Union dues

by Henry Farrell on April 26, 2005

Joseph Braude suggests (free registration or bugmenot required) that the Bush administration should support trade unions in the Arab world, as an intermediate step towards democratization.

In light of the fact that 15 of the 19 hijackers on September 11 were Saudis, it’s hard to fathom why the United States would even consider ignoring a secular movement in the Gulf with reasonable goals and thousands of members. … The Gulf unions, by contrast, according to the American labor official, desire logistical support and training from the United States–a sentiment you don’t hear very often from the traditional Arab labor headquarters in Damascus. To be sure, the Bahraini unions are–and the Kuwaiti unions are about to become–members of the Damascus-based establishment. All the same, their eagerness for American partnership is an opportunity to plant the seeds of meaningful political change. … What can the United States do for these unions in practical terms? In countries where there are no unions, the U.S. government should demand to know why–well before a free trade agreement is signed. Laws restricting public assembly–which exist in many Gulf states–ought to be eased in any country wishing to sign a free-trade agreement with the United States. But the right to assemble is only the first step in a long road that should lead to the rights to strike and collectively bargain–which either don’t exist or are severely constrained in all Gulf states. And it’s not just the U.S. government that has a role to play. In countries where unions are already active and feisty, like Bahrain and Kuwait, American labor unions should lend support to their counterparts by offering advice and tactical training.

Sounds like a good idea – but one which I suspect this administration won’t pursue (I’d be very happy to be proved wrong on this).

And this 2002 article by Richard Freeman and Joel Rogers fits very nicely with the Nathan Newman post on minority union representation that I blogged about last week.



abb1 04.26.05 at 2:16 pm

Is this a satirical post, in an absurdist kinda fashion?


Barry 04.26.05 at 2:32 pm

OK, I’ll Godwin it. The administration isn’t using labor unions for the same reason that Nazi Germany didn’t use Soviet jews to fight Stalin.


bob mcmanus 04.26.05 at 3:40 pm

what abb1 said. Henry, you might do a little research into the CPA relations with the trade unions and movements in Iraq.

A fine idea when we get a Democratic President and Congress. At least I hope so, for I am no longer as confident of the Democrats as I was.


Joseph Braude 04.26.05 at 5:27 pm

Henry (and abb1, Barry, and Bob),

Just as a follow-up on the unions piece, thought I might share the following, which was just published by the Saudi-based daily, Arab Times:

KUWAIT CITY: Nine Bangladeshis involved in Sunday’s mob attack on the Embassy of Bangladesh are still under police custody for questioning, embassy sources told the Arab Times Monday. About 800 Bangladeshi workers, who came in 14 buses and other vehicles, stormed the embassy Sunday, damaging properties and injuring 2 people. Ten cars, furniture and many computers at the embassy were destroyed in the violence, and some cash and documents were stolen. Ambassador of Bangladesh to Kuwait Nazrul Islam Khan in his statement to the Arab Times Monday said, “Things are returning to normal.”

He added: “The police issued orders for the suspension of consular services asking us not to move or disturb any documents or other things from the department until forensic investigations are over.” As it is a police order, the ambassador said, “We cannot tell when the services would resume. It depends upon how quickly the police carry out the investigations.” When asked how the embassy is planning to react to the issue of non-payment of workers’ salaries, the ambassador said, “We can’t take action against anybody, as the embassy is not empowered to do so. However, we are in touch with concerned government authorities, and we will do all that we can in our capacity.”

The ambassador added: “Al Nibras Cleaning Company has been calling us offering apologies for yesterday’s untoward incident. The company told the police that they had paid the workers’ salaries up to February.”Meanwhile, a parliamentary human rights panel has summoned two Kuwaiti ministers to discuss the unrest.”What happened yesterday (Sunday) is totally unacceptable. It distorts the image of Kuwait and constitutes a violation of human rights, especially non-payment of salaries for six months,” Islamist MP Waleed Al-Tabtabaei.Another 450 Asian cleaning workers at the country’s largest medical complex began an open strike on Sunday for not receiving their pay for several months from a private company on contract with the Health Ministry.

The summons went out to Minister of Social Affairs and Labour Faisal Al-Hajji, whose ministry is responsible for more than 900,000 foreign workers in the private sector, and acting Health Minister Sheikh Ahmed Fahd Al-Sabah. The meeting is scheduled to take place next Sunday. Tabtabaei said that hospital workers went on strike several times in the past for the same reason and yet the company’s contract was renewed despite opposition from ministry officials.

