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.”
“I have one single mission: Every child should be free to be a child.”
Nobel Prize winner Kailash Satyarthi proclaimed this ambitious mission in the new documentary, Kailash, which depicts the fight to end child labor through the Global March Against Child Labor and Bachpan Bachao Andolan (BBA), the organizations Satyarthi founded.
In 1994, 150 child labor advocates marched through the southern tip of India chanting, “No more tools in tiny hands. We want books, we want toys,” marking the beginning of a revolution to end child labor. Four years later, Satyarthi and other child labor advocates founded the Global March.
Tens of thousands of children in child labor have been rescued through organizations founded by Nobel winner Kailash Satyarthi. Courtesy: “Kailash”
“We were led by young people, many of whom were child laborers,” said Anjali Kochar, executive director of the Kailash Satyarthi Children’s Foundation. Kochar spoke at the U.S. Department of Labor, one of several locations in Washington, D.C., where the documentary was screened to commemorate 2018 World Day Against Child Labor on Tuesday.
“They demanded their right to childhood,” said Kochar, recalling the march. “They called for the elimination of child labor and for meaningful, quality education. It was truly electrifying.”
Satyarthi began rescuing child laborers in the 1980s. His first rescue attempt was unsuccessful because he was outgunned by human traffickers. Satyarthi then brought to court photos of the atrocities he saw when trying to rescue the children, and a judge then ordered they all be freed.
The more children rescued, the bigger the mission became until more than 200 activists, lawyers and social workers joined Satyarthi in the 1980s to form the BBA, an India-based organization that has rescued more than 80,000 child laborers. Mukti Ashram, the Delhi branch of BBA, provides shelter and education for liberated children.
Demand for Cheap Products Increases Demand for Child Labor
Satyarthi looked at the successes of Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King Jr. and decided that a “global march” was best for bringing attention to a global problem. The increased demand for cheap products was leading to an increased demand in cheap labor, making abuse and wage theft common in supply chains, especially for women and children. Since The Global March Against Child Labor formed in 1998, the International Labor Organization (ILO) passed Convention 182 on elimination of the worst forms of child labor, child labor in homes was banned in India in 2006 and the South Asian March Against Child Trafficking took place in 2007, where 1 million people marched 3,000 miles to end forced labor.
Although the efforts of Satyarthi, who won the Nobel Prize in 2014 for his efforts, and other global advocates decreased the number of child laborers from 260 million to 152 million in 20 years, there is still more work to be done. Of the 152 million child laborers, 73 million work in hazardous conditions. These children are between the ages of 5 and 17, spending their days in factories and fields instead of in school.
The film reveals the complexity of child labor, illustrating how poverty and education often underly child labor. Parents who are paid very little or are unemployed may need their children to work so their families can survive. Because of the lack of resources, impoverished parents are often uneducated and their children fall prey to traffickers promising work opportunities. The children are taken from their families and forced to work for months or years, escaping with burns and broken bones. This was the case for Sanjeet, who appeared in the film and was rescued by BBA. This young boy was found with dents in his face from hot powder blown by fans in a factory. He had not been allowed to go home in a year.
Acknowledging prior accomplishments as well as the work ahead, Satyarthi created the 100 Million Campaign in 2016, which seeks to mobilize 100 million young people to fight for 100 million child laborers. This program will not only benefit the children still suffering under forced labor but will provide a legacy so that future generations can continue to tackle this issue.
“We all have to work to globalize compassion,” says Satyarthi when discussing how movements make change. “Every child has the right to bread, education, love and play.”
Some 65 percent of countries now exclude entire categories of workers from labor law protections, while 81 percent of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining, as democratic space for workers closes around the world, according to a new report.
Released today, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index 2018 reports that over the past year, trade unionists were murdered in nine countries—Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Guinea, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria and Tanzania—as the number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased by 10 percent, from 59 to 65. In Colombia alone, 19 trade unionists were murdered last year—nearly double the 11 murders of the previous year.
The number of countries where workers are arbitrarily arrested and detained increased from 44 in 2016 to 59 in 2017. Some 87 percent of countries violated the right to strike. Of 142 countries surveyed, 54 deny or constrain free speech and freedom of assembly.
The 10 worst countries for overall worker rights violations are Algeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.
“Democracy is under attack in countries that fail to guarantee people’s right to organize, speak out and take action,” says ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.
The Middle East and North Africa was again the worst region for treatment of workers, with the kafala system in the Gulf still enslaving millions of people. “The absolute denial of basic workers’ rights remained in place in Saudi Arabia,” according to the ITUC.
Haiti, Kenya, Macedonia, Mauritania and Spain have all seen their rankings worsen in 2018, with a rise in attacks on worker rights in law and practice.
The 2018 ITUC Global Rights Index rates 142 countries from one to five according to 97 internationally recognized indicators to assess where worker rights are best protected in law and in practice. The Index assigns an overall score placing countries in rankings of one to five.
1 Sporadic violations of rights: 13 countries, including Ireland and Denmark
2 Repeated violations of rights: 23 countries, including France and Estonia
3 Regular violations of rights: 26 countries, including Spain and Macedonia
4 Systematic violations of rights: 38 countries, including Haiti and Kenya
5 No guarantee of rights: 32 countries including, Honduras and Nigeria
5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 10 countries
On a warm, dusty day on the Deccan plateau in April 1994, I joined Kailash Satyarthi’s Bharat Yatra, (Indian Journey), a group of 150 child labor activists part-way through its march from the southern tip of India to the heart of New Delhi, where it would arrive five months later. I didn’t realize it then, but I was witnessing the prototype of the movement that Kailash would take to a global scale four years later, and result in the biggest single step forward in history in the cause to abolish child labor.
