THE WORLD OF LABOR — December 3, 2011

By Harry Kelber

Burma’s Workers Are the First to Test the Government’s Reforms

Workers in the garment factories of Burma have become the first to test the limits of labor rights in the military-run government, following new laws that allow union formation for the first time in nearly half a century. An application was last week handed to the labor ministry in Naypidaw for the creation of a Cotton and Leather Factory Laborers’ Union. The ministry needs to approve the formation of unions before they are made official.

Around 70 percent of the workers have signed to join, according to the union’s secretary, San Kyaw, among whom are legal experts and labor representatives. The main goal, he says, is to demand higher salaries than the 40,000 kyat (U.S. $50) the group’s members are paid on average each month, despite regularly working 12-hour days.

Average annual wages in Burma are around $400 a year. Decades of military rule means that Burma (now called Myanmar) remains Southeast Asia’s poorest economy, despite its wealth of natural resources. The passing of the new labor law brings to an end the draconian 1962 Trades Union Act that had effectively banned trade unions in the country.

Nearly 2 million British Public Sector Workers Strike over Pensions

Countless thousands of people joined rallies around the U.K. as a public sector strike over pensions disrupted schools, hospitals, transportation and other public services. About two-thirds of state schools were shut, and thousands of hospital operations were postponed, as unions estimated up to two million went on strike. The British Trades Union Congress (TUC) called it “the biggest strike in a generation.” The prime minister described it as a “damp squib.”

The Department of Education estimates that 62 percent of England’s 21,476 state schools were closed. In Wales, more than 1,500 of 1,776 schools were shut. In Scotland, only 33 of the 2,700 state schools were open. Critical shortages of doctors and nurses were reported by hospitals. The lack of sanitation workers has created health and safety problems, as well as in garbage disposal.

Unions oppose plans to make members pay more and work longer to earn pensions. Reports have been circulating that there has been a secret deal negotiating between the government and GMB, the general union, to settle the pension dispute. Brian Strutton, GMB’s national secretary and leader of the GMB in the national negotiations, has denied any settlement, saying GMB will not begin to negotiate until the middle of next month.

ICEM Signs 16th Global Agreement with Petrobras in Brazil

The International Federation of Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM) on Dec. 2 signed a Global Framework Agreement (GFA) with Petroleo Braziliero SA, or Petrobras, the world’s third largest energy company. The agreement covers the 20-million member ICEM’s 16th since 1998, was signed at the Brazilian company’s headquarters in Rio de Janiero.

A GFA is a social pact between a multinational company and a global union federation that puts in place the very highest standards regarding trade union and human rights, health, safety and environmental practices and quality of work principles across all of a company’s global operations.

The agreement commits Petrobras to recognize the right of freedom of association and to bargain collectively for all employees, as well as establishing formal dialogue channels between staff and management. It also promotes working conditions that are favorable to a balance between work, personal and family life.

Is a U.S. Mining Firm Funding a Violent Crackdown in Indonesia?

Up in the remote mountains of West Papua, Indonesia, a road winds along steep cliffs, tall trees and security checkpoints to the world’s richest copper and gold mine. Adding to the isolation, the American mining company-- Phoenix-based Freeport-McMoRan-- rarely allows visitors to enter the facilities.

Yet, despite its cover, Freeport’s giant Grasberg mine is on high alert. Production there has ground to a near halt, as 8,000 workers strike for better wages, currently set between $1.50 and $3 an hour. Now in its third month, this strike is not only the longest in Indonesian mining history, but also one of the more violent, with deadly attacks on company employees.

The strikers have good reason to be wary for their safety. Freeport is paying millions of dollars directly to police officers who guard the mine, although the Indonesian police force has a history of brutality and corruption. Freeport has given $79.1 million dollars to police and military forces in the past 10 years, according to a group called Indonesian Corruption Watch.

ITF Joins Global Call to End Lockout in Turkey

International labor organizations, including the ITF, have joined forces to condemn the anti-union actions perpetrated against Turkish employees who have been locked out since July. Represented by the Turkish metal union, Burlesik Metal-IS, the 62 workers at the subsidiary of the German-owned engineering company, GEA Group, were locked out after the company claimed they took illegal strike action during tea breaks and lunchtimes.

An expert’s report, commissioned by GEA, found these clains to be untrue, while a separate investigation found that workers had been denied access to their place of work. In late November, a Gebze court ruled that four workers, who were dismissed on May 31, should be reinstated.

A joint group of global international unions have urged the company to meet with union representatives to end the four-month lockout. ITF General Secretary David Cockroft, in a Nov. 30 letter to the union, stated: “The ITF is keeping its affiliates updated about the struggle of Burlesik Metal-IS union and on the need for solidarity to end the lockout.”

Greek Workers Walk Out in Protest for 7th Time

Thousands of Greek workers walked off the job on Thursday, in the 7th general strike this year, to protest government’s. policies after a year and a half of cutbacks. The strike came two days after Greece’s new three-party coalition secured European approval for a crucial sixth installment of bailout aid.

Eurozone finance ministers decided to release $7.7 billion that their countries are contributing to the $10.6 billion installment. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) is to decide on the disbursement of the remaining amount.

The protest action was called by the country’s two main labor unions which represent 2.5 million workers. Meanwhile, Prime Minister Lucas Papademos, a former vice president of the European Central Bank, emphasized, in a letter to the country’s international creditors, that his government would stick to the terms of a European Union debt deal for Greece.,

To keep informed about workers and their unions in foreign countries, read our weekly column, “The World of Labor,”which we post here every weekend and on our two web sites: https://www.laborsvoiceforchange.org and https://www.laboreducator.org.