AP adds: The riot has thrown new focus on what human rights groups call the slave-like conditions many Asian workers endure across the affluent Gulf – salaries of just dollars a day, and often no payment of wages at all.After the rioters stormed their own country’s embassy on Sunday, ripping chandeliers from the ceiling and smashing tables and chairs, Bangladeshis ambassador here still expressed sympathy for their plight.The ambassador said complaints of delayed payments are one of the “major” issues his diplomats must deal with. He described the rioters as “poor people” and said he was sure “they were suffering.

“Hundreds of thousands of unskilled labourers in the oil-rich Gulf take low-paying jobs that locals won’t work, and they are often left at the mercy of employers in what can be slavelike conditions.The workers earn no more that KD 30 ($102; 78 euros) a month for cleaning streets and offices.Some 200,000 Bangladeshis work in Kuwait.Ahmed Bishara, a member of the Kuwaiti Society for Human Rights, described their situation here as a “human disaster.” He said there should be a minimum wage and a way to ensure the workers get paid every month.Last July, a harsh report by Human Rights Watch charged that Asian workers in Saudi Arabia, mostly maids, endured systematic abuse and discrimination.

Although the kingdom dismissed the report as exaggerated, officials acknowledged there were abuses against expatriate labourers and vowed to crack down.In the United Arab Emirates, disgruntled construction workers have demonstrated in the streets several times in the last two years – a rarity in the largely a political nation – demanding unpaid wages.In addition, hundreds of maids from Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and the Philippines escape to their embassies in the Gulf every year complaining mistreatment.Employers have been convicted of torturing and murdering housemaids.Some companies delay payments out of sheer “greed” while others are subcontractors who do not pay their workers until they themselves are paid, Bishara said.

When an AP reporter entered the embassy in the al-Surra suburb of Kuwait City shortly after the police intervened, the workers had either fled or were arrested by police who were called by the embassy. The entrance and the wall-to-wall carpeting on the two floors were littered with broken glass.Chairs and tables had been smashed, official papers scattered across the floor, and framed tourism posters yanked off the walls.The Interior Ministry spokesman told the official Kuwait News Agency (KUNA) that a number of individuals who “instigated the crowd” were in custody. “These people are really helpless,” activist Bishara said, and the society is “insensitive” about their plight.

– By Valiya S. Sajjad – Arab Times Staff


Ophelia Benson 04.26.05 at 7:39 pm

Yeah, what the first three said. You only suspect that this administration won’t pursue it? That’s one of the safer bets out there.


BadTux 04.27.05 at 1:06 am

The Bush Administration will care about the welfare of unseemly brown-colored untermenschen about the same time that Hitler comes back from the grave and converts to Judaism, or Michael “Savage” Weiner becomes a Unitarian and engages in reasoned cordial discourse.

– Badtux the Snarky Penguin


Anonymous 04.27.05 at 5:36 am

No, no… idealism is the greatest weapon possible against the Bush administration. This suggestion is completely reasonable from the point of view of their rationalizations yet it is also perfectly counter to every interest they serve and decades of history of American foreign policy. This makes it a uniquely potent weapon: It can be used to bring in powerful foreign speakers who can speak truthfully about the abuses of despotic regimes which allow these things to happen.
American progressives: Pursue your whitehouse about the human rights issues and union support proposal mentioned here. This idea is a logical step to democratization of the mideast. Hammer their lies and CPA history with it and don’t stop!


Jay C 04.27.05 at 8:23 pm

Sorry, when it comes to the current Administration, I would have to agree with the first posters (and the Penguin). Given the Republicans’ general attitudes towards unions and the whole notion of “organized labor” in the US, it’s more than a little weird to expect them to suddenly start pushing for the union label for low-level workers in the Middle East – or anyone, for that matter – especially if there is an “Arab labor headquarters” in Damascus (didn’t know that: see what you learn thru blogs?) – seat of a junior-partner in the Bushies’ “Axis of Evil”.
Nice idea: just don’t think it will happen. More importantly, though, is why no American labor group seems to have picked up on this as an issue.


Jalil uddian 04.29.05 at 12:00 pm

Hundreds thousands of laborers, worker in the oil-rich Gulf take low-paying jobs and they are often left at the mercy of employers in what can call slaves.Two million Asian maids are subjected to physical abuse, beating, sexual harassment, rape in Gulf states.
though is why no human rights groups up seems to have picked up on this as an issue.???

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