Commonwealth

3.41

In 2021, the rights of workers in Commonwealth countries continue to be violated, ignored, and threatened. The 32 countries have an average rating of 3.41, falling between regular violations of rights and systematic violations of rights. Five Commonwealth countries – Bangladesh, eSwatini, India, Malaysia, and Pakistan – received the worst index rating. Moreover, Bangladesh ranks as one of the ten worst countries in the world for working people. Two countries – Canada and Malaysia – saw their ratings deteriorate from the 2020 index. During 2021, strikes and social protests were repressed with violence and disproportionate force in Bangladesh, Belize, India, Malaysia, Nigeria, and South Africa.

At a glance

31%

31% of Commonwealth countries restricted free speech and assembly.

Workers were murdered in Nigeria.

87%

87% of countries impeded the registration of unions.

Workers experienced violence in 6 Commonwealth countries.

Workers were detained and arrested in 17 countries.

87%

87% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

62%

62% of Commonwealth countries workers denied workers access to justice.

87%

87% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining.

84%

84% of countries violated the right to strike.

Workers' rights violations

Right to strikeProsecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

In Saskatchewan, Canada, the protracted conflict over the renewal of the collective agreement at the Co-op Refinery Complex escalated, and in December 2019 the employer served a lockout notice to Unifor Local 594 while the union served a strike notice and began holding rallies and picketing. Soon after, the company sought an injunction from the court to impose restrictions on Unifor’s ability to picket, and over the next month, Co-op Refinery Complex accused union members of violating this order. Over the course of the next months, several union members were arrested for picketing: on 21 January 2020, the Unifor president, Jerry Dias, was arrested alongside thirteen other union members, while on 5 February 2020, four union members picketing outside the company premises were arrested and charged with mischief. On 5 May 2020, four more union members were charged for picketing. Unifor was also heavily penalised with a first fine amounting to Can$100,000 (US$80,142) in January 2020 and another fine of Can$250,000 (US$200,356) in February 2020. Meanwhile, the company flew in replacement workers.

Later in the year, union members stood trial. The president of Unifor Local 594, Kevin Bittman, was found not guilty, while vice-president Lance Holowachuk was found guilty and was required to perform 40 hours of community service.

A collective agreement was finally signed in July 2020. However, upon the return of union members to work, the management of Co-op Refinery Complex began questioning them about their role during the lockout. Unifor immediately filed an application with the authorities to bar the employer from asking such questions and retaliating against striking workers.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

In September 2020, Taiwanese-owned FTM Garments took the Amalgamated Trade Unions of Swaziland (ATUSWA) to court over alleged loss of production for four days and damages to property following a picket. This legal action, which aims at bankrupting the union, came just one week after the union took the company to court over its refusal to recognise ATUSWA, despite a Conciliation Mediation and Arbitration Commission’s ruling in January 2020. ATUSWA has long fought for a living wage for textile workers in Eswatini who are paid 1800 lilangeni per month (US$108). The union is campaigning for a minimum living wage of 3500 lilangeni (US$210).

Right to strikeDismissals for participating in strike action

Dismissals for participating in strike action

Fourteen shop stewards of the National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (Numsa) were fired in January 2021 by Volkswagen South Africa (VWSA) for “inciting” workers to stop work on 17 July 2020 after an internal VWSA newsletter revealed that 120 workers had tested positive for the coronavirus and a further 60 were in quarantine while awaiting their COVID-19 test results. Despite mobilisation by the South African Federation of Trade Unions (Saftu), Volkswagen South Africa, located in Uitenhage, Eastern Cape, refused to reinstate the shop stewards. A complaint was filed with the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration (CCMA).

Dismissals for participating in strike action

Bull Clothing, a garment factory in Lesotho, fired 253 workers, accusing them of taking strike action. It then rehired them on new contracts, at lower salaries, subject to a three-month trial period. The workers were fired in August 2020 after gathering to ask the company why a payment of 800 maLoti (US$46) from the government had been delayed by management. The company accused them of taking wildcat strike action and summarily dismissed the 253 workers.

Right to collective bargaining

Right to collective bargaining

Malaysia Airlines has long refused to extend collective bargaining to crew supervisors, arguing that as management, they are ineligible for union representation. The National Union of Flight Attendants of Malaysia (NUFAM), which represents cabin crew at Malaysia Airlines, filed a case with the Federal court, which decided in July 2020, after a lengthy process, that crew supervisors had the right to union membership and collective bargaining. The Malaysian Trades Union Congress called on the airline to immediately recognise NUFAM as the legitimate representative of supervisors for collective bargaining purposes, which the company still refused to do.

