More on the rise of labour conscription in Europe


Who needs a national emergency for conscription?
Not Europe!


I made a satirical reference to labour conscription in my last post, noting that the Greek government had used emergency powers to break an eight-day metro workers’ strike – the third such manoeuvre used to bring an end to industrial action since the start of the crisis. This was in spite of a commitment the country had made to the UN’s International Labour Organisation to only engage in these ‘civil mobilisation’ orders in the future in times of war.

However, yesterday, Athens announced yet another civil mobilisation decree, this time against striking seamen, who were reportedly delivered military-style orders by coast guard officials Tuesday evening. Workers who refused to comply with the command face up to five years in prison.

It is a worrying development, so I think it’s worth exploring in a bit more detail what is going on here without my satirical snark this time so that people understand clearly what the issue at stake is:

There has been a rise in the use of labour conscription by European governments since the start of the crisis, and it is being used against workers engaged in industrial action in strategic sectors of the economy both public and private sector such as ports, transport, air traffic control and refineries.

The English translation of the Greek term for this is ‘civil mobilisation’ or ‘civil conscription’. The French term is ‘requisition’. Another, darker and more historic term for the same state action is the ‘militarisation of labour’. Although the specificities of the concept vary from country to country, in essence, it is a sort of brief martial law for workers where one is forced to provide labour on pain of imprisonment. As such, it is one of the four main types of ‘forced labour’.

And its use, outside of national emergency, is a breach of an internationally recognised fundamental human right.


First though, a brief warning: It is really important to understand that the issue of forced labour is completely unrelated to whether you support a particular strike. Just because you don’t support a particular strike does not mean that you want to engage in a breach of a fundamental human right in order to bring that strike to an end.

Now, with that out of the way, I don’t want to see any comments below the fold saying: “But I don’t agree with this strike” or “Public transport is different.” I’m not talking about whether such strikes are legitimate or not. That is a completely different argument.

Another comment I don’t want to see is: “Come on, they weren’t too rough with these workers. It’s not like it’s North Korea.” Again, the point is not how violent riot police, military police, the army or the coast guard are in enforcing civil mobilisation decrees. That is also a completely different argument.

This is about the fundamental right of all humans to refuse to perform work against their free will.


European governments – indeed 185 states out of the UN’s 193 member states – are parties to the International Labour Organisation’s conventions, eight of which are called the Fundamental Conventions. Two of these, 1930′s Forced Labour Convention and 1957′s Abolition of Forced Labour Convention (which extended the 1930 document), do pretty much what they say on the tin: attempt to prevent forced labour.

Defined legally, forced labour is work that is performed in ‘the absence of a voluntary offer’. Another way of putting it is to say that all work relations must be founded on the mutual consent of the contracting parties.

Slavery is the most well-known example of forced labour. But there are three other main kinds defined by the ILO: human trafficking, bonded or indentured labour (resulting from debts), and state-imposed labour. Common to all, regardless of the conditions of labour, is this absence of a voluntary offer.

Civil mobilisation or civil conscription falls into this fourth category. It is a special case, as there are five exceptions under the 1930 convention where such forced labour is allowed under international law.

Forced labour does not include military service. So military conscription and military service is permitted. It does not include any service that is part of the normal civic obligations of a citizen such as jury duty, or minor communal services such as doing your recycling (so long as you’ve been able to vote on whether, say, recycling should be adopted). It does not include prison labour – but only so long as that prison labour is not performed for private companies.

And finally, forced labour, specifically state-imposed labour, is permitted in times of national emergency such as wars, floods, earthquakes, or outbreaks of serious disease. One can easily understand why – still hopefully brief – restrictions on individual freedom are necessary in such times.

Even in these periods though, we still do not hear much about civil conscription because far from being unwilling, humans are in general pretty great in an emergency and so very willing to do whatever is needed to help out. So it’s not normally required anyway.

As a result, and as I mentioned in my last post, in democratic societies, civil mobilisation has been pretty unheard of since the two World Wars.

But in 2010, Sarkozy used just such a labour requisition order to break a refineries strike that was part of a wave of protests against his pensions reform. A court ruled this quasi-military manoeuvre unconstitutional and so the government issued a more limited requisition that managed to sneak through the courts.

The same year, even more flamboyantly, Zapatero militarised labour in air traffic control towers to break a strike against internationally ordered public sector ‘reforms’. The Defence Ministry took over air traffic control facilities and was authorised to seize workers from their homes and march them to work. The penalty for breaching such military discipline is up to six years in prison.

Greece has engaged in civil mobilisation now ten times since the end of the military dictatorship in 1974, so it is a particularly bad student as far as the International Labour Organisation is concerned. But four of these civil mobilisation decrees occurred in response to anti-austerity industrial action in the last two years, and two of these four in the last two weeks.

Now, the concept of ‘essential services’ is a controversial one, but the ILO’s committee that investigates compliance with its conventions has stated that legislation requiring the provision of such services should be taken to mean only those services without which, life or health is endangered. Mere inconvenience or economic loss, whatever the scale of inconvenience or loss, does not count.

The ILO notes that seafarers are the most common type of worker that is affected by civil conscription and as a result keeps a keen watch on the sector.

