Countries arresting and detaining workers increased from 25% of countries in 2014 to 47% of countries in 2022.
Workers were arrested and detained in 69 out of 148 countries in 2022. A large number of governments increased pressure against workers asserting their rights and unions supporting them by specifically targeting prominent trade union leaders. Trade union leaders have been in imprisoned in Algeria, Cambodia, Chile, Colombia, Egypt, Iran, Kyrgyzstan, Hong Kong, Myanmar, Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka and South Korea in an attempt to weaken the institutional power of unions.
83% of countries arrested and detained workers.No change from 2021
Police arrested 31 people, including the general secretary of the Ceylon Teachers Union (CTU), on 8 July 2021 for taking part in a protest held near Sri Lanka’s parliament against the proposed National Defence University (NDU) bill. The bill, first presented in 2018 under the previous government, has been widely denounced as a move intended to curb freedom of thought and expression in universities. Arrested workers were held for several days until a campaign for their release, supported by global trade unions, led to their being freed.
On 11 October 2021, garment workers assembled outside Denim Clothing Company, a supplier for global fashion brands in Karachi, Pakistan, to protest against the factory’s inhumane working conditions, routine intimidation, lack of social security, arbitrary dismissals since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, and refusal to pay the minimum wage.
Two vans arrived on the scene, and three men in plain clothes started ruthlessly beating up the workers with sticks. Several workers sustained severe injuries, including a dislocated elbow. Police forced protesting workers into the vans and held them at the police station for six hours, where they received further beatings from police. They were released only after they were forced to sign a document stating they would not protest against the company again.
On 15 April 2021, around 40 military officers were deployed to arrest the director of the Solidarity Trade Union of Myanmar (STUM), Daw Myo Aye. She was charged under section 505A of the penal code for participating in the Civil Disobedience Movement (CDM), leading protests, and encouraging civilians and civil servants to join the CDM. She faced up to three years in prison. Daw Myo Aye was denied bail and remained under detention, with limited access to medical facilities, despite having severe health problems.
Earlier in 2021, arrest warrants for 34 other prominent trade union leaders had been issued and executed. Most of them were summarily prosecuted and sentenced to jail.
The president of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), Yang Kyeung-soo, was arrested on 2 September 2021 in a predawn raid of his Seoul office. Hundreds of policemen encircled the building as officers pried open the door.
The KCTU had organised a rally in downtown Seoul on 3 July, calling on the government to address inequality deepened by the pandemic. The government did not permit the rally, citing super-spreader concerns. It later issued a warrant for Yang’s arrest for allegedly violating the Criminal Act provisions against general obstruction of traffic, the Assembly and Demonstration Act and the Act on Infectious Disease Control and Prevention. The allegations were contested by the KCTU: about 8,000 union members attended the rally, carefully following government guidelines for social distancing. After the event, only three attendees tested positive for Covid, with little evidence to tie their infections to the rally.
His detention seemed more designed to disrupt the KCTU’s preparations for a national strike on 20 October to call on all its 1.1 million members to demand improvements to workers' rights. Yang is the 13th KTCU president in a row to be jailed since the federation was unbanned in 1997.
Sixty-seven workers and activists were detained by Tamil Nadu police during a protest on 18 December 2021 by electronics workers. They were detained for more than 24 hours. Twenty-two activists, including leaders of the Indian Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU), were put behind bars for extending support to the workers. The CITU leaders were granted bail and released on 23 December.
The protest – by around 3,000 women workers employed by Bharat FIH, a subsidiary of FIH Mobile and Foxconn Technology Group, which manufactures mobile phones – began on 17 December. It was triggered by an incident two days earlier in which 159 workers had fallen ill due to food poisoning at their hostel. The workers, all hired through contractors, had long complained of overcrowding and poor food.
Lee Cheuk Yan, the general secretary of the Hong Kong Confederation of Trade Unions (HKCTU), together with seven others, was sentenced on 12 December 2021 to 14 months in prison for “inciting, organising and participating” in a candlelight vigil on 4 June 2020. The annual event, to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, was organised by the now-disbanded Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements of China, of which Lee Cheuk-yan was the chair. The sentence will run concurrently with the 20-month prison sentence Lee Cheuk-yan was already serving for organising and participating in pro-democracy rallies in 2019.
In Hong Kong, five members of the General Union of Hong Kong Speech Therapists (GUHKST), including the union chair and vice chair, Li Wenling and Yang Yiyi, were arrested on 22 July 2021. Their phones, computers and trade union leaflets were taken away by the police, and the union’s bank account and assets were frozen. According to the police, they had “conspired to publish, distribute, exhibit or copy seditious publications”. Both Li and Yang were prosecuted, remanded and denied bail. The other three members were granted bail. In the hearing on 30 August, the judge remanded all five union officers in custody pending their next hearing on 24 October 2021.
