Address by Michalis Papanikolaou, UITBB General Secretary
12th UITBB Asia-Pacific Regional Meeting
Hanoi, Vietnam, 9-11 October 2019
Welcome to the UITBB’s 12th Asia-Pacific Regional Meeting. I would like to begin by expressing our warmest thanks and gratitude, on behalf of UITBB, to all the comrades in Vietnam, and especially our affiliated member, the Vietnam National Union of Building Workers and personally its president, comrade Nguyen Thi Thuy Le for a great event and organization, worthy of the importance of this meeting. I would like to express our warmest thanks for their hospitality and cordial welcome, which reflects the most important characteristic: our sense of international solidarity.
The presence of all these comrades from different regions and countries of the Asia-Pacific Region underlines this extremely strong international cooperation between us and it is a personal pleasure to see all of you here. I am looking forward to having important and fruitful discussions as well as exchange of experiences, which I am sure will lead to equally important decisions for the good of the workers and our regional organisations.
The fact that we meet here, in heroic Hanoi, a beacon of anti-imperialist struggle for all of us, makes us remember humbly the struggles of the Vietnamese comrades under the leadership of hero Ho Chi Minh, against the arch-imperialists, the USA, and the subsequent victory. On April 30, 1975, North Vietnam and the Viet Kong defeated the mightiest army in the world, unifying the country. We rejoice being here then, 45 years later, in this heroic land, and we take pride in having such strong relations with VNUBW and its leadership. You set the examples for all of us, comrades.
Our presence underlines our commitment to organize, coordinate and strengthen our actions around the world, and especially in the Asia-Pacific region, always keeping in mind our ultimate goal: to reaffirm our commitment to the improvement of the living and working conditions of the workers around the world and to express our firm belief that despite the difficulties the workers are facing, we will be victorious in the end in creating a new society and, in fact, a new world.
We are in the Asia-Pacific region, holding this regional meeting of organisations in the construction industry, knowing that in this corner of the planet, the imperialist interventions are in full swing. The main goal of these interventions is the hegemony of the various imperialist centres in different areas of the planet and the re-division of the world. The main tool utilized to achieve this goal is of course, war. The imperialists ruthlessly and openly intervene in the various countries to control them both their geostrategic importance, as well as their energy resources. The cost of these wars is paid by the workers and the socially vulnerable, women and children. As always, the millions of refugees and the weak are the one being sacrificed in the altar of an increasingly growing profit. We sternly condemn such practices and we support our comrades in these areas, fighting against such interventions. So, this is a very troubling period in the world in general, and the Asia-Pacific Region in particular, an especially unstable region with numerous issues. Inequalities around the world continue to exist and, unfortunately, on a daily basis, deepen the chasm between the few that represent the capital and the many who are the workers. This will be the case, so long as capitalism continues to be the dominant economical system in the world, because it is through the very nature of capitalism, that this great injustice is realised.
We of course cannot forget what is going on with climate change. Since the election of Trump as President of the USA, unfortunately we have seen the country pull out of the Paris Agreement and fighting climate change in general. Our ideology dictates that we should be in touch with mother nature and respect it, as many countries are now facing serious problems due to climate change. We see floods, huge forest fires, rising temperatures and the melting of ice which destroy our planet. If we do not act now, it will be too late. Let us not forget comrades, that we have not inherited this land from our ancestors; but we have borrowed it from our children.
So, it is amidst such difficult conditions, around the world, that we meet today, here. It is made clear then, that such regional meetings are extremely important as we are given the chance to organise internationally, to exchange experiences, to come to useful conclusions and to practically apply them, always within our capabilities. In doing that, we should always keep into mind our common goals: The organized struggles that exercise pressure on local governments and the creation of alliances with political parties, in order to participate in the making of decisions that affect our lives, as well as the utilization of international organisations for the benefit of the workers. We must always keep in mind that we are united by our ideological and class-based approach, that the struggles are common for all workers and that our ultimate goal is the improvement of the living and working conditions for the workers and their families. In these common struggles around the world, it is UITBB that guides and unites us. It is up to us, then, to educate the people, so that they can understand that imperialism is becoming more and more aggressive and it is imperative that we work together to fight off these attacks and improve the situation in the world and the Asia-Pacific region specifically. Towards this goal, it has to be made clear that for the workers that, despite everything they are being told, it is the bourgeois classes in all the countries which creates this situation, with their only aim being to maximise their profits.
