Socialist Worker

Globalisation's death squads

Issue No. 1809

CESAR BLANCO Moreno was on his way from work last month when he was shot dead in the street. The unknown gunmen made their escape. Everyone in the town knew why Cesar had been killed.

He worked at the Ecopetrol oil refinery in the Colombian city of Bucaramanga. And he was the leader of the USO oil workers' trade union branch in the city. Cesar was the 68th trade unionist to be murdered in Colombia so far this year. The South American country is the most dangerous place in the world to be a trade unionist.

But it is far from being the only country where trade unionists face danger, death and repression for daring to stand up to governments and corporations. A devastating new report by the ICFTU official international trade union federation charts the scale of such repression across the globe.

There were 223 trade unionists murdered or 'disappeared' in all last year. Over 4,000 trade unionists were arrested, 1,000 tortured or injured, and 10,000 sacked just for being trade union members.

The report says, 'Governments and employers are guilty of violating fundamental workers' rights, ranging from the simple refusal to recognise or bargain with a union, to dismissals, imprisonment and even death. In some cases regimes simply fear that democracy will take root, and to counter this, they outlaw or otherwise block the self organisation of workers through trade unions. Elsewhere the evidence points to a direct relationship between attacks on workers' rights and accelerated global liberalisation of trade and investment. The race for profits and the associated bitter competition on the global market have encouraged employers to disregard laws where possible, and to use brutal force where necessary.'

Politicians like New Labour's Clare Short sing the praises of 'globalisation' as a force for good and democracy. The report shows that the reality is very different.

On 2 August last year Iqbal Majumber, general secretary of the Bangladesh Jatiyo Sramik trade union, was leaving his office in the capital, Dhaka. Gunmen approached him and shot him dead. Iqbal was at the forefront of campaigning against deregulation and for union rights.

What deregulation means can be seen in the Export Processing Zone near Dhaka. Multinational textile firms like Nike and Tommy Hilfinger have operations there. They post 'codes of conduct' about workers' rights on their factory entrances. In reality, the zone's general manager admitted last year, 'trade unions are banned here'.

The report says workers in the zone, mainly young women, suffer 'sexual harassment, physical violence, unpaid overtime, child labour, deplorable safety'.

The report details similar stories from every corner of the globe. It notes that 'employers have shown no scruples in hiring hit-men, often current or former members of the armed services, to repress or attack their workforce, particularly when they go on strike or hold a sit-in. This has been especially common in China, Indonesia and South Korea.'

Indonesia had a particularly long catalogue of attacks on trade unionists last year. A violent attack on striking workers at the PT Kadera car upholstery plant in the capital, Jakarta, resulted in the death of two workers. On 16 March about 400 workers occupied the plant to demand better pay and conditions.

In the early hours of 29 March, as the strikers were asleep inside the factory, they were attacked by more than 400 people with knives, metal bars and guns.

One worker, Kimun Effendi, died in the attack. Another, Rachmat Hidayat, died in hospital from his injuries. A further ten were seriously injured. In some countries trade unionists may not be killed, but routinely face arrest, jail, and harsh treatment.

Over 200 trade union activists were sentenced to jail terms last year in South Korea. They included Sung-hyun Mun, president of the Korean Metal Workers Federation, jailed in November for one and a half years. The Chinese regime particularly singles out those attempting to set up independent trade unions for brutal treatment.

Union activist Yao Guisheng was sentenced to 15 years in jail, beaten and confined to his cell. This savage treatment finally broke his mind. The murders and the repression of trade unionists are only one side of the global picture though.

Even in the face of the most awful repression workers have continued to organise, fight and resist, and win victories. In Indonesia barely a day goes by without new strikes and occupations by workers fighting back. South Korea's workers have a proud record of strikes too, often successful.

In China, despite the repression, waves of protests and strikes have swept the county in recent months.

'We will not give in now'

COLOMBIA saw 201 trade unionists murdered or 'disappeared' last year according to the ICFTU report. Over 3,800 union activists have now been assassinated in Colombia since 1985. The murders go hand in hand with the drive by some of the world's biggest capitalist corporations to exploit the country's cheap labour and vast natural wealth.

Coca-Cola is at the centre of a court case over its alleged role in the murder of union activists at its bottling plants in Colombia. Colombia's Sinaltrainal food and beverage workers' union joined with the United Steelworkers of America union to take the multinational to court in Florida. Union leader Isidro Segundo Gil was shot dead at the gates of the Coke bottling plant in Carepa in Colombia.

Coca-Cola claims it is not responsible, as the plants are run by a local firm on its behalf. Union activists reject that defence. The assassinations were not the first at Colombian Coca-Cola plants. In 1994 two other union activists, JosŽ Dav'd and Lu's Granado, were murdered in Carepa. US coal mining giant Drummond was a key lobbyist behind the $1.3 billion Plan Colombia.

The plan is a drive by Colombia's rulers, multinational firms and the US government to smash all resistance to neo-liberal policies, privatisation and deregulation.

Last spring two leaders of a union at a Drummond coal mine in Colombia, Valmore Locarno Rodr'guez and Victor Hugo Orcas'ta, were murdered. Later in the year Gustavo Soler Mora, another union leader at Drummond in the same area, was murdered.

The biggest foreign investor in Colombia is British-based oil multinational BP. BP itself has been accused of links with army units in Colombia which have been implicated in 'extra-judicial killings'. But despite the terror against trade unionists in Colombia, workers continue to organise, fight back and win victories.

Hernando Hernandez is the president of the USO oil workers' union. He said, 'We oil workers refuse to bury our dead submissively. We will maintain our fierce resistance to barbarity.'

The same spirit lay behind the successful fight against privatisation earlier this year in the Colombian city of Cali. Workers and supporters occupied a building, defied the army and successfully beat off an attempt to privatise the water, electricity and telecom utilities in the city.

Alexander Lopez of the Sintraemcali union was one of the leaders of that fight. He spoke at a packed fringe meeting last month at the Unison union conference in Britain:

'We are fighting the same system across the world. Capitalism globalises misery. We have to globalise the struggle and resistance. They can be confronted and defeated.'

The full report is at

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Sat 20 Jul 2002, 00:00 BST
Issue No. 1809
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