The “seditious” publications were three illustrated e-books for children with speech problems published by the union in 2020 and explaining Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movements of 2019 and 2020. Sedition is a crime under a colonial-era law and carries up to two years in jail. Since the democracy protests, police and prosecutors have begun regularly using the sedition law, along with the National Security Law, to clamp down on political speech and views.
In 2018, Jasic Technology, China, dismissed workers for trying to organise their own trade union, and more than 40 workers were arrested and accused of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”. Since then, many labour activists and supporters have been prosecuted and imprisoned on spurious charges, and the exact whereabouts of other workers implicated in the protests at the Jasic factory remain unknown. The authorities have used criminal prosecutions, harassment and surveillance to instil fear and prevent those affected and their families from speaking out. After their prosecution and sentencing two years ago, the following activists remained unreachable, their whereabouts unknown, and no further information on their trial could be accessed: Fu Changguo, staff member of the Dagongzhe Workers’ Centre, and worker activists Zheng Shiyou and Liang Xiaogang.
Many others have been summarily prosecuted and sentenced to jail time while the government continued to exert tremendous pressure and intimidation on the activists and their families.
On 25 February 2022 “Mengzhu,” a well-known Chinese food-delivery worker activist, was detained by Beijing police in a raid on his apartment. Mengzhu, whose real name is Chen Guojiang, was charged with “picking quarrels and provoking trouble”, a catch-all category often used against activists in China. Chen was leader of the Delivery Riders’ Alliance, which he founded in 2019. Reaching about 15,000 delivery workers through social media, the alliance developed into a union-like organisation for food delivery workers in Beijing and had connections with delivery workers in other cities.
Shortly before his arrest, Chen had published a video about a bonus scam by Ele.me, owned by Alibaba, China’s biggest e-commerce company. It was watched by millions and provoked great public criticism against Ele.me. Media reports of Chen’s detention were blocked or deleted. Chinese internet activists broadcast an open letter by Chen’s father seeking assistance with legal fees and donated more than 120,000 yuan (US$18,350).
In April 2022, Chen’s WeChat channel, where the open letter had been posted, was permanently banned. Online discussion of Chen’s case was also censored and shut down by the police. Lawyers and students in contact with Chen’s family were investigated and harassed.
The workers at NagaWorld hotel and casino complex in Cambodia had been on strike since 18 December 2021 in protest at the unfair dismissal of 365 workers. Over 1,000 workers joined the strike, which took the form of peaceful sit-ins outside the company premises. The LRSU union made every effort to negotiate a solution, but management refused to talk and even failed to attend a mediation session convened by the Ministry of Labour.
On 31 December 2021, police raided the LRSU’s office, confiscating union documents, computers and mobile phones. Nine people were arrested. A further seventeen arrests were made on 3 January 2022 followed by three more on 4 January, including the arrest of the LRSU president, Sithar Chhim, who was forcibly dragged from the picket line and into a police car.
By February 2022, eight of those arrested remained in detention, namely the union chair, Sithar Chhim; union secretary Chhim Sokhorn; union advisor Sok Narith, and union activists Ry Sovandy, Sun Sreypich, Hai Sopheap, Klaing Soben, Touch Sereymeas. They were denied pre-trial release and said they did not have enough water and were not allowed to contact their families. They were charged with incitement, which carries a sentence of up to five years in prison. In March 2022, they were finally released from jail on bail.
Rong Chhun, president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), was arrested at his home in July 2020 after claiming that the demarcation of the border between Cambodia and Vietnam had stripped several farmers of their land. He was charged with “incitement to commit a felony or cause social unrest”. On 18 August 2021, Rong Chhun, the president of the Cambodian Confederation of Unions (CCU), was sentenced to two years in prison, the maximum sentence for this offence, as well as a fine of two million riels (US$490).
Rong Chhun and Sar Kanika and Ton Nimol, two other labour fellow labour rights advocates, were freed on appeal on 11 November 2021. The Phnom Penh Appeals Court dropped the remainder of the sentences against them, but they all remained on probation and faced restrictions related to travel and other activities for three years.
On 6 August 2021, the Bangladeshi Industrial Police filed a criminal case against Babul Akter, general secretary of Bangladesh Garment and Industrial Workers Federation (BGIWF), and 24 union leaders and members in relation to incidents at Crossline Factory (Pvt) Ltd and Crossline Knit Fabrics Ltd. The factory management also filed a criminal case against its workers. These criminal complaints were filed after the factory workers formed two unions in their respective factories and filed registration applications with the Department of Labour in March 2021.
