Building Bridges Across Borders

When other workers in BC make gains, it lifts the bar for everyone. And the same can be said on an international scale.

 “When they win, we win.” This labour movement slogan highlights the connectedness of workers’ struggles around the world. 

When other workers in BC make gains, it lifts the bar for everyone. And the same can be said on an international scale. 

And when workers’ rights are attacked around the globe, there are ripple effects here in Canada. If public services are privatized elsewhere, it becomes easier to justify privatizing them here.

Neoliberalism – defined by the deregulation of businesses and the defunding of public services – is a global system that requires a global response. Since the early 1990s, the architects of neoliberalism have been collaborating across borders, and its opponents must also do so.  

It is this viewpoint that sits at the heart of international solidarity. In the early 1990s, HSA began its partnership with international solidarity organization CoDevelopment Canada (CoDev). Three decades later, HSA continues to provide financial support through CoDev to like-minded organizations in Latin America who fight for a fairer world. Mutual learning is a key feature of these relationships, benefiting both HSA members and its partner organizations. 

In 1989, HSA launched a Solidarity Committee in response to a convention resolution. According to the committee’s first chair and former cytotechnologist Ernie Hilland, the committee emerged during a period of growth for HSA. Members were seeking more direct participation in union activities. This led to the creation of more member committees. 

Committee members spent a year developing the committee’s mandate and terms of reference. It had its own budget and was responsible for the allocation of union donations.

 “We decided we needed to do things locally and internationally. Internationally we thought we should define it geographically,” explained Hilland. “So, we decided we would look at Central America.”

The committee promoted international solidarity among HSA members and supported organizations that promoted trade union and human rights, the right to a healthy environment, the elimination of poverty, and the right to adequate healthcare. It was also tasked with organizing a process to send advocacy letters and telegrams in response to urgent appeals from organizations like CoDev and Amnesty International. 

A decade later, the committee was reconstituted into HSA’s current Committee for Equality and Social Action.  

HSA members again affirmed their commitment to international solidarity in 1993, when convention delegates passed a resolution that directed HSA, “through the Solidarity Committee, to continue to increase its contributions to working people of Third World countries.” 

Convention mandated HSA to allocate no less than 0.45 per cent of the union’s general revenue to international solidarity. 

“I think unions have a different perspective on what the world should look like,” said Hilland. It’s this alternative vision for the world that drove the committee to provide financial support to CoDev. 

 “It was our committee’s choice to go to CoDev. One of the things that really struck me was their partnership model. We could find out exactly where the money went and we knew that it was getting in the right hands.”

Building relationships with Latin American human rights defenders 

Since the partnership began, HSA has hosted human rights defenders from Latin America visiting BC to share information about the human rights situation in their respective countries. The first person to visit with HSA from the south was Santiago Diaz from Asociación para la Salud y el Servicio Social Intercomunal en El Salvador (APSIES).

“It was CODEV’s idea that he should come up to strengthen our partnership, and we should go down and reciprocate,” explained Hilland.

And so in 1994, Hilland and four other HSA members went to El Salvador and Guatemala. 

The previous year, Guatemala experienced what was called the Guatemalan Constitutional Crisis, when on May 25, 1993,  President Jorge Serrano Elías suspended the constitution and attempted to dissolve Guatemala’s Congress and Supreme Court. While the president ultimately failed to overturn these institutions in the face of domestic protest and international pressure, human rights defenders, including critics of the military’s genocide of the Mayan people, still faced violent repression. 

Meanwhile, El Salvador was living in the aftermath of 12-year civil war. While the country’s peace negotiations had concluded two years prior in 1992, its agreements had not been fully implemented, and human rights atrocities continued.

The HSA delegation, recognizing that people in Canada are in a unique position to influence Canadian regulatory, trade, and diplomatic policies that affect international human rights abuses, brought attention to HSA members about these issues.

“The people in El Salvador need international attention now as much as they ever have. There are still over 100 disappearances each month. Whether the UN observers stay or not, the best protection these people have is international attention. Indeed, without that, the chances of peace are very slim,” wrote Hilland in the Vol. 15 No. 6 issue of The Report in 1994. 

When Hilland and fellow HSA members announced they would be visiting Guatemala and El Salvador alongside other Canadian labour representatives, Rosa Escobar, Guatemalan trade union activist and co-ordinator of the Food and Allied Health Workers, organized a conference to bring groups from across Central America together. 

Organizations representing families of the disappeared from countries in Central America were present.

“We learned a lot at that conference,” said Hilland. And afterwards, a press conference was organized and reporters were eager to ask questions of the HSA delegation.

