For the second time this year a leader of the Tunisian General Labor Union (UGTT) was arrested, this time for suspicion of insulting a public official at a protest outside the country’s Ministry of Culture building. The arrest of the UGTT’s secretary for culture, Abdel Nasser Ben Amara last month—who has since been acquitted in court—is having a chilling effect on union work in the country and their efforts to represent workers’ interests, say unions.
The UGTT with civil society organizations last year convened a national initiative for the restoration of democracy after more than 90 percent of the country’s voters stayed away from Tunisia’s widely criticized December 2022 parliamentary elections. Workers last month took part in a series of rallies across the country to protest the government’s increased aggression against the union and its members, including arrest of general secretary of the highway workers’ union, Anis Kaabi. On Saturday more than 3,000 people joined a UGTT-organized rally calling for the government to accept “dialogue.”
Union members who legally exercise their rights in Tunisia, such as the freedom to strike, have been increasingly targeted, according to data from the UGTT, which found that the percentage of cases filed against union members rose in 2022, with a quarter of them directed against women. The government through February had filed more than 60 cases against union members for exercising their internationally recognized labor rights, according to UGTT, which says the numbers indicate a stepped-up effort to diminish the union’s power and turn public opinion against it.
The UGTT, which represents more than 1 million members, in 2015 shared a Nobel Peace Prize with three other civil society groups for promoting national dialogue in Tunisia.
Lynch met with UGTT General Secretary Noureddine Taboubi on Friday prior to taking part in a Saturday rally organized by UGTT in eight cities to protest the stifling “of basic rights, including union rights.” In her speech, Lynch called for the release of Anis Kaabi, general secretary of Tunisia’s highway workers union, who was arrested for organizing a strike of toll booth workers.
Following the protest, authorities posted an article accusing Lynch of breaking the law by threatening the country’s security. Authorities confronted Lynch, giving her 24 hours to leave the country and ordering her to inform them of her activities and anyone she spoke to during that period.
After arriving safely in Brussels, Lynch drew a parallel between her expulsion and the harassment of trade unionists in Tunisia.
“The decision to expel me for taking part in a peaceful protest is typical of the harassment and intimidation faced by trade unionists in Tunisia every day,” she said. “In the past few months, members of the UGTT have been arrested, sacked and spied on simply for carrying out entirely legal trade union work.”
The European Trade Union Confederation issued a statement that decried “the campaign of intimidation and harassment being waged against trade unions,” including arrests, firings, malicious lawsuits, the monitoring and restricting of trade union activity by law enforcement, and the promotion of yellow trade unions. The International Trade Union Confederation noted the “enormous damage to Tunisia’s economy, society and the daily life of working people” resulting from the president’s policies.
Lynch’s expulsion is the latest in a series of anti-union and anti-democratic actions including the arrest of Anis Kaabi and the weaponization of the country’s courts against union members for exercising their rights, such as the freedom to strike.
Fearing for his life and liberty, pro-democracy activist and Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union (SWATCAWU) General Secretary Sticks Nkambule remains trapped in exile while his union campaigns to bring him home safely.
The murder last month of human and worker rights lawyer and pro-democracy activist Thulani Maseko—whom Nkambule describes as “friend, colleague, personal attorney and man of peace”—demonstrates that Eswatini is unsafe for rights defenders, says Nkambule.
“We are being visited by killing squads,” he says.
While he was out of the country, on December 28, 2022, Nkambule’s home was raided and his family harassed by heavily armed members of the police and military. In January—after police published Nkambule’s name as a wanted person for alleged criminal conduct associated with a SWATCAWU December 13 –14 job “stay away” announcement—Nkambule began receiving reports of dozens of armed state and military members searching for him and other SWATCAWU leaders in multiple locations.
Under such circumstances, Nkambule says his return is impossible and, even in his new location, he cannot live freely for fear of mercenaries.
“The regime is clear to say that certain figures and faces need to go,” says Nkambule, referring to a “list of terrorists” publicly cited by the leader of a South African company that has a contract to train Eswatini security personnel, per news reports.
