Labour rights activism makes societies fairer by addressing the imbalance of power between corporations and workers and improving working conditions. It is also at the heart of the broader struggle for human rights and social justice. Yet today across the globe, we are witnessing a mounting erosion of space for worker organizing and violence against labour rights defenders which negatively affects all human rights movements.
Distinctions are sometimes made between labour rights defenders (including trade unions and other workers' representatives) and human rights defenders, but these distinctions are artificial. Labour rights are human rights, and any person or organisation defending them is a human rights defender as articulated in the UN Declaration on Human Rights Defenders. As Sharan Burrow, the Secretary-General of the ITUC, put it: “Workers and their unions are the defenders of rights and freedoms.” Most of us spend most of our lives working. This means that workers’ rights, such as freedom of association, the right to strike, the prohibition of slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour, and the right to fair and just working conditions, are vital.
You cannot protect some human rights and neglect others, because they are mutually supportive. Workers’ rights exemplify this connection. The right to work means little, unless there is also a right to decent work; one cannot claim that the right to work is protected when workers are exploited. Also the prohibition of slavery, servitude, forced and compulsory labour cannot be separated from the right to decent work. Collective labour rights are framed as individual rights in human rights treaties, but are there in order to help people pursue collective, solidaristic goals.
Around the world, we see the destructive effects of the concentration of wealth and the consolidation of political power and decision-making in the hands of fewer people. That’s as true in the United States as it is in India or Brazil, Cambodia or Jamaica, Mexico or Morocco. Markets and corporations don’t magically conjure up shared prosperity, either. It is citizens coming together collectively—into trade unions and other collective organizations— that push governments and corporations to make changes to the way our economies work and make them more equitable. The problem is, it is getting harder and harder to do. Just about everywhere, reflecting a real reduction in civil rights, especially the very basic rights to form or join organizations, and to protest. Labour rights globally are the most frequently violated category of human rights.
According to the latest ITUC report, the trends by governments and employers to restrict the rights of workers through violations of collective bargaining and the right to strike, and excluding workers from unions, have been made worse in 2020 by an increase in the number of countries which impede the registration of unions – denying workers both representation and rights.
The figures are severe:
Criminalisation of the right to strike in 85% of countries.
Erosion of collective bargaining in 80% of countries.
Exclusion of workers from the right to establish or join unions in 74% of countries.
Restrictions on access to justice in 72% of countries.
De-registration of unions in 62% of countries.
Arbitrary arrests, detention and imprisonment in 42% of countries.
This human rights crackdown is taking place in the context of rising inequality. Most people are living in increasingly unequal economies. Seven out of 10 people live in a country that has seen a rise in inequality in the last 30 years.
These negative trends have disproportionate impact on marginalized people in our societies. Around the world, migrant workers are commonly excluded from labour protections and the right to organize, simply because of their citizenship status. Care economy jobs, like domestic work, represent the largest share of jobs women migrate abroad to do and are virtually never covered by the right to organize. And racial discrimination: The lowest-paid person in USA in any industry is a black woman, regardless of skills and achievement. Racial and gender discrimination in pay represents billions of dollars in lost income for working people. Money that is instead lining someone else’s pockets.
We have global crackdown on human rights, especially labour rights; rising wealth and income inequality, especially for women and historically marginalized people, including people of colour and migrants. These trends are tearing at the fabric of political systems and actually reducing democracy and spreading disenfranchisement. This is all taking place in a global economy where the rules are deliberately skewed. The global marketplace is set up entirely on the belief that the free movement of capital and profit is desirable, even sacrosanct; and that the absence of regulation is necessary to encourage global economic growth.
Workers and their unions are the defenders of rights and freedoms, organising to build the power of working people, to stop the violations and end corporate greed. It’s time to change the rules. Organized workers have this power. Historically, authoritarian regimes have recognized the inchoate power of independent trade unions to contest their authority, taking action to either abolish trade unions outright or bring them under government control. One of the earliest strategic moves made by the Nazi government to consolidate its hold on power was an order for the dissolution of Germany’s free trade unions. Similarly, Franco’s Spain proscribed trade unions, imprisoned their leaders and subsequently enacted a Labour Charter creating a syndicalist trade union organization under the control of the State.
A democraticizing influence of trade unions requires that the movement be independent of state control. It is only an independent trade union movement that can effectively challenge the status quo balance of power; trade unions controlled by, or subservient to, the state will support the status quo from which they derive their existence. We see this in Belarus today, where the independent trade unions are in the forefront of the fight against the Lukachenko authoritarian regime.
There are several examples how trade unions are in the center of the fight for democracy and human rights. Like coalitions to rebuild democracy and fairness in Honduras after a coup; the rising up of workers in Tunisia, Egypt and Bahrain during the Arab Spring; the recent uprising in Sudan where millions of people in joined a general strike called by pro-reform groups, shutting down the centre of cities across the country despite a wave of arrests and intimidation; the ongoing and very brave movement for human rights in Zimbabwe, which is led by the country’s labour federation. And like the unheralded but absolutely essential drive to advance migrant worker rights around the world, from Burmese refugees enslaved on Thai fishing boats to Central Asian migrants exploited in service-sector jobs in Europe; and from Mexican agricultural workers trafficked to the United States for starvation-wage jobs to Kenyan women tricked into dehumanizing domestic work in the Middle East.