Around the world workers are still working together for their rights and sometimes they are winning

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Around the world workers are still working together for their rights and sometimes they are winning.


Photos, left to right and bottom: Cambodian trade union activists and clothes workers ask for a minimum wage at a protest in Phnom Penh; the missing Ayotzinapa teachers are remembered in Oaxaca, Mexico; a wall painting in Johannesburg shows the shooting by police of 34 miners in South Africa. By left to right and bottom: Xinhua/Alamy Stock Photo; Jim West/Alamy Stock Photo; Zute Lightfoot/Alamy Stock Photo


In Mexico, there are problems for teachers who protest for their rights and the rights of their students to a good education. On 26 September 2014, 43 students from Ayotzinapa Rural Teachers’ College disappeared after a protest about the 1968 Tlatelolco massacre. In the massacre the Mexican state killed hundreds of students in Mexico City.

Nearly 50 years after the Tlatelolco massacre, the government is still authoritarian.

The Tri-national Coalition in Defence of Public Education is a group of trade unions from Canada, the US, and Mexico. It is asking the Mexican government to agree that the state played a part when the 43 students from Ayotzinapa disappeared. A government report soon after the students disappeared said that the students were killed and their bodies burnt by a local drugs gang. But not everyone agrees and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights says the Mexican government allowed the people who were responsible to go free.

The Tri-national Coalition started when educational trade unions joined together. It gives help across borders and organizes action against the impact of trade agreements on public education – especially the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

Stephen Glaysher


Colombia is the most dangerous place in the world for trade unionists. But there is renewed resistance to the unions even after the strong success of a number of free-trade agreements.

When Colombia made a free-trade agreement with the US in 2011, a Labour Action Plan for worker protection was used to stop Congressional opposition. One important part of that protection was to end the ways employers stop workers joining a union. Colmotores is part of the very big US GM Motors company. It was one of the employers which tried to stop workers joining a uuion.

Workers at Colmotores listed a number of job losses because of union activism and work-related injuries. So they started Asotrecol (, an organization asking for justice for injured workers. Asotrecol started a camp opposite the US Embassy in Bogotá. Protesters sewed their lips shut and had hunger strikes. Under pressure, Colmotores offered a very small sum of $5,000 for the injured workers to share. Asotrecol said no to the offer and is still fighting. For many years, trade unions in Colombia could do nothing because of action by the state and paramilitary. More recently, protest is growing. But, as before, union action has brought an increase in assassinations and death threats.

There has been action especially in the countryside. There was a strike by peasant farmers in 2013, which spread to Colombian cities and nearly brought the country to a complete stop. In March 2016, trade unions protested with farmers and students against privatization, economic problems, and a weak healthcare system. Groups working together in this way may be the way for Colombian workers to make big changes.

Bryan Nott


20 years ago Zambia adopted the International Labour Organization’s Convention on Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining. The result was an increase in the number of smaller trade unions. The Convention, and the 1993 Industrial and Labour Relations Act, allowed workers to choose their trade union. Some unions left the main unions. The National Union of Mine Workers, for example, left the Mine Workers Union of Zambia. And then the unions were not so strong and there were not so many members. Another problem was the very big loss of jobs in the mining industry, which before was an important part of the unions. This year the trade unions began to talk about two of the three organisations which trade unions belong to joining together: the Zambia Congress of Trade Unions and the Federation of Free Trade Unions. They hope there will be no disagreements between the leaders which is why they left in the first place.

The future of trade unions in Zambia looks bad. Workers in the informal sector are not well organized and have no power. There has been no training for trade union leaders and activists and so they do not know how to deal with the problems of the Zambian economy. The informal sector drives the economy and jobs are not safe and workers are losing their rights.

Chilayi Mayondi


A result of Apartheid in South Africa is the old attitude to race and colour, especially in the countryside and mining communities. There is no real social mobility, workers are losing the economic war because of neoliberalism and globalisation.

Trade unions were very important in the national liberation movement. But now they are weak as they try to balance employers’ demands for profits with the rights of workers. The mining industry was always important to union activity but since 2009, workers in many mines have pretested without the help of their union. The result has been violence. On 16 August 2012 at the Marikana mine, police killed 34 strikers and 78 were injured. But the strikes continued for another six weeks.

Even with the violence, workers have had success without the unions. The result is that other workers have then felt strong enough to take action and protest on their own. The South African miners have shown that self-organized action can be a way which is different from the slow process of modern industrial relations.

Chris Rimell


The clothing industry has made a lot of money through exports that are driving Cambodia’s economy as it goes through a time of very fast globalization. But the workers have not had a share of the profits. Their wages are still very low. About 90 per cent of Cambodians live in poverty, especially in the countryside. The country produces enough food for all its people but they do not have enough money for good food. A recent Cambodian study found that workers who do not have enough good food produce less and that pregnant women who do not have enough good food have small babies. As 80 per cent of clothes factory workers are young women, the government must do something.

Trade unions and organizations such as the International Labour Organization and Labour Behind the Label have always asked for a living wage enough for a family with one working adult, one adult looking after the family, and two children. Unions in Cambodia’s clothing industry have helped a lot to improve workers’ conditions but labour regulations have not. The rise of unions has given workers the power to use strikes to improve labour regulations.

Unions in the workplace make employers think about labour regulations on wages, hours, and holidays. About 70 per cent of managers say they would avoid strikes by agreeing with workers’ demands.

Adeline Au

Thank you to the staff and students of Ruskin College’s International Labour and Trade Union Studies course for their help with this article.


(This article has been simplified so the words, text structure and quotes may have changed).