The struggle for human rights is indivisible from the fight for workers rights

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Activists and trade unionists who advocate for workers’ rights are by definition human rights defenders, and in many countries around the world that means they face immense risks.

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on Freedom of Assembly and Association Maina Kiai has defined any person or organization defending labour rights as a human rights defender, as articulated in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders.

That Declaration defines a human rights defender as “individuals, groups and associations contributing to the effective elimination of all violations of human rights and fundamental freedoms of peoples and individuals.”

Peace Brigades International (PBI), a global organization that works to protect human rights defenders at risk of harm and death, recognizes and affirms the critical role played by the labour movement in the advancement of human rights. 

Trade unionists killed and at-risk

PBI mourns the fact that 2,863 trade unionists and union members were killed in numerous countries around the world between 1986 and 2011.

The numbers are particularly grim in the countries where PBI has staff and volunteers accompany human rights defenders who advocate for fundamental rights.

In Colombia, 19 trade unionists were killed in 2017. In Honduras, 31 trade unionists were killed between 2009 and 2015. In 2016 alone, 20 trade union activists were killed or threatened for working to improve the lives of Honduran workers.

In 2013, the International Trade Union Confederation named Guatemala as the “most dangerous country in the world to be a trade unionist.” Between 2004 and 2017, 87 labour leaders were murdered in that country.

In Mexico, union activists work in a context of where their country is the second most dangerous place in the world to be a human rights defender. Of the 321 human rights defenders killed around the world in 2018, 48 of them lived in Mexico.


The Peace Brigades International-Colombia Project accompanies Asociación Nomadesc and its leader Berenice Celeita. She and members of the SintraEmcali union were targeted in 2004 in an assassination plot for their opposition to the privatization of Emcali, a state-owned company providing water, telecommunications, and electricity services in the city of Cali.

In an interview Celeita did with the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) last year, she said, “It’s very important to keep sending labour delegations to Colombia to visit us and see with your own eyes what is happening. I am convinced that I am alive today because of the actions of solidarity.”

PBI-Colombia has also accompanied the Foundation Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (FCSPP) since 1998. The FCSPP was formed by several trade unions, social movement groups, and well-known Colombians in the context of the widespread persecution of political opposition, including union, social movement, and student leaders.


The Peace Brigades International-Mexico Project accompanies the Pasta de Conchos Family Organization. That group advocates for improved working conditions for miners and the recovery of the bodies of 63 miners still buried at inside a coal mine years after the preventable disaster that claimed their lives. The Mexican government has now promised to repatriate those bodies, but the timeline for that is unclear.

PBI-Mexico also works closely with the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (ProDESC) and the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC), two groups that are part of the Focal Group on Business and Human Rights.

The Focal Group works to ensure that the United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are respected.

Those Guiding Principles state, “The responsibility of business enterprises to respect human rights refers to internationally recognized human rights [including the] fundamental rights set out in the International Labour Organization’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.”


The Peace Brigades International-Guatemala Project accompanied workers with the SITRALU (the Lunafil Thread Factory Workers Union) in the late 1980s. The workers at that factory located just outside of Guatemala City were told that they would have to work additional twelve-hour weekend shifts without overtime pay. During the strike that ensued, PBI-Guatemala provided protective accompaniment to the workers 24 hours a day from June 1987 until July 1988 when the strike was settled in favour of the union.

PBI-Guatemala has also previously accompanied an agriculture workers union (Movimiento de Trabajadores Campesinos). This past May Day, PBI-Guatemala highlighted a report by Codeca (the Campesino Development Committee) that found that 90 per cent of agricultural workers in Guatemala earn a monthly salary below what the minimum wage should provide.


After the end of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998, a wave of strikes took place in Indonesia, intensifying between 2011 and 2013, that pushed the government to implement a series of increases in the minimum wage as well as to improve health care provisions for workers.

But that success has led to a backlash from the state and capital including a certification scheme that declares certain economic units “national vital objects”, thus prohibiting industrial actions, and new regulations that push back on minimum wage increases.

The Peace Brigades International-Indonesia Project has collaborated with labour in the Jakarta area through a program in which human rights defenders participate in internships with local organizations, including unions.

One intern researched the situation of dock workers in Jayapura, while another did a research project on the right to organize for factory workers in Manokwari.

Peace Brigades International stands with the labour movement in the collective international human rights struggle for decent work, dignity, and respect for all workers.

Brent Patterson is Executive Director of Peace Brigades International-Canada, a political activist, and a writer.

Image: Peace Brigades International

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