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Report Details Ongoing Abuses Against Workers, Unions

Some strides have been made in places like Myanmar and Brazil.

GENEVA — Textile and apparel labor union leaders and workers in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Egypt, Sri Lanka, Peru and Kenya were among last year’s victims of killings, assaults, arrests and dismissals, a global survey said.

In 2011, there were 76 labor union activists killed, including 29 in Colombia, 10 in Guatemala and eight in Asia, according to an annual survey of violations of trade union rights in 143 countries by the International Trade Union Confederation. This was down from the 90 trade unionists murdered worldwide in 2010.

“The situation of hundreds of thousands of workers is very disturbing,” said Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. “Most of them do not enjoy the fundamental rights of collective bargaining and freedom of association, and are in precarious employment. Their lives are thrown into disarray because they have to work long hours in dangerous and unhealthy conditions.”

The report lists widespread breaches of rights of apparel workers and unionists ranging from violent attacks to lockouts and dismissals, and notes opposition to organized labor was particularly strong in Export Processing Zones in countries such as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. The study said that in the Dhaka export processing zone in Bangladesh, two Italian-owned factories, Helicon Sweaters and A One BD, “closed their factories after 2,600 employees walked off the job to demand a pay increase.”

Similarly, in Peru last November, trade unionists working at the textile firm Topy Top denounced the company’s antiunion policy, including “its constant failure to respect the worker’s rights, threats and intimidation in reprisal for reports of violations and relentless antiunion dismissals.” A total of 200 union members were fired, it said.

In Egypt, workers at Mega Textiles found themselves the target of punitive measures in response to trade union action over a pay rise, an eight-hour day and paid overtime, with 31 workers denied access to the factory and effectively suspended. The report also outlined that in Brazil, “the Spanish fashion retailer Zara received 52 different fines for a whole range of irregularities, such as outsourcing manufacture of its products to companies employing migrant labor to work over 16 hours a day in slavelike and unsanitary conditions.”

On the plus side, the ITUC survey documented advances posted in some countries such as Myanmar with a new law ushered in last October that allows workers to form unions and to strike, sweeping away draconian laws dating from 1962.

In a similar vein, in Indonesia in June 2011, major apparel factories, unions and sportswear brands including Adidas, Nike and Puma signed a historic accord on freedom of association, said the ITUC study, which represents 175 million workers in 153 countries, and includes the AFL-CIO.