- Carl Gershman, President National Endowment for Democracy
- Derek Mitchell, President, National Democratic Institute
- Dan Twining, President, International Republican Institutes
- Shawna Bader-Blau, Ex. Director, Solidarity Center
- Andrew Wilson, Ex. Director, Ctr. For International Private Enterprise
“We are appalled by the violent and seditious assault at the United States Capitol today. Nonetheless, we are confident in the enduring strength of American institutions, and that any attempts to subvert our democracy will not succeed. Those involved in illegal activity today must be held to account.”
“A fundamental tenet of democracy is the peaceful contest of ideas among fellow citizens under law. After a free and fair election, when incumbents are defeated, a peaceful transfer of power must result. It is through such democratic processes that fundamental freedoms are protected, and opportunity and justice are possible for all. We know from decades of experience that the job of democracy is never done, and that democracy is fragile. But we also know it is resilient.”
“We have faith that our country will soon begin a period of national healing that will renew our democracy. As Americans continue on their difficult but historic journey to form a “more perfect union” at home, we want to reaffirm our commitment to stand in solidarity with all those around the world who share democratic values and who continue to fight against all those who would subvert them.”
A vicious crackdown in Belarus on striking workers peacefully protesting President Lukashenko’s refusal to leave power despite months-long popular protests is drawing the attention and condemnation of worker and human rights experts, including Amnesty International, the AFL-CIO, the Solidarity Center and the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).
“The right to strike is guaranteed under international law, and the government is obliged to respect this right, all the more because Belarus has ratified ILO Conventions 87 and 98,” says ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow, who also denounced Belarus’s violation of workers’ fundamental right to freedom of assembly and of association rights through police violence and threats targeting the general public.
Lukashenko, in power since 1994, claims to have won the August 9 presidential election by a landslide, even though his political opponents and citizens charge poll-rigging. The country’s almost daily protests since then have incurred an authoritarian response that, so far, has led to several deaths, hundreds of injuries and more than 10,000 arrests.
In Minsk, where 100,000 people marched to deliver a “People’s Ultimatum,” authorities cut off mobile internet access, closed down public transportation, turned out balaclava-clad riot police and military and riot control vehicles at strategic sites, and attacked protesters in the evening.
Participants in Monday’s general strike, including ITUC affiliate the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP), demanded Lukashenko’s resignation, a halt to the crackdown and the release of political prisoners. Thousands stayed home or took to the streets—including workers at state-owned factories and private enterprises, including restaurants and cafes—as well as university students and their teachers. At least 155 people were arrested for supporting the strike in Minsk, Borisov, Brest, Grodno, Mogilev and Novopolotsk, human rights group Vesna reported.
Intimidation may have had a chilling factor on the strike, says the BKDP, who also reported that peacefully protesting workers at Minsk’s Hi-Technology Park were being intimidated and dispersed. Other intimidation tactics included visits by security officers to the homes of workers who failed to start their shift at Grodno Azot, a major nitrogen fertilizer producer in Grodno, as reported by the Associated Press.
“A frank disregard is being shown for the most basic of human rights, and the right to strike is now one more that is being mercilessly crushed,” says Amnesty International Acting Director for Eastern Europe and Central Asia Denis Krivosheev.
The AFL-CIO, in a letter to the BKDP president, praised the BKDP, its affiliates and members for their support for worker rights and democracy despite government repression and harassment.
“Intimidation must end. We support the right of workers to participate in collective actions specifically to demand fair and democratic elections,” says Solidarity Center Europe and Central Asia Director Rudy Porter.
The ITUC Global Rights Index, has ranked Belarus “no guarantee of rights” for many years under Lukashenko’s government, including in 2020, in part because legal strikes are effectively impossible while illegal strikes fall afoul of severely punitive legislation.
Update: Read the BKDP’s November 2 statement regarding the punishment of striking workers and their leaders, in Russian.
More than 500 political, civil leaders, Nobel Laureates and pro-democracy institutions—including the Solidarity Center—are calling for the defense of democracy and warning that fundamental freedoms are under threat from governments using the COVID-19 pandemic to tighten their grip on power.
In a letter released today, the signatories from around the world and a broad political spectrum said, “Repression will not help to control the pandemic. Silencing free speech, jailing peaceful dissenters, suppressing legislative oversight and indefinitely canceling elections all do nothing to protect public health. On the contrary, these assaults on freedom, transparency and democracy will make it more difficult for societies to respond quickly and effectively to the crisis through both government and civic action.”
