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Thursday 22 June Reports



Conference humbled by Thabitha's bravery

By Jane Aitchison

ThabithaThabitha Khumalo, from Zimbabwe Congress of Trade Unions told Conference, "I am absolutely humbled to be here."

It was Conference that was humbled listening to this brave and dignified woman, who has continued her fight for human rights in Zimbabwe in spite of the consequences - she's been arrested frequently, suffered torture, kidnap, gang rape and beatings.

And by being here today and reporting the truth about the human rights atrocities in her country, she risks being arrested on her return home.

Thabitha spoke of the misery of people living in "abject, dehumanising poverty". "The globalised world has taken up the Africa agenda and the eradication of poverty," she said.

"But is poverty the problem of Africa? To me the problem is undemocratic distribution, corruption and mismanagement."

The effects of Robert Mugabe's regime included 80% unemployment and 1,200% inflation, repression and widespread suppression of civil rights, and a decline in social and health services.

"There are 3 million Zimbabweans in Zimbabwe and 1 million Zimbabweans in the UK whether legal or illegal. No person in their normal mind can sell their house, resign from their job and pay 150 million Zimbabwean dollars for a one way ticket."

As a result Zimbabwe is being deskilled as many of their nurses, doctors, engineers end up in the UK, where most are not getting the chance to use their skills and qualifications.

On the political situation in Zimbabwe, Thabitha said it was never black and white and it was a question of a dictator trying to hold on to power at whatever price -. Zimbabwe was once known as the Jewel of Africa, and Mugabe's taken that jewel and put it in his pocket.

She talked about the difficulties in organising the union - to organise a conference, they need to apply for police permission and without fail they say no. No more than three people can gather at a time - 48 hours incarceration and a court appearance. Independent media is forbidden from the country. The union newsletter could mean another 48 hours in jail. It's forbidden to go outside of the country and criticise the country and the authorities can seize your passport.

A new law about to be introduced will give the authorities the power to intercept cell phones, landline, e-mails and faxes.

"HIV and aids are ravaging Zimbabwe. People are dying of aids, they cannot afford drugs. People are dying from curable illnesses like malaria. The average life expectancy of women in Zimbabwe is 34 - in the 21st Century young women finish university and then we bury them.."

Thabitha, a diabetic can't afford insulin and controls her condition as well as she can through diet. One packet of sanitary towels or tampons costs a third of a woman's weekly wage - and most women will need three - "We don't eat refined food - we bleed. Women are forced to use whatever's available - old pieces of cloth, newspaper or tree bark and are subject to terrible infections. Thabitha's speech closed to a standing ovation, with a conference moved to tears and in total admiration of the strength, courage and dignity of this woman.

Dignity Period is the Campaign to bring back these Zimbwean women's health and dignity through the provision of sanitary protection. Click here for how you can donate.


West Bank occupation must end, says Conference

Conference pledged to continue its campaign for an immediate end to the Israeli occupation of the West Bank and for an independent Palestine state alongside a secure Israel.

It pledged to continue to support projects with the Palestine General Federation of Trade Unions (PGFTU).

And significantly UNISON will put together a plan to help dialogue between the PGFTU and the Israeli Histadrut union federation to create a wider civil society movement campaignng for peace and economic justice.

In a key contribution, Scotland's Mike Kirby told Conference, "One of Tony Blair's reasons for engagement in Iraq was to mitigate the worst excesses of US intervention and to remind them that Palestine is integral to any plan for peace in the region.

Britain would be an honest broker but Blair said that there will be no negotiation of peace without an end to terrorism.

But as Uri Aunery of Israel Peace Movement Gush Shalom says, this means "Until the armed opposition to occupation stops there can be no talk of ending the occupation" A drastic stalemate but a never ending disaster for the people of Palestine and Israel.

And if we have seen Israel withdraw from Gaza large settlement blocks housing 80% of settlers in West Bank would be annexed behind the separation wall and isolate Palestinians from Jerusalem.

I last visited West Bank and Israel last year as a guest of the PGFTU and Histadrut. This was a significanttlis electing a new labour leader. Since then the established democra step for both. The new president Mahmood Abbas and the Israelis electing a new Labour leader.

Since then the established democracy of the Palestinians elected a HAMAS government. The first time an Arab democracy has seen such a change.

All Palestinian groups opted for the election and there was a smooth transition of power which has now been rejected by Bush and Blair.

It is not our place to speculate on the reasons for such a change. All should accept the results and yesterday saw a shift from HAMAS. But there is a view that this is not a true reflection. It is a result of occupation and oppression of social and economic conditions:

350,000 are unemloyed, 60% of the active labour force. 52% are in poverty and this could be 75% by 2008 (UN figures)

Whatever you hear any corruption is minority problem but explored by those opposed to peace and processes. The Israel reaction to the election is to further delay and even Abu Hazen president of HAMAS, a moderate of moderates, has been stunned.

Palestinians are subjected to further collective punishments by Europe and others withdrawing aid and by the completion of the apartheid wall.

So what is our role as trade unionists?

We deplore violence against people, violence from any quarter section or state against any people. We can seek to influence Governments but we cannot determine what happens.

However, we have seen in parts of the Israel where we organise, that trade unions can bring people together. We have seen that violence must end before the end can be considered. Our part is described in the motion and amendment. It reflects the discussions we have had with both trade union centres."


Call to restore pensions earnings link

UNISON laid out its strategy for the continued fight to protect and improve pensions, demanding the immediate restoration of the state pension's link with earnings and called for new laws preventing unilateral cutting of final salary schemes.

Keith Sonnet, Deputy General Secretary congratulated local government workers who took part in the largest strike action since 1926's General Strike on March 28th.Whilst recognising the progress, Keith warned " If negotiations break down there will be further strikes which will shut down services across the country."

Slamming the continued attacks on occupational pension schemes, he said, "We see scheme after scheme being shut down and who's to blame? Blair and Brown. They stood still and did nothing to stop companies ending schemes and they are responsible for the attack on public sector workers' pensions."

"Over two million pensions live below the poverty line and this country the fourth riches in the world depends less on pensions than all other major industrialised nations."

Shirley Buchanan, Glasgow City, said "Tony Blair claims this Labour Government fully supports and values the work of public service workers and so they are protecting our pensions to ensure we will not suffer!"

"Whose pension is Mr Blair protecting? Parliamentarans have not only substantially increased their own pension rights, and have the right to retire at 60 after 20 years service on an average pension income for MPs of £28,743 a year - the Rule of 80 - remember that."

"That's more than what most of our members earn. And they have the gall to tell us that we the taxpayers have to pay for their enhanced pensions."