Leaders of the Bahrain Teachers Association were awarded the 2015 Arthur Svensson Prize for Trade Union Rights this week. The international honor recognizes Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila al-Salman for “their encouragement of strike actions among teachers despite the personal risks they faced, including imprisonment and torture.”
Abu Dheeb, association president, was arrested in 2011 and sentenced to five years in prison. Charges against him included calling for a teachers’ strike. His health is deteriorating, and he is not receiving essential medical aid, according to the foundation.
Al-Salman, now acting union president, was arrested three times for exercising her right to freedom of assembly, for demanding reforms in Bahrain’s educational system and for protesting the killing and suppression of protesters, many of whom were students. Since her release from prison in November 2012, she has been banned from employment and her freedom of speech is restricted.
The Svensson Prize, established by the Norwegian union, Industri Energi, in 2010, is awarded annually to a person or organization that has worked predominately to promote trade union rights and/or strengthen trade union organizations. The announcement occurred as activists and unions around the world participated in a global day of action to support the right to strike.
Napoléon Gómez Urrutia, general secretary of Los Mineros, the National Miners’ and Metalworkers’ Union of Mexico (SNTMMSRM) received the prize in 2014, and Valentin Urusov, the Russian electrician and trade unionist unjustly imprisoned for years in a Siberian penal colony, received it in 2013.
Thousands of workers marched in Lima on February 18, the global day of action for the right to strike. Credit: Solidarity Center
After lawmakers in Peru rammed through a law last November that reduced salaries and benefits for workers under age 25, they adjourned Congress and went to their home districts for the Christmas holiday, likely thinking the matter was over.
Tens of thousands of young workers thought otherwise.
“Students came together to organize protests, organize meetings with different sectors to fight the ‘reform,’” says Paola Aliaga, international relations secretary for the Autonomous Confederation of Peruvian Workers.
The unprecedented mobilization, in which up to 30,000 young workers and their allies marched in a series of protests, resulted in another unprecedented action: Lawmakers returned to session in January and immediately repealed the law.
“We hadn’t seen this turnout for many years. It was a win for all the sectors who were able to pull together,” according to Aliaga, speaking through an interpreter. Aliaga traveled to the United States last week and discussed the young workers’ campaign at the Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C.
Union members joined the protests, and workers of all ages understood that the creation of a two-tiered labor law system would be detrimental for everyone. The surge of activism by young workers is “new oxygen for the older folks in the movement,” says Aliaga.
Workers already are building on the momentum: On February 18, the global day of action for the right to strike day, thousands of workers and youth marched to Confiep, Peru’s chamber of commerce, to support the right to strike and call for a repeal of a mass layoff law and other recent anti-worker legislation.
Among those leading the protests last November were young worker activists from the textile and apparel, export-oriented agriculture and mining sectors—among the most vulnerable under the new law. They had plenty of support: A poll this year showed only one-fifth of Peruvians backed the law. Young workers protested at companies where employers supported the law, marched through Lima to Congress and woke up complacent lawmakers to the realities young workers face trying to make a living.
Peru President Ollanta Humala backed the bill and sought to confuse protesters about the date lawmakers would return to the capital, knowing they planned to rally when Congress opened the session, says Aliaga. Despite military presence at the protests and the detention of student activists, young workers remained steadfast in taking to the streets to peacefully voice their concerns.
“The role of the Solidarity Center in the garment sector has been key (to helping young workers understand their rights under Peruvian labor law),” says Aliaga. The Solidarity Center, with support from the U.S. Department of Labor, works closely with young Peruvian worker activists to help them analyze their labor rights; develop leadership, negotiating and organizing skills; and learn to advocate for their issues.
One of the five Haitian workers shot at a Dominican Republic construction site shows his wounds.
Five Haitian construction workers in the Dominican Republic were shot allegedly for asking for unpaid wages, according to press reports. In addition, an eyewitness told Solidarity Center staff in Santo Domingo, the capital, that on February 2, a sergeant of the National Army fired upon and wounded the five workers, who were not taken to a hospital until a delegation from the Haitian Embassy arrived.
The witness, who provided photos of the incident and spoke with Solidarity Center staff on February 10, claimed he spoke with one of the soldiers involved, and the soldier said he was paid by the construction engineer to prevent the workers from entering the construction site and to fire on the workers.
The workers had been working on the construction site of the hospital Dario Contreras.
A September 2013 court ruling targeted migrants in the Dominican Republic, revoking the citizenship of individuals born in the country since 1929 who could not prove their parents’ regular migration status.
On February 2, the deadline expired for Dominicans born to undocumented parents to apply for migrant permits, leaving thousands stateless. The process for documentation was rife with irregularities, making it difficult for anyone to receive official status.
The Bahrain government continues to torture opponents, penalize union members and leaders, and suppress human rights four years after the people of Bahrain stood up for a more participatory government, says Mohammed Al-Tajer, general coordinator of the Bahrain Human Rights Observatory and a human rights lawyer.
In fact, he says, “the situation has worsened. Security police are everywhere, military police are everywhere. Bahrain is a totally militarized place.” Al-Tajer spoke today with the Solidarity Center in Washington, D.C., where his visit coincides with the anniversary of protests for greater political freedom in the Gulf kingdom, which launched February 14, 2011.
Al-Tajer, who has represented hundreds of workers and political activists since the government crackdown began in 2011, was arrested that year and held without access to lawyers or his family for more than three months. When he was brought to trial, he faced charges that included publicly inciting hatred against the government and spreading malicious news and propaganda. He was convicted but released based on time served.
His high international profile—the United Nations decried his treatment by the government—has so far enabled him to continue his work without arrest.
Since 2011, Al-Tajer says 166 people have been killed and thousands are still in jail, many of whom are teachers, doctors, nurses and journalists. Union leaders have been especially targeted. Some of have been jailed, others have been fired, or given dead-end jobs and 4,500 union members have been fired for participating in the 2011 actions, Al-Tajer says. Banning workers from certain jobs, a tactic for repressing dissent, continues: Al-Tajer says he sees several new cases a week as workers seek to appeal their dismissals.
“Anybody who Tweets, anybody who speaks about freedom, about labor rights, might go to jail, might lose his job,” he says, adding that anyone who calls for a strike is jailed.
In 2013, the government issued restrictive anti-terrorism laws that ban all protests and public gatherings and stipulate that parents could be jailed if their children repeatedly participate in demonstrations. Amnesty International characterized the laws as “a further shameful attempt to completely ban any form of dissent and freedom of expression in the country.”
Most recently, Bahrain has been stripping citizenship from activists and others who express dissent, including 72 people last week, and Al-Tajer says the government preparing to issue a new set of harsh decrees.
“This latest step by the Bahraini monarchy is the culmination of a decade-long effort to stifle me and others who oppose its rule. I have been jailed twice, subjected to torture, and fired from my job due to my activism. I was regularly harassed by pro-government thugs, and spent two years of my life in hiding. As if all that is not enough, the authorities have now branded me with the title ‘stateless.’”
As Al-Tajer says, repression in Bahrain is so widespread that “No single family has not been affected in Bahrain.”
Check out a video of the full testimony by Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau on the widespread use of labor trafficking. Bader-Blau and other expert witnesses testified on Capitol Hill last week at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “Ending Modern Slavery: What is the Best Way Forward?” where they discussed actions and policies to help end human trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of modern slavery in supply chains around the world. (Read her full testimony here.)
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