Countries arresting and detaining workers increased from 25% of countries in 2014 to 46% of countries in 2021.
Workers were arrested and detained in 68 out of 149 countries in 2021. A large number of governments increased pressure against workers asserting their rights and the unions supporting them by specifically targeting prominent trade union leaders.
83% of countries arrested and detained workers.
On 21 October 2020, the Thai courts imposed a three-year prison term on thirteen leaders of the State Railway Workers’ Union (SRUT). The SRUT workers have been ruthlessly pursued by the State Railway of Thailand through the legal system for carrying out a national rail safety campaign following a fatal train derailment in October 2009 at Khao Tao Station. The Thai authorities also pursued a vendetta against the workers, including through the Office of the National Anti-Corruption Commission (NACC).
Since November 2018, the monthly salaries of seven SRUT leaders have been deducted to pay fines of 24 million Baht (US$726,116) to SRT based on the decision of the Supreme Labour Court in 2017.
On 10 December 2020 at dawn, simultaneous raids were conducted by the Philippine National Police in various residences of trade union organisers in Metro Manila, Philippines. With search warrants on hand issued by a city executive judge, the police forced their entries into the residences and planted pieces of firearms, ammunition and explosive devices. Six trade union activists were arrested: Dennise Velasco of Defend Jobs Philippines; Romina Astudillo, deputy secretary-general of Kilusang Mayo Uno-Metro Manila; Mark Ryan Cruz of the Regional Executive Committee of KMU-Metro Manila; Jaymie Gregorio Jr of KMU-Metro Manila; Joel Demate of Solidarity of Labour Rights and Welfare (SOLAR); and Rodrigo Esparago of Sandigang Manggagawa sa Quezon City (SMQC).
They were all charged with illegal possession of firearms and explosives. While a local court issued a decision of dismissal of the charges against Esparago, to date the police are still blocking his release.
On 4 March 2021 at 4:30 a.m., the Philippine National Police-Criminal Investigation and Detection Group raided the residence of Ramir Edriga Corcolon and abducted him and brought him to Camp Vicente Lim in Laguna. Corcolon is the president of the San Pablo City Water District Employees Association (SPCWDEA) and the Water System Employees Response (WATER) secretary general.
The residence of Arnedo Sanggalang Lagunias, secretary of the Honda Workers Union, was raided on the same day at 6:00 a.m., and he was forcibly taken to the same camp. The police alleged to have found a handgun and explosives during the search.
In 2021, the Filipino government increased repression against the independent union movement, illegally arresting and arbitrarily detaining twenty-eight trade union leaders in total.
On 7 March 2021, police forces raided unions’ offices and trade unionists’ homes in separate operations in the provinces of Cavite, Laguna, Batangas and Rizal, arresting eight, including Steve Mendoza, executive vice-president of the Organised Labour Association in Line Industries and Agriculture (OLALIA KMU) in Cabuyao, and Elizabeth Camoral, former union president of F-Tech and current spokesperson of Bayan-Laguna.
Lee Cheuk-yan, general secretary of the independent Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), was arrested on 28 February 2020 and charged with “unauthorised assembly” for taking part in anti-government protests demanding the withdrawal of the extradition bill and universal suffrage in 2019. While he was released on bail pending trial, Lee was again charged on 11 June 2020 for inciting others to take part in an unauthorised assembly on 4 June 2020 to commemorate the Tiananmen massacre in 1989, and on 6 August for the additional charge of organising and taking part in the unauthorised assembly together with 25 activists. Altogether, Lee was charged with nine counts over four unauthorised assemblies in 2019 and 2020.
After a four-week trial in March 2021, Lee Cheuk-yan, with six other activists, was found guilty and sentenced to eighteen months in prison. He still has six charges to face from custody in the May and June 2021.
In Hong Kong, 53 of the most prominent pro-democracy activists, including the chair of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), Carol Ng, have been arrested in a massive police crackdown. Carol Ng was arrested home on 6 January 2021 by the national security department for alleged “attempt to subvert the state power” under the 2020 National Security Law. Winnie Yu, chair of Hospital Authority Employees Alliance (HAEA), was also arrested. The group stood accused of organising and participating in the primary elections for pro-democracy candidates in last year’s postponed elections. This was the largest political purge against the democrats since the enforcement of the National Security Law.
On 31 July 2020, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU) and prominent unionist in Cambodia, Rong Chhun, was arrested for “incitement to commit felony” regarding his public comments on farmland losses and border irregularities between Cambodia and Vietnam. Under this fallacious pretext, the Cambodian authorities in reality targeted his activities leading pickets in garment factory closures and urging the government to make human rights improvements, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic. Rong Chhun faces two years in prison if convicted.
On 7 August 2020, at least seven protesters and CCU members were arrested for demanding Chhun’s release, including Sor Saknika, president of the Cambodian Informal Labourers’ Association (CILA), who was charged with incitement to join the solidarity protest and who remains, to this date, in pre-trial detention.
On 10 August, Ouk Chayavy, former president of the Cambodian Independent Teachers’ Association (CITA), was attacked by thugs after visiting Rong Chhun in prison. She was leading the Free Rong Chhun campaign and was in the process of submitting petitions to the UN and country representations.
56% of countries arrested and detained workers.