It was hard to visualize 24 years ago that these initial attempts to mobilize masses of people behind a broad social movement would build to this moment today—a 20th anniversary commemoration at the International Labor Organization’s (ILO) annual Conference in Geneva of the Global March, which ushered in ILO Convention 182 aimed at eliminating the worst forms of child labor.
ILO conventions set a global standard for labor rights that UN member countries are expected to adopt and enforce. Not all countries are willing to do so. But Convention 182 is now the most ratified convention in ILO history, with 181 signatory countries. As one diplomatic observer in the early 1990s said to me, looking at the burgeoning activity in India, “Kailash has built a movement—now he needs to build an organization.”
Build one he did. The Global March Against Child Labour was formed 20 years ago specifically to mobilize people worldwide to lobby for adoption of Convention 182. And finally recognizing his decades-long campaign to abolish child labor, the Nobel Committee awarded Kailash the Peace Prize in 2014.
At the commemoration this week, attended by hundreds of delegates from governments, employers and trade unions, Kailash was joined by ILO Director General, Guy Ryder, representatives of workers’ and employers’ groups, and two very special guests: Basu Rai, a former child laborer who, as a 9-year-old, was one of the original marchers who came to Geneva 20 years ago, and Zulema Lopez, a former child farm worker in the United States, who is now earning a university student.
Opening the program, Ryder noted to Kailash, “I personally remember the moment, the incredible moment 20 years ago, when you led children from around the world into the ILC to press for Convention 182.” He pointed out that even though child labor has been reduced by tens of millions since that time, 152 million children are still working, with practically no reduction in the 5–11 year age range. Indeed, hazardous child labor for that age cohort has actually increased. With the number of children injured and killed each year in hazardous labor conditions, Ryder said, “If this were a war, we’d be talking a lot more about it.”
Basu, in an impassioned address, talked about how he was orphaned at 4, joined a street gang and became a child slave before being rescued by Kailash and his activists. “I remember coming here 20 years ago and climbing on the desks and raising the slogan, ‘No more tools for tiny hands, we want books, we want toys.’ My childhood was snatched away. I’m coming here today, but I’m still afraid. I’m still afraid—and I’m a father to a 2-month-old daughter—that the world is not safe for the children.”
Zulema told the assembly: “I was a third-generation farm worker family. I first went to work in the fields when I was 7. I missed school. It was normal for me to wake up at 5:30 in the morning, put on a T-shirt, and work for hours in the hot sun, my back aching from carrying 30 pounds of cucumbers.”
In winding up the event, Kailash reminisced, “I remember that day when I walked in with the core marchers of the Global March who were allowed to come into the ILO, which was the first time in history the ILO opened its doors to the most exploited and most vulnerable… We were marching from exploitation to education.”
While there has been progress, much work needs to be done to eliminate child labor, as envisioned by the UN-adopted Sustainable Development Goals, by 2025.
“Child labor is not an issue that will be solved by someone else; it’s up to you personally,” said Kailash. “It’s urgent. The childhood of children today can’t wait. And you have to believe it’s possible. It’s personal, it’s urgent, it’s possible.”
Timothy Ryan is the Chairperson of the Global March Against Child Labour and the Asia Regional Director for the Solidarity Center.
Rural Cambodian villagers who say they were trafficked for forced labor in the shrimp processing industry in Thailand are challenging a ruling by a California federal district court that dismissed their case against the Thai and U.S. companies that benefited from their labor.
A coalition of human rights groups, led by the Solidarity Center, filed an amicus brief on June 1 in support of seven workers as their case goes to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The workers had brought their suit based in part under the U.S. Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act (TVPRA), which in 2008 was amended to extend civil liability to those who “knowingly benefit” from the trafficking of persons in their supply chains.
The December ruling of the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California interpreted the TVPRA in a way that essentially ignored the “knowingly benefit” standard and instead required evidence that the U.S.-based companies actually participated in a venture to traffic the Cambodian workers into Thailand, according to Solidarity Center Legal Director Jeff Vogt.
The supporting brief argues, in part, that the companies knew or should have known of the widespread use of trafficked labor in the seafood sector in Thailand. Since 2008, numerous reports have exposed the trafficking of workers into Thailand to work in the shrimp industry. It would have been virtually impossible for enterprises involved in the shrimp industry not to have known of the extremely high risk of trafficking.
In 2016 alone, 16 million people were victims of forced labor by private enterprises, according to International Labor Organization estimates. This illegal activity generates $51 billion in profits.
Following the December court ruling (Keo Ratha, et al. v. Phatthana Seafoods Co. Ltd., et al.), Keo Ratha, one of the seven men filing the suit, told Voice of America Khmer that he deeply regretted the district court’s decision.
“I’m disappointed because we thought that the U.S. court would find justice for us,” he said. “But when the court dismissed our complaint I was speechless. This is their law.”
Joining the Solidarity Center in its brief are the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante, Earthrights International, the International Labor Recruitment Working Group, the International Labor Rights Forum and the Worker Rights Consortium.