The pandemic and the global movement for racial equality have demonstrated that “democracy is more important than ever,” the group said in a press release. “Democracy allows for civil society to mobilize, for inequalities to be confronted, for policy issues to be openly debated, for trustworthy information to freely flow, and governments to be accountable to citizens—all essential tools for successfully dealing with the current public health emergency and its consequences.”
They added that the key elements of liberal democracy—credible and free flowing information, fact-based debate about policy options, voluntary self-organization of civil society and open engagement between government and society—are vital to combating the pandemic. When voices are suppressed, “the results can be deadly, not for just one country but for the entire world.”
The number of countries that exclude workers from the right to form or join unions increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019, and 80 percent of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining rights, according to the International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index 2019 released today.
“Democracy is in crisis, as governments continue to roll back workers fundamental rights,” ITUC General Secretary Burrow said at a press conference releasing the report today in Geneva. “But our solidarity and defense of workers is also unprecedented.”
The report documents escalating repressive actions against workers worldwide as part of a global environment in which democracy is being increasingly restricted.
In addition, the report finds:
- Union members and leaders were murdered in 10 countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
- 85 percent of countries have violated the right to strike.
- Workers had no or restricted access to justice in 72 percent of countries.
- Authorities impeded the registration of unions in 59 percent of countries.
- The number of countries where workers are arrested and detained increased from 59 in 2018 to 64 in 2019.
“The three global trends for workers’ rights identified in the 2019 Global Rights Index show that democracy is in crisis, governments are attempting to silence the age of anger through brutal repression, but legislative successes for workers’ rights are still being won,” the report states.
‘We Will Claim Our Rights!’
Speaking at the press conference, Bernice Coronacion, senior leader of the union federation SENTRO in the Philippines, choked up as she recounted the violent escalation against union members there, including the murder of a union leader.
“Trade union work very dangerous in the country,” she said. “We don’t just need good rights on paper for workers, we need them to be actualized. And we will claim these rights!”
The Philippines is among the 10 worst countries for workers’ rights in 2019, according to the report. The others are Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
But the report makes clear that worker rights are endangered across the spectrum: The greatest increase in the number of countries excluding workers from the right to form unions occurred in Europe, where 50 percent of countries now exclude groups of workers from the law, up from 20 percent in 2018.
Also speaking at the press conference, Vagner Freitas, president of the Central Union of Workers (CUT) in Brazil, said although the rights of women workers are being rolled back, “women have been at the forefront of the struggle against these anti-democratic actions against women workers and women in our country. We will restore democracy in Brazil.”
The ITUC Global Rights Index 2019 ranks 145 countries against 97 internationally recognized indicators to assess where workers’ rights are best protected in law and in practice. The ITUC has been collecting data on violations of workers’ rights to trade union membership and collective bargaining around the world for more than 30 years.
Read the full report.
Human rights activists around the world celebrated the recent release from prison of two union leaders in Kazakhstan who were convicted of bogus criminal charges after participating in a peaceful workers’ protest against the forced closure of the country’s main independent union group, the Confederation of Independent Trade Unions of Kazakhstan (CITUK/KNPRK).
Yet the convictions of Amin Yeleusinov, Nurbek Kushakbayev and 30 other workers who took part in the rally have not been overturned, and trade union freedom there has been curtailed.
The anti-worker environment in Kazakhstan is not unique. Around the world, a pattern of attacks against freedom of assembly and collective bargaining is increasing even in countries with strong democracies within a broader clampdown on human rights and restrictions on civic space.
“Democratic organizing of workers is suppressed and all the democratic spaces to organize are shrinking. Thus, workers are unable to bargain collectively for their fair and just share and to sustain the present unjust economic order,” says Sanjiv Pandita, regional representative for Solidar Suisse in an email.
Worker rights often are the most frequently violated.
“In my opinion this is the biggest crisis of democracy we are facing.”
Murder, Death Threats and Repression
Broadly, more than 3.2 billion people live in countries in which “civic space” is either closed or repressed. Few countries—16 of 134 countries with verified data—are genuinely open, according to CIVICUS, a global civil society alliance that includes the Solidarity Center. One recent study concluded that since the end of 2017, one-third of the world’s population—2.5 billion people—have lived through “autocratization,” in which a leader or group of leaders began to limit democratic attributes and to rule more unilaterally.
Within this global crackdown on human rights, worker rights often are the most frequently violated. In most countries, unions provide the largest civil space for exercising fundamental human rights freedoms and building democratic societies.
