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World: Report Claims Trade Unionists Targeted By More Violence

Belarusian President Lukashenko's regime came in for heavy ICFTU criticism (RFE/RL) The International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) claims violence against trade unionists around the world is growing. In a study just released in Brussels, the organization says a total of 145 unionists were killed in 2004, and many more were injured or obstructed in their work of representing workers' rights. Among countries coming in for criticism are Ukraine, Belarus, and Moldova. RFE/RL speaks to the author of the survey.

Prague, 18 October 2005 (RFE/RL) -- The world's largest trade-union confederation says trade unionists are facing growing risks of death or injury as they try to uphold workers' rights.

The study, completed for the Brussels-based ICFTU, says that beyond the 145 who were killed, 700 trade unionists were tortured or beaten and some 4,500 lost their jobs as a result of their commitment to unionism. The survey, compiled by researcher Janek Kuczkiewicz, covers 137 countries.

"It is definitely getting worse worldwide," Kuczkiewicz tells RFE/RL. "We see an increase in repression against trade unions that all too often translates into physical violence."

The worst country in which to be a trade unionist is Colombia, where 99 unionists met violent deaths in 2004 alone. Things are so bad there that some union leaders never go out without a bulletproof vest and accompanied by bodyguards.

Ukraine's Tradition Of Harassment

Looking at the situation in Europe, the ICFTU criticizes the prevailing atmosphere in Belarus, Ukraine, and Moldova. On Ukraine, Kuczkiewicz says there has been a tradition of harassing -- sometimes even physically attacking -- representatives of the trade-union movement.

He cites the case of Mikhail Volynets, the head of the Confederation of Free Trade Unions of Ukraine, whose son was abducted by secret police and badly beaten in 2004. As Kuczkiewicz puts it, there has long been a "culture of interference" and intimidation of unions in Ukraine, as well as a lack of respect for collective bargaining and freedom of association.

He says it remains to be seen whether the recent political changes in Ukraine -- a reference to the election of reformist President Viktor Yushchenko -- will bring an overall improvement.

"We do not see a dramatic improvement -- let me put it that way," Kuczkiewicz says. "[But] often it takes a lengthy time for progress in the political arena to be transposed into the field of industrial relations."

Belarus -- A 'Major Priority'

Turning to Belarus, the analyst says improvement in that country is a "major priority" for the international trade-union movement. Problems include restrictions on the registration of independent unions, interference in the internal affairs of unions, harassment of trade-union leaders, including dismissal from their jobs, and more.

"There has been, of course, a full government-orchestrated manipulation to seize and assure and strengthen control over the country's major trade union federation, the SPB [Free Trade Union of Belarus]," Kuczkiewicz says.

Kuczkiewicz recalls that Belarus was subject to a rare Commission of Inquiry by the UN International Labor Organization -- something he describes as an "exceptional procedure" equivalent in status to a UN war crimes tribunal. The commission produced 11 recommendations to the Belarusian government of President Alyaksandr Lukashenka in 2004, but the situation has not improved.

On Moldova, the ICFTU survey finds that there is a widespread pattern of union-busting and judicial pressure on unions. Workers have been pressured to join unions close to the government, particularly in the agricultural and health sectors.

Post-Cold War Hopes Not Realized

Turning to the Caucasus region, Kuczkiewicz comments in particular about the difficulties of the worker movement in Azerbaijan.

"We cannot avoid noticing that, in line with the very repressive [Azerbaijani] regime, people are repressed when they try to demonstrate for political reform, while unions are limited in their capacity to operate," Kuczkiewicz says. "The oil sector is one in particular where the government clearly does not want to have a strong union movement, and we have seen many infringements of the law in the oil industry and in joint venture companies."

Kuczkiewicz laments that with the end of the Cold War, the hopes of the trade-union movement for an improvement in workers' rights have not fully materialized. He says that east of the European Union in particular, governments and employers seem to have sought to limit the activities of unions, which are often seen as an obstacle to economic reform, to structural adjustment policies, and as a hindrance to attracting foreign investment into the country.

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