A new social contract is needed

Women producing beedi cigarettes at a demonstration in New Delhi. They are demanding a pension, medical services and free education for their children.
Article as analysis
Workers’ rights are under extreme pressure worldwide, despite being among the human rights that are legally binding in 187 countries. The International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index documents the dramatic trend.

The economic repercussions of the covid 19 pandemic have made it clearer than ever: although enshrined in international law, worker protection is extremely tenuous, especially in developing and emerging countries. For seven years now the International Trade Union Confederation (IGB/ITUC) has been documenting and assessing worldwide violations of workers’ rights by governments and employers. The alarming findings of the current Global Rights Index (GRI) were in part compiled even before the onset of the covid 19 pandemic.

According to the Index, the right to strike is being violated in 123 of the 144 countries studied, in other words, in 85 per cent of countries. The right of collective bargaining is not guaranteed in 80 per cent of cases, while in almost three-quarters of the countries studied, workers are denied the right to establish or join a trade union. The situation regarding freedom of opinion and assembly is just as dire: in 56 countries it has been either totally or partly restricted, and the trend is gaining momentum. Worse yet, workers or trade union leaders have been killed in connection with industrial disputes in nine countries, of which six are in South America.

According to the GRI, the 10 countries with the worst working conditions are: Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Kazakhstan, Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe, with Egypt, Honduras and India being recent additions to this sorry list. The index does not even include countries where there are no remaining guarantees of workers’ rights owing to the breakdown of law. Burundi, the Central African Republic, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen are cases in point.

MENA region: widespread lawlessness

The Middle East and North Africa, called the MENA region, is still the worst for workers’ rights violations worldwide. Workers have been subject to violent attacks in one half of all MENA countries. In all the countries, workers have been prohibited from unionisation in some instances. Seventeen of 18 MENA countries have violated the right to collective bargaining, and all without exception have either restricted or completely prohibited the right to strike. Second place in this dismal ranking goes to the Asia-Pacific region, where even in the year 2020, employees, trade union members and leaders have experienced intimidation, and anyone standing up for their rights must be prepared to face discrimination from both governments and employers. Strikes and demonstrations have been brutally suppressed in many countries and trade union leaders arrested and given long jail terms on trumped-up charges. In 74 per cent of Asia-Pacific countries, workers have very limited or no access to judicial remedy.

Africa ranks third among the regions studied. Millions of people there are being robbed of their fundamental protection, violence against trade union leaders, the destruction of independent trade unions or the unjustified dismissal of workers are rife. Lastly, in Latin America the governments of Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador have declared states of emergency in recent months and law enforcement authorities have brutally cracked down on mass demonstrations against regressive labour policies. In Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Honduras people have paid with their lives for their activism in defence of workers’ rights. The GRI also documents declining respect for workers’ rights in Europe, with France and some Eastern European countries receiving special mention.

An index such as that published by the International Trade Union Confederation inevitably raises questions about the methodology used. This is all the more so considering that countless millions of workers are hard to document as their work is virtually excluded a priori from any legal protection: broadly speaking, migrant workers, household employees, temporary workers, people working in the informal economy and in the so-called platform economy, which includes global online traders like Amazon or Alibaba, can only dream of unionisation. Unfortunately, however, this realisation changes nothing about the dramatic findings of the GRI.

Almost no access to judicial remedy

A widespread phenomenon – evidenced in 103 of 144 countries studied – is that workers have very little or no access to the justice system and have no guarantee of fair proceedings in labour disputes. In such cases, known trade union leaders are often very specifically targeted; whoever stands up for workers’ rights must be prepared for various forms of repression, including arrest and imprisonment. Another global trend borne out by the GRI is the limitation of democracy within enterprises, of which freedom of opinion and assembly are key components. The percentage of countries in which these fundamental rights are being curtailed rose from 26 per cent in 2014 to 39 per cent in the year 2020. Yet another disquieting development is the growing surveillance of workers. Several scandals erupted in 2019 and 2020 making clear that governments are surveilling trade union officers in order to intimidate independent trade unions and their members.

The ITUC has, however, also identified some positive developments such as the adoption of progressive laws in Vietnam allowing independent organisations freely elected by workers to carry out their activities. Qatar too has brought in a series of meaningful reforms culminating in January 2020 in the elimination of its exit visa requirement. Conversely, governments in other countries, for example in Belarus, have enacted regressive laws that have considerably undermined fundamental workplace rights.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow is convinced that a new commitment to workers’ rights and the rule of law is indispensable if the world economy is to evolve towards sustainability. She believes that a new social contract is needed to build back the economy (after the corona crisis, editor’s note) and that if we have no faith in democracy, and primarily in workplace democracy, then we are jeopardising the very foundation of our societies.

Joint responsibility of States and businesses for ensuring labour rights

The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, adopted in 2011 and recognised by Switzerland, form(ed) the basis for the Responsible Business Initiative which will be put to the vote on 29 November. The Guiding Principles state that internationally recognised human rights also encompass the eight core conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) as set down in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The UN Guiding Principles make clear that the responsibility of businesses to respect human rights is independent of the capacity or willingness of States to exercise their duty to protect human rights. Irrespective of the context, States and businesses retain these separate but complementary responsibilities. The Responsible Business Initiative requires that businesses assume this responsibility also in their subsidiaries as well as in other enterprises under their control.