Attacks on workers’ rights are on the rise—in no region of the world can they be taken for granted any longer.
Before you can set out the solution to a problem, you need to know its scale. When it comes to attacks on workers’ rights, the tenth edition of the Global Rights Index published by the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) shows clearly that the problem is big—and getting bigger. But the solution is also clear, embodied in a new social contract which can build a better world for working people.
The 2023 index provides shocking evidence that the foundations of democracy are under attack, with a clear link between the vindication of workers’ rights and the strength of any democracy. The erosion of one, conversely, amounts to degradation of the other.
No longer a bastion
Europe has long considered itself a bastion of democracy and workers’ rights. Its overall rating since the first index has however crumbled, from 1.84 in 2014 to 2.56 in 2023 (one is the best rating, five-plus the worst). In the criteria of the index, this amounts to somewhere between repeated and regular violations of rights.
Workers in Belarus, Kazakhstan and Turkey face surveillance, imprisonment and brutality from regimes that share autocratic traits. Working people even in the Netherlands and Belgium have seen a tightening of restrictions and refusal by governments and employers to negotiate with trade-union representatives.
In France, lawful protests demanding dialogue with trade unions on an alternative to the pensions reform pushed by the president, Emmanuel Macron, have met vicious police beatings, indiscriminate arrests and tear gas. In the United Kingdom, union-busting, attempts to introduce legislation curtailing the right to strike and protest, and violations of collective-bargaining agreements have become endemic and led to the country’s rating dropping to four—systematic violations of rights.
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Across the world, in both high- and low-income countries, even though working people have faced a historic cost-of-living crisis and spiralling inflation driven by corporate greed, governments have cracked down on the right to negotiate wage rises collectively and take strike action.
According to the 2023 index, nine out of ten countries violate the right to strike, with working people in Canada, Togo, Iran, Cambodia and Spain facing criminal prosecution or dismissal. Eight out of ten violate the right to collective bargaining.
Seventy-seven per cent of countries exclude working people from the right to establish or join a trade union, with migrant, domestic and temporary workers, those in the informal economy, platform workers and workers in special economic zones denied the right to freedom of association. Burundi, Haiti, India, Turkey and the United Arab Emirates are among the countries excluding working people from union representation.
The right to free speech and assembly is restricted in 42 per cent of countries, often resulting in protesting workers facing police brutality. In Iran, teachers have been arrested and beaten by the police for taking part in May Day demonstrations.
Seventy-three per cent of countries impede the registration of unions or ban them, including Belarus, Myanmar, Hong Kong, the Central African Republic and Guatemala. Workers have been arrested and detained in 69 countries and in 65 per cent working people have no or restricted access to justice.
Workers have experienced violence in 44 countries. In the Asia-Pacific region, the incidence of violence against working people has risen from 43 per cent of countries in 2022 to 48 per cent in 2023 and from 42 to 53 per cent in the middle east and north Africa. Trade unionists have been killed in eight countries.
Worst for workers
The 2023 index indicates that the ten worst countries for working people are: Bangladesh, Belarus, Ecuador, Egypt, Eswatini, Guatemala, Myanmar, Tunisia, the Philippines and Turkey. In Ecuador, mass protests calling for democracy and collective rights, organised by indigenous peoples’ organisations and trade unions, have been brutally repressed. In Tunisia, the president, Kais Saied, has undermined workers’ civil liberties and democratic institutions.
We see the line between autocracies and democracies blurring. When dialogue between states and citizens breaks down, when nations flirt with autocracy to pass unpopular laws, when parliaments are pushed aside and when governments deploy state forces to quell lawful resistance, then democracy is on the line and working people suffer the consequences.
To repair the fabric of our societies, to renew and establish democracy and to support working people we need a new social contract based on decent jobs, just wages, social protection, fundamental rights—including safe and secure work—and the assurance of equality and inclusion. That was the unanimous call of the ITUC’s Melbourne congress last November and it is more crucial than ever to restore democracy, equality and decency, and to give workers their fair share of economic growth.
In many countries we see that trust in government is broken and the far right is stepping into the breach, to sow division and further threaten fundamental liberties. It is thus essential to rebuild trust and ensure our democracies are fit for purpose to meet the needs of working people and the demands of an uncertain future—a future where the climate crisis, technological change, challenges to public health and geopolitical instability will continue to generate shocks.
Working people must be listened to and they must be at the centre of government decisions. To articulate and advance this, workers’ unions in turn have never been more essential. The global trade union movement, led by the ITUC, will act in solidarity—an attack on one of us is an attack on all—and raise its voice loud and clear against any violations of workers’ rights.