Eswatini state harassment of unions and other rights defenders is a decades-long pattern which, reports Nkambule, last year included stepped-up police and military harassment of SWATCAWU leadership, and surveillance by unknown persons in unmarked cars. Growing state repression and fear have led many rights defenders to flee, he says—including Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) President Mbongwa Dlamini, who left the country after state security forces fired live ammunition at his home last year.
Harassment of union leaders ramped up after SWATCAWU began announcing job actions, reports the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The union began a series of “stay aways” last year, says Nkambule, to sidestep the state’s brutal repression of peaceful protests, which in 2021 included police and military members beating rally goers and firing live ammunition into crowds during popular uprisings against the king’s government.
“[The October stay away] worked,” says Nkambule. “When protestors stay in their homes, they don’t get shot.”
However, the threat of a series of transport worker “stay aways”—which brings the economy to a standstill because workers cannot travel to their jobs—presents an unwelcome, and escalating, challenge to the state and employers.
“And that is why I have been singled out,” says Nkambule.
SWATCAWU has been embroiled for almost three years in a lawful and peaceful effort to encourage the state to improve transport workers’ wages and conditions—including a $233 monthly minimum wage, better access to social security and health care, repair of dilapidated roads and an end to police harassment—and to release from prison pro-democracy Eswatini Parliament Members Mduduzi Bacede Mabuza and Mthandeni Dube.
Meanwhile, Africa’s last absolute monarch, King Mswati III, controls all three branches of government, chooses the prime minister, can dissolve Parliament and appoints judges. Under his control, Eswatini has conducted a two-decades-long anti-union and anti-democracy campaign with impunity, reports the ITUC.
Human Rights Watch last month called on the South African government to investigate allegations that South African mercenaries and private military personnel who are allegedly operating in Eswatini are targeting pro-democracy activists. UN and African Union experts condemned Maseko’s murder and demanded an impartial investigation into his death, reiterating UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Volker Türk’s call for the authorities to ensure the safety of all human rights defenders, civil society actors and lawyers in Eswatini.
In the context of shrinking civic space and a global crackdown on human and worker rights, the Solidarity Center continues to support and partner with pro-democracy union activists across the globe, and has long supported beleaguered unions in Eswatini.
In the wake of a new wave of prison sentences against union leaders and other activists arrested earlier this year, new Belarus worker rights organization Salidarnast is tracking and disseminating updates on union political prisoners’ legal cases, and providing other worker rights news.
Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions (BKDP) President Aliaksandr Yarashuk, jailed since April and facing 14 years in prison, was elected in absentia to an ITUC vice-presidency at the organization’s 5th World Congress last month, reports Salidarnast.
Extraordinary mistreatment of two jailed union leaders, Leanid Sudalenka and Volha Brytsikava, for which Brytsikava reportedly started a hunger strike on November 8 and was released last week after having spent more than 105 days behind bars this year–including 75 consecutive days in the spring
Continuation of a ten-person trial associated with worker organization Rabochy Rukh for which the accused are facing prison sentences of up to 15 years for high treason, among other charges
Grodno Azot fertilizer factory worker and chairperson of the independent trade union there, Andrei Khanevich, whose phone was tapped by Belarusian special service, sentenced to five years in prison for speaking with a BelSat TV reporter
Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BNP) Vice Chairperson and Chairperson of the Local Trade Union at Belaruskali fertilizer factory, Aliaksandr Mishuk—detained since May—sentenced to two and a half years’ imprisonment
Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM) Deputy for Organizational Work Yanina Malash—mother of a minor child and detained since April—sentenced to one and a half years’ imprisonment
Vital Chychmarou, a former engineer fired in 2020 for trade union activities and manager of an SPM organization, sentenced to three years of home confinement
Free Trade Union of Metalworkers (SPM) Trade Union Council Secretary Mikhail Hromau—detained since April—sentenced to two and a half years of home confinement
Genadz Bedzeneu, who attempted to start a local union for Polotsk stall market workers, arrested.
Salidarnast is filling an information void created after the Lukashenko government in July forcibly shut down the BDKP and its affiliates, compounded by the detention of dozens of journalists and media workers with other civil society defenders. The number of political prisoners in Belarus stood at almost 1,500 in November, reports the European Federation of Journalists (EFJ); up from 1,000 in February. The Belarus Supreme Court in July dissolved the BKDP and its four affiliates: BNP, the Union of Radio and Electronics Workers (REP), Free Trade Union of Belarus (SPB) and SPM.
