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What would I be prepared to die (or worse) for?

Written By: - Date published: 10:21 am, March 26th, 2013 - 62 comments
Categories: business, International, labour, Unions, workers' rights - Tags: , ,

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.


62 comments on “What would I be prepared to die (or worse) for?”

  1. Populuxe1 1

    Frankly Helen, I’d be more impressed if you could turn around the decline of the unions in the relatively cushy situation of liberal democratic New Zealand where you’re in very little danger of being thrown in gaol.

    • karol 1.1

      NZ unions will not become strong in isolation. The NZ government is uniting with overseas business interests to undermine unions. The struggle for strong unions in NZ needs to be part of a global struggle. And seriously, pop, do you really advocate standing by and doing nothing while unionists in other countries are in danger of loosing their lives?

      Excellent post, Helen – the kind of stuff we don’t see reported in the MSM.

      • Populuxe1 1.1.1

        Um, no, I advocate New Zealand unions getting their shit together, properly advancing their cause to potential members, and generally not letting this government walk all over them – and no, I really don’t think overseas unions have much to offer us, mainly because it has minimum impact on our far away national working environment in a globalised world – unless you want to encourage the idea that international solidarity can force one govenrmnet to put pressure on another government, which is not something to be enouraged. The primary focus of our unions should be our country.

        • Colonial Viper

          So you’re willing to lend your support to the union movement in solidarity P1?

          Or just criticise the work that others do? I think I already know the answer.

          • Populuxe1

            Yes CV, being an arrogant prick I’m sure you would assume you know EVERYTHING. And yes you sad, bitter, armchair sniper, I am in a union and I strike when called upon. However, if the union movement wants to address its sad decline it needs to look to itself for part of the blame.

        • Daveo

          What do you think the union movement should be doing differently, given the current economic environment, the legal restraints they operate under and their huge under-resourcing problems? I’m interested to hear it, because so far all I’ve heard is an intimation that they should stop sending the CTU President to the ILO.

          • Colonial Viper

            The union movement need to organise their members into profitable co-operative enterprises and begin the transition away from the ‘owner and employees’ model, to the ‘owner-employees’ model.

            • Daveo

              How exactly do they do that?

              • Bill

                How exactly do they do that?

                By making their members aware of the possibility of forming co-operatives/collectives.

                By writing literature on possible democratic structures and on the known pitfalls to be avoided.

                By making their members familiar with the Industrial and Provident Societies Act (1908).

                And if there’s no-one within the union movement with the knowledge or experience, then by talking to somebody like me, who has and disseminating the information they gather.

                And then bargaining with employers while holding the possibility for the formation of a collective/co-op at the forefront of their minds and incorporating that possibility into their industrual strategies.

                • Rogue Trooper

                  you are the person Bill to get things done

                • Colonial Viper


                  Labour aren’t going to deliver on anything groundbreaking in this area, but I bet the union movement could.

              • Blue

                “How do they do that?” the usual way any start-up business does, develop a business model, raise the capital amongst yourselves and take a risk with your own money, not someone elses.

                • Daveo

                  I think the idea of turning all workers into co-operative owners is worthy, but it’s not the panacea to our problems, and it’s certainly not what union members are demanding at the moment. Right now people want safe, skilled, secure and well paid jobs. Union education should involve thinking of alternatives to the current economic paradigm, but to suggest moving to co-ops tomorrow is the answer is naive.

                  • Colonial Viper

                    I don’t really like your statement Daveo.

                    You raised the bar very high on what was originally suggested, trying to, it seems to me, kill the suggestion.

                    For starters:
                    – You talk of turning ALL workers into co-op owners. Thats stupid. No one (apart from you) suggested that. I suggest an initial aim of 5% of workers.

                    – You spoke of it being a PANACEA to ALL our problems. That’s stupid. No one (apart from you) suggested it would solve everything. I suggest that it will however strengthen the hand of unions when those co-ops can offer better jobs directly to compete with private employers.

                    – You spoke of union members not demanding co-op opportunities. Well, if the unions don’t raise the possibility how else will union members learn of it?

                    – You spoke of moving to co-ops TOMORROW. That’s stupid. No one (apart from you) suggested that. My suggestion is that a plan be formulated and carried out, step by step over say, 5 years.

                    • AmaKiwi

                      CV, I support you on cooperatives. There is no reason the people who do the work cannot also be the collective owners of the enterprise.

                      In most northern European countries a large company’s board of directors must, by law, include 30% union representatives.

