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Labor Day in Hell

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Belarus: Workers in Yurievo sort grain after a wheat harvest this August. Belarus's Constitution theoretically protects the right of workers to form and join trade unions. But the Trade Union Law of January 2000 and subsequent presidential decrees have created an atmosphere in which independent unions face harassment and their leaders are frequently arrested and prosecuted for peaceful protests. The authorities favor the Belarus Federation of Trade Unions, a pliant holdover entity from the communist era with which the government maintains close ties, and they pressure workers not to join independent unions -- which is easy enough to do because more than 90 percent of Belarusian workers have fixed-term contracts and the government, the major employer in Belarus, can end their employment for any reason when the contract expires. Collective bargaining does not exist, and workers who protest conditions are ignored by the court system.

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Burma: Burma's military junta systematically violates workers' rights and represses union activity. Independent trade unions, collective bargaining, and strikes are illegal, and labor activists are routinely arrested; several are serving decades-long prison terms. International observers have confirmed that the government and military still use forced labor, despite having banned the practice in 2000. The junta typically targets ethnic minorities for work on roads or military infrastructure projects. Children, even below the legal minimum employment age of 13, are subject to forced labor and military service. Above, a Burmese woman unloads bamboo at a lumber camp on the Irrawaddy River in February 2007.

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Cuba: Cuban peasants harvest tobacco in Pinar del Río in February 2008. Cuba's 1959 revolution obliterated labor rights in a society that once boasted a rich tradition of labor activism. Workers are not permitted to organize outside the state-controlled labor federation, and Cuban law does not grant workers the right to strike. Those who do join independent trade unions face beatings, loss of employment, confiscation of property, and imprisonment; a number of the current generation of political prisoners are locked up for workplace dissent. Because the state controls the labor market, it determines pay and working conditions for almost all workers. In the small private sector, foreign investors are required to contract workers through state employment agencies, which pocket up to 95 percent of their salaries. The minimum wage in 2008 was about 225 pesos -- about $9 -- per month. Workers are also required to keep an eye on their colleagues and report any "dissident" activity.

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Eritrea: The Eritrean regime uses the same tactics common among authoritarian states -- controlling unions, crushing strikes, suppressing collective bargaining -- but goes a step further by imposing forced labor and national service on its citizens. This harsh system effectively renders meaningless the country's legal protections for workers; citizens between ages 18 and 50 can be made to perform compulsory labor in any given year and are required to serve in the military or civilian work programs for an indefinite length of time determined by the government. Those who try to escape the system face imprisonment or heavy fines, as do their families. The government justifies these rules by arguing that the threat posed by Eritrea's neighbor and former ruler, Ethiopia, compels the country to remain in a perpetual state of readiness for war. Above, Eritrean women from the Red Sea village of Hirgigo walk home from work at a mangrove plantation in November 2007.

 

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Equatorial Guinea: Women catch fish in Ureka in November 2008. Dictator Teodoro Obiang Nguema makes little effort to conceal his contempt for trade unions. Several years ago, his government told the International Labor Organization that "there were no trade unions in the country because there was no tradition of trade unionism." Obiang -- reelected last November with 96 percent of the vote -- and his cronies have enriched themselves on oil revenues while ordinary citizens subsist on less than $1 a day. The government has refused to recognize several nascent labor organizations and has violently repressed protesting workers.

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Laos: Like other unreformed post-communist societies, Laos is a one-party state in which practically all significant institutions, including the Lao Federation of Trade Unions (LFTU), are controlled by the Lao People's Revolutionary Party. The LFTU's quasi-state function gives it a dubious dual role, controlling workers while it is supposedly defending them. The government, meanwhile, unilaterally sets compensation for government workers; for private-sector employees, collective bargaining, while called for under labor law, barely exists in reality. Above, a cobbler fixes shoes in Vientiane this March.

 

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Libya: A Libyan carpet maker works in Tripoli's old city this March. Civil society and freedom of association were among the first casualties of the 1969 coup that brought Muammar al-Qaddafi to power. Qaddafi's brand of socialist revolution has meant the elimination of unions that aren't controlled by the regime. The government sets minimum wage rates, work hours, night-shift rules, and other workplace laws. Collective bargaining barely exists, and strikes are illegal. Foreigners, constituting about one-third of the workforce, are victims of systematic discrimination.

