Pioneering ILO Global Report Calls For More Widespread Respect for Rights at Work

Released in Geneva, Switzerland and Washington, D.C.

“Intimidation, threats and even murder still await many workers who attempt to organize in a number of countries around the world,” says a new ILO report, Your Voice at Work, released today.

Although freedom of association and the effective right to collective bargaining have been recognized as fundamental rights and principles by the 175 member States of the International Labour Organization (ILO), “we are still a long way from universal acceptance of these fundamental principles and rights in practice,” says the report, adding that “Governments, as guardians of democracy, need to do more than pay lip service” to them.

“A global economy in which people do not have the right to organize will lack social legitimacy,” said Mr. Juan Somavia, Director-General of the ILO. “People organizing themselves to make their voices heard,” he added, “exercise a fundamental human right and the most important development right.”

Violations and restrictions

Manifest violations of freedom of association highlighted in the Global Report include outright prohibitions on trade unions in Oman, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates. In Bahrain and Qatar, government constraints deny committees of workers or labor councils the attributes of independent workers’ organizations.

Over the past 10 years, the ILO has examined allegations of murder of trade unionists in Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Ecuador, Guatemala and Indonesia. Other alleged violations addressed by the ILO during that time include:

  • Physical assaults in several countries including the Colombia, Ecuador, Ethiopia, Guatemala, Haiti, Mauritius, Sudan and Zimbabwe;
  • Arrests and detentions in over 20 countries including China, Cote d’Ivoire, El Salvador, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Djibouti, Ethiopia, Gabon, the Republic of Korea, Morocco, Pakistan, Paraguay, Senegal and Sudan;
  • Forced exile from Bahrain and Myanmar;
  • Violations of trade union premises and property in countries including the Central African Republic, Cote d’Ivoire, Ethiopia, Lebanon, Nicaragua, the Russian Federation and Senegal.

The report also points out that whole categories of workers “remain either uncovered or specifically excluded from legal protection”:

  • National legislation either fails to legally protect agricultural workers, or denies them the right to organize, in among other countries Afghanistan, Bolivia, Burundi, Honduras, India, Jordan, Paraguay, and the United States;
  • Domestic workers — overwhelmingly women — are denied the right to organize in Brazil, Jordan, Kuwait, and in the province of Ontario, Canada;
  • Migrant workers are seriously restricted in forming or joining trade unions in Kuwait, effectively prohibited from holding office in them in Mauritania, Nicaragua, Rwanda and Venezuela, and not covered by labor legislation in Kyrgyzstan.
  • fter agriculture, the public sector includes the largest numbers of workers whose rights to organize and bargain collectively are restricted. States commonly justify this “on the premise that as servants of the State, the status and responsibilities of public sector employees are incompatible with membership of an occupational organization, or the collective action that might ensue from this membership.”

Several countries feel certain activities are simply too important to be subject to the right to organize. Workers concerned include, among others, fire fighters in Japan and the Republic of Korea, and prison staff in Swaziland. Teachers in Cameroon, for instance, and all medical staff in Kenya also have these rights seriously restricted.

But even in these essential services, says the ILO report, “the right to organize is to be guaranteed.” Such exceptions as may exist “should be seen against the fundamental principle that all workers and employers, without any distinction whatsoever, should have the right to organize, the only possible exclusion being in respect of the armed forces and police.”

Anti-union acts, “including harassment, blacklisting and massive dismissals” have occurred in Export Processing Zones (EPZs) in, for example, Bangladesh, the Dominican Republic, the Philippines and Sri Lanka. EPZs often restrict freedom of association in a bid to attract foreign investment. But, notes the report, “where local authorities may believe that very low wages and no labor regulation will attract business, the investor may well be ready to accept higher costs if there is political stability, infrastructure, domestic demand for produced goods and services, and well functioning industrial relations.”

Finally, the report points out, that State-sponsored and controlled single trade union structures endure in China, Cuba, Iraq, Sudan, the Syrian Arab Republic and Viet Nam. “The right to form and join organizations freely,” be they workers’ or employers’ organizations, comments the ILO report, “is not compatible with single-party rule.”

“The key enabling right”

Your Voice at Work stresses “the right to organize is the key enabling right and the gateway to the exercise of a range of other rights at work.” Positive developments, facilitated by the ILO have been achieved through consultation with, and cooperation between, government, employers and workers. Examples include Chile, Indonesia, Mozambique, Poland and South Africa. They underline the extent to which “the consolidation of democracy and expanded freedom of association go hand in hand.”