                      Although many managers were horrified when this was first legislated, it has worked well. Workers also want the company to prosper. Workers can often bring profitable suggestions to the table that are outside the experience of the white collar managers.

                      Workers ARE the company. They should own it collectively or sit on the board of management.

    • fabregas4 1.2

      I’m on Helen’s side but its hard not to agree with this. Fiddling whilst Rome burns.

      • karol 1.2.1

        Actually, I think unions have been weakened in NZ as part of an international effort against unions generally. The Hobbit case shows how NZ unions can be both undermined by overseas corporates, but also strengthened through international solidarity.

    • millsy 1.3

      If the likes of Rodney Hide, and the rest of the right had their way, union members in NZ would be chucked in jail as well. Peter Jackson probably has come closest to making this happen. He has a fantasy of stringing up Actors Equity bods with piano wire. He would probably film it.

      Just saying…

  2. David 2

    Thanks Helen for the enlightening article. It is sad to see New Zealanders now playing an international role in attacking workers rights to the point of being prepared to risk the lives of participants in a conference they are attending. At the risk of sound like an old fogie – I never thought I would see the day…..

  3. Daveo 3

    Thanks for this Helen. It’s a perspective you wouldn’t see reported anywhere else. Keep up the good work.

  4. Rogue Trooper 4

    I’d “die for you”, Helen; for what greater thing can a man do than die for his friend!

  5. Blue 5

    Who would I die for? My family and my country.

  6. chris73 acualy is Dolan 6

    What would I be prepared to die (or worse) for? My wife, my country though I’d rather the other person died instead of me

    • Colonial Viper 6.1

      Worth killing for but not worth dying for?

      • chris73 acualy is Dolan 6.1.1

        If I’m alive I can better guarantee my wifes safety…

        like I said I would give my life but I’d prefer it if I could take the other persons life. I did consider what would happen if the SHTF in Timor, fortunately it didn’t but again it was a situation where I was prepared to put my life on the line but If given the choice between me or the other guy…

        • One Tāne Huna

          I don’t mean this to be offensive, I’m trying to figure out where you stand.

          Would you die to protect your wife from sexual harassment in the workplace?

          • chris73 acualy is Dolan

            No, killing someone over sexual harassment is overkill.

            I’d give the guy doing it a damn good hiding or rather I’d watch in amusement as my wife gave the guy a hiding (she has no problem smacking over guys)

            • One Tāne Huna

              Well that rather depends on the guy I guess, for you and your wife. So we can take that as a yes. You’d put yourself in harm’s way.

              What about if she were continually being passed over for promotion despite being better equipped than the men who got the jobs instead?

              Where do you say “this isn’t worth dying for”, and submit to it instead?

              And what if it involves a higher infant mortality rate?

              • chris73 acualy is Dolan

                What about if she were continually being passed over for promotion despite being better equipped than the men who got the jobs instead?

                – Find another job or start your own business, plenty of people men and women get passed for many different reasons

                And what if it involves a higher infant mortality rate?

                – As I posted before, what are you going to do about it?

                • One Tāne Huna

                  “what are you going to do about it?”

                  A facile question. Do you think there might be a better way to address the problem than whatever actions I might take? Do you think that action might be better addressed, for example, at a public policy level? By Parliament, for example?

                  If and when Parliament gets around to giving a toss about the harm’s way part of its duties, what kind of evidence do you think they should consider? Rational, peer reviewed evidence, or any old wingnut drivel?

                  • chris73 acualy is Dolan

                    So you asking me = fine, me asking you = facile…

                    • One Tāne Huna

                      That isn’t what I asked. I asked where you draw the line in the scale of human rights abuses. At which point do you say “that’s worth dying for”?

  7. One Tāne Huna 7

    It’s interesting how many people say “my country”. “Their” country is being betrayed as they speak, and many of them are cheering the betrayal. Invasion from outside? Fight to the end! Destruction from within? Bend over and cheer as your wages are cut and your human rights eroded.

    • chris73 acualy is Dolan 7.1

      Depends on your point of view I guess

      • One Tāne Huna 7.1.1

        So what are you dying for this week? 100% Middle Earth?

        • chris73 acualy is Dolan

          I’m just thankful we live in a society where we can express our personal opinions without fear of being slung in jail…

          • One Tāne Huna

            Does that mean you’re prepared to die to defend freedom of speech?

            How about freedom of assembly?

            Freedom from discrimination based on gender, age, race, etc?

            • chris73 acualy is Dolan

              I was in Timor as a peacekeeper and I prepared (as well as one could I guess) for the eventuality that I may well have been killed, if that answers your question.

