Labor unions from southern Africa have called on the regional Southern African Development Community to send peacekeepers to Zimbabwe to ensure presidential elections take place democratically.

A statement from the main labor organizations in eight countries also called on the SADC’s 15 governments to mount “vigilant monitoring” of Zimbabwe’s June 27 runoff vote and to make sure United Nations and other observers can also be on the spot.

“The workers in the region cannot allow the election and the expression of the people of Zimbabwe through the ballot box to be stolen,” said the statement, read at a news conference by Swaziland’s labor federation leader Jan Sithole.

UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said he was sending high-ranking envoy Haile Menkerios to Zimbabwe to help the nation with the election.

The statement was issued by leaders of national labor federations representing as many as 15 million workers in southern Africa, who were in Geneva attending the annual conference of the International Labor Organization.

They said the abuse of labor activists’ rights in Zimbabwe has multiplied since the first round of presidential elections March 29.

Opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai outpolled President Robert Mugabe in the first round but, according to official results, failed to win the 50 percent plus one vote necessary to avoid a runoff.

The African union leaders charged that many May Day meetings organized by labor unions in Zimbabwe were forbidden or forced to be canceled at the last minute. The president and secretary-general of Zimbabwe’s trade union confederation were recently imprisoned for 10 days and released under bail terms that have prevented them from carrying out their work or traveling, the statement added.

The stance of the worker delegates at the ILO meeting contrasted sharply with that of the political leaders of the Southern African Development Community.

These have preferred to avoid openly criticizing Mugabe and work through the “quiet diplomacy” championed by South Africa’s President Thabo Mbeki.

Lesotho’s Prime Minister Pakalitha Mososili told reporters Zimbabwe’s sovereignty must be respected. Mososili said he understood there was “no way” that the runoff elections could be rigged.

His argument was rejected by Alina Rantsolase of the Congress of South African Trade Unions, COSATU. “The first round was already rigged,” she told the Geneva news conference.

Sithole said the group was also speaking on behalf of the Zimbabwe union leaders who were unable to travel to Geneva because of the bail terms.