On June 13 of that year, the delegation participated in a local parade to honour the disappeared, marking the anniversary of an atrocity affecting labour activists. “That was the date that the government descended on a union office, and lots of people were killed and disappeared – union organizers. So we went there and were basically protection against the authorities coming down and stopping the parade,” explained Hilland. 

“They laid flowers at the door of the office where it happened, with impunity,” he said.

“The next day, we were headline news in the newspaper. There was a picture of us marching and we were right behind the front banner.”

 “It was really a remarkable display of how our solidarity was at least as important or even more important than the money we were sending,” reflected Hilland. 

Meeting maquiladora workers in Nicaragua and Honduras 

St. Paul’s Hospital Radiological Technologist Anita Bardal is another HSA member and former regional director who participated in a labour solidarity delegation through CoDev, on behalf of HSA. In 1996, she visited Nicaragua and Honduras. 

She was interested in visiting with HSA’s partners to gain greater perspective into the impact of HSA’s financial support. 

“At one of our conventions, a member had come to the microphone and questioned where our money was going,” said Bardal. She said the member questioned why HSA was supporting international causes. 

“So that sparked in me an interest in CoDev,” she explained. She wanted to be able to answer those questions from her own experience. 

Bardal’s delegation met with two organizations partnered with HSA – The Honduran Women’s Collective (CODEMUH) and the Maria Elena Cuadra Movement of Employed and Unemployed Women (MEC). 

CODEMUH actively supports women workers in maquiladoras – garment factories in export processing zones – facing serious musculoskeletal conditions developed through their work. They organize women to defend their occupational health and safety rights at work, and  defend injured workers who have been illegally fired due to workplace injuries. 

MEC also promotes labour rights in the maquila industry, and provides organizing, legal, and counselling supports to women workers in the face of grave labour rights violations. 

For both MEC and CODEMUH, the labour rights of women are tied closely to the issue of violence against women.

In 2014, Honduras had the highest rate of violent deaths for women in all of Latin America. Despite this, laws against gender-based violence have been weakened.

Bardal sees a clear connection between MEC and CODEMUH’s work and the work of HSA members in healthcare and transition houses, who understand the impacts of violence against women from working directly with people who have experienced violence and trauma.

“I’d like our membership to know that while we should help those within our own territories and within our own province, it’s important for us to understand what we see to be happening here actually happens on a much greater scale in other countries.”

Bardal empathized with the struggles facing HSA’s partners and the communities they support. 

“It had a link for me in the sense that my family is originally from China, and I could feel the struggles that they have in a Third World country because it resembles the struggle that my grandparents had.”

She explained that her grandmother faced barriers to education because she was a woman. But thanks to encouragement from a neighbour, her great grandfather allowed her grandmother to attend two years of school in China at the age of ten. Many of the women working in maquilas have likewise faced barriers to accessing education. 

Some men in Bardal’s family came to Canada under the head tax, and while they experienced racism, they were able to send back money to China. Her mother also came. “She had that tough life too, but she was able to see her children grow up and was able to see us finish high school and go to college and be successful,” said Bardal. She said many of the women she met on the CoDev tour share similar desires for their families. 

“The impact of the trip for me was that I came to realize that in many parts of the world, the struggle is the same for women. In terms of mothers, they love their families, they love their children, and they love their communities. They try to work together to make a better community and a better world.” 

Taking action side by side 

During the trip, the delegation helped CODEMUH distribute literature on the country’s labour laws outside the garment factories.

“And some people wouldn’t come near us because they were afraid for their jobs,” explained Bardal. But she remembers some workers engaging with the organization.

“We gave a booklet to a young woman who was visibly pregnant,” said Bardal. “She looked at something in the book that talked about maternity leave, and she said, ‘My employer has said that if I cannot do my work, I’m going to be let go.’”

The team directed her to their staff lawyer. “He was able to explain to her what her rights were, and that no, she will not be fired.”

“He was there and he was willing to help set her up a file and advocate for her,” explained Bardal. 

For maquila workers in Honduras, it takes courage to engage with labour rights activists.

“There was a young girl and she looked to be no more than 10 or 12, and she was walking into a maquiladora and we gave her the booklet. And she took it, and she opened it, and she started reading it while she was walking. I thought, ‘Well, that’s a start, right? To have the courage to do that.’”

For labour rights activists, the work can be very dangerous.

Bardal also met with a group of men who were union organizers in the maquiladoras. “One of their members within the last year or so had just about been assassinated for the work he was doing.” 

Amidst these dangerous circumstances, the solidarity expressed through HSA’s partnerships is powerful.

“Solidarity is letting them know that there are groups outside of their country who understand their journey and support them side by side, instead of just giving them the money and having someone decide for them what they need.”