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ITF fights for labour rights at the International Labour Conference


The ITF joined trade union allies from around the world in Geneva to call for action on serious breaches of workers’ rights 

The International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) was in Switzerland in June for the annual meeting of what’s become known as the ‘international parliament of labour’ – the International Labour Organisation’s (ILO) International Labour Conference (ILC).

This key event in the global labour calendar brings together representatives from governments, trade unions and employers to establish, adopt, and monitor international labour standards and to set the policy agenda of the ILO. 

The ITF joined a number of ITF-affiliated transport trade unions from across the world in Geneva, as well as fellow global union federations under the banner of the Council of Global Unions (CGU), currently chaired by UNI Global Union General Secretary, Christy Hoffman.

ITF General Secretary Stephen Cotton addressed the Conference and called for unity in confronting the overlapping crises facing working people around the world.

“Globally we are facing converging economic, political, social and climate crises that are threatening working people and have the potential to exacerbate existing inequalities,” he said.

“We are seeing a decent work shortage in transport and across the global economy - workplaces are becoming increasingly unsafe, employment increasingly precarious, standards of living are falling and workplace rights – including the fundamental right to strike and right to collective bargaining – are under attack. Democracy around the world is being threatened – no social justice can exist in societies where there is a violation of basic human rights, which is why I want to put on record our full support for the Global Coalition on Social Justice.

“Together, we have a collective responsibility to respond to these crises – to build better workplaces and ensure inclusive and effective labour protection for all workers.”

This year’s Conference also took the initial step towards establishing the first-ever international labour standard governing biological hazards in the world of work. The ITF Legal Department’s Helen Breese participated in the deliberations representing the voice of transport workers in these critical standard-setting negotiations.

The below interventions were made at the ‘Conference Committee on the Application of Standards’, which examines whether or not ILO conventions are being properly applied, with governments given the opportunity to respond. The Committee makes recommendations on steps governments could take, or for technical assistance on the engagement of ILO missions.


Ecuador: Fishers among self-employed and informal workers without trade union rights

The ITF explained to the Committee that self-employed and informal workers in Ecuador do not enjoy trade union rights under the country’s Labour Code – a breach of ILO Convention 87 (C087), Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise.

In Ecuador, fishing is a billion-dollar industry, with the country home to the largest tuna fleet in the Pacific Ocean and the second biggest tuna industry in the world. 

But fishers, who regularly change vessels and have contracts issued for each trip – which usually last 20-40 days – are classed as self-employed. This means that workers in the wild-capture tuna fleet in Manta have been unable to establish their union – the Sindicato de Marineros de Manabi – despite years of trying.

Worse still, fishing is classed as one of the world’s most dangerous industries. Only two weeks before the Geneva meeting, four fishers died in a vessel fire in Manta, while a vessel observer was killed in April in a trawler collision.

“These fishers need and deserve a union to be able to bargain collectively - at the most appropriate level suitable to this most particular industry,” ITF Legal Director, Ruwan Subasinghe, told the Committee.


Eswatini: Quash convictions, drop charges against trade unionists

In an emotional intervention, ITF Legal Director Ruwan Subasinghe explained that he was sat behind the wife of trade union lawyer, Thulani Maseko, when she came to the ILC in 2015 to appeal for his release from jail.

Maseko was jailed for two years for speaking out on the injustices a worker faced in Eswatini’s judicial system. He was eventually released in 2017 after serving his full sentence – but Maseko was shot dead in his house last year in what is believed to be a political killing.

The dire situation faced by trade unionists in Eswatini, and the failure to uphold Convention 87 (C087) on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, sadly continues. 

At the end of 2022, ITF-affiliate, the Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers’ Union (SWATCAWU) called a “job stay away” with demands to improve working conditions and to release jailed political leaders. Only a few weeks later, SWATCAWU General Secretary, Sticks Nkambule, survived an assassination attempt. The next day, heavily armed state forces raided his home and village. 

Fortunately, Nkambule escaped, but he has been in exile ever since, with the SWATCAWU office now under constant surveillance and subject to regular forced entry from armed police.

“This is no way for trade unionists to conduct their activities in full freedom,” Subasinghe said.

“The Government of Eswatini must refrain from the violent treatment and harassment, including judicial harassment, of trade unionists.”

The consensual conclusions adopted by the Committee in this case called on the Government to drop all charges against Nkambule and to ensure his safe return home from exile. 


Philippines: a culture of impunity for extrajudicial killings and enforced disappearances

Speaking to Conference Committee on the Application of Standards on behalf of Building and Woodworkers International (BWI), the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), and IndustriALL, BWI General Secretary Ambet Yuson outlined the continuing failure to realise Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise (ILO Convention 87, C087) in the Philippines.