In February 2021, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) brought criminal cartel charges against the Construction Forestry Mining and Energy Union (CFMEU) in the Australian Capital Territory (ACT) and against the CFMEU-ACT secretary, Jason O’Mara.
On 17 August 2021, the commonwealth director of public prosecutions rejected the charges.
This was the third recent criminal prosecution that the ACCC had brought against the CFMEU, using the Consumer and Competition Act to attack the right of trade unions to collectively bargain. In 2012 and 2013, the ACCC had alleged that the CFMEU-ACT had tried to induce local steel fixers and scaffolders to set a minimum price to afford a wage rise. This, according to the ACCC, amounted to cartel behaviour. For the CFMEU, the ACCC has engaged in the blatant victimisation of trade union leader Jason O'Mara, who went through three years of trial by media and attack on his character.
52% of countries arrested and detained workers.Compared with 56% in 2021
In the early hours of the 27th of May 2021, a simultaneous police operation was carried out in several municipalities in the department of Arauca, Colombia. Several trade union leaders of the Arauca Campesino Association (ACA), a FENSUAGRO affiliate, were arrested without motive: Anderson Rodríguez Rodríguez, ACA president; Jhon Alexander Romero, vice president and human rights secretary of ACA; Camilo Espinel, education secretary of ACA and councillor of the municipality of Saravena; Fredy Camargo, councillor of Fortul and coordinator of the Technical Committee of ACA; Ruth Pita, councillor of Fortul and ACA associate; Helbert Alonso Ramírez Castro, ACA associate and accountant; and Samuel Acosta, ACA associate and member of the Tame Veredal Committee.
On 21 October 2021, Chilean special forces of the Carabineros, using batons, water cannons and pepper spray, brutally repressed the leaders of the sixteen trade union organisations that make up the Mesa del Sector Público (MSP). Union leaders, including José Pérez Debelli, president of the National Association of Public Employees (ANEF), were detained but released a few hours later in response to pressure from the trade union organisations on the government. The MSP representatives were delivering to the government a list of demands on wage adjustment and improvement of working conditions. This formal delivery is an annual practice that initiates the process of branch negotiation of the MSP, which represents about 500,000 public workers.
47% of countries arrested and detained workers.Compared with 44% in 2021
On 11 March 2022, Haleh Safarzadeh and Alireza Saghafi, who both serve as members of the Centre for Workers' Rights in Iran, were arrested, together with 17 other students and labour activists, during a private gathering at Mr Saghafi’s workplace. They were imprisoned at Kachuei Prison in Karaj. While the activists were later released, Haleh Safarzadeh and Alireza Saghafi were held in detention in one of the harshest prisons for serious criminal offences.
The two labour leaders had already been arrested, together with other worker rights’ defenders, on 26 April 2019 while meeting peacefully in a public park. They were put on trial by the Karaj Revolutionary Court on 24 August 2019 on the spurious charge of conducting “propaganda against the system” and sentenced to one year in prison.
Farzaneh Zilabi, the defence lawyer for the Haft Tappeh sugar cane workers in Iran, was sentenced by the Ahvaz Revolutionary Court to one year in prison on 13 September 2021 for “propaganda activities against the state”. In addition to the prison sentence, Zilabi received a two-year ban on leaving the country. On 16 May 2021, she was issued a six-month ban from practicing law.
Following the privatisation of the Haft Tappeh Sugarcane Agro-Industrial Complex in 2016, workers and the syndicate organised a number of strikes, most recently in August 2021, against the continuous unpaid wages of employees and the alleged corruption of the former owners.
Abdel-Wahab Radwan, vice chairman of the Syndicate Committee of Public Transport Authority Employees in Egypt, was arrested in May 2021 because of his trade union activities. The trade union leader was still in pretrial detention in 2022 pending the hearing of his case. He was charged with “being a member of a terrorist group and misusing social media”.
Fellah Hamoudi, member of the Executive Bureau of SNAPAP and CGATA and president of the Office of the Algerian League for Human Rights (LADDH), was arrested on 19 February 2022 in the wilaya of Tlemcen. Fellah Hamoudi had been continuously harassed over the past months in connection to his statements on the “Al Magharibia” television channel. The prosecutor found Hamoudi’s comments concerning the number of prisoners of conscience in Algeria offensive to the Ministry of Interior and “false or malicious”. Hamoudi was also accused of running an “unaccredited” association in connection to his position in the LADDH. His home was searched by the police on 12 January 2022, during which time his laptop and personal phone were confiscated. On 20 February 2022, the Tlemcen Court convicted him and sentenced him to a fine of one hundred thousand dinars and imprisonment of three years.
