Southeast Asian teachers who face violations of their trade union rights now have a new line of defence and a new source of solidarity. The EI Trade Union Rights Network (TURN) is really getting off the ground since representatives from member organisations in Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand have agreed to set up an electronic network to share information and support one another. The TURN e-group was set up at a sub-regional conference in Manila, Philippines.
The TURN project, which is financially supported by the ILO ACTRAV and the Friederich Ebert Foundation (FES), proposes to equip teacher trade unionists with the tools and skills to promote and defend trade union rights, influence public policy, improve the legal frameworks within which they operate, and build solidarity networks to make a difference in their respective countries. Thirteen unions from five countries are participating in the TURN project. They are: CITA from Cambodia; PGRI and FESDIKARI from Indonesia; MAE, NUTP, and STU-Sarawak from Malaysia; NATOW, ACT, TOPPS, and FFW from Philippines; and NTTU and PSTAT from Thailand. In these countries, where the trade union movement is fragmented and where most government initiatives are business-driven, teacher organisations have concentrated their efforts on freedom of association by reaching out to potential members. Teacher activists at the Manila conference shared news of their achievements: The giant Indonesian union PGRI mobilised among its 1.8 million members and ran a massive campaign to uphold the Constitutional requirement that 20% of the national and local budgets be spent on education. With support from the media and civil society, PGRI members won. Their success was inspirational for the Thai unionists, who acknowledged that it is not in the Thai culture to demand dignity and respect and challenge the government. In Cambodia, the independent teacher association CITA operates under constant surveillance and harassment from the authorities. Nonetheless, it was able to recruit more than 8,000 new members in one year. The union also won a 20% wage increase for teachers. In the Philippines as well, the unions have achieved major wage increases for teachers. The teacher unionists in Malaysia were much envied because of their success in creating an efficient check off system, which guarantees regular income to the teacher organisations. TURN was launched in 2008 and the first year was devoted to training representatives of the 13 member organisations in international labour standards, supervisory mechanisms, international complaint procedures, information and awareness raising. Participants will replicate similar training in their unions to build a cohort of skilled trade union rights advocates. The next step is the networking. All the teacher organisations will share information, experience and good practice, and also provide coordinated support through the electronic network. With improved collection of data, more violations will be reported, thus increasing the pressure unions can bring to bear on governments to implement, both in law and in practice, the full rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. In future, the TURN model could be developed in other parts of the world to empower member organisations to assert their trade union rights, speak out and promote democracy, good governance and social justice. By Dominique Marlet.