In Guatemala, masked men shot and killed Marco Tulio Ramirez on Sept. 23 outside his home. Ramirez was secretary of culture and sports for the Guatemalan Banana Workers Union. Soldiers had ransacked the union’s headquarters in July, searching for members’ names.
The hazard of violent death that faces trade unionists, especially in Latin America, is apparent from the recently issued annual report of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) for 2006. A perusal of the report makes for grim reading, especially because improvements from the year before seem nonexistent, a situation that continues this year.
In 2006, there were 144 union activists killed worldwide a 25 percent increase over 2005 — and some 800 beaten or tortured, 5,000 arrested and more than 8,000 fired, including some fired in the U.S. The ITUC report cites 484 activists newly jailed for union work.
The ITUC, the world’s largest trade union federation, represents 305 affiliated unions and 168 million workers from 153 countries.
For murder, the spotlight falls on Colombia, where 76 unionists were killed last year, only two short of the yearly total for all the Americas.
Killers in the Philippines assassinated 33 union members or supporters, often in collusion with government and military officials. Accusations of communist associations or “treasonous intent” are said to have set the stage for many killings there.
What Colombia and the Philippines have in common are strong U.S. alliances and U.S. troops or military contractors on the ground.
The report characterized Colombia’s recent experience as catastrophic. A total of 1,165 union activists are known to have been killed over the past two decades, mostly by right-wing paramilitary units, often at the behest of the national intelligence service and with army cooperation.
Analysts say that the actual number of murders in Colombia is well over 2,500. Only 56 of the accused have gone to trial, with 10 convictions. Testimony from detained paramilitaries and trials of office-holding defendants have documented pervasive government-paramilitary ties aimed in part at union repression.
Asia follows suit, especially India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Sri Lanka and Indonesia, where the tactics of choice are dismissal of union activists and arrest — 5,000 and 2,800 respectively — in 2006. Killings and beatings occurred in India, Nepal, Cambodia and Bangladesh. Mass dismissals are a common pattern in Africa, epitomized by the firing of 1,000 flower workers in Kenya.
Exploitation of women is a worldwide theme, especially in the “export processing zones” of Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Honduras and Nicaragua, and in Asia, including Pakistan, the Philippines, India and Indonesia. Work in these zones is marked by intimidation, long hours, low pay, union repression, and, occasionally, mass dismissals.
Women domestic workers are also victimized worldwide, with women in the Gulf nations of the Middle East bearing a special burden.
The ITUC report takes special note of Australia, where a new Industrial Relations Act put in place by the right-wing John Howard government set the stage for heavy fines against union leaders, arbitrary firings and union repression.
Conspicuously absent from the world summary are references to unions in Haiti and Russia, where workers are grappling with poverty, weakened unions and, especially in Russia, capitalist excesses.
In the report, Guy Ryder, general secretary of the ITUC, says, “International solidarity action by trade unions around the world has brought much-needed support to workers whose fundamental rights are being violated,” adding, “Global trade union pressure on governments and companies has brought results.”