In Haiti, teachers answered the call of several unions in the education sector and went on a general strike in September 2020 to demand better pay conditions. In the country, teachers receive less than US$200 per month while in three years their purchasing power decreased from more than 40 per cent due to the loss of value of the gourde, the national currency.
Following the general strike, several trade union leaders were subjected to retaliatory measures, including Magalie Georges, secretary general of the National Confederations of Educators of Haiti (CNEH); Georges Wilbert Franck, secretary general of the National Union of Normaliens and Educators of Haiti (UNNOEH); and four leaders of the Union of Employees of the Ministry of National Education and Vocational Training (MENFP). According to national unions in Haiti, teachers active in the trade union movement are being hunted by the police and some are now hiding for fear of being arrested.
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.
44% of countries arrested and detained workers.
In Iran, Tehran teacher and union leader Esmail Abdi was released from Evin prison on 17 March 2020. In prison since 20 January 2018, Abdi was initially arrested in connection with his union activities for teachers’ rights.
Despite his release in March, Abdi was again required to report to prison on 21 April and was kept in detention. This new arrest of Abdi came amid a new wave of state repression and arbitrary arrests of labour activists ahead of May Day.
In Egypt, protesting workers at a branch of the state-owned Delta Company for Fertilisers and Chemical Industries have been subject to a severe crackdown from the authorities. In late December 2020, thirteen striking workers were arrested from their homes by security forces. Five of those arrested, including elected member Mahmoud Sabry, were released later in the week. On 3 January 2021, the eight remaining workers were brought before the State Security Prosecution in Cairo and issued with fifteen-day remand detention orders. The charges the workers face remain unknown.
On 16 July 2020, Muhammad Karim Jabbari, a member of the Kurdistan Teachers’ union (KTU) and a teacher from Kirkuk, Iraq, was arrested by the local police for calling on the Kirkuk governorate to investigate allegations of corruption in the local health department and non-provision of health care.
On 29 July 2020, the Jordanian police brutally repressed a peaceful rally organised by the Jordanian Teachers’ Association (JTA). Five hundred teachers were arrested and later released. The attorney general later brought charges against JTA board members. All of them were held in pretrial detention for 30 days. On 31 December 2020, the Magistrate Court sentenced the JTA board members to the maximum penalty, one-year imprisonment, for “misdemeanour of inciting hate or riot in educational institutions by use of any means available”; “misdemeanour of inciting illegal gathering”; and “misdemeanour of influencing the freedom of elections”. Following international mobilisation, they were finally released on bail while the JTA board appealed the judicial decision.
36% of countries arrested and detained workers.
In 2020 - 2021, many other trade unionists in Sudan were subjected to arbitrary arrest and detention, including Osama Dawina Hamad Al-Nil, treasurer of the Federation of Trade Unions in North Kordofan State; Eng. Abdel-Baqi Nour Al-Daem Muhammad, member of the executive office of Sudan Workers’ Trade Union Federation (SWTUF); Hussam Eddin Suleiman, member of the Syndicate for the Ministry of Education; Muhammad Al-Makki Saleh, general secretary of the Education Syndicate in North Darfur; Osama Taha Al-Bashir, the deputy treasurer of the Gadaref State Workers’ Union; Al-Amin Ahmed Mohamed Tom, youth secretary of the Gedaref State Workers’ Union; and Alamuddin Yahya Farah, head of the Syndicate of the Ministry of Education.
On 24 January 2021, Halat Algamer Elnour, head of the Syndicate of National Audit Chamber of Sudan, was arrested in Khartoum by security forces and was released only four days later. She was also accused of refusing to release trade union properties to the government following the unlawful dissolution of trade unions by the subcommittee of the Dismantling and Empowerment Committee of the Transitional Sovereignty Council of Sudan on 14 December 2019.
On 16 August 2020, the Sudanese authorities issued an arrest warrant for Al Sadig Al Rezegy, President of Sudanese Journalists’ Union (SJU), after he refused to hand over the property and assets of the SJU, which was disbanded by the authorities earlier in the year. Among the charges against Al Rezegy, who is also president of the Federation of African Journalists, were claims that he continued to run the union and be active after it had been outlawed and that he attended meetings of the IFJ, FAJ and other international bodies representing the banned SJU.
29% of countries arrested and detained workers.
In Kyrgyzstan, the district court decided to prosecute FTUKg deputy chair Kanatbek Osmonov on 10 June 2020, on unknown criminal charges, and to place him under house arrest for two months without the right to use telecommunications and internet, effectively suspending his trade union work. His house arrest was downgraded to “night house arrest” on 30 June 2020.
Two members of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BITU), Vladimir Berdnikovich and Andrey Prilutsky, were accused of violence against the police. Vladimir Berdnikovich was sentenced to four years after managing to escape the police round-up as the armed forces brutally dispersed protesters. While helping an elderly man who was being beaten up during the protest, Andrey Prilutsky was severely hit, arrested and sentenced to fifteen days in prison.
In Belarus, union activists and workers received harsh court sentences for their participation in the peaceful protests following the result of presidential elections in August 2020.
On 20 January 2021, the Belarus Supreme Court rejected the appeal of the Belaruskali strike committee and judged last year’s strike illegal. Daria Polyakova, youth network coordinator of the Belarusian Radio and Electronic Industry Workers' Union (REP), was sentenced to two years of house arrest for “violence or threat of violence against an employee of the internal affairs agency”.