By Vahid Yucesoy
November 14, 2019
As part of its work supporting workers around the world, one of Belgium’s biggest trade unions has voiced support for Iranian workers, and encouraged them to forge closer links with international groups for greater practical support.
In particular, Rafael Lamas, the director of international and European relations for the General Federation of Belgian Labour, said Iranian workers at the Haft-Tappeh sugarcane factory could call on the support of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF), and Tehran’s bus drivers could align themselves with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). Lamas also praised the wider work of civil society in Iran, including the very active campaign to bring an end to the ban on women fans being allowed into football stadiums.
La Fédération générale du travail de Belgique (FGTB), the General Federation of Belgian Labour, is the second biggest trade union in Belgium, with more than 1.5 million members across the country. Defending the interests of Belgium’s diverse regions — the country is comprised of Flanders (the Flemish region), Wallonia (the Walloon region) and the capital (Brussels) — the FGTB advocates for the rights of workers across the country. Established in 1945, the federation is a member of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and subscribes to a socialist ideology. IranWire talked to Rafael Lamas, the director of international and European relations for the FGTB, about the influential trade union and its domestic and international activities.
Negotiation, Opposition, and Proposition: Three Key Elements of FGTB’s Success
Although the FGTB was officially established in 1945 immediately after the Second World War, it began its work long before 1945 — in fact, it dates back to the 19th century. “As FGTB, we were born from a socialist workers’ movement in 1898 with the Commission syndicale (Unionist Commission),” Lamas told IranWire. “After the Second World War, the unions decided to coalesce into one confederation. They were primarily of socialist background. We also had a communist minority amongst them. Christian Democrats were also supposed to take part in this movement. However, they later decided to remain separate.”
Unions have played an important role in the day-to-day lives of Belgium’s socio-political life because of what Lamas describes as its “healthy democracy.” In addition to this, Lamas highlights a number of other “institutional factors” that contribute to the FGTB’s durability as a trade unions federation.“The FGTB is recognized as an important actor when it comes to issues on wage payments and unemployment benefits,” he said. More importantly, the FGTB has worked to advocate “1) a trade union movement based on negotiations (i.e. we always try to negotiate); 2) a trade union movement based on opposition (resorting to campaigns when it is necessary); 3) a trade union movement based on making propositions (we form the countervailing power, but we always come up with new propositions for a healthy debate. This involves talking to either the government or the employers).”
Applying Union Pressure in the Belgian Context
“A union should always act as a pole of countervailing power,” Lamas said. “We are there to make propositions or to show our opposition in a bid to influence governments as much as possible. Belgium is a small country, but it is a federal state so there are different levels of power in this country.”
Handling disputes through negotiations first has been the guiding principle of the FGTB. Prior to the recent elections in May 2019, Flemish nationalists came to power in 2015, ushering in a more right-leaning, conservative government— a novelty for Belgium since it had been long accustomed to coalition governments with either center-left or center-right political coalitions. “One of the first policies that this right-wing government wanted to adopt was pension reform that was not in favor of pensioners,” said Lamas. “One of the very first things that we at the FGTB did was to oppose this reform.”
Lamas points to FGTB’s work with other unions to exert pressure on the government to repeal the proposed pension reform. “We succeeded in preventing the government from changing the existing pension system,” he said. “The proposed reforms would have proven harmful to workers.” This was a marked success for the FGTB and proof of its effective work with other unions.
Charting the Challenging Waters of Austerity
Given the prevalence of austerity measures being implemented by many governments, Lamas stresses that “workers worldwide face the same challenge everywhere in the world, at different levels. In a lot of places in the world, we are witnessing an increase in the number of conservative governments; in certain places, a rise of authoritarianism and right-wing populism. These types of governments have often proven problematic when it comes to respecting workers’ rights and unions.”
Often, the austerity measures governments adopt have a deleterious impact on income inequalities. “As we are now celebrating the 75th anniversary of the social security system in Belgium, one of the biggest fights we are involved in at the moment is the maintenance of this system,” Lamas said. “Recent changes made to the social security system in the country have deteriorated the levels of inequality in this country. In other words, less money is now being invested in social security than before.”
