ETI’s Senior Industrial Relations Advisor, Beverley Hall, was brought up in South Africa. Here she reflects on the global persecution of trade union organisers and the role that companies should play in defending their rights. And she links this to what goes on in the African bush when a predator is on the prowl.
In Africa, bush or jungle life goes silent when a predator is on the prowl.
There may be a warning squawk from a bird safely perched in a tree top, but when a predator moves in for the kill, it is as if both fauna and flora are holding their breath.
It's important to acknowledge that there is a clear correlation to those working in what could be described as the “deepest jungle” of supply chains.
These are the areas where the lives of human rights defenders – and in particular locally-based trade unionists fighting for the rights of workers – are under threat.
Is it better to sound the alarm or to hold your breath when a predator is on the prowl?
Maybe the prowler will miss its target? Or the victim get away? After all, they may be ripped and bloodied, but at least they have survived.
Have you seen this predator?
The focus of this blog (or the predators in this instance) is:
- the erosion of democratic space.
- the insidious threats made against human rights as a whole, and;
- the unconscionable continued killing of, and violence against human rights defenders and in particular trade unionists.
Human rights defenders are described by the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) as, “people who, individually or with others, act to promote or protect human rights.”
They are identified, above all, by what they do.
Let’s fence off the panoramic view of the landscape and zoom in on ETI’s mission to improve workers lives and their individual worlds of work.
How does the overall erosion of democratic space and the threat against workers’ rights and protections as described in the ETI Base Code of labour rights play out?
And what and where is the evidence needed so that companies can “squawk” about it?
ITUC global rights index
The 2019 International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) Global Rights Index is where we need to look for the evidence of prowlers’ kills.
To quote Sharon Burrows, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation:
“Extreme violence against the defenders of workplace rights saw large scale arrests and detentions in India, Turkey and Vietnam.
“From Hong Kong to Mauritania, the Philippines to Turkey, governments are attempting to silence the age of anger by constraining freedom of speech and assembly.
“In 72% of countries, workers had no or restricted access to justice, with severe cases reported in Cambodia, China, Iran and Zimbabwe.”
Human rights defenders at work
It’s important to note that in the world of work, trade union or elected worker representatives must be viewed as human rights defenders as they act to defend rights at work and represent the collective needs of workers.
It is therefore deeply disturbing to read that:
- In ten well known sourcing countries, trade unionists were murdered in Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe. Added to this list of worst countries for workers in 2019 are Algeria, Kazakhstan and Saudi Arabia.
- Workers had no or restricted access to justice in 72% of countries.
- Out of 145 countries surveyed, 54 deny or constrain free speech and freedom of assembly.
- Workers experienced violence in 52 countries.
- 85% of countries have violated the right to strike.
- 80% of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining.
Within this we also need to recognise that in 35 countries there are no guarantee of rights – and these are often countries which are viewed by businesses as good investment opportunities.
A cacophony of noise is needed
We can dress ethical business commitments up in catch phrases like “decent work”, “worker voice”, or even “sustainable development frameworks” but predators do not play by the rules.
That’s why personnel in leading businesses (and we count all ETI members as such) must also view themselves as human rights defenders. And act.
ETI members have committed, via the Base Code, to uphold and support the most basic rights and protections that workers have. This includes respecting rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.
One squawk may not deter a predator, but when we collaborate and create a cacophony of noise, we may save at least one trade unionist’s life – and perhaps many more.