Wednesday, 11 July 2018

Global Labour Rights in Decline

According to the ITUC Global Rights Index 2018, which ranks 142 countries against 97 internationally recognised indicators to assess workers’ rights, the democratic space for workers is shrinking. The three global trends for workers’ rights identified in the 2018 Global Rights Index are: shrinking democratic space, unchecked corporate influence and the importance of legislation.

Freedom of association, free speech and the right to strike are being supressed the world over and the ITUC notes that the number of countries with arbitrary arrests and detention of workers is on the rise, with the number increasing from 44 in 2017 to 59 so far this year. Freedom of speech was constrained in 54 countries.
This troubling trend was captured by Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation:

Decent work and democratic rights grew weaker in almost all countries, while inequality continued to grow. This was fuelled by the outrageous behaviour of many multinational companies…[1]

The Index warns that workers’ rights are in need of stronger protections. Key findings include:

·         65% of countries exclude some groups of workers from labour law.

·         87% of countries have violated the right to strike.

·         81% of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining.

·         Out of 142 countries surveyed, 54 deny or constrain free speech and freedom of assembly.

·         The number of countries in which workers are exposed to physical violence and threats increased by 10% (from 59 to 65) and include Bahrain, Honduras, Italy and Pakistan.

·         Countries where workers are arrested and detained increased from 44 in 2017 to 59 in 2018.

·         Trade unionists were murdered in nine countries - Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Guinea, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria and Tanzania.

Can Democracy Reverse the Trend?

The Index suggests that perhaps the best way to reverse the trend of the erosion of labour right is through democracy and legislative change(s). Burrow notes that there are several countries which recently demonstrated the power of democracy to protect labour rights, and approves of Canada’s recent treatment of labour rights:

The power of democracy to change the rules was shown with newly elected governments in Iceland, Canada and New Zealand acting in the interests of working people, with laws to close the gender pay gap, provide paid domestic violence leave and increase wages for care workers.

Burrows also notes the challenge that governments face is the obvious challenge that those who govern have always faced: how to prioritize people first:

The challenge for governments is to govern for people, not for corporate interests, and make laws that respect international labour standards and keep open the democratic space that gives workers a voice in their community and workplaces. Without this we face an insecure and fractured world.

According to Burrows, the increasing failure of governments to protect labour right threatens democracy and security. Burrows suggests that democracy can reverse the tide by legislating changes to the rules which would halt the violations of labour rights and curtail corporate greed. Though this may be true, democracy can clearly cut both ways. In the U.S., for example, the democratic election of Donald Trump may bode poorly for labour rights in the U.S.

In Ontario, however, we saw some positive movement in this direction with the Changing Workplaces Review, and the subsequent legislated improvements to employment and labour legislation. But these changes are just a start and there is much more to do. Whether the new Ford government will help or hinder the labour movement remains to be seen. One thing is certain, however, labour needs to remain vigilant in asserting its interests and reminding those in power that a strong labour movement is in everyone’s best interests.

[1] International Trade Union Confederation 2018, ITUC Global Rights Index 2018 : Democratic space shrinks and unchecked corporate greed on the rise. Available from: