The state of workers’ rights

Anna Triponel

July 8, 2022
Our key takeaway: According to the ITUC, the ten worst countries in the world for workers’ rights in 2022 are Bangladesh, Belarus, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Eswatini, Guatemala, Myanmar, the Philippines and Turkey. Two of these (Eswatini and Guatemala) are new additions to the list. Nine other countries saw their ratings worsen (Armenia, Australia, Burkina Faso, Guinea, Jamaica, Lesotho, the Netherlands, Tunisia and Uruguay) and one (Afghanistan) has experienced a breakdown in rule of law leading to no guarantee of workers’ rights. At the same time, three countries have improved their ratings (El Salvador, Niger and Saudi Arabia). Overall, the findings of ITUC’s annual reporting on the state of global workers’ rights paint a concerning picture, wherein the rights to strike, to join trade unions and to collectively bargain are being eroded by governments and companies alike—sometimes with brutal violence or judicial persecution. One key question comes to mind: How can a post-pandemic economic recovery and a just energy transition happen if governments and companies continue to repress the rights of workers?

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released its 2022 ITUC Global Rights Index (July 2022), which ranks the degree of respect for workers’ rights in 148 countries and tracks trends based on violations of international recognised labour rights by governments and employers:

  • Constraints on the right to join a trade union and the right to strike: In line with previous years’ findings, ITUC found that there continued to be significant obstacles to workers forming and joining trade unions, undermining their rights to collective bargaining, to freedom of association, and to strike. In 2022, 74% of countries impeded union registration, an increase from 59% in 2014, the first year of reporting. In nearly three-quarters of countries, workers were barred from joining and establishing trade unions. Some of these limitations were targeted at the most vulnerable workers, including “migrant workers, public sector workers, and workers in export processing zones.” One key example of this is in the UAE, where the kafala system is still in place and where migrant workers cannot participate in collective bargaining. The report also found that across every region globally, “collective bargaining is being eroded in both public and private sectors” with 79% of countries violating this right. As one extreme example, Tunisia has barred any negotiation with unions without authorisation of the head of government. Overall, 87% of countries violated the right to strike, with judicial prosecution of union leaders in Belarus, Egypt, India and the Philippines and violent crackdowns in Myanmar and Sudan. 
  • Violence and intimidation perpetuated by government and the private sector: In 2022, workers in 50 countries faced physical violence and attacks, up from 45 in 2021. This was particularly the case in the Asia-Pacific region, which “saw a significant increase in countries where workers faced violence, rising from 35 per cent of countries in 2021 to 43 per cent of countries in 2022.” The increases were striking in Europe, where “the number of countries where workers faced violence doubled from 12 per cent in 2021 to 26 per cent of countries in 2022.” There were also murders of trade unionists and labour activists in 13 countries, including Bangladesh, Colombia, Ecuador, Eswatini, Guatemala, Haiti, India, Iraq, Italy, Lesotho, Myanmar, the Philippines and South Africa. Sixty-nine countries arbitrarily arrested or detained workers in connection with labour organising activities, including high-profile, ongoing cases in Cambodia, Hong Kong and Myanmar. What’s more, in 66% of countries, “workers had no or restricted access to justice … with severe cases reported in Belarus, Guatemala and Kazakhstan. Africa saw the greatest regional increase in restrictions on access to justice from 76 per cent of countries in 2021 to 95 per cent of countries in 2022.”
  • Rise in precarious work situations: ITUC emphasises the difficult road ahead: “Governments and employers have to face reality and recognise the state of the labour market when 60 per cent of people are in informal work with no rights, no rule of law and little or no social protection.” ITUC points out that, “[e]ven for the 40 per cent of people with some form of employment contract, more than a third have precarious or insecure jobs, including those subjected to dehumanising exploitation in too many of our global supply chains, on which the massive profits of corporations depend.” What’s more, this is not just a problem of the developing world—we’re seeing a rise in labour concerns across every geography and every sector, including workers in “platform businesses, big tech and tech spinoffs.”

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