Right to collective bargaining

In Kenya, the Teachers Service Commission (TSC), the national authority in the education sector, has engaged in an anti-union campaign against the Kenya National Union of Teachers (KNUT), discriminating against KNUT members and denying them the application of the collective agreement. TSC has also refused to collect union fees. This systematic attack against the KNUT has decimated union membership in the education sector and hindered the trade unions’ capacity to represent its members. In addition, the TSC attempted to revoke KNUT’s trade union recognition agreement signed in 1968.

Right to collective bargaining

In Namibia, nine union leaders at Rössing Uranium mine were unfairly dismissed in January 2021 after they refused the proposals of the mine owner, China National Nuclear Corporation (CNNC) Rössing Uranium, to amend the existing collective bargaining agreement. CNNC wanted changes in the agreement, including on leave, medical aid, wages and retrenchment provisions. After facing resistance from the union and being notified of an impending strike action, the company instead targeted the union leadership and fired the nine workers, arguing “gross negligence”, “bringing the company into disrepute” and “breaching confidentiality”.

Right to collective bargaining

On 25 July 2020, Shavindra Dinoo Sundassee was dismissed by the Airports of Mauritius Ltd following his opposition to the management’s unilateral modification of the terms of the collective agreement.

Right to collective bargaining

In Mauritius, workers’ representatives were summarily dismissed by companies during the renegotiation of collective agreements. On 18 June 2020, Luximun Badal was dismissed by Mauritius Post Ltd for alleged refusal of a unilateral transfer following disputes over the negotiation of a new collective bargaining agreement for postal workers, the previous agreement having lapsed on 31 December 2017. Mr Badal had an agreement brokered by the Ministry of Labour on 18 February 2016 that protected him from being transferred as long as he was the president of the union. This did not prevent Mauritius Post Ltd from firing the union leader and later defying a court ruling from 18 October 2020 ordering the company to disclose information relevant to collective bargaining.

Right to establish and join a trade unionUnion-busting

Union-busting

On 27 April 2020, food delivery service Foodora Canada announced that it would be leaving the Canadian market effective 11 May and filed for bankruptcy, stating its “inability to turn a profit and the saturation of the Canadian food delivery market” as the reasons for its departure. However, the timing was suspect, as the announcement came in the context of an ongoing application for certification by the Canadian Union of Postal Workers (CUPW) before the Ontario Labour Relations Board, which, on 25 February 2020, had handed down a decision recognising that Foodora couriers were dependent contractors and therefore entitled to collectively bargain. That decision allowed the union certification votes, sealed since August 2019, to be counted. In June 2020, the results were announced: almost 90 percent of Foodora couriers voted in favour of unionising with CUPW, becoming the first app-based workers in Canada to successfully unionise. In August 2020, CUPW and Foodora couriers celebrated a win as CUPW and Delivery Hero, the parent company for Foodora Canada, reached a settlement of Can$3.46 million to compensate the couriers.

Union-busting

In June 2020, 3,000 Bangladeshi garment workers were dismissed as part of a union-busting exercise from three factories owned by the same company: Saybolt Tex, Tanaz Fashion and Windy Wet & Dry Process factories in Gazipur and Dhaka, Bangladesh. The three unionised factories are owned by the Windy Group (which owns an additional five non-unionised factories). 1,600 workers were fired from SAYBOLT TEX, 1,200 from Tanaz Fashion and 200 from Windy Wet & Dry Process. The dismissed workers have been staging hunger strikes and other protests at Windy Group factory premises to call for reinstatement.

Right to civil liberties

Right to civil liberties

In Canada, during the protracted conflict between the Co-op Refinery Complex and Unifor Local 594 regarding the negotiation of the collective agreement, union members began holding rallies and picketing while the company locked them out.

On 16 December 2019, the employer sought a court injunction against Unifor to impose interim restrictions on Unifor’s ability to picket, including restrictions on the amount of time picketers could detain vehicles from entering the premises. Over the next month, there were accusations of union members violating this order, and on 21 January 2021, Unifor president Jerry Dias and thirteen other union members were arrested.

In the early morning of 5 February 2020, union members were arrested and charged for picketing outside of the Co-op refinery’s petroleum distribution department in Regina, Saskatchewan. Those arrested included Ryan James David Briggs, James Peter Robert Cheeseman, Scott McKinnon, and Steven Angus Vargo. All four trade unionists were charged with mischief under Can$5,000 (US$ 4,002) and disobeying a court order. Their scheduled court date was 23 March 2020.

On 12 February, Unifor was ordered to pay Can$250,000 (US$200,084) for “repeatedly violating the court injunction” between 28 December 2019 and 27 January 2020. The Unifor Local 594 president, Kevin Bittman, was found not guilty, while vice president Lance Holowachuk was found guilty and required to perform 40 hours of community service.

