ILO Committee on Work Standards (CAS) Prosecutions
Mark Perica (CPSU Federal Office Senior Legal Officer) is again representing Australian workers at the ILO. His blog continues. CAS Journal : midnight, Friday 11 June 2021 Tonight, I had my intervention on Cambodia which is a case involving serious contraventions of the freedom of association convention C87. A couple of days ago, we had our co-ordination meeting of the workers group on Cambodia which ,of course, included the delegation of Cambodian workers. We are making the case for them. We have to be careful not to say anything that causes someone to face reprisals. We agreed my intervention would focus on the violence, threats and use of the criminal code by Cambodian authorities (including the police) to suppress the freedom of association of workers. The last year has seen tightened monitoring of trade union activities, harassment of union leaders, and interference with trade union protests.
In July 2020, police blocked a demonstration of workers led by Rong Chhun, President of the CCTU which was organised to demand termination payments be made to workers in a garment factory that had closed. On 31 July, Rong Chunn was arrested and detained on a charge of “incitement to commit a felony”. He has been held on pretrial detention ever since.
On 10 August, the President of the Cambodian Independent Teachers Association, Mrs Ouk Chayavy, was attacked and pushed off her motorbike after visiting Rong Chhun in prison.
ON 30 September 2020 police broke into a Union meeting, inspected the identification papers of all the participants, and all the meeting papers. Venue owners decline to rent properties for trade unions meetings because of police harassment.
The Cambodian Government’s argument was these matters were not labour rights issues but law-and-order issues. The representative said that “trade union leaders’ are not exempt from the operation of the criminal law”.
The Employer’s Group, led by a Canadian, Sonia Regenborgen took a dangerously pusillanimous line on these issues. She warned the workers group that we “should not raise matters beyond the scope of the convention and the expert’s reports”.
This follows a pattern that has been evident in all the work of the ILO in the supervision of international labour standards in recent years. The employers take an absurdly literalist line on the Freedom of Association Convention.
The Convention does not expressly use the words “right to strike” therefore there is no right to strike required for free association. Similarly, the convention does not say “Government’s cannot use criminal laws to disrupt trade union activities” therefore these complaints are beyond the scope of the convention. The false distinction between human rights and labour rights strikes again!
It begs the question: what exactly does the word “free” in free association mean? Obviously if you are a union leader who is in jail or hospital you cannot freely associate.
The employers (and our continuously silent Government) should remember the ILO was created out of the ashes of World War 1. The Constitution of the ILO was “moved by sentiments of justice and humanity to secure permanent peace in the world”. The preamble to the ILO constitution states: “The failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of work is an obstacle to other nations improving conditions in their own country.”
The literalist approach does not match the generous spirit of the founders of the ILO. The ILO standards are human rights ….it’s not rocket science.
CAS Journal: 11: 24PM Tuesday 8 June 2021 We are out of the General Survey (which is a sort of bird’s eye view of the application of international labour standards throughout the world) and into the 19 individual cases I talked about last time. The first four cases are given the benign sounding name of “double footnoted cases”. These are cases of very serious breaches of the ILO Conventions together with a failure to follow directions from the IL0. I will give you an example of three.
Belarus – Convention 87. The President of Belarus, Alexander Lukashenko has been in power since 1994. He hates to lose elections. Last year apparently, he won the election with a vote of 80 percent, even though the universal opinion of international election monitors was the election was “neither free nor fair”. He is not keen on independent trade unions either. This case was about very serious breaches of the freedom of association convention. Trade unionists went on strike and demonstrated in protest against the suspect elections. They were bashed, jailed, and shot. The argument of the Belarus Government was novel. The strikes had nothing to do with labour disputes. They were illegal. They were criminal acts related to illegal assemblies. They were “political strikes” which were undertaken to destabilise the government. Like the results in the Eurovision Song Contest, international geopolitics plays out in the CAS. Lukashenko has a great ally in his neighbour Vladimir Putin. The propositions put by the Government of Belarus were backed in by the Governments of Russia, China, and Nicaragua. The employers in the Western Democracies play footsie with these arguments. The employers do not think it is a necessary incident of free association for unions to have a right strike. They are uncomfortable with the idea of a “political strike”. Unions can associate like scout troupes or bridge clubs but striking is not included in the bundle of rights that make up free association. As for the distinction between “political strikes” and other strikes, this is an argument our Federal Government makes whenever we have a day of action. It shows an unsophisticated understanding of civil rights, they go all the way down and do not stop at the factory gate.
