Yesterday, Hassine Abassi, Gerneral Secretary, Tunisian General Union of Labor (UGTT) and S. Salman Jaddar Al Mahfoodh, General Secretary, General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU), received the 2012 George Meany-Lane Kirkland Human Rights Award on behalf of their respective labor movements, as emblematic of the labor movements across the Middle East working to preserve democracy, justice and freedom during a ceremony at the AFL-CIO’s headquarters in Washington.
At the ceremony, AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka recognized the labor movements throughout the Arab region for their ongoing role in the struggle for democracy:
“I’m proud to honor the brave working people of Bahrain and Tunisia, who transformed a wave of protests into the mass movement of democracy and economic equality that has come to be known as the Arab Spring. Unionists are a leading voice against corruption, for women’s rights and for a robust democracy with the rights of working people at its core… Their courage inspires us, and we at the AFL-CIO have been proud to join the unions of Tunisia and Bahrain in this struggle. We will use every available channel to pursue the fundamental human rights that they so courageously champion. And we will not stop until you’ve achieved the goals you want and need,” said Trumka.
“This award is recognition of the revolution for freedom and dignity in Tunisia, and it is confirmation of strong global labor solidarity. While we take pride in being recognized, we feel a growing responsibility to continue our common struggle for freedom and democracy with strong will and determination,” Hassine Abassi, General Secretary of the UGTT.
Said S. Salman Jaddar Al Mahfoodh: “This award does not only belong to the GBFTU, but first and foremost, it belongs to the more than 4,000 Bahraini workers and unionists who have been suffering from unjust firings and the consequences of expressing their opinions. It also belongs to the Bahraini people, who are still struggling for freedom, democracy and social justice.”
In addition to the award recipients, President Trumka also recognized union activists from Egypt, Algeria and Morocco who mobilized thousands in their own countries to carry forward a message of social justice.
Bahrainis are marking a grim anniversary this week: one year since tens of thousands of men, women, and children peacefully took to the streets to call for more justice, more equality, and more democracy in their country and, instead, were met with violent repression, including widespread detentions, torture, and criminalization of dissent.
Thousands of workers were fired en masse for participating in the protest movement, among them many of the nation’s most prominent trade union and professional association leaders. Some have been jailed or face criminal charges. Doctors, nurses, teachers, students, journalists, and others also faced retaliation. The firings, which impacted thousands of families, have exacerbated social tensions and widened the gap of trust between the people and the government in the small island nation.
An independent commission looking into the crackdown said the firings were “motivated by retaliation against employees suspected of being involved in demonstrations” and recommended immediate reinstatement of fired workers, whose families have been subjected to months of economic hardship and fear. Despite the commission’s recommendations—and calls from around the world for dialogue and reconciliation—progress on rehiring has been slow, particularly in the private sector, and attacks on workers, their rights, and their unions continue in Bahrain.
The General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU) has continually attempted to engage in substantive dialogue with the government in order to resolve the conflict and to build unity of purpose and action around universally accepted labor and human rights standards. It is seeking a solution even in the face of threats of employer lawsuits, condemnation, and harassment in the state-owned media, as well as other maneuvers aimed at stifling the organization and its affiliates. Indeed, the government recently has proposed amendments to the Law for Trade Unions that could severely undermine freedom of association.
“The Solidarity Center salutes the efforts of working people to promote fairness in Bahrain. At the same time, we—along with the global labor movement and human rights groups—continue to strongly oppose threats and media attacks against workers and their organizations, attempts to subvert independent unions, and the slow pace and flawed process of rehiring people fired in the wake of the protests,” said Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center.
Nearly 3,000 workers were summarily dismissed from their jobs, almost all in contravention of Bahrain’s labor laws. Among them were 55 trade union leaders and six members of the GFBTU executive committee, most of whom remain unemployed. Many of the workers who are back on the job report they are working under humiliating conditions, including having being forced to sign pledges not to participate in political or trade union activity.
The February 14, 2011, protest in the Bahraini capital’s “Pearl Roundabout” came on the heels of grassroots democracy movements in Egypt and Tunisia that have reverberated across the region.
Letter from AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka to GFBTU Secretary General Salman Jaffar Al Mahfoodh, February 14, 2012