Combatting human trafficking – without the unions?

A version of this article appears today on Equal Times, a global news, opinion and campaign website about work, politics, the economy, development and the environment which is supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Sherlock Holmes once pointed out “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” to a police officer. The officer replied that “the dog did nothing in the night-time.” To which Holmes famously responded, “That was the curious incident.”

The “curious incident” at a major international conference on human trafficking held in Vienna earlier this month concerns the international trade union movement. Those attending the conference may reply, “but there were no unions in the room”. And that is curious.

The conference was sponsored by the “Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons” which was set up by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) some years ago. While the OSCE is a group of 57 countries, mainly in Europe, the Alliance is described as a “broad voluntary platform of over 30 members including international and non-governmental organizations”. To the organizers of the event, unions are apparently not an important part of the fight to end human trafficking.

The conference opened in one of the grand halls of the Vienna Hofburg and began with speakers congratulating the OSCE on its decision to appoint a “special representative and co-ordinator for combating trafficking in human beings”. That co-ordinator is Madina Jarbussynova, a veteran diplomat from Kazakhstan who (according to the OSCE) is strong promoter of human rights. The same cannot be said of her government, which still has questions to answer about the December 2011 massacre of striking oil workers in Zhanaozen.

The opening session included other prominent speakers whose record, or the record of the governments they represented, were not ideal on the subject of human rights. Vladimir Garkun from Belarus spoke on the opening panel, representing a government widely described as the “last dictatorship in Europe” with a notorious record on human and workers’ rights.

And one of the first participants to intervene in debates was the representative of the government of Uzbekistan, who rattled off a list of laws his country has adopted to fight human trafficking. According to the OSCE’s own report (more on this later), the ratification in 2008 by Uzbekistan of ILO conventions banning trafficking had little effect. “A report in 2010,” the OSCE states, “estimated that forced child labour accounted for over half the country’s cotton harvest.”

The tone of many of the early speeches was self-congratulatory. One could not help but wonder why a conference was needed at all, as organizations like the OSCE had not only adopted an “Action Plan” in 2000 to combat human trafficking, but had even passed an “Addendum” in 2013. (Did anyone outside of the hall even know this?)

The fact that this was the 14th conference of the Alliance hints at the fact that combatting human trafficking has become a sort of cottage industry, with a wide range of players, many of them quite sincere, producing reports and holding conferences.

But was any of this helping put an end to modern slavery, to the scourge of human trafficking?

Not according to William Lacy Swing, the 80-year-old Director General of the International Organization for Migration. Swing, a veteran US diplomat, made a forceful speech that raised serious issues about the effectiveness of the international response to trafficking. “We have hardly made a dent in solving the problem,” he said.

Swing also raised the question of Europe becoming the most dangerous destination in the world for migrant workers, some of them trafficked, and criticized the recent European decision to reduce efforts to rescue migrants at sea. (This was another issue few participants were keen to discuss.)

It was not until the late afternoon on the first day that a panel was held which included speakers who were not diplomats, who did not represent states, and who could say interesting things about the subject of human trafficking.

Igor Kovalchuk from the Seafarers Trade Union of the Russian Federation was on the panel. Kovalchuk spoke about some successes his union had in Russian courts, and about their good relationship with government ministries being a key to their work. He spoke proudly about his union’s “interactive website” and print publication, and that was it. He was the only spokesperson for the international labour movement.

Fortunately, three of the other speakers on the panel did introduce unions into the equation — though none of them were there representing unions.

One was John Morrison of the London-based Institute for Human Rights and Businesses. Morrison mentioned unions as partners with business in the fight to bring an end to human trafficking, though inevitably his focus was on what business could do.

A second was Reverend Noelle Damico from the USA, who spoke about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which though not technically a trade union has had some success in putting an end to human slavery in Florida’s tomato farms.

The third — the one who most explicitly spoke about the key role trade unions can play in the fight against modern slavery — was Cindy Berman, from the Ethical Trading Initiative in the UK. ETI is a coalition representing business, NGOs and trade unions — where unions are not simply part of the NGO component. Her message could not have been clearer:

“Unionised workers are unlikely to be trafficked workers. . . . Governments can play a vital role through laws and policies that enable workers to have the right to organize and that they can claim these rights in practice. . . . Nothing is as effective as having organized workers that are democratically represented to negotiate their own terms and conditions of work.”

That panel was chaired by Beate Andrees, from the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, and she emphasized the importance of the ILO conventions as a legal basis for the fight against slavery.