              • One Tāne Huna

                Well, not quite.

                Being prepared to risk your life to defend people against what could have become a genocide is not the same as being prepared to do the same for equal pay for women, or youth.

                So where would you draw the line in New Zealand?

                Edit: and well done for the work in Timor.

                • chris73 acualy is Dolan

                  “Being prepared to risk your life to defend people against what could have become a genocide is not the same as being prepared to do the same for equal pay for women, or youth.”

                  I don’t consider equal pay for women, or youth to be on a par with genocide.

                  Personally I agree with youth rates and if women want to be paid more then its in their hands to do so.

                  • One Tāne Huna

                    I’m not suggesting they are on a par with genocide.

                    I’m asking where’s your bottom line?

                    You’re prepared to give up the right not to be discriminated against on the grounds of youth or gender. What else are you prepared to submit to? Or more accurately, to wish on others?

                    • chris73 acualy is Dolan

                      What giving up, what submit to?

                      I agree with youth rates and if women want to be paid more then its in their own hands to be paid more.

                      How about you, what are you prepared to do or rather what you think what you might do in theory from the comfort of your own chair.

                    • One Tāne Huna

                      It’s a good question. I believe in the right to self-defence, and that extends to action in defence of others.

                      However, while I am (more-or-less) unlikely to be in a position to defend someone from a physical assault, I can see our infectious disease admission rates and our poor quality housing and recognise that they have much the same effect as an assault.

                      Obviously I have not taken violent action against this injustice, but neither have you, so perhaps that makes us both keyboard warriors.

                • Populuxe1

                  If you could possibly come up with a scenario in which one might actually have to risk one’s life for equal pay for women or youth, the resulting dystopia would have to be so fucked up as to render the example irrelevant. This isn’t the Middle East.

  8. Roy 8

    I’d die for any one of my kids. My country? Hell no.

  9. Populuxe1 9

    “If I had to choose between betraying my country and betraying my friend, I hope I should have the guts to betray my country. “– E. M. Forster

    Though quite frankly I have no idea what I would do unless confronted with the situation

  10. infused 10

    A bacon and egg pie. God damm I’m hungry.

  11. chris73 acualy is Dolan 11

    To One Tāne Huna

    Obviously I have not taken violent action against this injustice, but neither have you, so perhaps that makes us both keyboard warriors

    – No it doesn’t, I went to Timor because I wanted to, because it would be a great experience and mostly because I had an opportunity to make a difference, to actually cause a positive effect no matter small my contribution was (and it was small, probably one of the smallest)

    So you may consider yourself a keyboard warrior but when I had the opportunity to do something I did it even if it meant the possibility that I may have to put myself in harms way to do it

    Fortunately for me nothing what I consider bad happened to me.

    • One Tāne Huna 11.1

      What I said before wasn’t strictly true: I have in the past defended people from physical assault, but it must be said, not particularly determined nor well-equipped assault. I have no more wish to be further tested in that department than you do.

      Your righteous and commendable action in Timor doesn’t answer my question about New Zealand.

      People in New Zealand are in “harm’s way” right now. Your answer to this is to pay them less?

      • chris73 acualy is Dolan 11.1.1

        In your opinion they’re in harms way.

        Tell you what, you set up a situation where someones death in NZ will solve whatever problems you think we have in NZ and I’ll let you know what my actions will be because at the moment its very easy to sit back in our comfortable chairs (I’m lying down on the couch at the moment) and say what we’d do and wouldn’t do.

        Its not until we’re in the situation that we know what we’d do so until that time all we’re doing is merely blowing our own trumpets over something that will probably never come to pass

        • One Tāne Huna

          Acualy is not my opinion. It’s The Lancet’s.

          PS: “Someone’s death” – killing isn’t the only action you’re allowed in this game.

          • chris73 acualy is Dolan

            So what are you going to do about it?

            • One Tāne Huna

              Apart from being politically active? And standing up to bullies in real life? And my job(s)?

              I’m going to continue trying to get people behind the idea that public policy that isn’t based on solid evidence is an assault.

      • Rogue Trooper 11.1.2

        effective link; speaks for itself

  12. Tigger 12

    Marriage equality. It matters that much to me.

  13. karol 13

    Who would be prepared to die for the forestry industry?. Just up on Stuff:

    A 23-year-old Rotorua man has died in a forestry accident.

    Rotorua police Senior Sergeant Karl Konlechner said the man died around 2.50pm today after he was hit by a falling tree.

