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In a world of grave human rights violations, unions play a critical role

Sadly, in many ways nothing more powerfully and obviously underscores the critically important role that trade unions and trade unionists play in human rights struggles - around the world - than the grave abuses they so frequently experience simply because they stand up for the rights of workers or lead and take part in important social movements addressing wider human rights concerns.

In many countries workers’ rights are of course cavalierly violated and disregarded on a daily basis. In factories, fields and mines, women, men and even children are made to work in unsafe and often life-threatening conditions, forced to work long hours for little pay, and are threatened with loss of their jobs if they lodge a complaint or press for improvements. The odds of successfully challenging this exploitation are undeniably stacked against them. They face enormously powerful commercial and government forces with strong vested interests in maintaining an abundant pool of low paid workers.

In what are often dire circumstances, the need for unions to help balance this unequal power (even slightly) and speak up collectively, rather than individually, for the rights and well-being of workers couldn’t be more compelling and necessary. That necessity is proven in the frequency with which the efforts of unions to organize workers, speak out about abuses and consider various forms of labour action, including strikes, is met with threats, beatings and, far too often, death.

That is certainly the case in Colombia, which over the years has often earned the unenviable distinction of being the deadliest country in the world for trade unionists, with dozens killed annually. Throughout my years of human rights advocacy I have had the good fortune to meet numerous trade unionists from Colombia, men and women from various industry sectors. They have shared stark stories of the abusive and dangerous working conditions they are striving to end; but also of the times they have been attacked for doing so and their fear that their loved ones or colleagues might suffer for their activism. That reality is one that must be thoroughly and carefully examined when the first report assessing the human rights impacts of the new Canada/Colombia Free Trade Agreement is tabled by the government in May.

These concerns are universal. In addition to Colombia, in just the past few days Amnesty International has issued statements and reports of concern about threats, violence, restrictions and discrimination against trade unionists in Belarus, Guatemala, Turkey and Serbia. 

The courage, determination and leadership of trade unions is by no means limited to these crucial struggles to defend workers’ rights. All over the world trade unions are at the forefront of wider campaigns to promote social justice, confront inequalities and push for stronger human rights protection across society. I have seen it when I have been on the ground researching human rights violations throughout Latin America and across Africa. The willingness of unions to stand alongside peoples and communities who are marginalized and at great risk brings much needed solidarity and protection to their own struggles.

And we see that even in Canada, of course. Numerous Canadian trade unions join in campaigns to safeguard the rights of Aboriginal peoples; to push for fair laws and policies for refugees and migrants and to ensure that the space for advocacy and dissent in Canada remains open and robust. They do so because they know that all human rights are inter-connected. Their involvement is of immeasurable value.

For instance, in the face of a wide range of punitive government measures that have targeted civil society groups involved in advocacy around a diverse range of fundamental human rights and environmental issues, including women’s equality, the impact of oilsands and mining projects, and the rights of Palestinians, trade unions have stood shoulder to shoulder with the groups and communities that have borne the brunt and provided support – financial, moral and campaigning – to efforts to stand up for what is right and just. 

The bottom line is this. The trade union movement, in Canada and around the world, plays a central role in standing up for human rights, all rights. Maintaining the space for vibrant trade unions is not only in the interests of the workers they represent. It is absolutely in the interests of us all.

Alex Neve is the Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada.

This article is a response to the Broadbent Institute's report on the labour movement and social prosperity, "Union Communities, Healthy Communities."

Photo : Brooke Anderson.  Used under a Creative Commons BY 2.0 licence.