Trade union solidarity with workers in countries facing state repression and violence, attacks on trade union rights, failings on COVID, on health, poverty and more is absolutely crucial – and can save and help improve lives.
That was the message from a passionate and expert all women panel to last night’s Special Delegate Conference International Fringe, which had speakers on Turkey, Myanmar, Palestine, Brazil and Colombia.
General Secretary Christina McAnea emphasised UNISON’s strong commitment, saying: “I am proud of this union’s international work, its commitment to international solidarity and the role it plays in the global trade union movement.”
Public Services International’s General Secretary Rosa Pavanelli joined Christina in stressing the need for a vaccine waiver, on patents, medications and the technology to help produce it – which both have raised with governments here and internationally.
Christina asked: “How many lives could have been saved in India if Boris Johnson and Liz Truss had pushed for a waiver back in January, allowing India’s well-developed pharmaceutical industry to manufacture the vaccine at large scale? Just think of the difference that would have made in India.”
Rosa said we would hear soon about what happened in Brazil, but she’d just met with South African colleagues where only 0.4% of the population have had a first vaccine dose.
“How can we believe that with the gift, the charity, of one billion doses of vaccine we will be able to stop the pandemic, to stop the virus and above all to prevent a new strain of the virus that can affect and impact on everyone?”
She said PSI is fighting to address the fundamental issues of economic injustice, for tax justice, with the wealthier paying their share and no return to austerity. The G7 minimum tax on corporates is not enough – US President Joe Biden’s 21% “is the right decision to take because it can provide us the resources for a recovery that is socially and environmentally responsible and inclusive.”
Ligia Ines Alzate spoke next and thanked UNISON for support and solidarity. She is a member of the National Executive of Colombia’s TUC, the CUT, and heads the legal department. She represents women trade unionists and feminists on the national strike committee which has co-ordinated the recent massive protests in Colombia over economic inequality and human rights abuses, and helped negotiations with the Colombian government.
She said: “On 20 April we came on to the streets to protest but the response from the government has been extreme violence, extreme police violence. We’ve seen 64 people killed, seen over 1000 people arrested arbitrarily, and the government refuses to accept or sign the agreed proposal for guarantees for protest.”
They complained about armed police, police working “alongside what we would say is paramilitaries” and about the military assistance on the streets.
“We’ve said to the country that this treatment of social protest, of the people as enemies of the state, we’ve been treated like the country’s at war with us.”
The next speaker was research co-ordinator Riya Al’Sanah, of Who Profits, a research centre which focuses on exposing corporate complicity in Israel’s ongoing occupation of Palestinian and Syrian land. She has authored reports for the European trade union network for justice for Palestine and for the ITUC.
Riya said people may have been paying attention to what’s been happening in Palestine recently, though it is no longer top of the headlines, “but the repression that we saw that was taking place over the last period has been our lived reality for over 73 years; forced displacement and the theft of Palestinian property is the norm, not the exception. Over the past 5 years over 11,000 Palestinian homes in the south of Israel – these are Palestinian carriers of Israeli IDs – 11,000 of their homes have been demolished.
“Over 100,000 people will be facing forced displacement to make way for Israeli Jewish only residential areas, industrial park, military parks, roads, railways and so on. In Jerusalem residents are also facing forced displacement to make way for the expansion of the settlements and settlement infrastructure. Rarely does a day go by in Palestine without someone being killed. Early today a 29-year-old woman was shot dead at a check point. 219 people were killed in Gaza over the course of 11 days.”
She praised the international solidarity shown around the Palestinian general strike on 18 May, and workers using industrial power such as dock workers stopping ships carrying weapons to Israel.
But Riya explained that the “violent reality” of what is happening to Palestinians is enforced by international support, by “impunity that Israel faces and experiences and enjoys, by political organisation, by governments on a world, on a global scale. But it is also facilitated through the involvement of private companies, in Israeli and international private companies.
“These companies also find themselves in our every-day day-to-day life, in your every day-to-day life… Your pension fund might be investing in one of these companies, your local council might be contracting one of these companies. So the repression that takes place in Palestine in a way does not remain in Palestine, it finds itself and it circulates on a global scale.”
Luba (Luciana) Melo, women’s secretary of SINSEP, from Brazil, spoke next. SINSEP is part of the municipal workers federation of the Brazilian TUC, the CUT. She showed a heartbreaking COVID picture that has featured in news reports around the world of graves in Sao Paulo.
She said: “I’m part of the union for the Local Government…Our cemetery in Sao Paulo which is the biggest cemetery in Latin America, was an image that showed all the ground with all the coffins placed. This is the reality of Brazil. More than 500,000 people died in Brazil and this pandemic that we are living in nowadays, it is a very difficult moment, and it is a fruit of the denialist government of Bolsonaro…
“This government defends not to have distancing, it is against the use of masks, and defends the medication which is not ethical and suggested this should be used for the treatment and the result is this – is Brazil stopped buying doses of vaccines, and invested in those medications that we know that they have got no use whatsoever.
“Today the public services in Brazil, we denounce this genocide politics, to the UN, and the Organisation of American States and we want this government to be condemned for the attitude what we call here of denialism, the choosing who must live and who must die. The people who are dying most in Brazil are the poor people, as we all know.
“But facing all this tragedy we carry on working and fighting. Today Brazil is returning to the streets, fighting together with our friends in Colombia organising protests, and food on the plate and vaccine on the arm because of the critical situation we have in the hospital, the health crisis. We also have a record unemployment, 14 million people without job in Brazil at the moment, but we’re not losing our hope.”
She said they will work to have former President Lula “the candidate of the people with the support of all the workers” replace President Bolsonaro in the 2022 elections.
Eylem Kaya Eroglu, of the Turkish Trade Union of Employees in Public Health and Social Services (SES), next joined Luba in thanking UNISON for solidarity work over so much, including arrested trade union leaders and femicide in Turkey and Turkey withdrawing from the Istanbul Convention.
Eylem described some of the many problems facing her members, health workers and the population – over PPE and trade union and workers’ rights and repression and poverty.
She said: “We are ordinary citizens of this country, but under the current circumstances, we take brave steps, this is why some people call that we are brave, no, we are ordinary citizens. Just because we ask for personal protective equipment we are accused of being terrorists, and we’re working on violations related to our professional life. We receive so many applications from the workplaces that we see that there are also some suicide cases in the health sector among the health officers. It is unbearable for ordinary workers and this is why we pay attention to international solidarity, and we demand decent wage for everyone, for all public officers in the country, because if we work we should be able to live in a decent way.”
Finally, we heard from Khaing Zar Aung, who began working under aged in a garment factory in Myanmar and experienced extreme violation of her rights as a worker. She got involved in union activities with the exiled trade union movement on the Myanmar Thai border and when safe to return helped build the official trade union movement, including setting up the industrial workers federation of Myanmar, for which she is President. She’s also the treasurer and secretary of the Women’s Committee of the Confederation of Trade Unions Myanmar. When the coup occurred in February this year, Khaing Zar, was studying in Germany.
She condemned the coup, describing horrific attacks on workers, with hundreds of thousands dismissed and arrest warrants issued. The CTUM had rejected invitations to participate in social dialogue, stating they would not when they involved representatives of the illegitimate military junta. Trade union offices have been raided with arrest warrants issued and members’ passports declared illegal, including her own.
Khaing said: “Our members from, government, construction, education, are also joining the demonstrations in participating in the movement. Currently we successfully stopped train services nationwide, interrupted mining operations, stopped work in factories, and work in many areas of energy, refinery. And our members also encouraged non-members to join the civil disobedience movement. The professors, nurses, medics, midwives, train drivers, cargo handlers, mechanics needed us.
“Not only them, but also the trained and experienced personnel, the immigration experts… all of them are dismissed. Arrest warrants issued against them. Hundreds of thousands of workers are dismissed including 3000 workers from health centres and 16,000 from education centres. Families of the workers from public service centre, education centres who joined the civil disobedience movement are forced to leave their home with the government – which the government provided.”
She added: “Myanmar people cannot win the battle alone without getting support from international governments and you all. We need political support as well as humanitarian support for Myanmar people.”
Khaing expressed thanks for donations through PSI and UNISON to the strike fund for public sector workers which have helped workers including nurses and midwives. “This encouraged health workers who are joining the movement and to continue their fight against the military,” she added.
NEC International Committee Chair Margaret McKee chaired the event which was broadcast live on Facebook and you can watch the recording on the Committee’s FB page (and on the Scottish International Committee’s page). Info on making donations for the Myanmar International Strike Fund is here https://www.unison.org.uk/news/article/2021/03/support-myanmar-workers-putting-lives-line/
(Story: Fiona Montgomery)