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OFL Statement for December 10, 2013 International Human Rights Day
“Vision without action is just a dream, action without vision just passes the time, vision with action can change the world” – Nelson Mandela (1918-2013)
TORONTO, ONTARIO – Dec. 10, 2013 – This year, trade unionists across Ontario will recognize December 10 as International Human Rights Day not simply by joining the world in mourning the loss of Nelson Mandela, but by celebrating his incredible accomplishments and a life dedicated to equality, justice and freedom.
On December 5, 2013, the former President of South Africa and renowned freedom fighter, Nelson Mandela, passed away at the age of 95. Known as “Madiba” by the people of South Africa, Mandela spent 27 years in prison for challenging South Africa’s apartheid regime and went on to earn the Nobel Peace Prize in 1993.
“Nelson Mandela is an icon for much more than his life-long commitment to ending legalized racial discrimination and oppression. He casts the shadow of a giant for his unwavering commitment to social justice, equality, human rights and world peace and for challenging capitalist exploitation, racism, colonialism and imperialism around the world,” said OFL President Sid Ryan. “The lesson of Mandela’s life is not how one person can topple a regime, but how many individuals coming together as one – through principled self-sacrifice and solidarity – can change the world.”
The ties between Mandela and the labour movement are strong. Joined together in a shared struggle for human rights and freedoms, Mandela worked closely with trade unions at home and abroad to bring down South Africa’s apartheid regime and he continued to work with the union movement to challenge oppression around the world in the decades that followed. The Confederation of South African Trade Unions (COSATU) played a central role in South Africa’s liberation movement and helped to found the African National Congress (ANC). South African workers risked violent police repression, imprisonment and death when they took job actions to defy the regime. In Canada and around the world, trade unionists joined the struggle in their workplaces and communities to pressure the Canadian government to take action against apartheid in South Africa. Canadian workers were among the first to impose the boycott of South African products that spread across the globe and helped to grind the apartheid regime to a halt. In 1994, after the end of apartheid, union staff and activists took part in a Canadian delegation to observe the country’s first democratic elections and oversaw the ascension of Mandela and the ANC.
Canadian workers also share a strong bond with South Africans because the apartheid system was modeled on Canada’s reprehensible reservation system that was established through the Canadian Indian Act. To this day, systemic racism continues to keep Aboriginal peoples in Canada living in poverty, learning in sub-standard conditions and dealing with boil-water alerts, while their land rights are largely disregarded.
“The ongoing oppression of Aboriginal peoples across Canada is a reflection of us all. None of us will be truly free unless we achieve justice for and reconciliation with Aboriginal peoples,” said OFL Executive Vice-President Irwin Nanda. “Every Canadian worker can honour the spirit of Mandela by carrying forward his vision and working together to put an end to oppression and exploitation in our communities, our country and the world.”
While failing to address the grave injustices that Aboriginal peoples are facing, Harper’s Conservative government is also taking steps to strip away the collective bargaining rights of workers across the country. They are joined by the Ontario Progressive Conservatives who have been establishing a politics of division that forces workers to compete against each other for lower wages as a centerpiece of their electoral strategy. These attempts to erode the collective rights of workers threaten to contribute to worsening all social inequalities.
Learning from the path that Mandela forged in partnership with labour organizations around the world in dismantling apartheid in South Africa, the labour movement must continue to work with community partners to demand workers’ rights and human rights for all. In Ontario, the gender wage gap persists with women earning only 72 cents for every dollar earned by men. Workers of colour, women and newcomers are also overrepresented in precarious work, while migrant workers continue to experience exploitation at the behest of employers and labour brokers that take advantage of their vulnerable position working away from home and their reliance on the income earned in Canada to support their families.
The labour movement in Ontario and Canada has a long history of bringing workers together to stand side-by-side and demand better protections. Successful struggles to end child labour, win equal pay for women, establish health and safety protections and introduce a minimum wage are powerful reminders of the strength of working people and the responsibility the labour movement carries to defend and expand the rights of all.
“Canadian unions share Mandela’s commitment to justice and equality and continue to be inspired by the unity, vision and humility that he embodied in his life,” said Nanda. “Holding true to Mandela’s legacy – we must renew our collective efforts to end all forms of discrimination and fulfill our promise to the next generation that they will live in a better world.”
The Ontario Federation of Labour (OFL) represents 54 unions and one million workers in Ontario. For information, visit www.OFL.ca and follow the OFL on Facebook and Twitter: @OFLabour. Follow OFL President Sid Ryan @SidRyan_OFL
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