Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights – Syria
Syrian trade unions are required to belong to the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), a nominally independent organisation that is funded by the government and closely linked to the ruling party. Collective bargaining hardly exists, and it is prohibitively difficult to call a lawful strike. All trade union rights have been abolished in the country. The labour law is vague and allows employers to sack workers at will.
Protests, erupting in the spring were violently put down throughout the year with an estimated 5,000 deaths and 10,000 arrests at end of year. Authorities attempted to stem protests through the increasing use of police and paramilitary force, arrests, trials and the imprisonment of political and human rights activists.
Sporadic protests first began on 26 January with mass demonstrations erupting in March. The situation quickly developed into a national uprising, with protesters demanding the government of President Bashar al-Assad and the ruling Ba’athist Party step down. The protests were inspired by the wave of similar movements in neighbouring countries calling for greater political freedom and an end to autocracy but quickly became one of the strongest civil uprisings in the region.
The repressive tactics employed by government forces has been particularly fierce with thousands reported dead as a result of fighting. In addition, essential services, including basic food deliveries, have been cut off from cities seen as resisting the government. Military tanks have besieged scores of cities. Reports of military personnel refusing to fire at unarmed protestors being executed continue to emerge.
Several mass graves were found throughout the year. According to the UN, since the beginning of the uprising, more than 5,000 people, primarily protesters, have been killed in total, many more injured, and thousands imprisoned. Over 300 children have been killed by security forces as well and 600 detainees have died under torture. Between the start of the protests in March and mid-November, some 10,000 people were believed to have been detained by the regime, many of them subjected to torture.
2011 saw a major crackdown on media as the government attempted to stifle reporting on the widespread protest movement. At least 10 known foreign and local reporters were arrested, while access was severely restricted for journalists trying to report from the country. Syrian security forces clamped down on doctors, hospitals and private clinics suspected of treating people wounded in protest rallies. Medics are required to immediately notify security services of the arrival of a wounded person, regardless of the severity of his injuries, invariably leading to the patient’s arrest. Reports have emerged of injured protestors being beaten and arrested while in hospital. Some 250 doctors and pharmacists are believed to have been arrested in the first six months of the protest movement.
The state of emergency that has been in place since 1963, with heavy restrictions on civil and political rights and trade unions under the full control of the regime was finally lifted in April 2011 in response to protestor’s demands. However, at the end of 2011, the situation in Syria was seen as increasingly one of civil war. In November, the Arab League placed unprecedented sanctions on Syria.
It is estimated that since the protests began, the country’s gross domestic product has shrunk by around 20% while oil and tourism revenues have almost disappeared. Workers are facing rising prices and lower salaries.
One in eight children in Syria are reportedly in the labour market while child labour is the main source of sustenance among refugees in Syria, who are not legally entitled to work. Some 45% of workers are in the informal sector while a large proportion of Syria’s population lives below the poverty line.
Trade union rights in law
There is little room for trade union activity in Syria despite the enactment of a new Labour Code in April 2010. The Constitution provides for freedom of association, but workers may not establish unions independent of the government. In addition, all workers’ organisations must belong to the General Federation of Trade Unions (GFTU), which is strictly controlled by the ruling party. The GFTU also controls most aspects of union activities; it determines which sectors or occupations can have a union, and sets the conditions and procedures for the use of trade union funds. It also has the power to disband the executive committee of any union. Foreign workers may join the union of their profession but they may not be elected to trade union office.
The right to collective bargaining is recognised in the 2010 Labour Code, however the Ministry of Social Affairs and Labour has vast powers to object to and refuse the registration of concluded collective agreements. Furthermore, while strikes are not prohibited, the right to strike is severely restricted by the threat of punishment and fines. Strikes involving more than 20 workers in certain sectors, including transport and telecommunications, are punishable by fines and even prison sentences. The same applies to any strike action which takes place on public highways or in public places, or that involves the occupation of premises. Civil servants who disrupt the operation of public services risk losing their civil rights. Finally, forced labour can be imposed on anyone who causes “prejudice to the general production plan”.
Collective bargaining not practised: Collective bargaining rights are not practised in any meaningful way, though there is some evidence that union representatives participate with employers’ representatives and the supervising Ministry in the establishment of minimum wages, hours and conditions of employment.
Growing numbers of strikes met with violence:
Until 2011, workers generally did not dare exercise the right to strike, given the potential heavy penalties and repression of any activity deemed to be critical of the government. Fear of reprisals meant response to the calls for general strikes during the year was mixed, with a greater turnout in cities considered to be pro-democracy strongholds than in the capital Damascus.
However 2011 was marked by a series of general strikes, which started in March, and which formed a major part of the protests against the repression of fundamental rights and the lack of decent jobs and prospects for the future. Opposition protestors called nationwide general strikes for 18 May, 23 June and 11 December. In addition, there were general strikes in the city of Hama between 3 and 5 June and in the cities of Homs and Hama on 7 July. The majority of these strikes, calling for an end to repression were met with violence, injury and often killings.
Official Trade union rejects protests: The official government-controlled trade union centre (GFTU) has not been involved in the recent strikes but has followed the official government line in describing the reform movement as a conspiracy. The GFTU rejects the suggestion that the political leadership imposes control over the organisation and states that workers at all levels elect their leadership freely and will vote out of office those who do not adequately represent their interests. It also states that the reason for the existence of a single trade union system is that workers themselves reject union diversity because it harms their unity and their interests. The government has used precisely the same argument in its reports to the ILO.
Migrant domestic workers at risk: Migrant worker agencies are closely regulated. There are some 17,000 foreign domestic workers in Syria. The law sets out requirements such as an adequate salary and proper method of payment, social security coverage, suitable working conditions, annual leave, clothing, food, medicine, standard working contracts and other entitlements and benefits. In addition it puts the responsibility for providing a safe working environment onto the agency. However illegal recruiters still hire migrants, primarily Filipinos, as domestic staff. At the end of the year, many migrants were awaiting repatriation from the conflict in Syria, a process reportedly made more problematic by the refusal of the government to accept that the situation in Syria is anything but ‘normal’.