In 2009, the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association investigated the use of a 1974 decree on ‘Civil Emergency Planning’ to issue a civil mobilisation order against striking seamen. The back and forth between the Greek government and the committee is detailed here, and the legalese is difficult to parse, but in essence, the government’s argument is that given Greece’s unique geography, this sector requires special consideration. The committee agreed, but at the same time received a commitment to ensuring that use of civil mobilisation under the 1974 law “will from now on only apply in times of war.”

In 2007, fresh legislation had been introduced that was supposed to clarify the legal situation. A number of articles in the news media from the last few days say that this legislation allowed for conscription in peacetime, but again according to the ILO, even under the 2007 law, labour conscription is still possible only in a “sudden situation requiring the taking of immediate measures to face the country’s defensive needs or a social emergency against any type of imminent natural disaster or emergency that might endanger the public health.”

Rotting fruit in a truck, however frustrating and damaging to economic interests, still does not count.

Now, the easiest way for the Greek government to be in compliance with its international human rights obligations in this case is for it to declare a national state of emergency, but I’m guessing that would probably just inflame the labour strife still further, let alone what such a declaration would do to its economy or that of the eurozone.

I also don’t want to overstate the case. I’m not a lawyer. There will be nuances here in terms of Greek and international law that I’m sure I’m missing.

And southern Europe is not anywhere near the situation of what is happening in Belarus, where presidential decrees forbidding workers from striking or quitting their jobs in different sectors may spread to the entire economy.

But even if the situation is not anywhere near the same in scale, it bears a resemblance in kind.

The worry is that governments that are put in difficult situations by international lenders and bond markets will begin to opt more and more for the easy option of labour conscription when it comes to industrial action that is highly disruptive in strategic sectors.

Moreover, Athens and other peripheral capitals have a credibility problem when it comes to their commitment to pushing through unpopular measures, and many of the toughest labour market ‘reforms’ in much of the periphery have actually yet to be imposed. So it cannot have escaped the Greek prime minister’s mind that this is a great way to demonstrate to international lenders his iron determination to enact their demands.

Nevertheless, at the moment, there are still a small, if growing, number of cases of this unorthodox government manoeuvre, so it is too early to pronounce that the use of forced labour is becoming a habit.

I’m just saying we should keep a close eye on this space. This is not business as usual.

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  1. #1 by Peter on February 6, 2013 - 2:30 pm

    In November 2011, the Slovak government declared the “state of emergency” in several hospitals where doctors refused to suspend their strike action, clearly abusing laws designed to be applied in the times of war or natural disaster. But unless people disobey such orders by the authorities en masse, I guess the governments will be tempted to use such measures more and more.

  2. #2 by Tony Ball on February 6, 2013 - 4:25 pm

    Once again a excellent article, highlighting the erosion of workers rights under the EUs stewardship.

    Keep up the good work.

  3. #3 by jon livesey on February 6, 2013 - 9:26 pm

    The column is perfectly correct. Rights are rights. They don’t depend on who you have sympathy for. As the saying goes, bad cases often make good law.

    And by the way, I find it very sad that anyone could bring themselves to defend stuff like this by saying “…. it seems anyway the Greeks should decide themselves what to do”. This is the Greek Government. No-one has consulted the Greek people.

    When you find yourself making patently dishonest arguments to defend what’s going on in the EU, it’s time to ask yourself exactly why dishonest arguments are required to defend the EU.

  4. #4 by Betterworld on February 7, 2013 - 12:32 am

    This is an important subject, thank you for focusing on it in such a clear way.

    Where is the EU Human Rights framework of law in all of this? One of the fundamental pillars of the EU is the European Convention on Human Rights (co-authored by, I think, the late Sean McBride who, at the age of 17 years took up arms to free his nation from a foreign tyranny, but that’s another story).

    Every European Union citizen is supposed to have recourse to the protection of the European Court of Human Rights, established to underpin our universal human rights, regardless of the actions of national governments, including the right to withdraw our labour.

  5. #5 by mihalis on February 7, 2013 - 12:33 am

    Note also: most of the “conscript” seamen, were unpaid – according to their union, they were owed six months arrears *on average*. So they are being forced to go back to practically *unpaid* work.

  6. #6 by Jan on February 11, 2013 - 7:01 pm

    A similar phenomenon is happening in Belgium. Last year a judge gave the national railway company the right to sanction wild cat strikers (that is, strikes not officially sanctioned by the state). The concrete case was where traffic controllers stopped work because of lack of personnel (link is in Dutch).

    Also there have been calls for the state to enforce a minimal service, but as far as I can tell it has not been actually enforced. There is pressure from EU side to make minimal services obligatory but I don’t know how the situation is now (link from 2011 and again in Dutch)

  7. #7 by Bastian on February 6, 2013 - 11:33 pm

    “What Germany has done to Greece via the EU is most probably atrocious.”

    What has Germany done? A decade or so ago German politicians have agreed to establish a currency area (€uro), unsustainable from the beginning. This enabled Greece and other member states to live far beyond their means for a couple of years. Now the German/Dutch/Austrian/Finnish tax payers and pensioners are supposed to pay back Greek (and other southern countries) debts. This is the simple truth. A truth which will lead the EU into dictatorship (“more Europe”), disintegration (civil war is not so far away) or a completely new beginning (cooperation more on a horizontal than vertical level). Cameron is in many ways right, although there might be vicious intentions/motives behind his arguments.
    There is no German atrocity, it is all the fault of a stubborn and arrogant EU establishment.