Given these turbulent circumstances it is, therefore, our belief that this meeting comes at a crucial time for our international organization as well as for our members in the region. Such meetings, even though they are not the only way for us to react, are organised for well-known reasons and each one of them has its own importance. Some people might say that we repeat the same things over and over again. I am here to tell you, comrades, that this is not the case. First of all, for as long as the issues remain, we will be providing their solutions. For as long as imperialist aggression around the world victimizes workers for the maximization of profit, we will be putting forward our international solidarity and our view and struggle for a new society. For as long as immigrant workers are exploited in the world, we will be there by their side. For as long as vulnerable groups such as women and children are being taken advantage of, we will be meeting and discussing ways to react. Just by being here, comrades, just by discussing these issues and coming to concrete actions, we do not merely repeat ourselves; but we coordinate our movements and response in a synchronized manner against all injustices in the world.
Just like our previous meetings, this is a crucial time for our international organization as well as for our members in the region. It is imperative then that we organize to the highest extent to deal with the issues the workers are facing. It is therefore very important to keep organising meetings such as the present one, as we are given the opportunity to focus on:
– How can we deal with the exploitation of women in the construction industry, especially in the Asia-Pacific region?
The role of the women in the construction industry, especially in the Asia-Pacific region is an issue that preoccupies us on a daily basis. The reason is that women are doubly marginalised due to their gender and their class. Despite some positive developments, women are the main victim of domestic and public exploitation, violence, slave labour and impoverishment, as they are discriminated against in terms of the gender pay gap, social securities, retirement age, maternity leaves and equal access to jobs, etc. Women, along with young people, are the ones that are mostly unemployed, they are the main body of immigrants, and they have become essentially without any rights. This is even more true for the Asia-Pacific region, given its high population number and the number of developing economies. How can we defend the youth and women’s’ rights, and how can we attract more women in the construction industry though? It is a fact that female workers are hugely under-represented in construction. According to ILO, women do 4 times more unpaid care work than men in Asia and the Pacific. A large part of the jobs created in the region remain of poor quality: vulnerable employment affects almost half of all workers in Asia-Pacific, or more than 900 million men and women. What we can do is provide targeted apprenticeships and education to change this phenomenon. Projections indicate that 72 per cent of workers in Southern Asia, 46 per cent in South-Eastern Asia and the Pacific, and 31 per cent in Eastern Asia will be vulnerable employment by 2019, showing very little change from 2017.This is the case, even though women in Asia-Pacific are nearly half of the entire population. We must break down the gender stereotype of the male builder, if we want to see more women in the construction industry, and battle unemployment at the same time. How many parents see their daughters working in the construction industry? We need to change that. The construction industry must change drastically to become a job option for more women. We must push the employers not only to attract more women in their sites, but to create a safe environment for them to work, with respect towards their gender, free from harassment, with full health and safety measures, and of course, equal pay as the men. We must push for:
– Active promotion of the construction industry to include women
– Inclusive selection policies
– Higher number of apprentices for women
– Support in the workplace
– Zero tolerance of sexual harassment and bullying of women in the worksites
– Promotion of the advantages of having women on the job to employers
- How can we deal with the issue of migrant workers (immigrant labour), health and safety and precarious labour in the workplace?
