Migrant workers up against exploitation in the Gulf
Migrant workers imported into the Gulf states on cheap wages and shoddy work conditions are starting to fight to improve their lot.
Labour sweated from Asian building workers living in filthy camps and earning on average between £88 and £134 a month is helping fuel a renewed blaze of grandiose speculative building projects in Abu Dhabi and elsewhere in the region. Projects include the construction of the Louvre museum and a branch of New York’s Guggenheim museum, both planned for Saadiyat island.
However, the company contracted to build the Louvre museum, Arabtec, is running into problems with its workers, who recently went on strike for several days.
Whilst Arabtec claimed an “amicable” settlement had been reached, the fragile state of industrial relations was apparent in the company’s assertion that “This unwarranted stoppage had been instigated by a minority group who will be held responsible for their actions.”
Nervous bosses are perhaps calling to mind what happened in 2006, when a ‘minority group’ of 2,500 workers employed to build an earlier Arabtec project, the Burj Khalifa tower, went on the rampage demanding a decent wage and decent living conditions.
Meanwhile, women from the Philippines, India and Sri Lanka continue to suffer exploitation and abuse at the hands of those who employ them as domestic servants. Until recently, Gulf employers resisted demands for a minimum wage and conditions with the plea that maids are not really workers but ‘part of the family’ (like the dog, perhaps).
Fearful of losing this pool of cheap labour completely, Saudi Arabia has belatedly signed an agreement with the Manila government, granting Filipino maids a minimum wage of around £260 a month. Whether such regulation will translate into reality behind closed doors is highly dubious.
The heroic class struggle of India’s Suzuki employees continues to rage on. As reported earlier, the long-running struggle for union recognition and an end to contract labour fought by Maruti Suzuki workers in the Indian state of Harayana, in the teeth of violent opposition from both the company and from the state government, came to a head in July 2012, when tensions reached such a pitch that the plant was set ablaze and a supervisor died of smoke inhalation. (See Proletarian, April 2013)
A union statement explained:
“Since 18 July 2012, after the unfortunate incident in the factory premises as part of a management-woven conspiracy, we workers have been continually facing the brunt of repression.
“The company management has at once terminated the jobs of over 1,500 contract workers along with 546 permanent workers. They have, with the help of the state administration, heaped fabricated cases ranging from arson to murder on 211 of our fellow workers, while 149 workers, including our entire union leadership, have continued to languish in jail for the last six months.
“Keeping aside all legality, we workers and our families have continuously faced brute police atrocities.”
Undeterred, the struggle for the release of the jailed workers and the reinstatement of those sacked pressed on. From 24 March this year, hunger strikes, deputations and rallies were organised, planned to culminate in a mass protest for 19 May.
This was to take the form of a ‘dharna’, which traditionally refers to the practice of a wronged person camping out on the doorstep of the wrongdoer and fasting until such time as redress is granted. In this case, the wrongdoers were the Haryana government and the Maruti management.
But as the union reported on the day of the protest, the response to this planned mass peaceful protest was swift and brutal.
“Around 150 of our fellow workers were taken into custody at 11.30pm last night in Kaithal police station to prevent our call for Dharna and Gherao scheduled for today, 19 May 2013. The number of those arrested has gone up since last night, as police continue to pick up workers and supporters from our homes, villages and streets.
“A state of curfew … clamped down on the entire town of Kaithal is on. As workers and supporters from across Haryana and other places are pouring in this morning, CID and thousands of police are stationed in the bus station, railway station and throughout the town and nearby villages to try to stop their entry with barricades, tear gas and water cannons.
“We have decided to go ahead with the programme. Thousands of people who are coming in solidarity will go ahead with the protest, and will sit on the road wherever they are stopped. We will try to march to the industries minister’s residence with our demands.”
As the protestors (including many women, children and old men) approached the minister’s residence, they were met by over 2,000 riot cops, who subjected them to a barrage of beatings, water cannon and tear gas. Hundred of protestors received injuries requiring hospital admission.
On 28 May, the union issued the following defiant statement:
“Our spirit of struggle has been further tempered in the hearth of repression. We are resolute to continue our struggle against the Maruti Suzuki management and Haryana government’s collusion with it, even as the Haryana police administration came down with brutal force to break our 57-day long dharna in Kaithal on 18-19 May and put 111 of us behind bars …
“We have decided to hold a protest demonstration and indefinite dharna from 1 June 2013 onwards against the repressive actions of 18-19 May.”