    The man, whose name has not been released, was working with a small logging crew in steep and rugged terrain near Lake Rotoiti.

    He died instantly, Konlechner said.

  14. Murray Olsen 14

    My experience has been that people who fight for the rights of their class, or even their family, grow to fit the circumstances under which they are fighting. The Kiwis who went to Spain to fight Franco hadn’t been at risk of death back home, because the circumstances were different. Those who volunteered to fight fascism in WW2 rose to the occasion, even though a few old soldiers have told me they didn’t really know why they went except to be with their mates. Most of us rise to the occasion and the necessity of the place and time. We have enormous untapped reserves, and this is what makes me hopeful about our future.
    Some, of course, would just be happy to see conflict as another opportunity for currency speculation or profiteering. They are usually the most militant in their speeches, and are the ones who put our country on the wrong side in the battles the ILO is fighting. They are not all on the National side of the political spectrum either.

  15. In some places, you risk death, beatings or being thrown in the loony bin for things that would be uncontroversial here: http://www.stuff.co.nz/life-style/life/8473684/Is-this-photo-grounds-for-death. Don’t think I’d have the bollocks for it (or some less inappropriate analogy).

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  • Rethink welcomed
    The Labour Party is pleased that Craig Foss is reconsidering the return of New Zealand soldiers buried in Malaysia, says Labour’s Foreign Affairs spokesperson David Shearer. “For the families of those who lie there, this will a welcome move. The ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Disappointment over UN vote
    Helen Clark showed her characteristic drive and determination in her campaign to be UN Secretary General, and most New Zealanders will be disappointed she hasn't been selected, says the Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little. "Helen Clark has been an ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Māori need answers on Land Court job losses
    Māori landowners, Māori employees and Treaty partners need answers after a Ministry of Justice consultation document has revealed dozens of roles will be disestablished at the Māori Land Court, says Ikaroa-Rāwhiti MP Meka Whaitiri. ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Key’s ‘efficiencies’ = DHBs’ pain
          John Key’s talk of ‘efficiencies’ ignores the fact the Government is chronically underfunding health to the tune of $1.7 billion, says Labour’s Acting Health spokesperson Dr David Clark.       ...
    2 weeks ago
  • More than 1,300 schools to face budget cuts
    The latest Ministry of Education figures reveal thousands of schools will face cuts to funding under National’s new operations grant funding model, says Labour's Education spokesperson Chris Hipkins. ...
    2 weeks ago
  • Speculation fever spreads around country
    House prices in Wellington, Hamilton and Tauranga are going off as a result of uncontrolled property speculation spilling over from the Auckland market, says Labour’s housing spokesperson Phil Twyford.  “Speculators who have been priced out of Auckland are now fanning ...
    3 weeks ago
  • New Zealand lags on aid targets
      The National Government needs to live up to its commitments and allocate 0.7 per cent of Gross National Income on development assistance, says Labour’s spokesperson on Pacific Climate Change Su’a William Sio.  “The second State of the Environment Report ...
    3 weeks ago
  • War on drugs needs more troops
    The Minister of Police must urgently address the number of officers investigating illegal drugs if she is serious about making a dent in the meth trade, says Labour’s Police spokesperson Stuart Nash.  “Answers from written questions from the Minister show ...
    3 weeks ago
  • Doctors strike symptom of health cuts
    The notice of strike action issued by the junior doctors today is the result of years of National’s cuts to the health system, says Labour’s Associate Health spokesperson Dr David Clark. ...
    3 weeks ago
  • Government starves RNZ into selling Auckland asset
    Just weeks after TVNZ opened its refurbished Auckland head office costing more than $60 million, RNZ (Radio New Zealand) has been forced to put its Auckland office on the market to keep itself afloat, says Labour’s Broadcasting spokesperson Clare Curran. ...
    3 weeks ago
  • Government must be more than a bystander on the economy
    Despite what he might think John Key is not a political commentator, but actually a leader in a Government who needs to take responsibility for the conditions that mean a rise in interest rates, says Labour’s Finance Spokesperson Grant Robertson.  “John ...
    3 weeks ago
  • Māori Party all hui no-doey on housing
    The Māori Party should stop tinkering and start fixing tragic Māori housing statistics in the face of a national housing crisis, says Labour’s Māori Development spokesman Kelvin Davis. ...
    3 weeks ago
  • Labour committed to eliminating child poverty
    Labour accepts the challenge from Children’s Commissioner Andrew Becroft to cut child poverty and calls on the Prime Minister to do the same, says Leader of the Opposition Andrew Little. ...
    3 weeks ago