Chilean teacher and trade union leader receives international award

published 16 April 2020 updated 7 May 2020

Education International welcomes the awarding of the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights 2020 to trade union leader and educator Barbara Figueroa Sandoval from Chile.

The Arthur Svensson Prize committee acknowledged her contribution to raising awareness of the situation in Chile and showed its support for the trade union fight for workers’ rights in the country.

A role model

Elected president of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores(CUT) of Chile, in 2012, Barbara Figueroa Sandoval became the youngest person and the first woman to lead the most important trade union centre in the country. Figueroa originally joined the teachers’ union, Colegio de Professores de Chile, and was a key leader of the 2011 demonstrations opposing the privatisation and commercialisation of education. She was instrumental in forging a solid alliance between student movements and unions.

“Barbara Figueroa Sandoval has shown great courage and is a role model for many”, stated the communiqué from the Arthur Svensson Committee. “She has led the way creating a more open, vital and transparent trade union, while at the same time having strengthened CUT as a social-political trade union with close ties to other civil society organisations. She may also pave the way for new female leaders in a very male-dominated culture, as well as strengthen support for trade unions among women in the region.”

Context: Chilean unrest

In 2019, when Chile faced its deepest social and political crisis since the dictatorship, with new mass demonstrations, she and the CUT were key in forming the broad social coalition ‘Mesa de Unidad Social’. Together with other civil society organisations, this coalition brought millions of Chileans to the streets to demand, amongst others, increased minimum wages, pension reform, a reduction of the working week, strengthening of workers’ rights, and a National Constituent Assembly.

Repression and intimidation

Chile’s President Piñera declared a state of emergency and implemented heavy repressive measures in a bid to stop the popular uprising. Thousands of protesters were jailed and wounded. At least 26 were killed by the security forces.

According to human rights organisations, Figueroa and several other trade union leaders have faced intimidation and harassment, and their activities have been systematically surveyed by intelligence agencies.

However, through mass mobilisations and negotiations, CUT was successful in achieving an increased minimum wage and a reduced working week despite great political resistance.

Today, CUT and Barbara Figueroa are also defending workers’ rights in the COVID-19 context by opposing a draft law that would cancel collective bargaining mechanisms in Chile.

Education International: Educators at heart of the fight for democracy

“This award celebrates all the efforts and ongoing struggles for democracy and social justice of colleagues, trade unionists, and human rights defenders in Chile. We are delighted with the news and congratulate Barbara Figueroa Sandoval for this well-deserved prize. We are also proud to see education unionists being recognised for the third time in the history of the Arthur Svensson Prize,” said David Edwards, General Secretary of Education International.

Since its introduction in 2010, the Arthur Svensson International Prize for Trade Union Rights has been awarded to teacher unionists on three occasions. In 2019, France Castro, then Secretary General of the Alliance of Concerned Teachers in the Philippines, received it for her long-standing engagement in the defense of the right to education. In 2015, Mahdi Abu Dheeb and Jalila al-Salman of the Bahrain Teachers’ Association were its recipients for their efforts towards the development of democracy, pluralism, and equity in their country.

“In Chile, the Philippines, Bahrain and in too many countries the world over, the fight for human and trade union rights continues. Educators are and will continue to be a force for change, for progress and social justice leading this struggle in their countries and communities,” Edwards concluded.

For more information about the prize, click here