Violent attacks on workers

Violent attacks on workers

On 22 July 2020, several people were injured when police repressed a peaceful protest at the Port of Belize Limited (PBL) in Belize City. The demonstration was organised by unionised workers of the Christian Workers’ Union (CWU) to protest pay cuts and the dismissal of thirty-six employees. Mеmbеrѕ оf thе Gаng Ѕuррrеѕѕіоn Unіt intervened, using tеаr gаѕ аnd rubbеr bullеtѕ tо dіѕреrѕе thе сrоwd. Several people were injured, іnсludіng оnе whо wаѕ ѕhоt in thе hеаd with а rubbеr bullеt.

Violent attacks on workers

On 25 July 2020, the police in Dhaka, Bangladesh, violently attacked garment workers from Viyellatex and Shofi Tex who were protesting unpaid wages and allowances. Police used disproportionate force to suppress the protest, using batons, gunshots, tear gas and sound grenades against workers. As a result of the attack, twelve workers were severely injured.

Right to trade union activities

Right to trade union activities

In Canada, the province of Alberta introduced Bill 32, an omnibus bill which makes it more difficult to form unions: the bill eliminates timelines for certification votes and removes the option for the Labour Relations Board to automatically certify unions in the case of unfair labour practices by the employer. In addition, the bill also requires unions to receive each member’s consent to collect dues that are not related to core representational activities. The bill received royal assent on 29 July 2020.

In the province of Manitoba, the government tabled Bill 16 which, among other regressive changes, would give authorities more power to refuse to certify unions, to scrutinise unions’ use of funds and to dissolve them.

Right to free speech and assembly

Right to free speech and assembly

On 30 October 2020, workers from Truda Foods in South Africa gathered to protest the firing of their colleagues for activity on social media. Truda had suspended several workers for “liking” posts made by their union’s general secretary. Olwethu Samente, Vuyiswa Gontsana, Luyanda Qumza, Yolisa Alam, Zethu Sopete and Lungiswa Solundwana received letters suspending them for committing “an action/conduct detrimental to the interest of the employer” and “indecent/inappropriate conduct”. After being suspended, the workers asked to see Truda’s social media policy. Instead, they were fired.

Right to privacy

Right to privacy

In the United Kingdom, Amazon warehouses were under surveillance, as the company analysed "security risks" including “labour organisation and trade union presence”. Data collected included the number of attendees at each protest, how well strikes were followed and even whether leaflets were being handed out. Other intelligence activities included the creation of fake social media profiles to investigate employees leading protests and infiltrating Facebook groups.

Legislative powerRepressive laws

Repressive laws

In May 2020, the government of Mauritius amended clauses of the new Workers’ Rights Act to benefit employers. Trade unions fought to keep as much of the original law as possible, but only managed to block one of the amendments.

These changes came as a blow for Mauritian unions, including the Confederation of Workers in the Public and Private Sectors (CTSP), which had fought for sixteen years for a positive law amendment to be finally introduced in October 2019. A mere eight months after, the prime minister promptly discarded the progress made and gave way to the employers’ lobbying, indicating that the amendments would be returned to workers by 2024.

Repressive laws

The Modi government passed three key labour laws on 22 and 23 September 2020 through undemocratic means, fundamentally rewriting Indian labour laws. The laws included the Code on Industrial Relations, the Code on Social Security, and the Code on Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions. The legislation was passed in Parliament without debate, as opposition parties were boycotting the house.

A coalition of trade union centres have criticised many features of the new laws, noting three key faults. The Code on Social Security did not make social security a universal right, leaving millions of people without clear social protection. The Occupational Safety, Health and Working Conditions Code excluded huge areas of the economy, including agriculture, which employs 50 per cent of the total working population of India. The Industrial Relations Code protected industry at the cost of working people, in violation of the Constitution, by restricting the definition of “worker” and severely limiting the right to strike and the ability of working people to participate in a collective bargaining process.

Central trade unions in India came together in massive nationwide protests on 23 September, gathering millions.

Murders

Murders

On 5 April 2020, Chibuisi Chikezie Okameme, a member of the Nigeria Union of Petroleum Workers (NUPENG), was shot dead while at work by a police officer on COVID-19 enforcement patrol in Abia State. Okameme was a petrol attendant employed by Greenmac Energy in Aba City. NUPENG has long denounced the heavy-handedness of the police in dealing with the coronavirus pandemic lockdown regulations and the use of disproportionate force by security forces during the lockdown. The National Human Rights Commission (NHRC) declared that the police and other security forces killed eleven people during the enforcement of the COVID-19 lockdown and violated human rights, including through unlawful arrests and torture.

People in Bangladesh demand government relief during the COVID-19 lockdown. The country is one of the worst for working people, with protests often violently suppressed.Syed Mahamudur Rahman / NurPhoto via AFP

Companies violating workers’ rights