WORLD NOTES: November 10

Guatemala: Colom wins presidency

In a Nov. 4 runoff, social democrat Álvaro Colom was elected president of Guatemala with an almost 6 percent margin of votes over defeated former Gen. Otto Pérez Molina, a hard-line rightist.

Colom outlined for the Telesur news network his plan for attacking poverty and violence. His cabinet, with “neither racists nor fascists,” will reflect “all social sectors,” particularly the indigenous 52 percent of the population and women. He promised an upgrade for Guatemala’s land redistribution program. And Guatemala’s role within the U.S. sponsored CAFTA “free trade” treaty needs “more than revision, it needs improvement,” he said.

Colom opposes restrictive U.S. immigration policies, notably the U.S. wall along the Mexican border. “I am a builder of bridges, not of walls,” he remarked.

East Timor: Students, farmers protest industrial agriculture

Capping three days of educational programs, about 2,000 East Timorese students and farmers rallied outside Parliament and the Agriculture Ministry in Dili, Oct. 17, to mark World Food Day. Their demands included support for small farmers, progress toward sustainable agriculture, and environmental protection.

The HASATIL (Strengthen Sustainable Agriculture in Timor L’este) coalition of NGOs and farmers’ groups organized the demonstration in the name of food sovereignty. Spokesperson Ego Lemos reported to the Green Left Weekly on soil and water pollution stemming from large farm operations, and the impoverishment of local farmers unable to compete with cheap food imports from Australia and Indonesia. At issue, he said, were the “effects of colonialism and neocolonialism on our agricultural system.”

United Arab Emirates: Migrant workers resist

In Dubai, known for skyscrapers and luxury villas, strikes and labor unions are illegal. Thousands of construction workers, however, protested inadequate housing and inflation-eroded wages as low as 36 dirham (US$132) per month by refusing to work Oct. 27-28.

The workers occupied a building and stoned police cars — “uncivilized” behavior, according to Dubai’s labor minister. About 5,000 were jailed and on the verge of being deported — the usual outcome after work stoppages — when all but 160 were released Oct. 31 and allowed to return to work. BBC News and AP gave no indication of a wage hike.

Last year, Human Rights Watch condemned “abusive labor practices ... wage exploitation, indebtedness to recruiters, and [hazardous] working conditions” facing the 700,000 migrant workers in the UAE. Most are from from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Burundi: Workers strike national government

In Burundi, hundreds of nurses walked out Oct. 30 in protest against the government reneging on benefits and pay increases promised three years ago. Public hospitals, newly busy following a decision recently to provide free care for children and expectant mothers, now had to turn patients away. The average income for nurses is $35 a month, according to Reuters.

The nurses’ strike comes as unrest spreads among other public employees. On Oct. 27, the nation’s primary school teachers ended a weeklong strike, but threatened to go out again in a month if pay raises promised five years ago are not implemented. The Burundi trade union confederation warned of a possible general strike if public workers’ demands are not met.

The International Monetary Fund has pressured the government to resist calls for employee pay raises next year but to concentrate instead on increasing revenues.

France: Unions up in arms

French unions are up in arms against assaults on workers’ rights expected from the new right-wing government of President Nicolas Sarkozy. A one-day rail strike in mid-October failed to win concessions, and on Oct. 31, six rail unions announced a potentially prolonged transport strike set to begin Nov. 13. Two energy unions have called for a one-day action on Nov. 13.

Additionally, civil servants announced a work stoppage for Nov. 20 in response to schemes for dropping almost 23,000 public jobs.

Sarkozy’s government plans to cut back on pension benefits for 500,000 public employees, mostly transportation and utility workers. Its annual contribution to the pension fund amounts to almost $7 billion.

Analysts see upcoming strikes as a prime test of Sarkozy’s resolve to proceed with aggressive anti-worker measures promised during his recent presidential campaign, according to AFP, the French news agency.

World Notes are compiled by W.T. Whitney Jr. (atwhit