One tangible thing that did come out of the conference was a 100 page report entitled “Ending exploitation” published by the OSCE. Though the report’s subtitle references the role of businesses and states, it does include two pages on “initiatives by trade unions or workers’ organizations” including the Italian national trade union center CGIL and the International Transport Workers Federation. It is worth reading (http://www.osce.org/secretariat/126305).

The conference ended with Madina Jarbussynova saying that “we can and must move from policy to practice in combating human trafficking.” This is an odd observation fourteen years after the OSCE adopted its “Action Plan” and during the course of its 14th conference on the subject.

Maybe next time they might consider bringing unions to the table. We may have something to add to the conversation.

Solidarity with the Kurds – or NATO-bashing?

This article appears in the current issue of Solidarity.


At the November 1st demonstration in Trafalgar Square in support of besieged Kobane, it struck me that the speakers — and more broadly, the Left — were not singing from the same page.

On the one side there were those who were demanding that Britain and NATO do more to help the Kurds fighting against the Islamic fascists of IS. For example, Peter Tatchell led the crowd in chants demanding that David Cameron authorise the dropping of more aid to the Kurds, including weapons. There were calls for Turkey to be suspended from NATO because it, unlike other NATO countries, was not prepared to help the Kurds. And more generally most of the speakers especially the Kurdish ones, had not a critical word to say about the USA, the West, NATO or imperialism. Everyone was focussed on the evil that is “Islamic State”.

On the other side, some of the far-Left speakers went overboard in denouncing NATO, the USA and the West, going so far as claiming that IS was a creation of NATO and Washington.

This was particularly the case with a spokesman for the “Stop the War Coalition” — an organization whose presence at the event surprised many of the participants.

The Coalition’s website has almost nothing at all about the war taking place today in Syria and Iraq and indeed the only reference to it is video of George Galloway denouncing the support NATO is giving to the Kurds. Galloway also voted against this support in the Commons.

It seems to me that elements of the British far Left find themselves in a bit of a bind.

On the one hand, there’s this extraordinary, inspiring resistance movement in Kobane, which has captured the imagination of many who would normally be the natural constituency for the Left. The people on the ground, fighting IS, belong to a movement which was seen, until recently, as part of the broad international Left.

Obviously they deserve our support — and yet that seems to mean supporting the US and British air strikes, supporting NATO.

To get around this, the far Leftists have decided on the “ISIS is NATO” line, which is an extraordinary position — one is almost at a loss for words to describe it.

For those not understanding how IS could be both under NATO attack and simultaneously a creation of NATO, some of the speakers went so far as to say that IS was using American weapons.

The implication was that America gave them weapons.

This is, of course, utter nonsense. The American weapons that have fallen into the hands of IS were taken from the retreating Iraqi army. Taken — not handed over as a gift by the Americans.

One of the anti-NATO, anti-American tirades came from an organisation I’d not previously heard of called the “Revolutionary Communist Group”. (I’m sure that specialists will know the entire history of this micro-sect, but for me it was new.) And groups like this, which get invited to speak at mass rallies, give only a very small piece of their line because they’d be booed off the stage if people knew what they really believed.

The RCG’s speaker shouted the usual stuff about solidarity with the Kurds, but a quick glance at their website shows that they are in fact enthusiastic supporters of the bloody Assad dictatorship and its army. The same Syrian army that abandoned Kobane — an army that no Kurd wants to have back. But there was no mention of that to the largely Kurdish crowd in Trafalgar Square.

So what are people like this, who support Assad and Saddam, who demonize NATO and the USA, doing at these rallies?

They’re there because they can’t afford not to be there. To have nothing to say when the battle of Kobane rages would be unacceptable; they must somehow show solidarity with the embattled Kurds.

But they oppose the very thing — NATO air support — that has made that battle possible. The tide may be turning in Kobane because of US bombing and air drops.

On the ground, some Kurds have been heard chanting “Long live Obama!” How embarrassing for the anti-Americans on the far Left.

These people with their crazy views, denouncing the essential support given by the West to the Kurds, praising Assad and Saddam, have no place at Kurdish solidarity rallies. They are there purely to cover their tracks, to provide themselves with some kind of moral cover as IS continues with its murderous rampage across Syria and Iraq.

We should give them no platform.

They shall not pass!

demo

This is the speech I gave today in Trafalgar Square at the demonstration in support of Kobane — part of an international day of action.


Comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, good afternoon.

I have been asked to speak with you today about the support trade unions are showing for the heroic people of Kobane.

We are all inspired by the steadfast resistance shown by the people of Kobane, men and women, working people like ourselves.

We must be clear about our language here: Islamic State is a fascist organization and the fighters in Kobane are on the front lines of the fight against fascism in our time.

They are fighting with great heroism and determination and I am confident that they will win.

This is a fight that the international trade union movement needs to support.