36% of countries arrested and detained workers.No change from 2021
The secretary general of the Confédération Syndicale du Congo (CSC), Fidèle Kiyangi Matangila, who is also in charge of the Central Workers of Banks and Financial Institutions and president of the National Intersyndicale of Public Administration (INAP), was arrested at the administrative building of the civil service. His arrest by the security forces followed a protest action by union members against non-payment of wages and bonuses over a period of four months by the financial service employer.
33% of countries arrested and detained workers.Compared with 29% in 2021
In the afternoon of 24 February 2022, unknown persons in civilian clothes broke into the In the afternoon of 24 February 2022, unknown persons in civilian clothes broke into the office of the Free Metalworkers’ Union (SPM) without presenting documents, searched the office, and seized office equipment and mobile phones from the office management and employees. The SPM deputy chairman, Aleksandr Evdokimchik, was arrested and taken away to an undisclosed location. Earlier in the morning, the executive committee of BKDP, the national trade union centre and ITUC affiliate, could not get in touch with Igor Komlik, the lawyer of the trade union who, it was later revealed, was also arrested by law enforcement agencies.
On the morning of 21 September 2021, law enforcement agencies searched the apartment of Volha Brytsikava, local leader of the primary trade union organisation of the Belarusian Independent Trade Union (BITU) at JSC Naftan. Her computer was seized and she was arrested and detained. Two more BITU members, Andrey Berezovsky and Roman Shkodin, were arrested and detained for seven and 15 days, respectively.
At Grodno Azot, the vice chairperson of the BITU local union, Valiantsin Tseranevich, and BITU members Andrei Paheryla, Vladimir Zhurauka, Grigory Ruban, Dmitry Ilyushenko and Aleksey Sidor were detained by the police.
In Zhlobin, Aliaksandr Hashnikau, secretary treasurer of the BITU primary branch at the Belarusian Metallurgical Plant BMZ, was arrested on 17 September 2021 and arbitrarily detained. According to his wife, he disappeared in mid-September and was located a week later.
BITU president Maksim Pazniakou was detained on 17 September but later released and fined US$350 for a social media post from 2020, featuring a Belarusian music group, later labelled by authorities as extremist.
On the morning of 23 August 2021, a leader of the Algarve Hotel Industry Union, accompanied by two union delegates, was arrested while distributing union information to the workers of the Hapimag Resort Albufeira, Portugal. Hotel management called in the National Republican Guard (GNR) to prevent the union leader from carrying out his trade union activities inside the establishment, a right foreseen in the constitution of the Portuguese republic, in the labour code and in the collective agreement for the tourism sector.
The union leader tried to explain to the GNR officers that they were exercising a constitutional right, but the GNR officers complied with the employer's request and detained the union leader, taking him to the Albufeira police station. The leader was charged and summoned to appear before the Albufeira Court.
The Algarve Hotel Industry Union and the Algarve Hotel Workers’ Union both publicly supported the worker concerned. His union, Sindicato dos Trabalhadores da Indústria de Hotelaria, Turismo, Restaurantes e Similares do Algarve (Hotel, Tourism, Restaurant and Allied Workers of the Algarve), recalled that the management of Hapimag Resort Albufeira had recently suspended the union delegates from their duties as head and deputy head of kitchen for demanding the improvement of working conditions.
The workers’ main grievances included poor working conditions and the violation of health and safety standards, issues that they had been trying to solve through negotiation for two years.
On 28 January 2022, the Federation of Trade Unions of Kyrgyzstan (FTUKg) planned to hold the Federation Council, which was supposed to set the date for the Unification Congress. In the morning of the 28th, at 7:50 a.m., Ryskul Babayeva, FTUKg deputy chairperson, was arbitrarily detained by police officers of the Alamedin district on a false denunciation. After investigation by the police, it was revealed that the denunciation was slanderous. Babayeva was released and was able to attend the council.
In April 2021, union representatives at the Tirana International Airport (Albania) attempted to open negotiations with management on health risks in relation to the physical and mental exhaustion of workers in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of engaging in dialogue with the unions, the management unilaterally cut the workers’ salaries and resorted to harassment and intimidation against union members and workers. Faced with increased pressure, the workers declared themselves medically unfit for duty in accordance with international standards in the civil aviation sector. In response, the government deployed law enforcement forces, removing workers from the premises and detaining union leaders for several days in police custody or under house arrest, threatening to take legal action against union leaders and engaging replacement workers from other countries.