Australia Listed As A "Country Of Crisis"

By Andrew Casey, Asia/Pacific Editor for LabourStart

BERLIN – The names of Turkey, Qatar, Bahrain, and Fiji unsurprisingly will all feature at the six day International Trade Union Confederation global Congress which has just opened in Berlin. But, shockingly, Australia has joined that list as a country of crisis for unions.

In his key opening speech Michael Sommer – the out-going ITUC President – noted the many attacks on union rights by the Abbott Government.

Over 1500 trade unionists from 161 countries have come together at the Berlin City Cube in Germany for the 3rd ITUC World Congress under the theme “Building Workers’ Power”.

The ITUC is the largest democratic organisation in the world representing 325 national trade unions, and more than 175 million workers.

The CFMEU’s Dave Noonan, part of the 14-strong Australian delegation now in Berlin, will tell delegates later this week about the attack on construction unions and all unions in Australia.

And you can expect Australia will rate low on a new ITUC index of worker rights which will be launched at the Congress this week .

Trust in governments is in decline

Before Congress began Sharan Burrow, the ITUC General-Secretary, launched the ITUC Global Poll which shows that across the globe, people’s trust in their own government is in decline.

The report states that globally ordinary people want an activist approach by their national governments in the international arena, aimed at securing workers’ rights and closing the gap between the rich and the poor.

An overwhelming majority of global respondents from 11 countries with a minimum wage say that their national minimum wage is insufficient to enable workers to live decent lives.

Women in particular, more than men, say the minimum wage is not enough for a decent life.

Previous ITUC polls have shown a great concern about the next generation – the latest ITUC poll found just one in two respondents expect the next generation to find a decent job.

Michael Sommer is retiring from his job as head of the German national union centre so will also leave as ITUC President at the end of this conference. The next ITUC President will be João Felício of the Brazilian trade union national centre CUT. Meanwhile the former ACTU President, Sharan Burrow, who has now led the ITUC for four years, is seeking re-election for another four years. But she will have to beat off a challenger for her post. It is the first time ever that there has been an election for this full-time post, both at the ITUC, and at its predecessor global union organisation the ICFTU.

Sharan’s challenger is an American unionist, Jim Baker, whose candidacy is an expression of some frustration with Sharan’s style. It is a can-do style which seems to have upset traditionalists in the global union world who are used to moving more carefully and with more nuances. ( More unkind delegates have described the upcoming vote as all about old white guys who just don’t like pushy women) No one I spoke to actually believes Baker has a chance of beating the incumbent. However some delegates say it is good to have a democratic vote which allows frustration about some of Sharan’s policy positions to be aired.

For the first time ever, the Chinese national trade union centre, the ACFTU, has official standing at Congress. Sharan has held formal talks before with the ACFTU on the sidelines of the ILO conference.

Several affiliates are very uncomfortable with the fact that China’s state-run organisation, which claims to represent workers, was now being given any status at a democratic trade union gathering.

The ITUC, under Sharan Burrow, has also put a lot of emphasis on working in the Middle East. That’s also been controversial.

Sharan however is very proud – and justifiably – of the support she has given the Arab Spring trade unions who’ve almost always played key, important, roles in the push for democratisation – especially in Tunisia, Egypt, Bahrain and Qatar.

The ITUC has orchestrated much of the push for worker rights in Qatar and it’s beginning to deliver results. For that Sharan can take a lot of credit.

Focus on Turkey and Qatar

Both Turkey and Qatar will feature high up ion the agenda at the Congress this week.

The ITUC has successfully used as leverage the planned FIFA World Cup in Qatar.

The global union centre has pressured the small Gulf nation – where slavery, known as Kafala, still exists – and pressured FIFA to abandon Qatar as the site of the World Cup if the ITUC demands are not met .

Just days before the ITUC Congress was due to start Qatar made a big to-do of so-called ‘labour reforms’.

But at her media conference on Sunday Sharan Burrow dismissed the proposed changes as laughable.

Ex-Fulham footballer Abdes Quaddou took to the ITUC stage yesterday to thank the global union movement for fighting for Qatar worker rights.

Monday morning Berlin time Sharan will introduce some of the Qatar workers who have escaped from their slavery and will call on next month’s FIFA Congress to impose conditions on Qatar if they want to host the 2022 World Cup.

On Turkey, Sharan told journalists in Berlin, that the Turkish Prime Minister has responded shamefully to the mine tragedy which has killed more than 300 people.

As ITUC leader Sharan has been intimately involved with Turkish unions ever since last year’s May Day protests where she was fired upon by police with tear gas.

At least two senior union leaders from Turkey have not been able to come to Berlin.

The leader of DISK trade unions, Kani Beko, is hospitalised with head injuries after being fired upon by police during last week’s protests over the mine disaster. While the leader of KESK has not been allowed to leave because there are court cases pending against him.

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ITUC President Michael Sommer opens ITUC Congress