Yuson said he wanted to explain, “the risks my brothers and sisters back home face from being a trade unionist”, including a number of cases which occurred after an ILO visit to the country. In 2023, the ILO dispatched a ‘High-Level Tripartite Mission’ (HLTM) to the Philippines – missions are made up of governments, employers and workers’ groups, and they investigate violations of international labour standards and labour rights.

Yuson said that since the Mission, 24 trade union leaders are still jailed “on trumped-up charges”, two of whom were arrested after the Mission. There have also been three new cases of abduction or enforced disappearance, while a large number of representatives from sectoral trade unions and labour movement campaign organisation, SENTRO (Sentro ng mga Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa), are subject to ongoing ‘red-tagging’, surveillance and profiling.

Yuson explained that since the Duterte regime took office in 2016 – sparking a surge in red-tagging and extrajudicial killings – 72 trade unionists have been killed.

“I cannot make this intervention without restating their stories,” Yuson said.  “Alex Dolorosa was reported missing in April 2023, and his body was later found days later with multiple stab wounds. Jude Thaddeus Fernandez was gunned down in September 2023.”   

While killings have declined under the new Marcos administration, rogue state forces still operate under a culture of impunity.  

“It is imperative that the government immediately address and investigate the labour rights violations, as well as implement effective reforms to protect trade unionists in the country and all workers’ right to organise,” he said Yuson.


Tunisia: Collective bargaining restrictions affecting 40 trade unions

Kemal Özkan, Assistant General Secretary of IndustriALL, spoke to the International Labour Conference Committee about workers’ rights abuses in Tunisia on behalf of IndusrtiALL, the International Transport Workers’ Federation and Building and Woodworkers International.

“In Tunisia, union leaders face dismissals and transfers from jobs because of their union work,” Özkan said. “Union leaders are subject to fabricated court cases because of their union activities, and some have been jailed. The case of brother Anis Kaabi from the transport sector, who spent 14 months in prison, is a blatant example of such violations.”

UGTT (Union Générale Tunisienne du Travai – Tunisian General Labour Union) is struggling to achieve genuine social dialogue and respect for freedom of association in Tunisia. However, since 2021, the Government of Tunisia has indirectly suspended the work of the National Council of Social Dialogue by failing to appoint its own representatives to the Council.

Government circular Nr.20, issued in 2021, restricts collective bargaining for around 40 trade unions and prevents the implementation of agreements between unions and respective ministries. 

At the same time, the Government is unilaterally amending labour laws and excluding UGTT from discussions, while also cancelling concessions enshrined in international law that allow workers holding a trade union position to work full time for UGTT: trade unionists Tahar Berberi, Bassam Ben Treka and Mohamed Bedera have all been asked to pay huge financial compensation to the Government, with Berberi – a former IndustriALL vice-president – facing a trial and blocked from travelling abroad due to his union work.

The Government crackdown has also targeted international trade unionists. European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) General Secretary, Esther Lynch, was ordered to leave the country after protesting the trade union crackdown – she had travelled to Tunisia alongside other international union leaders to show solidarity to UGTT.

These examples leave severe concerns about the failure of Tunisia to respect the ILO Convention 87 (CO87) on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, and Convention 98 (CO98) on The Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining.

Özkan said: “We call on the government of Tunisia to implement all the signed agreements between the government and the UGTT and social partners, end all forms of harassment of trade union leaders, respect the national and international agreements and well-established national practices on union representation.”


Turkey: Borusan dockers, chronic failure to protect workers from anti-union dismissals

In March this year, Turkish union Liman-İş started organising at the port of Borusan, in the country’s Bursa province. The organisers’ efforts met with success - 85% of the port’s workers joined the union. 

Only three weeks later, six workers were dismissed for the sole reason that they joined Liman-İş - in direct contradiction of Convention 87 (C087) on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise. 

But after their union brothers and sisters organised a four-day work stoppage, the workers were reinstated, and the company – Borusan Logistics – vowed to stop blocking union organising.

“This is when things deteriorated,” International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) Legal Director, Ruwan Subasinghe, explained to the Committee. “Almost immediately, the employer began to threaten workers and demand that they resign their union membership.”

By the next month, May, 37 workers – all lead organisers or union contacts - were put on leave. Less than two weeks later, they were all sacked via SMS after refusing to resign their union membership – with the ITF coordinating global solidarity action soon after.

"These 37 workers and their families are only a fraction of the people affected by Turkey’s longstanding failure to protect workers against anti-union dismissals in the private sector,” said Subasinghe.

“Turkey must, as a matter of urgency, adopt effective and sufficiently dissuasive sanctions against anti-union dismissals and ensure that workers who have suffered such prejudice, including the 37 dockers, are entitled to reinstatement in employment and full compensation in financial terms. 

“Adequate protections against anti-union dismissals are not only necessary to protect workers rights and their livelihoods, they are essential to ensure the very existence of trade unions.”

Image credit: Violaine Martin/ILO. Image used unedited, under license.