Eddy Laurijssen: “In the Arab world, in a number of countries unions are not allowed to exist unfortunately” [Archives:2001/30/Interview]

July 23 2001

Eddy Laurijssen , Assistant General Sectary of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) for the past seven years. Before that he was director of the ICFTU Geneva office.
In corporation with ILO, which is a key organization for ICFTU for the trade union movements and also UN Human Rights Commission, the UNCTAD and many other organizations.
In every country one of the main tasks of the unions is to compact poverty and unemployment. There is no secret that in the Least developed Countries (LDCs) this problem unfortunately is most of all. This is our job in all countries but especially in the LDCs. Our part of course is the international part to press and lobby the international institutions to do more. To have more concessions from the rich countries to do something genuine about the problems the poor countries are facing. That is the guideline on which we work.
Q: What are the guide-lines in your work?
A: There is an important instrument of the international labor organization, which is the declaration of the rights of workers and principals at work. It ‘s a declaration adopted in 1998, all the countries of the ILO signed it. By this they commit themselves to five basic principals. Basic rights that should be safe guarded in every country that is member of the ILO. The five are:
1. The combat of child labor.
2. The Combat of Force labor.
3. The right to organize trade unions.
4. Collective bargaining of the unions on behalf of their members.
5. To stop discrimination in employment; religion, gender, political wise or whatsoever.
By signing the declaration all member states have committed themselves to it now what we want to do is that these five basic principles are activated.
Yemen strongly supported this movement in the international conferences.
Q: What is your view of the Arab world regarding unions and your relations directly with them?
A: We have good countries and bad countries in every continent.
In the Arab world, in a number of countries unions are not allowed to exist unfortunately, talk about the gulf countries, in the first place. In Saudi Arabia, UAE, Oman, Qatar no unions are allowed to exist which is a violation of human rights and also of the ILO international conventions. I have returned recently from Bahrain. There, there are some forms of trade unions. But they have very restricted rights and we were discussing with the government how to expand it and how to give full recognition to trade unions. So there is progress in Bahrain, and also the labor minister in Saudi Arabia in March this year at the summit meeting of the Arab labor organization, he told that they now would also like to introduce the permission for trade unions in their country. So there is some winds of change in the Arab world. But of course when we talk about trade unions what we really want in is independent unions, we don’t want unions that are controlled by the government. Because then they will come to an international conference and then instead of speaking of the rights of the workers they will ask the government what they can say, and this is not the genuine trade union that fights for the rights of the workers.
About Yemen, for us is an excellent example. In Yemen the unions are very good, they are independent and they are active. Of course there are always political influences every where in every country. But the fact is that the union when it decides to fight for the rights of the workers the government won’t stop it form doing so. If it tries to stop them they will insist and say no we want to fight for the rights of the workers. And the government will not keep them quiet. We know that Yemen has very good trade unions. And when we are talking about the Saudi minister of labor for instance, I know that the Saudi minister himself went to Yemen a few months ago to familiarize himself with the Yemeni model of trade unions, which he knows from us and from others is an example to follow in the Arab world. Because you know it is pointless to say to the Saudi minister come and see how it is in Germany or in Britain. You have to pick something relative, and therefore we are very happy to see that he made the visit to aquatint himself with the Yemeni experience.
Q: Would you rather work with NGOs and independent Unions than with the governments?
A: We have to work with governments, we have to negotiate with governments and discuss with them to improve labor law and the conditions of workers. Very often governments have a very important influence in these areas and that is normal. So for us, governments are important counter parts. What we also want and this is also a principal of the ILO, is that there should be Triplet Corporation and coherence. Triplet meaning the government, the workers and the employers should work together to improve conditions in a country, not only economically but also socially, because we think that development has two pillars: economic and social development, they come together, there is no good economic policy without a social policy.
Q: Stability, most of the LDCs do not have stability for a good trade background the other point is equality. Equality in terms of businesswomen and men. What are you r focus on these two points.
A: Stability requires many things, the mistake that governments make is that they think that stability depends on the political situations and whether you have investors coming to your country. But what we always say is that stability depends to a large extent on your social situation. If you have a population that is constantly in up-roar and unrest or in terrible conditions you can have no stability. There will be no stable work force, no proper training for the work force, and all that. This in turn affects the economic and the investment situation. So we think that there are so many factors involved. But again the social element is very important in this.. Social justice can not be over looked in this regard. Where as In many cases it is always overlooked. Not only the fault of the government but multinational companies come to your country and they say we are willing to invest so much money but with low wages, no maternity leave, no trade unions, pensions. You do what you want but nothing from us. Multinational nowadays are very aggressive because of competition and quite often governments are under pressure to accept the dictates and the conditions imposed by multinational companies. The other element of this is the World Bank and International Monterey Fund. In their structural adjustment programs which they claimed geared towards economic development. They impose sometimes very harsh measures on governments. They say you have to cut back your public expenditure, which means public employees, drastic cuts n the numbers of people employed by the state, privatization, drastic programs and also cuts in public expenditure in terms of education, health and all these things. We think this is disastrous and criminal and we attacked the WB and the IMF in these policies. So that is what we try to do to help governments to have stability in the sense of social stability and social justice. We have negotiations in with the WB and the IMF on these fronts and we can tell that have an agreement now with them that when the WB goes to launch a new program in a given country the social partners should be consulted, not only the government, but also the trade unions and the employers of course.
In the equality aspect of it, it is well known that in the Arab world the gender discrimination is particularity bad. But what we don’t accept is that the religion is used as an excuse by some countries and governments to say that this is the way should be. The worst example of course is the Taliban in Afghanistan, which is criminal. They are denying half of their population from the most basic necessities of life. It is absolutely unacceptable. There are other countries in the Arab world in which the situation is also very bad in terms of discrimination against women. And the ICFTU has a very strong program in corporation with the ILO to pressurize governments to respect gender justices, justice and equity and the gender balance of this society.