Ghana – Worst Forms of Child Labour convention. The situation in Ghana is tragic. Child labour is rife in the Country, in fishing, Cocao production and child prostitution. Apparently, the usual way that Cocao is retrieved is by armies of young boys and girls. They are taken from their homes and forced to work, sometimes from as young as five years old. The Ghanaian Government seems to be trying to deal with the problem. They have set up a child trafficking task force and have made primary and secondary school compulsory. It is still a major problem that needs the assistance of rich countries like ours to end. Next time you are looking at the chocolate aisle at the supermarket I would be checking the supply chain.
Zimbabwe – Forced Labour convention. Forced labour, as the name suggests, requires people to be forced to work against their will. A chain gang in a prison where all prisoners are compelled to work offends this convention. The current regime in Zimbabwe forces prisoners to work and Courts still sentence people to hard labour in brutal conditions. The German worker delegate, who seems to be a sensible woman not prone to hyperbole, described the situation in Zimbabwean prisons as “worse than hell”. Mark Lehmann’s, the chief prosecutor for the Workers Group (and my boss on the CAS), is a big brained cosmopolitan from Belgium. He gave a scintillating address against this practice.
Looking forward to Thursday and Friday where I finally get to say something. Talk to you soon.
CAS Journal: 9PM Saturday 5 June It is a great honour to represent Aussie workers in any capacity. To represent workers in an international body where employers and Governments are held to account is next level. I am a worker delegate at the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) of the ILO. This is my fourth time. The CAS is a Court where complaints against governments and employers are made for breaches of international labour standards. It is usually done in the glamorous surrounds of the head office of the ILO in Geneva.
This time, because of the pandemic, the CAS is being held virtually by Zoom so I am doing it from a bedroom at home. It is surreal to be in tracky dacks and slippers ,with the suit coat and tie on making contributions to an international forum.
The CAS runs from 3 to 19 June from 7PM to midnight (including Saturday night). I am surviving on No Sugar Cokes. It being Saturday night I am treating myself with a glass of Jumping Goat - a New Zealand coffee infused vodka.
A lot of Countries have failed to meet their obligations to workers during the Pandemic. There have been many strikes due to OHS concerns and a failure to provide PPE. Also, a lot of Countries have stopped all labour inspections at a time when health workers are confronting the biggest threat in a century.
The way cases are selected is from the long list of 40. At the face-to-face Conference usually a short list of 24 is then negotiated by consensus between the Workers and Employer Groups.
The virtual conference has less time, so, this year, there are only 19 individual cases.
The negotiation of the short list is not easy. You can imagine there are a lot of Sophie’s choices involved. For example, the Philippines and Myanmar, where there have been many extra judicial killings of trade union leaders, did not make the short list.
There was some debate about including Hong Kong on the short list. The argument was the issues were really “human rights” issues. Of course, this is absurd. Labour rights ARE human rights. The imposition of the National Security Law has cut a swathe through the rights of association of trade unionist there. In the end, HK made it to the short list.
We are not into the individual cases yet. There have been two formal meetings of the CAS and “Co-ordination meetings” where the workers representatives divide up the work on the individual cases.
The ACTU and our Union apply the practice that we should help our neighbors in Southeast Asia. So far, I have been allocated three cases:
KB would have killed me if I did not intervene to complain about the treatment of public sector workers in HK. PS workers are now obliged to sign a loyalty Oath to the Chinese Basic Law, and to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, in order to stay in employment.
The employers and government of Cambodia use the criminal law, physical intimidation, and threats against prominent trade union leaders in that Country. I have had a meeting with some of the Cambodian workers. Their bravery has to be seen to be believed.
The ILO has a convention against the Worst Forms of Child Labour. The worst form of child labour is child prostitution. In the islands that make up Kiribati, young girls are used for child prostitution by foreign seafarers at Kiribati Ports. Kiribati has good domestic laws against this but, as far as I can make out, it is not enforced. Our comrades at the Kiribati TUC are helping me with these submissions.
One thing I always come away with at the CAS, and one thing you all should be proud of, is that we are part of an international movement whose only goal is to improve the lives of workers in every Country of the world.
At the CAS I meet the exceptional people taking up these struggles and witness the worldwide solidarity of our movement with my own eyes.
When I get time, I will report more. It is a bit harder this time because I am also doing my day job. Write to you soon!