I am at the Governing Body meeting of the International Labour Organisation in Geneva. The GB is the tripartite executive that governs the place. There are 33 union representatives on the GB and a fair few of them live in very dangerous circumstances because of their union activities in their home countries. It is our group that has to live with this thought for the three weeks we are together – that those we sit, eat and plan with may be arrested, jailed, tortured or killed when they get home.
Also in the GB are 56 representatives from Governments and 33 employer representatives. Some of these people are complicit in the oppression. The whole employers group including those from Business NZ have launched a serious attack on the supervisory mechanism of the ILO that scrutinises these countries and puts pressure on that in some cases helps keep some of these people safe.
Our group includes Abdulla Hussain. He is the Assistant General Secretary of the General Federation of Bahrain Trade Unions (GFBTU). That he comes here each meeting and continues to insist that the human rights abuses in Bahrain continue to be discussed, knowing that on any return trip he could be jailed and worse makes me question what I would do in his situation. I hope I would be as brave as them. The GFBTU is the only non sectarian union centre in the region and took a lead role in the Arab Spring uprising in Bahrain.
The ILO is unique as an organisation in the UN. Not only is it tripartite but it sets international labour standards and has a supervisory mechanism to hear complaints when countries breach them. The most famous conventions guarantee Freedom of Association (ILO Convention 87) and Collective Bargaining (Convention 98). Unions and employers can take complaints against Governments who breach these conventions. Mostly they come from unions and in very serious circumstances. As an example of how important this process is the ILO was one of the very first international organisations Nelson Mandela visited when he was released from prison (before the end of Apartheid even) where he said:
Let us assure you that despite the thickness of the prison walls, all of us on Robben Island and other jails could hear your voices demanding our release very clearly. We drew inspiration from this. I knew from the very first day of our incarceration that in the end it would prove impossible for the apartheid system to keep us in its dungeons. We thank you that you refused to forget us. We thank you that you did not tire in your struggle. We thank you for your sense of humanity and your commitment to justice which drove you to reject the very idea that we should be imprisoned and that our people should be in bondage.
Last year I was here when Aung San Suu Kyi spoke acknowledging that the ILO persistence on the human rights issues in Burma had been significant and had compelled her to honour us with an early visit. The ILO continues to scrutinise Burma – all is not well there yet for sure.
Complaints of breaches of conventions are first considered by a Committee of Experts. This Committee is made up of some of the best judicial brains on the planet who scrutinise the complaints against the standards and give expert advice to the ILO Conference Committee on the Application of Standards which meets at the conference in June.
This Conference Committee then agrees a list of some of the cases examined by the Experts and debates them at conference giving them prominence and agreeing on conclusions regarding what it hears. It is here that the cases of Burma and South Africa got their hearings. It is the opinion of these Experts that on any interpretation of the Convention on Collective Bargaining, it includes the right to strike. This means that where unionists have been jailed for striking or where strikes have been deemed illegal or where national legislation outlaws striking the Committee has been clear that it is a breach of the Convention and these cases can be examined. The opinions of the experts have been used by judges in many countries as influential and they are very important as trade agreements now frequently reference compliance with these core conventions so having a mechanism that interprets them is essential. But now the experts are under attack and the whole supervisory mechanism is at risk. For those many unionists in jail in Bahrain for striking – this is a bitter blow.
Each year the list of cases to be considered at the conference is agreed between the unions and employers and then heard. In June last year the employers simply refused to agree a list – they effectively took it hostage and had a number of demands they wanted as ransom. Knowing workers had come to Geneva, in some cases risking their lives to be heard, was used as a trump card.
One demand included for a disclaimer to be attached to the expert report on the report effectively calling for judges to ignore them when considering cases relating to the conventions effectively seriously weakening the supervisory mechanism. When this was refused, they sought to remove all cases where the right to strike was at issue. In the end they couldn’t get what they wanted so they simply refused to agree a list and the thousand or so people that had come to Geneva to hear these cases (including very serious abuses in Fiji), went home having wasted their time and in some cases having put themselves in harms way for nothing.
The issue is continuing and the employers are continuing the strategy to try to damage the system. It is unclear if this year we will have a list of cases or if we do, it will be chosen on the basis of the most serious cases.
Business NZ was personally thanked by the employers spokesperson for the lead strategy role they played in this disruptive process last June – in a speech that took place right before the Aung San Suu Kyi address to the full house that had gathered there to hear her speak they were thanked! It attracted much comment to me I can tell you.
So here I sit – with my brothers from Bahrain, hoping that when I come back in June they will be here too, still fighting on, and that perhaps even the case against Bahrain might be examined by the conference committee. They return to a country where union executive members are still in jail and in particular the executives of the teachers, doctors and nurses unions. One was just sentenced to another 5 years. His daughter tweeted minutes after the verdict:
Mama’s tears are heartbreaking .. 563 days were hard .. 5 years are a nightmare.
I’m not yet ready to answer the question of how far I would go if this were me.