It is our fight too.

erickobaneBut we are not doing enough.

The British and international trade union movements have the moral responsibility to come to the defense of the heroic fighters in Kobane.

In the past, the trade union movement has known what it needs to do.

Eight decades ago, when fascists were besieging Madrid, trade unionists were on the front lines — literally — in the fight. The entire international working class movement, Communists and Socialists alike, were inspired by the slogan “No pasaran!” — “They shall not pass!”

Today it is the responsibility of trade unionists to once again throw our full support behind a people standing up to a fascist onslaught.

It is not enough to issue a press release.

It is not enough to pass a resolution in a trade union branch.

Comrades and friends, brothers and sisters, we must do more.

The TUC must take the lead and mobilize British workers in acts of solidarity, including bringing thousands of them into the streets to rallies like this one.

The International Trade Union Confederation and the global union federations must do the same at global level.

In the 1930s, we were not strong enough and we were unable to stop the fascists from taking Madrid.

That victory for Franco, Hitler and Mussolini must not be repeated today.

Kobane must not be allowed to fall.

They shall not pass! No pasaran!

Kobane is this generation’s Stalingrad

Stalingrad, 1943.

By the summer of 1942, the outcome of the second world war was easy to predict.  The German U-boat operations in the North Atlantic were proving increasingly successful in sinking Allied ships.  In North Africa, Rommel’s forces had taken Tobruk.  And one year into Operation Barbarossa, the Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union, the Wehrmacht had wrested control of most of the western part of the country.  The forward march of Nazism seemed unstoppable.

For the last several months, news reports about the onward march of the fascists of “Islamic state” have echoed that same sense of inevitability.  Iraq’s second largest city, Mosul, fell in June.   Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s home town, fell the next day.  In August, the Yazidi stronghold Sinjar fell.  Every day brought new reports of victories for the Islamists.  ISIS seemed unstoppable.

Until Kobane.

Like Stalingrad, Kobane has become something of a ghost town, battered by shelling and bombing, most of its civilian population having fled.  What remains behind are the determined fighters of the Kurdish People’s Protection Units (YPG) — many of them women.  And those fighters have now fought the fascists to a standstill.

Before Stalingrad, the victory of Hitler seemed highly likely, if not inevitable.  After Stalingrad, the defeat of the Nazis became certain.  From the time the Wehrmacht’s 6th army finally surrendered in February 1943 until the final collapse of the Third Reich in May 1945, the German army never again won a decisive victory.   From then on, the war consisted of a long and bloody retreat back to Berlin.

It is too early to say if this will be the case with Kobane.

Under enormous international pressure, the Erdogan regime in Turkey has finally agreed to allow Peshmerga fighters from the Kurdish autonomous region in Iraq to join their fellow Kurds in defending Kobane.  As I write these words, they are on their way.

At the same time, units of the pro-Western Free Syrian Army (FSA) have arrived in Kobane to join the YPG fighters.

And these forces — the YPG, the FSA and the Peshmerga — are being backed by the immense air power of the United States and its allies.  The US is dropping not only bombs, but supplies that have been stiffening resistance in Kobane.

According to one report, “News reached the world on Monday morning that an airdrop by Coalition forces of 27 bundles of arms, ammunition and medical aid had been delivered successfully to the YPG in Kobane. Finally, the long awaited, much-needed arms had been delivered to the YPG guerrillas, much to the dismay of Turkey. All morning, people in the village received the news with satisfaction, proclaiming ‘Long live Obama.’

In doing so, these airdrops repeat the support given by the US to the Soviets during the Second World War.  At that time, there were no US “boots on the ground” in Russia, but there were plenty of supplies coming through.  In fact, it has been argued that part of the reason why Hitler needed to take Stalingrad was to cut off the flow of US supplies and weapons going up the Volga.

A defeat for the Islamists in Kobane doesn’t necessarily deal the fascists a death blow.  It’s more likely that the struggle will see ups and downs, with some victories for the Kurds and their allies, and some for “Islamic state”.

But for the first time in a long time, the fascists are feeling the sting of a strong and motivated resistance.  In Kobane today, the spirit of Stalingrad lives.

 

38 Degrees: This is NOT democracy

I have just received an email message from 38 Degrees, an online campaigning organization in the UK that claims to have three million members of which, apparently, I am one.  The subject line is “Islamic State” and the message asks me to “vote” on what I think 38 Degrees should do.  I was given this link:

https://secure.38degrees.org.uk/page/s/air-strikes-poll-2#petition

This is not democracy — it is just an online poll.  Where do I, or anyone else, have the chance to engage with other members and try to persuade them of my view?  Where I can I hear their views?   Continue reading