour. They are forbidden to organise in trade unions and have no recourse to defend their fundamental labour rights. In Bahrain at the end of July, 115 Indian migrant workers, who had not been paid for three months, found themselves stuck, without food, water or electricity in a labour camp in Tubli.
Domestic migrant workers are particularly affected: not only are they often excluded from the protection of labour laws; they are also often victims of physical and sexual abuse. On 11 November, the body of Kikim, an Indonesian female domestic worker was found in a bin in Abha (Saudi Arabia); she had been tortured to death by her employers. In August, a Sri-Lankan female domestic worker had 24 nails hammered into her body by her employer, also in Saudi Arabia, a country that employs 1.5 million domestic workers. The Survey does stress however the positive advances in Jordan, where the law was extended to include domestic workers in 2008.

“This Survey testifies year after year to the disregard of migrant workers, who are hugely exploited and deprived of their freedom of association. This distressing statement is key to understanding the tragedy experienced by thousands of migrants caught up in the whirlwind of revolts and repression, particularly in Libya, Bahrain and Yemen” said Sharan Burrow

Read the complete survey

For further information or to request an interview with the regional contacts or comments from Sharan Burrow, the ITUC General Secretary, please contact Mathieu Debroux (+32 2 476 621 018 or +32 2 224 02 04) or send an email to mathieu.debroux@ituc-csi.org or press@ituc-csi.org