What needs to be done, is to irrevocably and definitively change the situation which the unfair capitalist system has created at the expense of the workers. Such an ambitious goal will certainly be achieved when we manage, through our daily struggles, to change the mentality and the consciousness of the workers and their allies, who are, in every country, the majority of the people, so that they can take their fates into their own hands. This can only happen when a society is created which will no longer serve the interests of the few and the privileged, but those who, through their daily work, produce the wealth. We are all here then to work towards this goal: discuss, listen and share our experiences, specifically for and from this region and I am certain, comrades, that through the discussion and the decisions to be made in this very important meeting, we will all emerge wiser, stronger and more ready to continue our fight for the benefit of the workers.
On the issue of health and safety, according to estimations by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), there were approximately 60000 fatal accidents (17% of the total number of fatal accidents) since 2001, even though the construction sector only employs 5-10% of the total number of workers. Moreover, it is reported that there were more than 45000 non-fatal labour accidents. In other words, there is 1 fatal labour accident every 10 minutes and more than 1 non-fatal labour accident every second. This data regarding the loss of lives of hundreds of colleagues at work due to labour accidents as well as due to occupational diseases because of the lack of health and safety measures reveals a merciless war waged by the capital against the lives of the workers. Every year, the construction sector pays in dozens of lives, in hundreds of crippled people, the profits of construction companies, the profits of the housing developers. This is price which workers in this industry pays during this period of capitalist crisis. Especially on the asbestos issue, we should push for a total ban of the use of asbestos in all construction sites, which is a major health issue as exposure to it leads to work-related diseases such as asbestosis and mesothelioma. What is more, we believe that the health and safety measures must be considered a part of the total cost of construction and we will continue pushing towards that goal.
It is clear that, the more capital gains are multiplied, the less people return safely home, if they do so at all. This bleeding in human lives will continue and actually worsen, as long as there are parties and politics serving the interests of plutocracy. As long as capitalist profit determines the lives of the workers, as long as profit defines the wages, the employment relations, workers’ environment, education and health, this loss of lives will continue. These factors determine the politics of governments which alternate in power, the politics which are solely responsible for the crimes committed in the workplace and which encourage the unpunished employers to bleed out day after day the sector and the workers, in the name of more profit.
On the issue of migrant workers, our demand is clear: no worker’s life is to be sacrificed for more profit, and that all worksites implement proper health and safety measures. A few days ago, on October 3, we had WFTU’s International Day of Action, and its affiliated members organized many activities around the world, for social securities, workplace safety, support for migrant workers and other benefits for the people. We must stand with migrant labour and the workers who are being exploited in these areas, as we believe that:
– There is only one working class, irrespectively of colour, religion, language or origin.
– Migrant labour is not done by choice, but due to the deeper causes which are poverty, unemployment, bad living conditions, wars and imperialist interventions
– UITBB utters a clear, class-based position against xenophobia and racism, expressing the willingness to fight with its affiliated members for the rights of migrant workers in the construction industry and to further protect them
– New, special programs need to be created which will facilitate the smooth integration of migrant workers in the labour market, which can focus on language learning, information about their rights etc
– The trade unions in the countries of origin should work closer with those in the countries of destination, so that their efforts to protect and inform the workers can be better coordinated and successful.
– How can we face various issues the workers of the Asia-Pacific region are facing due to the developments in the region? Specifically, how the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 and the World Cup organisation in Qatar in 2022, and the role of the multinational construction companies in these countries, affect the construction sector and worsen the workers’ condition?
Indicatively here we can briefly mention (and the comrades from Japan can give us their insight on this), given the Olympic Games in Tokyo in 2020 and the World Cup organisation in Qatar in 2022, the role of the multinational construction companies in these countries, the exploitation of migrant workers, the health and safety issues etc. If we take a look at the list with the biggest multinational construction companies which are active in the region, we can see the magnitude of the exploitation of the workers as they are building the stadiums for the Olympic Games and the World Cup. These multinational companies, in full cooperation and harmony with the bourgeois governments, are exercising great pressure on the workers, thus worsening their living and working conditions. As UITBB, we organised demonstrations outside the offices of FIFA around the world, where we demanded that the stadiums in Qatar are not be built on workers’ blood. It is my belief that, as we are nearing the date for these major sport events, that we should step up our pressure to these companies, so that the rights of the workers are to be respected, and that everyone works with safety in the workplace. We need to strengthen our class-oriented struggle and enhance the class consciousness of these workers both on a local, and an international level, in order for them to be able to defend themselves against such a barbaric attack perpetrated by the capital.
