World shorts

Submitted by AWL on 23 July, 2003 - 11:05

Protest in Hong Kong against anti-subversion law

Around 50,000 people took part in a sit-in last week against the Hong Kong government’s controversial anti-subversion bill. The protest followed the 1 July demonstration when more than 500,000 workers and trade unionists marched to denounce the bill—the biggest protest in China since the Tiananmen Square massacre in June 1989.

The protests have forced chief executive Tung Chee-hwa, who was imposed by the Chinese government, to make some concessions and postpone the second reading of the bill in the territory’s ruling Legislative Council.

Under the Basic Law—drawn up when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997—the territory is required to pass security laws banning treason, sedition, subversion and the theft of state secrets. But unions and civil rights campaigners argue that the legislation—known as Article 23—will be used to suppress political freedom.

Similar legislation on the mainland has meant the imprisonment of thousands of workers on grounds of subversion. Hundreds of activists have been detained for trying to organise independent trade unions.

The protests have been broadened, to demand universal suffrage in Hong Kong, which the constitution allows only after 2007. They have been organised by the Civil Rights Human Front, whose central leader is Lee Cheuk-yan, general secretary of the independent Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions.

Liaoyang 2 appeal rejected

Chinese workers’ leaders Yao Fuxin and Xiao Yunliang had their appeals against their prison sentences in May 2003 thrown out at the end of June.

According to the China Labour Bulletin, the decision to dismiss the appeals was taken at a secret hearing lasting less than 30 minutes. The men’s families were denied access to the hearing and neither of the two men’s lawyers was present. The original sentences of seven and four years’ imprisonment for subversion were upheld.
The two men led important struggles against unemployment and corruption last year in Liaoyang. Workers have pledged to continue the fight to free the men despite extensive harassment.

China Labour Bulletin and Labour Start have launched a global signature campaign calling for the release of the two men. More than 3,000 signatures have been collected so far.


Pension strikes in Brazil

Three days of strike action last week by public sector workers in Brazil have forced the government to make concessions on its proposed pension reforms.

Around half of the 900,000 federal workers came out. The strike was most effective in ports, airports and at frontier posts where customs officials stopped all but essential goods from entering and leaving the country.

A third of universities and some hospitals were also affected. Social security offices and other government departments closed. But, symbolically, the Central Bank and the Finance Ministry in the capital Brasilia opened. The largest union confederation, the CUT, did not join the strike, instead opting to negotiate.

The president, former union leader Lula da Silva vowed to press ahead with the proposals, which will raise the retirement age, place a cap on payments to retired civil servants, and tax pensions. The concessions include paying civil servants a full pension if they work an extra five years. Unions said the concessions were insufficient and promised to continue with industrial action.

Mexican car workers demonstrate

Car workers from the Volkswagen factory marched through Puebla in central Mexico last weekend, against proposed lay offs at the plant.
The factory has a long tradition of militant action, organised by the Independent Union of Volkswagen Workers, which has existed for 30 years. It became a beacon for other independent union organising around Puebla after it won wage rises in 2000, inspiring the Kukdong/Mexmode and Matamoros struggles.

The factory is the last to make the old VW Beetle, but production of these cars—still a common sight on Mexico’s roads—is to cease shortly. With the slump in global car production, Volkswagen is apparently planning to produce fewer cars at the factory, aiming at the luxury end of the market.

Although the union is talking about strike action, it is also considering short-time working and reduced pay.

Korean workers continue strikes

Car workers at the Hyundai Motor Company are to continue strike action after key demands had not been met.

The union at South Korea’s largest car maker, which has 39,000 members, says it plans to hold more strikes for a 40-hour work week, participation in management decisions involving investments, and wage increases for temporary workers.

Cutting the working week has been a major plank of campaigning by the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions in recent years. Workers have also been buoyed up after delaying the privatisation of the Chohung Bank, the second largest in the country, for three years.

Subcontracted workers at Hyundai have also been organising. They want to be treated as temporary workers, as this would entitle them to higher wages. The workers have organised a temporary workers’ union, but have not yet won recognition.

Strikes on the rise in South Africa

Nearly double the number of working days in South Africa were lost due to strike action in the first half of 2003 than were lost in the same period last year, according to a new report.

The number of days lost in the first half of 2003 was 240,000, compared to 130,000 in 2002. The increase was largely due to a strike in March at the Impala platinum mines.

More strike action is expected in the coming months when the majority of wage negotiations will take place. However, long-term agreements that were being negotiated in mainly the mining and metal industries may reduce the number of disputes.

The report says that issues other than wages were becoming increasingly important to organised labour and play an important part in negotiations. For example, the National Union of Metalworkers (NUMSA) is demanding that companies provide free antiretrovirals to workers with HIV/Aids.

Sugar Workers defend union rights in Pakistan

The Pakistan Sugar Mill Workers’ Federation has won an important victory against union busting. The federation, founded in May, is the first united organisation of sugar workers.

However, when the chair of the new federation Abdus Salam Memon returned to work at the Army Welfare Sugar Mill in Badin, he was told by management to dissolve the union.

His union, the Army Sugar Mills Workers’ Union, had organised at the factory since 1983. The union was told to close its office and cease its activities, and threatened if they failed to comply. Factory managers were instructed to have no relations with the union and to cease communicating with the elected officers.

The union responded by holding general meetings twice daily, organising rallies and demonstrations and a hunger strike. It appealed for international solidarity to pressure management to retreat. At the end of June management backed down and the union is recognised again—though some legal matters are still to be resolved.

Unionisation still weak in Indonesia

The Indonesian government has announced that 20% of the 40 million workers employed in the formal sector are unionised. It said 72 labor unions are registered with the manpower ministry. Out of approximately 100,000 companies with around 40 million workers in Indonesia, only 16,000 companies employing more than eight million workers have unions.

After Suharto’s fall in 1998, Indonesia ratified ILO conventions on workers’ rights, but the legacy of his rule, such as state-run unions, makes organising a difficult process. So too does the economic slowdown since, and the new anti-union laws passed by the Megawati government.

The good news is that militant union federations, such as the FNPBI, led by Dita Sari, have made gains in the past five years.

Pablo Velasco

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