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Question agreed to.



27 Jun 2002 : Column 1065

Trade Union Rights

Motion made, and Question proposed, That this House do now adjourn.—[Angela Smith.]

7.13 pm

Huw Irranca-Davies (Ogmore): I welcome the opportunity to raise this very important and timely debate in the Commons. Every year, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions publishes a weighty document detailing the record on trade union violations globally in the year. That document of nearly 250 pages examines the extent of human rights abuses and union abuses in all four corners of the globe. It is timely not only because of the advances that have been made in many areas of the world, but because of the great strides that still have to be made to allow collective free association of trade unionists better to represent the needs of workers in all four corners of the world.

Part of the purpose of this debate is to say how far we have come, but also how far we still have to go. In the context of our collective memory, it is easy to forget how far we in this country have come. In just the past 200 years, we saw the advent of the Merthyr rising, in which 20 people were killed and many were injured, and which involved the famous Dic Penderyn, to some now very much a martyr. Such collective action is within our close folk memory, yet we have made great advances since then. However, even today, some of the worst ever abuses of trade unions and of human rights are occurring in countries sufficiently close to be travelled to by jet on a short break.

Interestingly, although the average life expectancy in Sierra Leone and Bolivia is 35, as recently as some 150 years ago it was 45 and 37 in Surrey and London respectively. We have come a very long way since then in terms of how we look after our work force, and of workers' rights to associate freely, to represent each other, and to put their interests to employers and to Government. However, on the other side of the world the story is very different.

I should take this opportunity to thank the International Labour Organisation, the International Confederation of Trade Union Regulations and many other international trade union organisations for the information that they supplied.

I apologise for giving a short history lesson, but as I will show it brings us to a very pertinent point. When the ILO was founded in 1919, it was based on the simple premise that labour is not a commodity to be bought, sold and abused but an asset that must be looked after and treasured by employers and Government. Even in 1919, people talked about the right of association for all lawful purposes, the payment of a decent wage for family life, the adoption of a maximum working week, and a weekly day off of 24 hours—matters that we talk about today as we extend rights in this country. Back in 1919, they were not taken for granted and were considered important enough to raise, as were the abolition of child labour, equal pay for men and women, and so on.

We have moved on well since then. The Philadelphia declaration, made towards the end of the second world war, reiterated the principle of freedom of expression and of association. It was followed by a raft of summits and declarations, the most important of which was—as the

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Minister will know—the international labour conference, at which the then employment Minister expressed support for the fundamental rights declaration, which established the fundamental rights of association and to work. Some 174 member states signed up to that declaration. In doing so, they signed up to the principle of freedom of association, and to the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining—a basic right that we take for granted, but which, as we shall soon see, is denied to many. The elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour is also something that we take for granted, and there is a long way to go in terms of the effective abolition of child labour, and the elimination of discrimination in employment and occupation.

The ILO has done great work on this front, but it deals with such matters in the boardrooms of corporations and of Government. In those boardrooms, it sometimes has to face intransigence and doors that are shut in its face. However, workers in plantations and textile factories in far-flung corners of the world have to face torture, murder, abduction and rape. The ILO does a fantastic job, but as the 250 pages of the annual document show, there are individual tragedies at the chalk face.

As many people are aware, Colombia has a reputation for some of the worst abuses of trade union rights worldwide. Surprisingly, the country is a signatory to the ILO conventions, but it is described by the International Centre for Trade Union Rights as

In 2001, 184 people were assassinated, and more than 3,000 people have been killed or abducted in the past 13 years. That is an appalling travesty in what we call a civilised world. Alexander Lopez, who was supposed to attend a recent public meeting in the House, could not do so because he had been detained by the police in Colombia.

Colombia has a brief and bloody history when it comes to trade union rights. On 20 March, Luis Castillo and Juan Bautista Cevallos, members of the electricity workers' union, were ambushed and assassinated by paramilitaries. Luis Castillo had recently moved his place of work because of death threats. On 22 March this year, Ernesto Martinez of the teachers' association was assassinated outside Rio Negro. On 23 March, Jose Garcia disappeared and his whereabouts are unknown. On 25 March, two members of the oil workers' union, Jose Perez and Hernando Silva, disappeared and their whereabouts are unknown. The list goes on and on.

I shall not bore the House with the statistics for the whole year, but only last week William Gomez, the president of the national union of food industry workers, suffered the horrendous experience of the attempted kidnap of his four-year-old daughter. The suffering in Colombia goes on and on, but that country is not alone.

In Brazil, the International Metalworkers Federation describes an unprovoked attack by military police at the Ford car factory. Mexico has seen assaults on labour lawyers Arturo Justiniani and Hernandez Calzada, because they accused an airline of hiring thugs in a dispute with the Mexican pilots' association. In Turkey, 12 teachers have been arrested for supporting Kurdish language teaching in educational establishments and Amnesty International is very concerned about the Turkish record of torture of people detained. In Costa

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Rica, workers are systematically dismissed for signs of union activity. In Guatemala, unions in textile factories doing work for multinational corporations are systematically intimidated.

In China, South Korea and Indonesia, attacks are made on work force activists with the complicity of Governments. Anybody trying to start up a union in China that is not sanctioned faces a prison sentence of up to 20 years. Amnesty International and, I am sure, the Government, are aware of the human rights abuses in prisons in China. Trade union activity is repressed in Belarus and any democratic activity in Burma results in jail. Unions are banned in much of the middle east, including Qatar and the United Arab Emirates, which have a total ban on unions. Iraq and Syria allow only single unions, which are controlled by the ruling parties. That is an A to Z of harassment, intimidation, deaths, abductions and kidnapping that represents the complete abuse of human rights.

Over the past 10 years, the Committee of Freedom of Association of the ILO has tracked all those murders, disappearances, arrests, detentions and forced exiles, even to the extent of the declarations of states of emergency and the suspension of civil liberties that are imposed on unions. What can we do? Many people throw up their hands in despair and say that the problem is a direct result of globalisation and multinational corporations that can move easily from one place to another, and Governments that will sign away the rights of their workers in order to welcome any foreign aid investment. What can we do in the face of that situation? Well, there is much to do but it is a question of political will,

I welcome the initiatives taken by the Government, especially by the Department for International Development, and the money that has been put towards developing union activism in various countries, including many that I have already mentioned. However, during the 1980s and 1990s, the world went through a period of unfettered neoliberalism. Companies were able to go where they wanted, and do what they wanted. They faced no consequences in terms of what happened to the work force, nor in terms of what happened, implicitly or complicitly, to workers' rights. We must get away from that period, and the Government are already playing a role in achieving that. I urge them to keep on leading from the front and putting the message to our more recalcitrant partners.

The US is a signatory to the International Labour Organisation conventions, but it has not ratified conventions 87 and 98. We must put pressure on to ensure that it does so.

These are global problems, and they need global solutions. Two years ago, Anthony Giddens identified the need for Governments to collaborate with non-governmental organisations and third-sector groups worldwide, as the problem required worldwide co-operation.

International trade union representation also has a role to play. I began by referring to the Merthyr rising, but the battle has moved away from these shores and become truly transnational and international. That is how it must be fought. We must push for more ethical trading, and we must push recalcitrant Governments to change their ways.

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The Government are leading the way. It is a matter of political will. I urge the Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, my hon. Friend the Member for Croydon, North (Malcolm Wicks), to keep on pushing hard for international agreements on the way forward. The document to which I have referred is one of despair: let us turn it into one of hope in years to come.

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