Annual Survey of violations of trade union rights

Middle East

The full enjoyment of union rights in the Middle East is still a long way off, despite developments in recent years in legislation covering trade union and social rights. Indeed, the region remains one of the parts of the world where union rights are the least protected and respected. The most vulnerable categories are still migrant workers, people working in the informal economy and women domestic workers.

Exercising one’s trade union rights remains a dangerous activity in the region. In Iraq the president of the Journalists’ Union was the victim of an assassination. His successor closely escaped death after a bomb exploded outside the union’s head office.

In certain sectors, such as construction in Bahrain and the oil industry in Iraq, trade union leaders are regularly harassed or even threatened with transfers, moved to another location or suspended. In Iraq, eight union representatives from the General Union of Oil Employees of Basra (IFOU) were transferred to dangerous areas. In Bahrain, the deputy head of the Postal Workers’ Union, who had already been harassed in 2007, was suspended without pay for ten days owing to her union activities. And this year too, various union delegates were sacked as a result of their union activities, whilst others were arrested for the same reason, for example in Iraq, Palestine and Yemen.

There have been many cases of government interference in trade union affairs, such as an attempt by the Iraqi government to interfere in trade union elections.

Iran remains one of the gloomiest places in terms of freedom of association. Hundreds of workers were arrested for taking part in trade union activities, particularly in the education sector. The Revolutionary Courts pronounced 11 new anti-union prison sentences, and sentenced four workers, including two women, to flogging. Two eminent union leaders remain in prison. Mansoor Osanloo, president of the Tehran and Suburbs Bus Company (Sherkat-e Vahed), who has been in prison since 2007 for “threatening national security” and “propaganda against the state” and whose health has been deteriorating in prison, has become an emblematic figure at international level. A Kurdish teacher and human rights activist, belonging to a union, was sentenced to death for “threatening national security”. He is also regularly tortured and members of the committee opposing his death penalty have been harassed.

Migrant workers continue to experience many problems, despite the fact that they often make up the majority of the workforce. In 2008, there was an increase in the number of complaints by these workers about terrible working and living conditions. Unfortunately the protests often resulted in harsh police repression, threatened arrests, or deportation. This particularly applied in Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates (where there are thousands of migrant construction workers), Jordan (in the free trade zones), Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, where 200 workers were expelled from the country. In the UAE, 45 Indian construction workers were sentenced to six months’ imprisonment, followed by deportation, for going on strike; 1,000 other Indian workers and several thousand other Asian workers, were arrested after similar demonstrations that were deemed “subversive” by the authorities.

There have been increasing complaints concerning physical violence and sexual abuse suffered by women domestic workers. In Saudi Arabia, an Indonesian servant who had been raped was sentenced to one year in prison (where she gave birth) and received 100 lashes.

Attempts at organising are very often prevented and repressed. Despite that, workers in the Middle East are getting organised. In Iran, the Syndicate Haft Tapeh Complex, affiliated to the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF), was set up in 2008 by the workers at a sugar refinery.

In Lebanon, Iraq, Israel and Palestine, the political tensions and violence are having a negative impact on trade union activities. The offices of the Palestinian General Federation of Trade Unions, and some of the houses of its members, were destroyed by bombardments. In Lebanon, the government called on the army after a general strike was called in May that coincided with the aggravation of internal political tensions.

Changes in legislation have continued, but rather slowly. The effective exercise of union rights has accordingly been restricted or non-existent. In Iran, a new law enabling the establishment of free trade unions is being discussed. Promises of new laws guaranteeing increased trade union freedom have still not been kept in Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Oman and Qatar. In Iraq, the new labour code has not been presented to the Parliament; as a result, laws dating back to the former regime that severely restrict trade union activities remain in force. As a general rule throughout the region, migrant workers have no trade union rights. In Saudi Arabia, Qatar, Yemen and the United Arab Emirates, the governments have brought in measures or proposed reforms aimed at improving the lot of migrant workers, however.

Trade unions are still banned in Saudi Arabia (where only the national workers’ committees are allowed to be set up in companies with over 100 workers), Qatar and the United Arab Emirates. Despite the fact that trade union rights are enshrined in constitutions, restrictions remain and trade union pluralism and collective bargaining are virtually non-existent in the region. In Bahrain, for instance, although the government committed itself in 2007 to adopting a law allowing collective bargaining, the law has still not been adopted.

The right to strike remains limited in Oman, Qatar, Syria and Yemen, whilst it is totally banned in Saudi Arabia and banned in the public sector in the United Arab Emirates, Iran, Kuwait and Qatar. In addition, in many cases the list of essential services in which strikes are banned goes beyond the ILO definition.