On Tuesday, Oct. 2, the United States Trade Representative convened hearings on labor rights in Fiji and Iraq in response to petitions the AFL-CIO filed.
As developing countries, both Fiji and Iraq receive tariff benefits under the Generalized System of Preferences. In order to keep the benefits, countries have to comply with a number of conditions, including the requirement to take steps to ensure their workers can exercise internationally recognized worker rights, including freedom of association, collective bargaining and freedoms from forced labor.
Last June, the U.S. government announced it had accepted both petitions. At that time, it set a hearing date and deadlines for pre-hearing petitions and public comment.
Responding to deplorable labor conditions in Fiji and requests for international assistance from Fijian trade unions, the AFL-CIO first filed a petition regarding Fiji’s failure to protect labor rights in December 2011.
In 2006, a military coup toppled Fiji’s government. Although the Fiji Court of Appeal in 2009 found the interim regime to be illegal, it has remained in power—and implemented a series of decrees that limit worker and trade union rights. For example, a 2011 amendment to the Employment Relations Promulgation of 2007 excluded public service workers from its coverage, denying them several rights and benefits, including the right to collective bargaining. And the Essential National Industries Decree of 2011 stripped rights from workers from 11 corporations in the finance, telecommunications, aviation and public utilities sectors as essential industries—nullifying collective bargaining agreements, forcing unions to re-register and effectively eliminating the right to strike.
Not only has the interim government changed the law in ways detrimental to worker and trade union rights, it has in practice taken steps to intimidate and harass union leaders and silence worker voices. On repeated occasions, the interim government has assaulted and harassed the highest ranking trade union official in Fiji, Mr. Felix Anthony, national secretary of the Fiji Trade Union Congress and general secretary of the Fiji Sugar Workers. It even prevented Anthony from traveling to the International Labor Conference in 2011. On June 22, 2011, two army officers assaulted another leader of the Fiji Sugar Workers Union (Mohammed Khalil). During the beating, the officers demanded that the president submit his resignation from the union, or he would face the same treatment again. The interim government attempts to maintain strict control over dissenting voices by requiring unions to apply for permits to hold public meetings and with an overly broad definition of treason that chills the speech not only of workers but also journalists.
The interim government, despite having expelled an ILO Mission just days before the hearing, generally denied the AFL-CIO’s allegations and instead argued that Fijian workers are better off, earning higher wages and benefits than before the new regime was put in place. Nevertheless, the interim government made clear that continued eligibility for GSP benefits is critical the Fijian economy.
Despite its rhetoric—given the importance the government puts on GSP benefits—there is hope that it will abandon its anti-worker policies and practices and allow trade unions and their leaders and members to speak and operate freely. The AFL-CIO will be working hard to make that happen. Post hearing briefs are due Oct. 23, but the U.S. government is unlikely to make a determination in the case any time soon.
The AFL-CIO first filed a petition against the government of Iraq in 2008, citing its failure to repeal repressive Saddam Hussein-era laws effectively outlawing unions; the failure to enact a new labor code consistent with ILO core labor standards; and failure to afford worker rights in practice, including the rights to freedom of association, collective bargaining and freedom from forced labor.
Since then, although Iraq’s legislature has enacted new laws regarding social security, journalists and NGOs, it has failed to enact a new labor or trade union code. Although it has repealed approximately 60 Saddam-era decrees, it has failed to repeal Decree 150, which denies public-sector workers of the right to form and join unions by classifying them as civil servants.
The U.S. Department of State has stated that “[f]reedom of association and the right to collective bargaining were not respected in practice,” in Iraq and has placed Iraq on the Tier 2 Watch List in its annual human trafficking report.
Iraqi’s working families have so much to deal with, from security threats, to power shortages, to high unemployment. The lack of internationally recognized worker rights only makes their jobs and daily lives even more precarious—the exact opposite of what they need. Despite these challenges, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, the trade union movement in Iraq began to grow independently.
To help raise the standard of living for Iraqi working families, the best thing the government could do is to encourage the growth of these budding unions, which allow workers to empower themselves and learn democratic decision making in a very personal way. The government should take this GSP petition as an opportunity to seek assistance from its own workers, as well as the ILO and the U.S. government to finally enact and effectively implement labor and trade union laws ensuring that all workers in Iraq, whether in the public, private or government sectors, can freely exercise fundamental labor rights so they can work in solidarity with each other to improve their own wages and working conditions.