– How can we implement UITBB and WFTU’s action plans, as well as all other decisions made regarding the Asia-Pacific Region and how to reaffirm UITBB’s presence in the area, so that we can limit the consequences these actions have on the workers living and working conditions, strengthen and coordinate our international actions, express solidarity to the workers of the region
Until today, we have held 11 regional, Asia-Pacific meetings:
- December 2001, Australia
- August 2004, India
- March 2005, Vietnam
- March 2006, Japan
- February 2007, Philippines
- April 2008, New Zealand
- March 2009, Indonesia
- September 2012, Bangladesh
- October 2014, Vietnam
- December 2016, Kerala, India
- April 2018, Kathmandu, Nepal
- October 2019, Hanoi Vietnam.
In the course of our discussion today, I propose we take a look at what has been achieved from these meetings. For instance, the previously mentioned example of our coordinated response outside FIFA’s offices around the world, is a good example of a synchronised demonstration which put pressure on those institutions which affect the lives of the workers. The same can be said for our demonstration outside the Australian embassy against the wrongful arrest of our comrade, John Lomax, who was freed. Such actions would not have been successful without meetings and coordinations like today.
I would also like to mention here that one of the ways in which we must move forward, comrades, is undeniably to faithfully implement WFTU’s action plans, as these are outlined in the Platform of Action (2016-2020) which was agreed upon during the 17th World Trade Union Congress in Durban, South Africa, as well as all other decisions made, as UITBB is one of the most significant international unions in WFTU. We side with WFTU with our hearts and minds, as it is through such actions that we will be able to unite the workers and strengthen the class orientation of the trade union movement around the world. We wholly believe and shall try to implement the Platform of Action by WFTU, in observing the days of actions, participate in calls of actions promoted by WFTU (such as the 3rd of October), follow closely its daily work and fighting in general for the unity of our class. What should unite all of us is our common antithesis to imperialism and our steadfastness in defending the poor man, the impoverished woman and the defenceless child: we stand with the common man, comrades. The power of the working class cannot be contained.
I am certain today we will succeed in organising better our work for the future, especially in this region, by deciding the stance the international, class-based trade union movement must assume in the region. The working class is the biggest class of every society and it is through their intellectual and manual labour that wealth is being produced. It is imperative to strengthen and coordinate our international actions and keep showing our fighting spirit by defend their demands. It is only through organised fight that the workers can take their lives into their own hands and change their destinies. It is only through organised struggles that the working class can stop the wars which is claiming the lives of their children for more capitalist profits, save our planet from destruction. It is through such organisation and meeting of the ranks of the class-oriented, international trade union movement that we can guide, enlighten and educate the workers, so that we can succeed in reaching the goals we have set.
The working class around the world needs to be ready both on a national and an international level to defend itself against the imperialist attacks. The working class has the same desires and the same enemies; therefore, it is through the international trade union movement that these wishes can be met, and these enemies can be fought off. The class orientation within the international trade union movement is the only thing that can mobilise the huge strength of the masses of the workers around the world, making them a formidable force to be reckoned with. If we manage to do so, if we manage to show our militant spirit, and our sense of international solidarity, there is nothing that can stop us comrades! The progressive war that is coming will be the one to be fought between the working class and the protectors of imperialism. And we will be the winners, comrades, as we have the right on our side!
I wish all of us a fruitful and productive meeting.
Long Live International Solidarity!
Long Live the Workers!
Long Live UITBB!