International Union Rights: Focus on Indigenous Peoples and Trade Unions

● Thirty Years of ILO C169
● Labour and Decolonisation in New Caledonia and Western Sahara
● Is US labour law at odds with tribal sovereignty?

The Indigenous and Tribal Peoples Convention, 1989 (C169) remains the pinnacle achievement of the trade union movement’s legacy of solidarity with indigenous and tribal peoples. Its contribution to the creation of internationally recognised-rights of indigenous peoples reaches a milestone in 2019, marking thirty years since its adoption. As related here – by, among others, one of the key figures in the Convention’s drafting and adoption – the ILO has since its foundation had a leading role in promoting the voices of indigenous peoples on the international level, not only in terms of welfare and protection, but by advancing indigenous peoples’ status as active agents in the foundation and realisation of their collective rights to self-determination. C169 has had a profound impact on the international framing of those rights and on their institutionalisation through constitutional reform efforts in many signatory states.

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Uptake on ratification of C169 has however been poor (see p.17) – perhaps precisely because it extends to indigenous and tribal peoples rights which are akin to (but still short of) sovereignty. Fears of secessionist movements and fragmentation have haunted international discourse in this area – all the more so with respect to states whose territorial borders are a fragile legacy, negotiated for and imposed by competing European imperial powers.

Significant work on both the international and national levels remains to be done. Even in those countries that have ratified C169, its implementation is far from complete. In Colombia, on 22 October 2018, José Domingo Ulcué Collazos, an indigenous teacher and member of the union FECODE (Federación Colombiana de Educadores) was executed. He worked in the Munchique Los Tigres indigenous reserve. His murder is the latest in a catalogue of violent and deadly attacks on civil society and community leaders in Colombia in recent years; teachers, trade unionists and indigenous leaders have been particularly targeted.

Such acts of lethal violence, exploitation and marginalisation, discrimination and racism directed at indigenous peoples – their cultures, communities and territories – are well documented across the world. The roots of this violence lie in centuries long processes of colonisation, the rapacious demands of industrial capitalism for access to natural resources, as well as in a narrow Eurocentric identity politics which – since at least the time of John Locke – has inextricably linked concepts of land and labour to citizenship and nation-building. Presaged in Locke’s concept of individual property rights derived from one’s toil on the land is an ideology which ultimately equates productivity with ownership and virtue. This paved the way not only for the international doctrine of ‘terra nullius’ – furnishing an era of genocidal land dispossession with its foremost legal euphemism – but also for the divisive labour practices that have historically underpinned settler colonialism. The fact that even organised workers of the ‘metropole’ shared in the systematic racism of the ‘colony’ remains an uncomfortable historical fact for some in the labour movement today, in many parts of the world. The example included here of Canada – where some Indigenous people still harbour suspicions towards unions as colonial institutions – is certainly not unique.

For some, settler colonialism never ended. For the Kanak and Saharawi peoples, self-determination is a precursor of social justice, but the labour movement may still serve as a vital vehicle for its achievement. The motto of the Kanak trade union – Factories, Tribes, Same Struggle – is a reminder that indigenous peoples and the labour movement are not necessarily distinct demographics. Indigenous peoples have long participated actively both in labour markets, and in the labour movement.

Ultimately however, these complex issues raise unique challenges. In the US, tribal sovereignty has lately (and controversially) been invoked to justify the exclusion of tribal enterprises from the coverage of federal laws protecting workers’ trade union rights. To better understand what is at stake for Native Americans, we invited two leading lawyers to present their case.

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IUR journal brings together the latest news, views and information on trade union rights worldwide, covering key issues from varied perspectives. IUR has an accessible format that is appreciated around the world by an audience of trade unionists, legal practitioners and academics. The journal is available in print and digital formats, with an online archive dating back to 1993.

Previous editions:

IUR 224 ChinaIUR 221 South KoreaIUR 212 Minimum WageIUR 223 Right to Strike

The Adoption of Convention 169: Unions and Indigenous Peoples’ Involvement

Link to reportThe ILO’s Quest for Social Justice: Convention 169 and Peace Building

Link to reportLitigating Indigenous Peoples’ Rights in Africa:
The Impact of Convention 169

Labour and the Kanak People’s
Struggle for Sovereignty

Silencing the Saharawi: Legal Fiction
and Real Plunder in Africa’s Last Colony

ICTUR in Action: Interventions
Bangladesh, China, India, Iran, Kazakhstan, Philippines, South Africa, Turkey, Zimbabwe

Link to reportA Pending Task: Addressing Inequality in Education

Foreign Investment and Modern Slavery in Paraguay

Link to reportYesterday, Today and Tomorrow: Indigenous Peoples and Unions in Canada

Native Americans
Tribal Sovereignty and Unions

ICTUR in Action: Interventions
Argentina, China, Colombia, eSwatini, Iran, Italy, Philippines, Spain, UK, Zimbabwe

Worldwide news

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The International Centre for Trade Union Rights

Established in 1987, ICTUR is a non-profit organisation
based in London, promoting international trade
union rights through research and advocacy services.
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