The grim statistics on workers’ rights will only be righted if global standards are properly enforced.
This year’s Global Rights Index from the International Trade Union Confederation, the ninth annual edition of the comprehensive review of workers’ rights worldwide, revealed a continuing deterioration in workers’ fundamental human rights to join or establish a trade union and to bargain collectively.
Of the 148 countries covered, 113 exclude workers from the protection of unions—up from 106 in last year’s report. Eighty-seven per cent of countries violate the right to strike, collective-bargaining rights are infringed in 80 per cent and workers in 50 countries experience physical violence due to their union activities.
Such denial of basic human rights is a major cause of low wages and stagnant or worsening living standards. This at a time when working families are facing enormous pressures from inflation, the impacts of climate change and growing precarity at work.
The failure to uphold international labour standards drives regulatory arbitrage, with multinational companies able to take advantage of lax standards to keep wages down, operate dangerous and unhealthy workplaces and in many cases maintain feudal structures at work. Companies which aim to do better, including by ensuring living wages and decent conditions for their workforce and having constructive relations with unions, are faced with competitive pressures from those that base their business models on exploitation.
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The recent ‘Uber Files’ show the lengths to which legislatures have been compromised, public opinion manipulated and laws and regulations violated and ignored. The company’s approach is that the relationship between worker and employer should be determined solely by the employer, to the detriment of the worker. Uber is not alone in this, with other large companies such as Amazon holding down pay and imposing arduous working conditions by devoting huge resources to stopping workers organising.
The impacts go beyond the workers in those companies themselves: their business practices have a chilling effect on rights elsewhere, which puts other workers at risk. Nor is the public sector immune, with wages falling further behind the cost of living and workers who in many cases kept countries afloat during the early stages of the pandemic being told they must accept austerity, in the name of economic orthodoxy.
The crumbling of respect for rights is in large measure due to governments failing to meet their obligations under the standards of the International Labour Organization. These standards are developed through tripartite negotiations at the ILO and when governments ratify them they undertake to ensure that the standards are implemented.
In fact, simply by virtue of being member states of the ILO, governments are subject to its supervision of the extent of compliance with two of the most fundamental standards, convention 87 on freedom of association and convention 98 on the right to organise and collective bargaining—even if they have not ratified them. The ILO’s strength derives in large measure not only from having governments as members but also the involvement in its supervisory processes of representatives of workers and employers.
That strength is however undermined when governments commit to rights and a regulated labour market at the ILO yet refuse to weave these standards into the fabric of the international trade and financial systems. It is ultimately working people who lose out from this contradiction, which weakens the ILO since the exclusion of workers from union membership, by government act or omission, weakens one of the crucial pillars of the tripartite system. Putting ILO standards at the heart of the rules of trade and finance would make a huge difference and help turn back the burgeoning inequality and economic insecurity which characterise the global economy today.
Of course it is not only governments which have a responsibility to act. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights establish the responsibility of companies to comply with standards and the pillars on which compliance must be based. These require due diligence to identify and prevent the risk of violation, provide grievance procedures and ensure remedy.
Companies have to carry out due diligence not only in their own direct operations but also other businesses which are part of their supply or value chain. Protection and prevention are essential and access to remedy just as important. In many countries, labour laws are weak, labour inspection is inadequate or effectively non-existent for large parts of the workforce and, even where the systems are in place, penalties for violations are derisory.
Some companies take this seriously of their own volition, with due diligence and remedy built into their operations, but a great many private employers do not. That is why unions, and others, are campaigning for due diligence to be mandated in law.
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A number of countries, primarily in Europe, have heeded the call and begun to legislate for mandatory due diligence. This has not always been done in a way that satisfies all the demands of unions—demands which are based on genuine need—but progress has been made in national jurisdictions.
At the supranational level, much attention has focused on the idea of a European directive on corporate due diligence, covering environmental, labour and other human-rights standards, on which the European Commission put forward a proposal in February. This would cover corporations with 500 or more employees and a minimum of €150 million net turnover, with lower thresholds set for companies in ‘high impact’ sectors. Small and medium enterprises are excluded but non-European companies that meet the thresholds and generate revenue in Europe would be included.
Recognising the need for a directive, given the failure of voluntary initiatives to deliver, the European Trade Union Confederation has set out clear demands for what should be included in such an instrument:
- all companies should be covered, including their supply and subcontracting chains;
- since workers’ rights to trade union membership and other protections are human rights, these should be equally protected as main components;
- the directive should provide for effective remedies and access to justice for victims/workers, including trade unions;
- liability must be introduced for cases where companies fail to respect their due-diligence obligations, without prejudice to joint-and-several liability frameworks, and
- the directive should ensure full involvement of trade unions and workers’ representatives, including European works councils, throughout the whole due-diligence process.
The ETUC describes the commission proposal as an important first step—but a bare minimum.
New social contract
While significant steps forward are being made, and existing standards such as the Guidelines on Multinational Enterprises from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development are having an impact, the rules of the global economy are still stacked against workers. That’s why the ITUC is calling for a new social contract, built on the foundations of decent wages, workers’ rights, social protection, job creation, equality and inclusion. That will be the theme of the ITUC World Congress this November in Melbourne.
The world is equipped with a sound body of international labour standards, set through the ILO and in many cases respected and enforced by governments. But the exclusion of these standards from the rules of trade and finance, and the capacity for irresponsible companies to violate them as part of their business model, must be brought to an end.
Without that, the grim scores on the ITUC Global Rights Index will continue to deteriorate—and working people in every region will still experience inadequate wages, dangerous and unhealthy jobs and increasing precarity in their working lives and those of their dependents.