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North Korea: Strict state control of work is, unsurprisingly, a basic fact of life in North Korea; it's written into the country's constitution. Work is obligatory, and failure to meet the state's workplace standards can result in a five-year stint in the gulag -- or, in some cases, a death sentence. The officially sanctioned trade union federation is given the responsibility of mobilizing and regimenting workers to meet production quotas and adhere to work discipline. Collective bargaining, needless to say, is not an option. In some enterprises, workers are paid episodically, receiving nothing for months on end. Above, women work at a construction site in Sinuiju in October 2006.

 

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Saudi Arabia: Miners work in Saudi Arabia's al-Amar Gold Mine, southwest of Riyadh, in May 2008. Saudi Arabia, which bans all political parties, also offers one of the world's most inhospitable environments for workers' movements. The labor code denies them the right to form unions, bargain with employers, or strike; anyone who does those things risks imprisonment or, if he or she is a foreigner, deportation. Migrant workers, mostly from South Asia, are treated with particular harshness and are paid much lower wages than are Saudi and Western workers. Their workplace conditions are often so deplorable that some actually try to get arrested and deported. Exploitation and mistreatment is rampant among the 1.5 million female domestic workers, many of whom are effectively forced laborers.

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Sudan: Sudan's 1992 Trade Union Act handed the government-controlled Sudan Workers' Trade Union Federation a monopoly over organization, or what passes for it under the regime of President Omar Hassan al-Bashir. Strikes require government approval, which is never granted. There is no collective bargaining. Activists who operate outside government-sanctioned channels face arrest. Workers in Sudan's oil industry are closely monitored by the intelligence service, and their movements are restricted. Forced labor is common, as is the conscription of men and boys into the country's armed forces; women and children are often forced into domestic servitude and sexual slavery. Above, a Sudanese truck driver works on his vehicle in Nyala, South Darfur, in June 2009.

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Syria: Construction workers lay bricks for an apartment building in Damascus in March 2007. Syrian labor groups are required to belong to the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), a nominally independent organization that is funded by the government and closely linked to the ruling Baath Party (its president is a senior party member). When several Syrian journalists came under threat from the government for reporting on sensitive subjects, the officially sanctioned Journalists' Union refused to support them. Strikes are legal but rare, and can result in jail terms for labor activists; in any case, the GFTU rarely calls them. Collective bargaining hardly exists.

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Turkmenistan: Since gaining independence in 1991, Turkmenistan has an unbroken record of rigged elections, suppression of the press, and marginalization of civil society. Private property has only recently been introduced, and corruption is rampant. Given this background, it is hardly surprising that the country keeps its trade unions safely under the state's thumb: The state-sanctioned Center for Professional Unions is led by a presidential appointee, and individual unions under its umbrella function as government appendages. On the bright side, the government did ban children from working in the cotton harvest in 2009. Above, police stand guard at the airport in Ashgabat in February 2007.

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Uzbekistan: A baker works with dough in Tashkent in December 2007. Although Uzbekistan's laws theoretically permit independent unions, in practice union activity is controlled by the brutal regime of Islam Karimov, the Soviet-era holdover who has run the country since 1990. The leaders of the state-run Board of the Trade Union Federation of Uzbekistan are Karimov appointees. There are no independent unions, and collective bargaining, though legal, seldom occurs. Although the Uzbek Constitution forbids forced labor, the authorities are said to compel university students, medical workers, schoolchildren, and government workers to assist in bringing in the annual cotton crop.

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A poultry trader sleeps in a hammock surrounded by ducks in her market stall in suburban Hanoi this April. In theory, working people enjoy a broad array of rights in Vietnam. The government has adopted a labor code that calls for union recognition and collective bargaining. In reality, however, workers enjoy few of them. To begin with, they cannot form unions of their own choosing, but rather must join a union affiliated with the Vietnam General Conference of Labor: a pliant, state-controlled entity that functions as a pass-through for the Communist Party. The legal hurdles to calling a strike are monumental. Virtually all recent protests were wildcat strikes, reflecting workers' mistrust of their union representatives. The government cynically allows these protests -- most against foreign-owned firms -- because they give workers an opportunity to demand higher wages without forcing the government to raise the minimum wage, which authorities fear would discourage foreign investment.

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