Right to strike

Protesters waving flags
63%87%

Countries violating the right to strike have increased from 63% of countries in 2014 to 87% of countries in 2021.

Right to strike

Increasing criminalisation of the right to strike

In 2021, strikes have been severely restricted or banned in 129 out of 149 countries. In a number of these countries, industrial actions were brutally repressed by the authorities, and workers exercising their right to strike often faced criminal prosecution and summary dismissals. Violations of the right to strike are grouped into two categories: prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes and cases of dismissals for taking part in strike action.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

Africa

95%

95% of countries violated the right to strike.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 6 July 2020, the Zimbabwean Nurses’ Association (ZINA) organised strikes in Harare and Bulawayo to request a salary review and their outstanding COVID-19 allowances as well as the adequate provision of personal protective equipment. Prior to the protests, the government had rendered the Bipartite Negotiating Panel for the sector useless, unilaterally declaring that it would not be engaging in any form of collective bargaining for the next three months. Instead of opening dialogue, the government ordered the arrest of thirteen nurses. They have since been released on bail, but all have been dismissed. Strikes continued for 33 days without a return to negotiations.

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).

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

In Gabon, striking workers at the navy base stevedoring and shipping company Satram in Port-Gentil were set upon by police on 1 October 2020. The strike, which had been ongoing since 25 September to protest 24 months’ salary arrears, ended with violence against the workers by security forces, and the arrest of seven employees.

Middle East and North Africa

94%

94% of countries violated the right to strike.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 29 July 2020, members of the Jordanian Teachers’ Association (JTA), which was arbitrarily dissolved later in the year, held a peaceful rally to protest against the relentless attacks of the government. Five hundred teachers were arrested and later released. However, the attorney general brought charges against JTA and its board members. All of them were held in pretrial detention for 30 days.

On 31 December 2020, the Magistrate Court found JTA board members guilty of the following offences: “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”. All were sentenced to the maximum penalty of one-year’s imprisonment.

In January 2021, a large protest of teachers in the vicinity of the Parliament was dispersed by the Jordanian security forces. The teachers then formed separate gatherings and started chanting union slogans, but soon after the police surrounded them and ordered them to leave. The police also detained more than 230 teachers for several hours before releasing them.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

In Iran, seven workers were prosecuted and condemned for their participation in a peaceful protest to demand jobs and better living conditions at the Agh-Darreh gold mine in Takab, north-west of the country. In Iran, strikes are often brutally repressed and lead to the prosecution of workers. In Takab, the court ordered the payment of a five million toman fine (around US$270) or serving a 21-month prison term. Unable to pay such a high fine, Daryoush Nikzad, one of the workers, was arrested on 10 June 2020 to serve the sentence. All the convicted men suffered from financial difficulties in the impoverished region of Takab. Locals tried to raise money to pay the fines and prevent the other prosecuted workers from going to prison.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 30 September 2020, twenty-six workers from the National Steel industries in Egypt were ordered to appear before the State Security Court. The company accused workers of disrupting production and violating freedom of work during a strike organised in May 2019 to protest the non-payment of outstanding wages. Orascom group, which owns the National Steel Industries, filed a complaint against them on the basis of Law No. 34 of 2011, which mandates a prison sentence and a fine of up to 50,000 Egyptian pounds (US$3,184) for participating in strikes.

Americas

88%

88% of countries violated the right to strike.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

In early June 2020, municipal workers demonstrating in the city of Mendoza, Argentina, for better salaries and working conditions were brutally attacked by provincial police who arrested over fifty protesters. As mobilisation continued, police repression increased, and on 5 June 2020, workers camping in the city centre were brutally dispersed by a hundred police officers. During this police intervention, several workers were injured and Sebastián Henríquez, general secretary of the Sindicato Unido de Trabajadores de la Educación (SUTE), was arrested.

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.

Asia Pacific

87%

87% of countries violated the right to strike.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 30 November 2020, police dispersed an indignation rally staged by Cebu workers at the Mactan Economic Zone to commemorate Bonifacio Day and denounce the government’s red-tagging of trade union activities. Five workers were arrested when police broke up the gathering: Dennis Derige, Myra Opada, Joksan Branzuela, Jonel Labrador and Cristito Pangan, all affiliated with Sentro ng Nagkakaisa at Progresibong Manggagawa (Sentro) and Partido Manggagawa (PM). They were detained for alleged violation of quarantine guidelines and disobedience. The five labour activists were freed after paying a fine of P1,000 (US$20)

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 5 October 2020, the Indonesian government passed, without any prior consultations with the national unions, an Omnibus Law which introduced sweeping changes to workers’ entitlements and environmental regulation.

Soon after, demonstrations organised by the unions swept the country. The strikes were met with violence and arbitrary arrests, with police detaining 183 people in South Sumatra and holding more than 200 protesters in Jakarta. Thirty-two members of Federation of Indonesian Metal Workers' Union (FSPMI) were injured by water cannons and tear gas in Bekasi, and another ten were arrested in Bekasi and Jakarta, as the police accused workers of striking outside of allowed hours.

Europe

73%

73% of countries violated the right to strike.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 23 November 2020, the president of the FGTB, Thierry Bodson, and sixteen other trade unionists were condemned for “malicious obstruction of traffic in the context of a strike movement” to suspended prison sentences and fines ranging from 600 to 4,800 euros (US$723 – US$5,782) by the criminal court of Liège. The seventeen activists were prosecuted for their participation in a general strike against austerity in 2015. These trade unionists were designated as those who had blocked the E40 highway in Cheratte during the strike of 19 October 2015.

