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.)
In Sri Lanka, where the union movement faces challenges familiar to many union activists around the world—a shift from industrial to service jobs and a related decline in union membership—strategic online outreach is drawing young workers and expanding union membership.
Launched in 2013, the website Wedabima (“workflow” in Sinhalese), offers an interactive platform for workers to share comments, learn about union-related workshops and access a labor perspective on daily news unavailable in the mainstream press. The site also has mobilized workers to action—after Wedabima raised concern over the potential for a memorandum of understanding between Sri Lanka and China to weaken labor laws in Sri Lanka, workers and their unions joined to bring the issues to national attention. As a result, the Sri Lankan government has asked unions to submit an analysis of a potential bilateral agreement. The site, now in Sinhalese, will expand to Tamil in coming months.
“We are able to reach a vast audience we weren’t able to before,” says Mohamed Sha, a lawyer and worker rights activist who helped launch the project with the Solidarity Center in Colombo, Sri Lanka’s capital. The Wedabima and related Facebook site draw thousands of visitors, nearly all of whom work in the service sector, a rapidly growing industry where job growth is outpacing the country’s traditional export manufacturing sector.
Making unions attractive to young workers in Sri Lanka’s booming tourism industry is especially key, says Sha, because national income from tourism is on track to overtake the garment sector, which now makes up a large percentage of Sri Lanka’s export earnings. Another goal involves empowering current union members to take a more active role in their unions. Wedabima staff interviews lower-level leaders and posts these video or written interviews on the site, raising their profile to the extent that several are now well-known as leaders in their unions.
The website’s latest feature is geared toward the more than 2 million Sri Lankans who work abroad. The site provides migrant workers, who work in a wide variety of jobs, with contact information for the Embassy of Sri Lanka and other organizations that can assist migrant workers in countries where the majority are employed, such as in Qatar, Saudi Arabia and Jordan. The site also includes information about their legal rights in each country. Sha says the site will also be linked with a national radio program for migrant workers to expand resources and outreach available to workers.
Building a website does not guarantee an audience, and Sha says that an essential component of drawing workers to the new site involved hands-on outreach to the Asia Pacific Network, an intergovernmental group whose young, tech-savvy members helped spread the word about Wedabima’s resources. Those resources also include the latest music downloads, entertainment news and even recipes—features that bring visitors back to the site even when they are not looking for labor-related information.
With its many features and platforms, such digital outreach aims for a very traditional goal:
The dynamic Thai union activist Sawit Kaewvarn last week was overwhelmingly elected general secretary of the General Assembly of the State Enterprises Workers’ Relations Confederation (SERC), Thailand’s largest trade union organization.
In a letter to Kaewvarn, congratulating him on his election, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau said that “we have tremendous respect for the solidarity and perseverance you and your colleagues and their families have demonstrated during the past three years.”
Kaewvarn’s hard work and leadership “on behalf of all workers, including migrant workers, is inspiring to all of us,” Bader-Blau wrote.
In 2009, Kaewvarn led Thai railway workers on a protest against unsafe working conditions, following a deadly train derailment. The State Railway of Thailand then dismissed several executive committee members of the State Railway Union of Thailand (SRUT). Railway strikes are illegal in Thailand, a law that the International Labor Organization (ILO) says violates freedom of association.In 2011, the State Railway of Thailand dismissed additional executive committee members, including Kaewvarn.
Because Thai law prohibits workers who are not actively employed from union membership, Kaewvarn could no longer serve as SRUT general secretary or as SERC leader. Last year, Kaewvarn and the other workers were reinstated, allowing him to run for union office.
Their reinstatement followed years of legal battles. Last year, the Labor Relations Committee of the State Railway of Thailand decided in favor of the 12 workers, saying they had “good intentions” in calling out safety issues. However, the committee upheld court decisions requiring Kaewvarn and the other members to pay a 15 million baht ($450,000) fine, plus 7.5 percent annual interest, and none were given back pay.
Further, Kaewvarn and the others who were dismissed still face possible legal charges because the Supreme Court is considering legal charges against them filed by the State Railway of Thailand. The decision could take years, and the workers are demanding the company drop the lawsuit.
In December 2010, the National Human Rights Commission of Thailand found that the State Railway of Thailand violated freedom of association. Despite the commission’s report, the Central Labor Court in 2011 upheld the dismissals, ordered the fines, and gave the state railway permission to dismiss additional executive committee members, include Kaewvarn.
Union members say accidents in the state railway system continue, mostly recently on Friday, when a freight car ploughed into buffers at a station. No one was injured.
Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center, testified at the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing. She said the United States has a real opportunity to lead the fight against worker exploitation, especially with regard to upcoming negotiations on the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement. “Our diplomacy must be much more robust and aggressive on tackling the root causes” of forced labor, Bader-Blau told the committee, stating her belief that “it’s not too much to ask that we see real systematic changes” in how countries operate before agreeing to anything in trade negotiations.
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