Industrial relations, Beijing style
While struggling workers the world over face an unholy alliance of capitalist exploitation and state repression, a different geometry of class struggle obtained recently in Beijing.
Workers at Coral Springs, a Florida-based medical supplies company, took matters into their own hands when rumours circulated that the whole plant, and not just the plastics division, was going to be transferred to Mumbai, thereby slashing labour costs. (‘American owner of Beijing factory held hostage by Chinese workers over pay dispute’ by James Legge, Independent, 24[sup] [/sup]June 2013)
The US owner of the company, on a flying visit to fix up severance packages for thirty of the staff, found himself trapped in his office by the other hundred workers demanding, in the absence of credible guarantees over their own jobs, redundancy packages to be agreed and paid on the nail.
The aggrieved owner, Chip Starnes, claims that for four days the workers blocked every exit, shone bright lights and banged on his office window until he finally agreed to pay up. In a fit of histrionics, Starnes declared: “I feel like a trapped animal. I think it’s inhumane what is going on right now. I have been in this area for 10 years and created a lot of jobs and I would never have thought in my wildest imagination something like this would happen.”
Unlike in Bangladesh however, where garment workers really are treated like ‘trapped animals’ as they slave away in firetraps and jerry-built tenements, or in India, where capitalist bosses conspire with the repressive forces of the state to criminalise those fighting for the most basic rights, in China there exist labour laws specifically designed to safeguard workers’ rights, enforced by a state founded on the principle of service to the people.
Zhao Lu, of the Huairou Public Security Bureau, remained unflappable, telling journalists, “As far as I know, there was a labour dispute between the workers and the company management and the dispute is being solved. I am not sure about the details of the solution, but I can guarantee the personal safety of the manager.”
Sounds like a result?
Solidarity with Turkish workers
Our comrades have been busy in trades councils and union meetings, calling for solidarity with the Turkish masses in revolt against the economic mismanagement and the warmongering character of the Erdogan government.
A motion has been presented at various trade-union meetings condemning the mass arrest of journalists and other trade unionists in Turkey, and drawing attention to the courageous stand taken by those journalists who have refused to cooperate with the war effort by censoring themselves. The motion goes on to urge the unions in this country to learn from our Turkish comrades’ example and embrace an active strategy of collective non-cooperation with austerity and war.
The motion, which we reproduce below, has so far been passed by the Birmingham and Coventry branch of the NUJ, Birmingham Trades Council and Coventry Trades Council.
This initiative is an excellent example of sections of the British labour movement starting to draw the correct conclusions for our work here from the experience of comrades internationally.
Text of union motion
Birmingham and Coventry NUJ Branch asks the BTUC to condemn the brutal crackdown on peaceful protesters at Gezi Park and to extend its full support to Turkish journalists, who have been targeted by police in a series of attacks, detentions, and obstructions whilst photographing and documenting law-enforcement clashes with protesters.
The anti-union actions of the Turkish government and its unpopular policies regarding Syria (65 percent of population against) are at the root of the spreading general confrontation with people who simply want the government to listen and cease repressing legitimate dissent. The government of Prime Minister Erdogan should release the many trade unionists, journalists and others whom it is holding in detention for no good reason.
Birmingham and Coventry NUJ calls on the BTUC to support ITUC (International Trade Union Confederation) and DISK’s (Confederation of Progressive Trade Unions of Turkey) demand for the release of those arrested and the lifting of all bans on meetings and demonstrations.
Further, the Turkish authorities should not interfere with the free flow of information online or in any other media. Twitter and other social media have become the substitute for corporate media coverage in Turkey.
The spineless collapse of the free press and the crushing silence on Turkish television about the protests by a media petrified of offending the government has been exposed by the host of a popular Turkish game show. Ali Ihsan Varol, the star of the Bloomberg TV quiz show Kelime Oyunu, or The Word Game, in a recent broadcast arranged for questions that had answers reflecting the violence in Turkey, from ‘gas mask’ to ‘Twitter’ and ‘dictator’.
Birmingham and Coventry NUJ specifically recognises the brave actions of those Turkish journalists who defied the self-censorship of the corporate media, refused to be bullied and intimidated and took a stance against Turkey’s media blackout. It recognises that journalists and trade unionists in general, here in Britain, have much to learn from our brothers and sisters in Turkey, especially with regard to our own power to refuse to produce, disseminate or broadcast state propaganda or to cooperate with imperialist war crimes by making or moving munitions or other equipment.
To this end we ask the BTUC to place this item on the agenda at the next meeting, and to look for ways to open discussions on this question.