The Global Rights Index 2018 compiled by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) points to increased restrictions on the right to form unions: 65 percent of countries now exclude some workers from the right to establish or join a trade union, an increase from 60 percent in 2017.
The report finds the number of countries where workers were arrested and detained increased from 44 in 2016 to 59 in 2017. Last year, trade unionists were murdered in nine countries: Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Guinea, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria and Tanzania.
In 2017 alone, instances of repression or attacks against workers seeking to form unions, bargain collectively or rally for their rights ranged from harassment to murder.
Laws Protecting Worker Rights Not Followed
Saudi Arabia is among countries that bars migrant workers from forming or joining unions. Credit: ITUC
A 2016 report on rights to freedom of assembly and association in the workplace by a United Nations special rapporteur found that “unconstrained power, whether public or private in origin, is a critical threat to the protection of human rights, including workers’ rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.”
The report detailed the many mechanisms by which worker rights are curtailed, including outright bans on all legitimate unions, such as those in Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. Countries also use laws to repress trade union and civil society freedom of association rights such as in Brazil, which passed laws that denied workers freedom of association, restricted free speech and used the military to suppress labor disputes.
Laws that restrict bargaining topics, including wages, hamper assembly and association rights because workers are more reluctant to risk organizing when potential gains are so few, the report says. Even in countries where the right to strike is not legally prohibited, governments attempt to justify restrictions by citing the need for public security, the threat of terrorism, national interest or economic crisis.
“Both trade unions and the right to strike are fundamental tools to achieving workers’ rights, as they provide mechanisms through which workers can stand up for their interests collectively, and engage with big business and government on a more equal footing,” according to the report. “The state is obligated to protect these rights for all workers.”
Many countries have ratified International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions that protect the freedom to form unions, strike and bargain collectively, and the notion that states create conditions that allow trade unionism among workers is implicit in the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. Yet these international regulations and national laws with similar protections often are not followed.
Economic Inequality Parallels Shrinking Civic Space for Workers
Shrinking civic space for workers and their unions parallels a meteoric rise in global economic inequality. Seven out of 10 people live in a country where inequality is growing fast. The growing ranks of millionaires and billionaires now hold nearly half of global personal wealth, up from slightly less than 45 percent in 2012, according to a new report.
The concentration of wealth and power can combine to limit average citizens’ influence on politics and policy. Economic inequality and civic space are intricately connected. Tunisians still chant—and seek—“Bread, freedom, and social justice,” the slogan coined during the 2011 Arab uprising in which hundreds of thousands of people in countries throughout the region demanded economic justice and democratic freedom.
“The world has never been so unequal any time in modern history, and workers organizations and collective bargaining are the democratic control on capital that is being crushed systematically to maintain this order,” says Pandita.
Strengthening Workers’ Voice Strengthens Democracy
Tunisian workers and their unions were key to the country’s democratization. Credit: Solidarity Center/Tula Connell
Studies show that unequal economies reinforce distrust in government and threaten democracy. Addressing economic inequality means ensuring worker rights are strengthened. And strong worker rights are the underpinning to vibrant democracy.
“The freedoms of speech, assembly and association are the essence of any democracy,” says Barbara Unmüßig, president of the Heinrich Böll Foundation. “Their restriction poses a challenge to democratic governments and global cooperation.
“This issue must become part of foreign and development policy as well as human rights discussions, taken up by national parliaments and integrated globally into intergovernmental discussions and negotiations,” says Unmüßig.
As the report to the UN on freedom of assembly and association asserts: “Labor rights are human rights, and the ability to exercise those rights in the workplace is a prerequisite for workers to enjoy a broad range of other rights, whether economic, social, cultural, political or otherwise.”
“Democracy and human rights, like freedom of association, create equality in front of power, even the playing field and unleash the innovation of citizens that governments need to govern well,” says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau.
Freedom of assembly, association, and speech are anchored in the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and long established in international law and many national constitutions. By working to ensure workers have the freedom to exercise their rights, unions and the workers they represent, accompanied by human rights champions around the world, are the strongest and most effective solutions to the ongoing crisis of closing space choking democracies worldwide.
“In the past 50 years, so many major transitions to democracy have had social movements front and center,” says Bader-Blau.
“South African unions helped end apartheid. And for the role they played in transforming Tunisia, the labor movement there won the Nobel prize. Freedom of association is what revives and builds democracies, and gives us all a chance to promote economic and political rights simultaneously.”