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Proletarian issue 59 (April 2014)
Industry matters around the world: Migrant workers in Qatar face slavery and death
Union-busting in the States

As the privatisation of Royal Mail slipped through last year with barely a murmur from the CWU and the rest of the trade-union movement, a glimpse into the probable future of Britain’s postal services is afforded by developments in the USA.

The management of USPS, the US postal service (which remarkably enough has yet to be officially privatised), has recently tried to cut costs by opening up postal centres in branches of Staples around the country. This shadow postal network is not staffed by unionised postal workers; instead, non-union, low-wage shop workers have been drafted in to handle the mail.

This transparent attempt to prepare for full-scale privatisation is meeting with some union and community resistance, however. Fernando Figueroa of the Jackson Progressive Coalition warned that this “is part of a move to shift work in this country to low paid part-time employees ... Either the mail centres employ postal workers or we have to organise all Staples employees into a union of their own. The unions need to build towards a strike or their jobs are going to be privatised.”

Union-busting is meanwhile wiping out workers’ rights elsewhere in the US. In Chattanooga, Tennessee, workers at the VW plant recently voted 712 to 626 against UAW (United Auto Workers) representation.

This suicidal defeat for organised labour was assisted by the threat that VW, having already sucked up $577bn in state and local sweeteners, might choose to build its planned seven-seater ‘CrossBlue’ SUV in Mexico rather than Chattanooga if the vote went the ‘wrong’ way.

With unemployment stuck at 8 percent, low wages and the fifth-lowest median household income in the country, such a threat carries weight.

It is no accident that Tennessee was one of the places worst hit by the subprime mortgage debacle. In 2003, the Tennessee Consumer Finance Association (TCFA) blithely estimated that subprime mortgage credit provided $1.3bn dollars in spending power in 2001 alone.

The president of TCFA crowed that subprime mortgages were “making a valuable contribution to the recession-hit state economy while providing fair and reasonably-priced mortgage credit for individuals who might well be denied credit elsewhere”, adding that the “the industry plays an important economic and social role that we cannot risk by imposing the type of damaging regulation which has had such disastrous effects in other states”.

As the impoverished and bullied workers of Tennessee count the cost of this ‘valuable contribution to the recession-hit state economy’, organised labour must raise its political sights beyond scrabbling for the next least-worst redundancy package and start to engage in earnest with the capitalist enemy.

Union busting in Seoul

Meanwhile, in south Korea, union busting drops even the ‘democratic’ mask maintained in Tennessee.

Government workers have seen their union refused registration, whilst teachers have had their union’s existing registration annulled. Police have raided union offices and there are currently 11 trade-union leaders in jail.

Unions and social movements courageously marked the first anniversary of President Park Geun Hye’s dictatorial reign on 25 February with a ‘people’s strike’, mobilised behind the slogan “After one year under Park’s government, we cannot stand it anymore!”

Such mobilisations are not to be confused with the lame ‘days of action’ grudgingly organised by our TUC. On 9 January, for example, more than 20,000 members of the south Korean trade-union confederation (KCTU) staged one of a series of anti-government actions in Seoul and elsewhere.

The chair of KCTU, warning that workers will become permanent slaves unless they fight against the present government, which tramples down their right to existence, called for dynamic actions to punish the present government keen to sell public sectors to the plutocrats.

Migrant workers in Qatar face slavery and death

What would be the media response were it to be revealed that over 900 migrant workers had been killed in the course of building the Olympic village in Beijing or the Winter Olympics stadia in Sochi? The shock-horror headlines would break all records for outraged hyperbole.

Yet when it comes to light that 500 Indian and 400 Nepalese building workers have died in Qatar in the run-up to the 2022 World Cup, the story raises little more than a disapproving ripple in the Guardian.

After all, Qatar is a comprador statelet (little more than a family-run gas field with a flag and a seat at the UN) and a key supporter of the terrorist gangs which have been plaguing Syria for the past three years on behalf of imperialism. As such, the country is a valuable lackey of the West and well deserving of a visit from Prince Charles (our very own feudal remnant) after HRH had concluded his sword-dancing lesson in Riyadh.

News about the cumulative massacre of Asian workers came out in two bursts. First, official sources in Doha accessed by the Pravasi Nepali Co-ordination Committee revealed that over 400 Nepalese migrant workers have died on Qatar’s building sites as the emirate gets ready to host the World Cup.

Then the Indian embassy in Doha revealed that 237 Indians working in Qatar had died in 2012 and 241 in 2013. A further 24 had already died since the New Year.

Many of the migrant workers are effectively imported as slave labour, as in a representative case reported by the Observer. “Noka Bir Moktan, a 23-year-old ... was said to have died of ‘sudden cardiac arrest’ in October 2013, although photos of his corpse show he suffered a collapsed chest, apparently consistent with ill-treatment.

Moktan’s family come from a poor village in Nepal’s remote hill district of Ilam. His elderly father borrowed 175,000 rupees (about £1,000) to pay for his passage and agency fees to Qatar, in the hope that he would be able to send some of his earnings home. The money was borrowed from a loan shark and was supposed to be reimbursed by Moktan’s Qatari employer, but this did not happen.

The family now fear that the loan shark will demand that Moktan’s two sisters, aged 14 and 16, who were collateral for the loan, be sent to work in brothels in Mumbai to pay off the debt.” (16 February 2014)
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