Only the grim statistics on workers’ rights will be corrected If global standards are properly implemented.
This year’s International Trade Union Confederation’s Global Rights Index, the ninth annual edition of its comprehensive review of workers’ rights worldwide, revealed a continuing decline in workers’ basic human rights to join or establish a trade union and to bargain collectively.
Of the 148 countries covered, 113 excluded workers from union protection—up from 106 in last year’s report. 87 percent of countries violate the right to strike, 80 percent of collective bargaining rights are violated, and workers in 50 countries experience physical violence from their union activities.
Such denial of basic human rights is a major cause of low wages and stagnant or deteriorating living standards. This is at a time when working families face enormous pressures from inflation, the effects of climate change and increasing uncertainties at work.
Laws are violated
Failure to uphold international labor standards prompts regulatory arbitrage, with multinational companies able to take advantage of lax standards to lower wages, maintain dangerous and unhealthy workplaces, and in many cases maintain feudal structures at work. Companies that aim to do well, including ensuring a living wage and decent conditions for their employees and having constructive relationships with unions, face competitive pressures that base their business models on exploitation.
The latest ‘Uber files’ show that legislatures have been compromised, public opinion has been manipulated and laws and regulations have been flouted and ignored. The company’s approach is that the relationship between the worker and the employer should be decided by the employer alone, to the detriment of the worker. Uber isn’t alone in this, with other big companies like Amazon holding down wages and devoting huge resources to stopping workers from organizing, imposing grueling working conditions.
The effects go beyond the workers at those companies: their business practices have a chilling effect on rights elsewhere, putting other workers at risk. Or the public sector is not immune, wages have fallen far below the cost of living and workers who kept countries afloat in the early stages of the pandemic are told they must accept austerity in the name of economic orthodoxy.
The decline in respect for rights is largely due to the failure of governments to meet their obligations under International Labor Organization standards. These standards are developed through tripartite negotiations at the ILO, and when governments ratify them they undertake to ensure that the standards are implemented.
Indeed, by virtue of being member states of the ILO, governments are subject to its oversight of the scope of compliance with two fundamental standards, Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining – even if they have not ratified them. The strength of the ILO derives not only from having governments as members but also from the participation of workers’ and employers’ representatives in supervisory processes.
However that power is undermined when governments commit to rights and a regulated labor market at the ILO and refuse to weave these standards into the fabric of international trade and financial systems. Ultimately the working people lose out from this contradiction, which weakens the ILO, which by excluding workers from union membership, undermines one of the crucial pillars of the tripartite system by government act or omission. Putting ILO standards at the heart of trade and financial regulation would make a huge difference and help reverse the growing inequality and financial insecurity that characterize the global economy today.
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The reason is due diligence
Of course, the responsibility to act is not limited to governments. The United Nations Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights establish the responsibility of companies to comply with the standards and the pillars upon which compliance should be based. These require due diligence to identify and prevent the risk of infringement, provide complaint procedures and ensure redress.
Companies must conduct due diligence not only in their own direct operations but also in other businesses that are part of their supply or value chain. Protection and prevention are essential and access to redress is equally important. In many countries, labor laws are weak, labor inspections are inadequate or effectively non-existent for large parts of the workforce, and even when systems are in place, penalties for violations are ludicrous.
Some companies take this seriously of their own accord, with due diligence and compensation built into their operations, but most private employers do not. That’s why unions and others are campaigning for due diligence to be mandated in law.
Several countries, primarily in Europe, have heeded the call and begun to legislate for due diligence. This has not always been done in a way that meets all the demands of unions – demands based on genuine need – but progress has been made in national jurisdictions.
At the highest level, corporate due diligence has focused much attention on the idea of a European directive covering environmental, labor and other human rights standards, on which the European Commission put forward a proposal in February. This includes corporations with 500 or more employees and a net turnover of at least €150 million, 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 are included.
Recognizing the need for directives and the failure of voluntary initiatives to deliver, the European Trade Union Confederation has set clear demands on what such an instrument should include:
- All companies must include their supply and subcontracting chains;
- Since workers’ rights and other protections for trade union membership are human rights, these should be equally protected as core components;
- The Directive should provide effective remedies and access to justice for victims/workers including trade unions;
- Without prejudice to joint-and-several liability frameworks, liability should be introduced for cases where companies fail to honor their due diligence obligations and
- The Directive should ensure the full involvement of trade unions and workers’ representatives, including European Works Councils, in the due diligence process.
The ETUC describes the Commission’s proposal as an important first step—but minimal.
A new social contract
While significant steps are being taken, and existing standards such as the Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises from the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development are having an impact, the rules of the global economy are still stacked against workers. That is 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 topic of the ITUC World Congress in Melbourne in November.
The world has a good body of international labor standards, set by the ILO and in many cases respected and enforced by governments. But the exclusion of these standards from business and financial regulations and the ability of irresponsible companies to violate them as part of their business model should end.
Without it, grim scores on the ITUC Global Rights Index will continue to decline—and working people in every region will experience inadequate wages, dangerous and unhealthy jobs, and increasing uncertainty in their working lives and those of their dependents.
Sharan Burrow is the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.