Calling for action on the part of workers, employers and governments to turn promises to respect these rights into reality, the ILO report concludes by outlining three interrelated priorities:

  • ensuring all workers can form and join a trade union of their choice without fear of intimidation or reprisal, and employers are free to form and join independent associations;
  • encouraging an open and constructive attitude by private business and public employers to freely chosen workers’ representatives, and development of agreed bargaining methods and complementary forms of cooperation concerning terms and conditions of work;
  • and recognition by public authorities that good governance of the labor market, based on respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, makes a major contribution to stable economic, political and social development during international economic integration, the enlargement of democracy and the fight against poverty.

The right to strike

The right to strike — “the logical corollary of the effective realization of the right to collective bargaining” — remains subject to wide restrictions. General prohibitions, or the absence of any provision in law recognizing the right to strike, has led to the denial of this right in practice in Liberia, Myanmar and Saudi Arabia.

Binding arbitration pre-empting any possibility of strike action can be imposed at the request of public authorities in many countries including Algeria, Canada, Egypt, Ghana, Guinea, Jamaica, Mali, Malta, Mauritania, Norway, Peru and Romania.

Protest strikes over national policies affecting workers’ interests are subject to restrictions in Bolivia, Honduras, and Swaziland.

So-called secondary or solidarity strikes are subject to restrictions in Australia, Congo, Paraguay, Turkey, the United Kingdom and Zambia, among others.

In numerous countries, including Algeria, Azerbaijan, Lithuania, Pakistan, the Philippines, Romania and Swaziland, participation in strike action can have severe consequences, including penal sanctions and dismissals.

In 1999 alone, according to the report, the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association examined cases of dismissed strikers in Brazil, Bulgaria, Cambodia, Colombia, Djibouti, Gabon, Mexico and Nicaragua.

Impact of Globalization

Over the past 30 years, vastly increased financial flows, the integration of markets and the liberalization of trade have served to intensify competition between and within countries. “Long established practices and deeply felt values are being tested against the criteria of survival in a fiercely competitive global market,” notes the report, warning that “it is feared that these developments will place downward pressure on freedom of association and collective bargaining rights.”

By affording capital with multiple exit options in today’s globalized economy, the internationalization of production has, in some instances, seriously reduced the content and impact of collective bargaining. And while some have argued that such bargaining in these circumstances should be conducted at the international level, “there has been no significant advances in this direction,” notes the report.

Recent developments have given rise to what the report calls a widening “representation gap” in the world of work. The growing segmentation of labor markets, the restructuring of production as a result, among other factors, of technological innovations and wide-scale privatizations have considerably reduced the size of the average production unit. More flexible work methods, the increasing recourse to subcontracting arrangements and part-time work make it more difficult to organize workers in the defense of their own interests.

The growth of the informal economy — more than 80% of all new jobs in Latin America and 93% in Africa during the 1990s — has likewise increased the proportion of workers without any form of collective representation.

“Workers’ and employers’ organizations need to narrow the representation gap, by moving into the informal economy and the new economy where the jobs are going”, said Somavia. “That means modernizing their methods of work, to better meet the changing needs of their constituents, new and old. The ILO’s task is to help.”

These changes, the report points out, have had “an inherent gender dimension.” Women form “the majority of workers in subcontracted, temporary or casual work, part-time work and informal occupations.” As a result, “more women than men are in unorganized and unprotected jobs which lack security of tenure,” perpetuating poverty in families.

“The ability of women to exercise freely their rights to join trade unions and have their interests represented on a par with those of their male colleagues is vital to the achievement of both gender equality and trade union strength,” says the report underlining that “not only should women take their place at the negotiation table but gender issues will have to be made more explicit during the collective bargaining process to ensure that any agreement reflects the priorities and aspirations of both women and men.”

ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

The Global Report — the first of its kind ever published — forms part of the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Adopted in June 1998, the Declaration commits the ILO’s 175 member States to respect the principles inherent in four sets of core labor standards and promotes their universal application. All member States have an obligation to respect the fundamental principles involved, whether or not they have ratified the relevant ILO Conventions. The follow-up mechanism provides for an annual review of the situation in countries that have not ratified one or more of these “core” Conventions and a Global Report drawn up under the responsibility of the Director-General.

Global Reports will cover, each year in turn, one of the four sets of “core” principles. After freedom of association and collective bargaining this year, future reports will focus on forced labor in 2001, child labor in 2002 and discrimination in employment in 2003. The process will then start over again.

This year’s report will be examined by the International Labour Conference — the supreme legislative body of the ILO — on 6 June 2000.

“Commitments made by governments at the 1995 Copenhagen Social Summit and in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work reflect political consensus on the need to respect fundamental principles and rights at work, and a growing acceptance that these are the social underpinnings of the global economy,” said Mr. Somavia. “The fact that information on respect for these rights, as well as on violations, is now more freely available — making a Global Report of this kind possible — is necessary to achieve progress.”

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