Category: International Union Rights

Workers rights in North Korea

This article appears in the latest issue of International Union Rights, the magazine of the London-based International Centre for Trade Union Rights.

The “hermit kingdom” of North Korea is one of the most difficult places in the world in which to learn about workers’ rights. North Korea is not only one of the few states that is not an ILO member, but is cut off from nearly all the other organisations which monitor human rights and trade union rights.

As a result, the annual report on violations of trade union rights issued by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) had this to say about North Korea last year: “Report violations – 2011. Murders: none reported. Attempted murders: none reported. Threats: none reported. Injuries: none reported. Arrests: none reported. Imprisonments: none reported. Dismissals: none reported.” The page where the ITUC would normally write up a few paragraphs about the country is blank.

Human rights groups have had a bit more to say. For example, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reports that “South Korean companies employ some 44,000 North Korean workers in the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC), where the law governing working conditions falls far short of international standards on freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, and protection from gender discrimination and sexual harassment.”

The workers at Kaesong might be the lucky ones, because as HRW also tells us, an estimated 200,000 North Koreans live in forced labour camps. And those in the camps are not necessarily people who’ve been convicted of any crime. As HRW says,
“the government practices collective punishment, sending to forced labor camps not only the offender but also his or her parents, spouse, children, and even grandchildren. These camps are notorious for abysmal living conditions and abuse, including severe food shortages, little or no medical care, lack of proper housing and clothes, mistreatment and torture by guards, and executions. Forced labor at the gwalliso often involves difficult physical labor such as mining, logging, and agricultural work, all done with rudimentary tools in dangerous and harsh conditions. Death rates in these camps are reportedly extremely high.”

Amnesty International reports that “The political prison camp at Yodok, home to around 50,000 men, women and children, is one of six known political prison camps in North Korea, in which a total estimated 200,000 political prisoners and their families are imprisoned without trial or following grossly unfair trials.”

Tens of thousands of North Koreans are now working, some legally and some not, in China and Russia. They provide a vital source of income for the country. But concerns have been expressed in the media about the conditions under which they work. The US government’s annual report on trafficking has named North Korea as one of the major centres of trafficking in the world.

As for trade unions, according to HRW the North Koreans don’t have any — at least not independent unions. “The ruling Korean Workers’ Party,” they write, “firmly controls the only authorized trade union organization, the General Federation of Trade Unions of Korea.” Most unions outside of North Korea will have nothing to do with the GFTUK, but in recent years, some South Korean union leaders have tried to engage their North Korean colleagues in dialogue.

Online campaigns and the wisdom of crowds

I recently attended a meeting of people involved in workers’ rights issues. We were discussing online campaigning. At one point, the participants got very worked up over the question of how to choose an online campaign. There were different points of view about what would constitute a good campaign to select. There was agreement that a committee should be formed to set criteria and create a procedure for deciding which campaigns needed to be launched.

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Fast Forward: Unions need to use online video to campaign for workers’ rights

I’ve just had a quick look at some of the best websites that focus on union rights — the Campaign for Labor Rights based in Washington, ICTUR in London, and the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions in Brussels. All three sites have a lot in common. They give trade unionists and the general public information about trade union rights and they all inspire us to become more active. They are all incredibly useful websites and they meet the needs of our movement for an online presence — if this were 1995.

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China’s two revolutions and the international labour movement

Business Week recently devoted an entire special double issue to India and China, and surprisingly (for Business Week) had a relatively sympathetic account of the problems faced by workers in the latter country. Quoting from sources at the China Labour Bulletin, the magazine came up with an estimate of tens of thousands of industrial actions taking place in China every year. And in the same issue of the magazine, it reported on the spectacular growth in Internet use in China as well.
So in China you have two revolutions taking place at once — a huge surge of worker unrest at the same time as there is a massive increase in the number of Internet users and websites. The China Labour Bulletin is, of course, taking advantage of this with its excellent website, but what about the various international institutions of the labour movement?
Amazingly, none of them has yet produced a Chinese language edition of its website.

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ILO Core Conventions. the web, and global trade union organizing

Back in the 1930s, CIO organizers in the American South would go to factory gates and hand out leaflets with pictures of President Roosevelt, decorated with the national flag. And the leaflets would proclaim in a very large type: “You have the right to join a union.”
At the time, the right to join a union, particularly in the South, existed on paper only. The newly-enacted National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) did guarantee the right to form and join unions, but in parts of the country where racial segregation was still practiced, and where the Ku Klux Klan waged a campaign of terror, the NLRA was little more than a scrap of paper.
Nevertheless, it was a very important organizing tool for the rapidly growing CIO unions. It told workers that they had a legal right to join a union. The law, which for so long had been used to suppress unions, seemed to finally be on their side.
The world today is a little bit like the 1930s in this sense: There is a law which guarantees workers the right to join and form trade unions — everywhere in the world. That law consists primarily of the eight “core conventions” of the International Labour Organization.

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From Passive Reader to Active Participant

In the old days (before the Internet) there was clear separation between reading about injustice and acting on it. One could read about dozens of cases of violations of human rights in the newspaper, or hear about them on television or radio. And entirely separate from this, there were campaigning organizations which gave activists opportunities to make their voices heard. There was very little overlap between reading and acting in the traditional media. But on the Internet, this distinction (between passively learning about a problem and actively doing something about it) is becoming blurred.
The obvious change is in terms of speed. We can now respond rapidly to cases of violations of trade union rights, or to appeals by workers for solidarity during disputes with employers and governments. But much more than that is taking place.
By integrating news with the possibility to act, we are beginning to change people’s behavior when they read news online. They move from being passive observers to active participants.

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Global unions need to speak global languages

In the last few months, LabourStart has added two new languages (Danish and Finnish) to its editions. The online global labour news service is now available in twelve languages. And there are more on the way.
I mention this in passing because it should be obvious that if you want to use the Internet to communicate, and if you are aiming to reach a global audience, surely you will want to do so in as many languages as possible.
But a brief look at the other international labour websites will reveal that we have a very long way to go before we can claim to be speaking to workers in their own languages.

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What to do when email campaigns no longer work

For more than a decade now, trade unions and others have used email as a powerful tool for online campaigning. Despite some notable successes, it is now becoming clearer by the day that this tool is becoming less and less effective.
For that reason it is essential that we begin thinking of what to do when email no longer works — in other words, to come up with our own “plan B”.

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Real-time campaigning for trade union rights

In early May this year I visited Canada as a guest of the trade union movement and conducted several workshops on the subject of online campaigning.
During one of the workshops, an all-day session with national trade union staffers held in a Toronto hotel, I was able to put into practice some of the ideas I had been discussing.

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