To remedy the situation, the FGTB put forth recommendations. “We suggested that funds to be allocated to social security should increase for all types of income; i.e., not only incomes earned from work, but also incomes from capital,” Lamas said.
A Tradition of International Solidarity
“By its nature, the FGTB has always been a federation with an internationalist outlook,” Lamas pointed out. In fact, he said, one cannot disentangle the workers’ movement from the international dimension of solidarity. “From the very outset of the 20th century, we have always participated in the organization of international union movements. We have also been amongst the founding members of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU).
In 2006, The ICFTU was formally dissolved and merged with the World Confederation of Labour (WCL) to form the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC). The FGTB was one of its founding members.
When asked about why the FGTB strives for such international activism, Lamas said, “What is good at the national level, i.e., solidarity amongst workers, is also good at a European and international level. Solidarity for us is not limited to the idea of giving speeches; it actually involves concrete international actions.”
One concrete example is the FGTB’s recent support for workers in Hong Kong. “The ITUC held a day of action worldwide in support of Hong Kong. On the same day, we went to meet the Hong Kong authorities in their offices. Here in Brussels, where we had a chance to meet them, we handed them a declaration and expressed our profound concerns with regards to the situation in Hong Kong. Of course, it may not necessarily change the situation on the ground, but they help keep such issues in the spotlight.”
The FGTB has also expressed international solidarity regarding the situation in Chile. “We find [the authorities’ violence towards demonstrators in Chile] to be very worrisome, ” Lamas said. “Seeing soldiers in the streets of Santiago reminded us of the painful memories [of the past in Chile] … We sent a message of solidarity to trade unions in Chile.”
Lamas also expressed active and practical union support for people in danger. “Sometimes trade unionists in extremely authoritarian contexts have to leave their countries of origin. We welcome them here.”
The FGTB’s participaton in joint acts of international solidarity have led to success stories in authoritarian settings. Unfortunately, however, the result of these types of actions are not always long-lasting. One example is the plight of a trade union leader in Kazakhstan, Erlan Baltabay. “When the Kazakh trade union leader [Baltabay] was first imprisoned, we passionately campaigned for his release. He was finally released, which made us very happy. However, we have just found out that he has been jailed again. We will press for his release again.”
Solidarity with Iranian Trade Unionists
Iran is indubitably one of the authoritarian contexts where union activists have faced harsh conditions. On September 7, a judge sentenced seven labor activists to a total of 110 years in prison.
The FTGB told IranWire it follows developments in Iran very closely, thanks to its links to different international unions, including those working for workers in Iran. “We certainly have a message of solidarity for Iranian union activists and we fully support their cause. There are sector-based unions, called the Global Union Federation (GUF). Certain Iranian unions are also members. For example, the Bus Company of Tehran, also called Sharekat-e Vahed, is a member of the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF). We are also very close to the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Associations (IUF). The IUF very closely follows the strike of Haft-Tapeh sugar factory workers in Iran and their union. So FGTB, thanks to its membership to these international sector-based unions, follows the plight of Iranian workers very closely. Our members in the concerned sectors are also monitoring developments in Iran.”
The ITUC has also expressed concerns at an international level about the arrest of union activists in Iran, prompting member federations including the FGTB to take a position on the ongoing situation. “Since we are a member of the ITUC, we were made aware of the plight of seven union activists being sentenced to harsh prison sentences and we participated in the ITUC’s call for action to support Iranian workers. Unfortunately, we know that this is not the first time Iran has imprisoned union activists. Often times, they are arrested again after their release. We find this very worrisome and we actively participate in every solidarity campaign to exert pressure on the Iranian authorities to ask for their release”.
On an international level, the unilateral economic sanctions imposed by the United States have also worsened the conditions for many workers in Iran. Lamas was quick to point out the serious problems the sanctions pose. “Just like many people who observe Iran, we realize that these sanctions have unfortunately strengthened the conservative elements within the Islamic Republic and have put an end to the little possibility of some very limited evolution of the regime. We try to press for an end to these sanctions. I know that our efforts for Iran are more symbolic, but we have been doing our best to support Iranian workers from here. Although we are a federation of unions, we are also interested in other developments in Iran. For example, the recent lifting of the ban on women’s entry to stadiums. This is a testimony to the fact that we support civil society in Iran for making such initiatives possible.”