World labor groups defend human rights

GENEVA – Trade union organizations worldwide used this year’s Human Rights Day, Dec. 10, to remind the international community that workers’ rights are human rights, but these rights are still denied to millions of workers. Abuses range from restrictive legislation to the brutal repression and even murder of union activists.

Observances of the day took a variety of forms. In Geneva, Global Unions held a special event on Colombia, the most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist.

In 2002 alone, 184 trade unionists were murdered in Colombia. Many more are still receiving death threats. One of them is Gloria Ramirez, a leading member of the Colombian trade union center (CUT), who traveled to Geneva to testify.

A former president of the Colombian teachers union, FECODE, Ramirez has recently been forced to leave her country because her life is under threat. Representatives from international trade union organizations and Amnesty International were slated to attend the public forum, to take part in a panel discussion entitled “Stop the killings and impunity in Colombia.”

An international trade union delegation visited the Colombian embassy in Geneva as part of the activity, too.

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights states, among other things, that “Everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his interests.” The same rights are protected in Conventions Nos. 87 and 98 of the International Labor Organization (ILO). Yet trade union reports repeatedly show that scores of trade unionists are killed every year for carrying out legitimate trade union activities.

This year’s survey by the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) cited violations of workers’ fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining in 133 countries. The report lists cases in 2002 in which a total of 209 union activists were killed, 1,000 were attacked and beaten, 2,562 detained, 89 sentenced to prison, 30,000 sacked and some 20,000 harassed.

Colombia holds the grim record for the highest level of violence against labor leaders. The ILO has repeatedly denounced the impunity which perpetrators of those crimes seem to enjoy. The ILO proposed that, as part of this year’s theme for World Human Rights Day, the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights should make a clear reference to the human rights of workers, with particular emphasis on freedom of association.

In a letter to the Acting High Commissioner, Bertrand Ramcharan, ILO Director General Juan Somavia pointed out that “the ILO, with its tripartite constituents representing governments and employers’ and workers’ organizations from 177 member states, accords key priority to workers’ human rights. Its supervisory bodies seek constantly to redress abuses of these rights throughout the world. It has long been acknowledged that the strengthening of democracy and of good governance must go hand in hand with the promotion of workers’ human rights, of all human rights, and the eradication of poverty.”

International labor standards are enshrined in ILO conventions which are binding on member states that have ratified them, as well as in recommendations which serve as guidance for national legislation. Furthermore ILO member states are subject to a special procedure to handle complaints in case of alleged violations of freedom of association conventions and – also by virtue of their membership in the organization – have an obligation to respect, promote and realize these fundamental principles and rights at work, which also include the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labor, the effective abolition of child labor, and the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.