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Human rights abuses in Colombia, Zimbabwe, Burma and Iran were the focus of a discussion led by an international human rights specialist in Toronto on Nov. 15.

Janek Kuczkiewicz, director of human and trade union rights for the International Trade Union Confederation based in Brussels, outlined ways that the ITUC attempts to assist trade unions and others facing repressive government actions.

Pulling no punches, Kuczkiewicz laced into governments from both the poorer south and the industrial north. Half the trade unionists killed last year are from Colombia. The Philippines are becoming “the Colombia of Asia”. The Australian government is “one of the most viciously anti-democratic.” Sri Lanka, as it struggles to revive after the tsunami, is dealing harshly with trade unionists.

He quoted liberally from the ITUC’s latest survey of human rights abuses, citing such horrific situations as the 70,000 child soldiers pressed into service in Burma. He urged that pressure be brought to bear on the 14 Canadian companies still doing business in that country.

In Iran, Kuczkiewicz said workers wait up to 24 months to get paid. A member of the audience of about 50 added some statistics: 70-75 per cent of Iranians are under 30; 60 per cent of workers are unemployed; 60 per cent of the population is living under the poverty line; inflation is rampant and rises daily.

The same speaker urged the international trade union movement to align itself with the left movement in Iran.H He said that the political forces of Islam and those that remain loyal to the old regime under the shah are not progressive.

Another speaker raised concerns about undocumented workers. “The next frontier for global labour is protecting undocumented workers,” Kuckiewicz responded. He warned, however, that while the ITUC was working on a “legal instrument to protect them,” the process was a long one.

Another speaker suggested ways of organizing foreign domestic workers and integrating them into existing unions. Many such workers are abused. Participants cited cases in Japan, for example, where people are forced to work. Some equated this with modern slavery, calling it a “crime against humanity.”

On a cautiously optimistic note, the discussion highlighted a recent announcement by Canadian Foreign Minister Maxime Bernier that Canada would bring “the strongest sanctions” against any new investments in Burma.”

The group called for similar strong economic sanctions against Iran for its abuse of workers’ rights, especially the arrest of trade union leaders such as Teheran bus driver leader Mansour Osanloo.

The evening discussion, called “Rights and Wrongs: Human and Labour Rights Under Threat”, was organized by the Canadian Labour Congress.