This condemnation led to an outcry among trade unions and civil society organisations in Belgium, many describing it as an obstacle to democratic rights and underlining the need to urgently review Article 406 of the penal code which allows for prosecution and sentencing on this dubious ground. This was the second time in two years that FGTB members have been condemned on the basis of this Article.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

On 24 November 2020, Turkish police cracked down on members of Birlesik Metal-Is union, which had organised a march from Gebze to Ankara to protest the unfair dismissal of workers in several companies as well as the use of COVID-19 as an excuse to single out trade union members for unpaid leave. A massive police presence prevented the start of the march, and 109 members of Birlesik Metal-Is were taken into police custody. Video footage of the arrests shows extensive police brutality in the process.

Prosecution of union leaders for participating in strikes

Tens of thousands of people have taken part in strikes and demonstrations in Belarus since Alexander Lukashenko claimed victory in rigged presidential elections in early August 2020. Thousands have been arrested and detained and more than 150 remained behind bars. Furthermore, punitive legal consequences for striking workers have continued across the country. In Zhlobin, a local court sentenced the workers Igor Povarov, Alexander Bobrov and Yevgeny Govor of the Belarusian metallurgical plant (BMZ) to three and two and a half years of imprisonment respectively for an attempt to organise a strike at this plant on 17 August 2020.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

Africa

95%

95% of countries violated the right to strike.

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.

Middle East and North Africa

94%

94% of countries violated the right to strike.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

On 6 August 2020, workers at Ceramica Granito in Egypt began a sit-in to protest the management’s disregard for union demands, including increased wages and higher meal allowance. On 11 August, the general manager of the company met with union leaders and expressed agreement to their demands, promising implementation by the beginning of January 2021. Immediately after this meeting and the union’s announcement of the end of the sit-in, the company dismissed several key union leaders and protesting workers.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

Amanor, a Moroccan subsidiary of the French multinational Veolia, has a longstanding history of anti-union policy and of flouting labour laws. In early 2020, as the COVID-19 pandemic was spreading, Amanor refused to register its 500 employees with the national social security office, depriving them of government financial aid. The Union Marocaine du Travail (UMT) attempted to intervene in favour of the workers, but the employer stubbornly refused to open dialogue. Strikes began in December 2019. In retaliation, the general secretary of the company-level union was fired without cause in early 2020, sparking an indefinite strike in all units. Veolia has engaged in mass dismissals to quell the strikes and has refused to reinstate the dismissed workers.

Americas

88%

88% of countries violated the right to strike.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

On 1 June 2020, Falabella, a Chilean multinational home retailer, unfairly dismissed 22 warehouse workers in Peru who had requested health and safety protections against the coronavirus. After a brief closure, the retailer had reopened its Peruvian distribution centre in early May 2020, despite workers’ and their union SUTRASAF’s concerns about inadequate health and safety protections. For example, the company only gave workers a single mask per week. These unsafe conditions led Falabella workers to exercise their legal right to refrain from work until the company enacted proper measures. When the workers returned to their jobs, they were handed out pre-dismissal letters and suspended, to be later summarily fired. Meanwhile, workers reported at least 30 COVID-19 cases in the facility of 300 people.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

In Costa Rica, employers often resort to courts to thwart workers’ attempts to organise strike actions; employers claim that the services of the workers are essential and therefore subject to restrictions with regard to strikes. On 18 October 2020, the labour court of San José upheld the claim of the Caja Costarricense de Seguro Social (CCSS), the Costa Rican Social Security Board, that workers in the laundry services of the public hospital should be regarded as essential. Their work stoppage, initiated on 23 September to protest workplace harassment by management, was therefore declared illegal by the court, and the judge allowed the application of disciplinary sanctions and sentenced their union, the Sindicato Nacional de Enfermería (Sinae), to pay the court costs.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

Haiti’s garment workers have been struggling to survive in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, which further deepened the economic and social crisis in the country. Roughly a third of the 57,000 workers in the country’s garment industry were suspended or terminated and had yet to receive any compensation from the government in spite of earlier promises. The rest are working reduced hours in unsafe factories that lack even the most basic precautions to help prevent the spread of the coronavirus.

In August 2020, union leaders of GOSTTRA, the garment union, attempted to defend their members’ interests. At Premium Apparel, 43 union leaders and members were dismissed after protesting against the company’s decision to send them home.

Asia Pacific

87%

87% of countries violated the right to strike.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

On 28 July 2020, Hong Kong University fired law professor Benny Tai in relation to an alleged criminal conviction over his role in the 2014 pro-democracy protests. Mr Tai was one of the founders of the "umbrella protests" that called for greater democracy in Hong Kong. In 2019, a court sentenced him to 16 months in prison for “public nuisance”. He was granted bail in August 2019, pending an appeal. The university governing council's decision to dismiss Mr Tai went against a previous ruling by its senate, which said there were insufficient grounds to dismiss him. The decision “marks the end of academic freedom in Hong Kong,” Mr Tai said in a Facebook post.

Europe

73%

73% of countries violated the right to strike.

Dismissals for participating in strike action

On 9 November 2020, employees of Georgian House, a meat manufacturer and retailer in Georgia, went on strike to demand the reinstatement of 17 employees who had been fired illegally and also to demand improvements to their working conditions. Concomitantly, workers and their trade union applied to the minister of labour to request the appointment of a mediator and initiate negotiations. The mediation process was unsuccessful, as the management of Georgian House fired four more employees involved in the collective dispute while fining others with a 49 per cent cut in their salaries. Workers’ rallies continued in protest of this new wave of sanctions. In total, the company fired 13 workers who had participated in the strike.

In Costa Rica, the right to strike was curtailed by the courts, and workers were fired for joining a trade union.Ezequiel Becerra / AFP

Eight-year trends: Right to strike

Companies violating the right to strike