Salidarnast on December 1 flagged the arrest of at least five people at the Miory steel plant, warning of imprisonment risk for up to ten thousand people who contributed to the “Black Book of Belarus” which identified riot police.
“Despite the destruction of the independent trade union movement, workers in Belarus remain the force which can resist the dictatorship,” says Salidarnast.
The repression and eventual dismantling of the independent Belarus union movement began after hundreds of thousands of people, often led by union members , many of them women, took to the streets in 2020 to protest elections in which President Alexander Lukashenko declared himself winner in a landslide victory amid widespread allegations of fraud. The BKDP—the first Belarus union to be independent of government influence in the post-Soviet era—was founded 29 years ago and has been a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) since 2003.
Hear more about workers’ fight for freedom by listening to a Solidarity Center podcast interview in which now-imprisoned BDKP Vice President Sergey Antusevich in 2021 spoke passionately about workers taking to the streets in defense of democracy. Antusevich has been jailed pending trial since April 2022.
As the world witnesses some of the greatest challenges to democratic governments since the 1930s, unions offer a strong and essential counter to the trend, according to Cornell University Professor Angela Cornell.
“Many studies show that organized labor has played critical role in developing and defending democracy. The organized working class was the primary carrier of democracy,” Cornell said today at the International Lawyers Assisting Workers Network (ILAW) Conference opening plenary.
More than 130 labor lawyers from 42 countries meeting October 7–9 also focused their final day on developing plans for Network’s coming years.
The Solidarity Center launched the ILAW Network in December 2018 as a global hub for worker rights lawyers to facilitate innovative litigation, help spread the adoption of pro-worker legislation and defeat anti-worker laws.
Cornell listed the ways in which unions fuel democracy, including by providing a counterviling role to corporate power.
Further, said Cornell, “new research on the role of unions and in building solidarity among their members demonstrates the ways in which unions can bridge racial and national divides. Union members are less likely to support extreme views.”
Economic inequality is a destabiizing influence in most countries, Cornell said, and unions decrease inequality.
“Unions have been instrumental in the passsage of labor protections and the social safety net, including social security, minimum wage and overtime, workplace heath and safety and medical leave, among others.”
Unions Build Democracy in Latin America, Africa
Ken Roberts, a professor at Cornell University and book contributor, overviewed how unions have been bulwarks of democracy throughout Latin America.
“Labor has played a central role in trying to restore citizenship rights,” said Roberts. Since the 1960s–1980s, when unions suffered setbacks during military dictatorships and neoliberal reforms that prioritized the interests of the wealthy over working people, the key challenge has been to build broad coalitions, he said.
ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow
By joining with feminist movements, indigineous communities and territorially-based urban community networks, unions have created strong and successful coaltions. Since late 1990s as part of social pushback against neoliberal model, 14 countries have elected progressive governments and labor has been an important part of moving this unprecedented number of elections, he said.
Most recently, unions were part of successful coalitions that elected progressive governments in Honduras and Colombia and are constructing broad democratic fronts against new challenges from ethnonationalist and extreme conservative groups.
In Africa, “more often than not, unions were the only force fighting decolonization,” said Evance Kalula, chair of International Labor Organization (ILO) Committee on Freedom of Association and emeritus prof of law at the University of Capetown. “Formal and informal collaboration between unions as agents of change and nationalist movements.”
Kalula and co-author Chanda Chungu, contributed the chapter on “African Perspectives on Labor Rights as Enhancers of Democratic Governance.”
Julia Lopez Lopez, a professor at the University of Barcelona, described how unions are standing up to corporations that are using the new model of app-based work to exploit transportaton workers.
“The case of transport sector is one of the cases that show unions are trying to create new strategies against market intervention against multinational efforts to liberalize labor rights,” she said.
Lopez recently participated in research projects on precarious work and social rights led by the Working Lives Research Institute.
Closing the Conference, Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), overviewed the challenges facing workers and their advocates and pointed to recent legal successes as well, including an agreement that the ITUC and ILO achieved with the Qatar government that ensures more rights for migrant workers, including the freedom to leave their jobs and seek alternative employment.
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