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The fight goes on: Workers’ struggles and successes from around the globe

Trade Unions
European Union
South Africa

Photos, left to right and bottom: Cambodian trade union activists and garment workers demand a minimum wage at a protest in Phnom Penh; the missing Ayotzinapa teachers remembered in Oaxaca, Mexico; a mural in Johannesburg refers to the shooting by police of 34 miners in South Africa. by Left to right and bottom: Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo; Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo; Zute Lightfoot/Alamy Stock Photo

Throughout Mexico, teachers face repression for speaking up for their labour rights and the rights of their students to a good education. On 26 September 2014, 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared following a protest relating to the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre, when the Mexican state killed hundreds of students in Mexico City.

Nearly 50 years after Tlatelolco, the era’s authoritarian legacy remains.

The Tri-national Coalition in Defence of Public Education (an alliance of trade unions from Canada, the US and Mexico) is calling on the Mexican government to own up to the role of the state in the disappearance of the Ayotzinapa students. A government report released soon after the event stated that the students were killed and their bodies burnt by a local drugs gang, but doubts have been cast on this and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says the Mexican government stonewalled its investigation, providing impunity to those responsible.

The Tri-national Coalition was created through links between educational trade unions. It provides cross-border support and organizes collective action against the impact of trade agreements – particularly the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) – on public education.

Stephen Glaysher

Colombia, the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist, is seeing a resurgence of union resistance despite the dramatic impact of an array of free-trade agreements.

When Colombia concluded a free-trade agreement with the US in 2011, a Labour Action Plan promising worker protection was used to diffuse Congressional opposition. One important part of that protection was to bring an end to the ‘collective pacts’ used by employers to prevent workers joining a union. Colmotores, a subsidiary of US giant GM Motors, was just such an employer.

Workers at Colmotores documented a pattern of firings based on union activism and work-related injuries and set up Asotrecol (asotrecol.org), an organization demanding justice for injured workers. Asotrecol established a camp opposite the US Embassy in Bogotá, with protesters sewing their lips shut and staging hunger strikes. Under pressure, Colmotores offered a paltry settlement of $5,000 to be shared between all affected workers. Having rejected the offer, Asotrecol fights on.

For many years, trade unions in Colombia were muted in the face of extensive state and paramilitary repression. More recently, protest is growing although, as before, a resurgence of collective action attracts an upsurge in assassinations and death threats.

Resistance has been particularly marked in the countryside, with a peasant farmer strike in 2013 spreading to Colombian cities and nearly bringing the country to a halt. In March of this year, trade unions combined with farmers and students to stage a major protest against privatization, economic hardship and a collapsing healthcare system. Maintaining such a broad-based alliance may be the key to Colombian workers securing transformative change.

Bryan Nott

Two decades ago, when Zambia adopted the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, the result was a proliferation of splinter trade unions. The Convention, and the 1993 Industrial and Labour Relations Act, allowed workers to belong to a trade union of their choice. Some unions split from mainstream unions; the National Union of Mine Workers, for example, split from the Mine Workers Union of Zambia. This led to a decline in union strength and membership; a situation worsened by massive job losses in the mining industry, traditionally a union stronghold.

Discussions began this year about a merger between two of the three umbrella bodies to which trade unions are affiliated: the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions and the Federation of Free Trade Unions. It is hoped that internal conflicts in the top leadership structures – which is what caused them to split in the first place – will not affect the new joint body.

The future of trade unions in Zambia looks unpromising. Workers in the informal sector have remained unorganized, voiceless and highly susceptible to exploitation. The lack of appropriate training for trade union leaders and activists in all sectors has resulted in them lacking knowledge on how best to deal with the challenges posed by a Zambian economy that is increasingly driven by the informal sector, in which jobs are precarious and workers’ rights undermined.

Chilayi Mayondi

Part and parcel of post-Apartheid South Africa’s democratic deficit are ingrained colonial attitudes towards race and colour, particularly in its rural and mining communities. There is no social mobility to speak of and an economic war, driven by neoliberal and globalizing forces, is being waged against workers.

Trade unions, formerly key players in the national liberation movement, now occupy a precarious position as they attempt to balance employers’ demands for profits with the rights of workers. Though the mining sector has traditionally been seen as the mainstay of union activity, since 2009, workers in many mines have found themselves collectively challenging their employers without the support of their union. At its worst, this has led to violent clashes: on 16 August 2012 at the Marikana mine, 34 strikers were killed by the police and 78 were injured; yet the strikes continued for a further six weeks.

Despite the violence, many gains have been achieved through wildcat actions. Their lasting legacy hasn’t been the resolution of worker grievances or the fulfilment of their demands, but rather the ignition of the resolve of other workers, who have been spurred into action in their own disputes. The South African miners have demonstrated that self-organized actions are a viable alternative to the established bureaucracy of modern industrial relations.

Chris Rimell

The garment industry has contributed hugely to the export revenues that are driving Cambodia’s economy as it goes through a period of rapid globalization. Yet the fruits of its success have not been shared with workers, whose wages remain appallingly low. An estimated 90 per cent of Cambodians live in poverty, particularly in rural areas, unable to afford proper food despite the country producing sufficient to feed all its people.

A recent Cambodian study found that an ill-fed workforce leads to lower production and that undernourished pregnant women give birth to babies with stunted growth. Given that 80 per cent of garment-factory workers are young women, the government cannot afford to ignore these facts.

Trade unions and organizations such as the International Labour Organization and Labour Behind the Label have consistently campaigned for a living wage that can sustain a family with one working adult, one adult looking after the family, and two children. Unions in Cambodia’s garment sector have helped improve workers’ conditions significantly, while labour regulations have failed dismally. The rise of unions has empowered workers to use strikes as a successful means of demanding improved regulation compliance by management.

Union presence in the workplace reduces labour standard violations regarding wages, hours and leave. Some 70 per cent of managers say they would pre-empt strikes by complying with workers’ demands.

Adeline Au

With thanks to the staff and students of Ruskin College’s International Labour and Trade Union Studies course for their help in compiling this feature. ruskin.ac.uk

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