Our key takeaway: 2021 continued the last decade’s trend of progressively deteriorating workers’ rights. Myanmar and Belarus join the list of the ten worst countries for working people, alongside Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Honduras, The Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) released the 2021 edition of its annual flagship report, the ITUC Global Rights Index, which ranks “the world’s worst countries for workers” based on violations of international recognised labour rights by governments and employers in 149 countries:
Governments and employers deployed a variety of tactics to undermine the influence of unions. For example, during the last year “authorities impeded the registration of, deregistered or arbitrarily dissolved unions in 109 countries out of 149.” In effect, this erodes the right to organise, as official recognition of a union is a prerequisite in many countries and is “the first step that workers’ organisations must take in order to be able to function efficiently and represent their members adequately.” In addition, governments limited who could legally join unions, especially targeting migrant workers (who are among the most vulnerable to labour abuses). According to the ITUC, “thirty-two countries had adopted legislation prohibiting migrants from establishing and joining trade unions, restricting migrants’ ability to hold office in a trade union or otherwise denying them full rights to engage in union activities.” This had an even more chilling effect on organising in sectors that rely heavily on migrant labour.
There was a marked uptick in intimidation and attacks on workers and labour activists. Governments and some employers took a range of actions to keep workers and activists from exercising their rights. For instance, “[w]orkers were arrested and detained in 68 out of 149 countries in 2021” for participating in strikes and forming unions; governments particularly surveilled and targeted prominent leaders as a way to undermine union activities. Workers who were detained also faced barriers to justice: “[c]ountries which denied workers access to justice increased from 52% of countries in 2015 to 65% of countries in 2021.” Most disturbingly, some government and companies used violence to repress workers’ rights. According to the ITUC, “strikes and social protests were repressed with disproportionate force by the state armed force.” Further, “trade unionists were murdered in six countries: Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Myanmar, Nigeria and the Philippines.”
The global trend of “democracy in crisis” is exacerbating challenges for workers, but new legislative developments in some countries leave room for positive future progress. The ITUC believes that “[t]he systematic dismantling of the building blocks of freedom and democracy is taking place through sustained attacks on workers’ rights and workplace democracy as governments suppress free speech and assembly,” a trend only increasing over the past 7 years. At the same time, there were some positive legislative developments that speak to the power of effective democratic institutions, including new laws protecting workers in the United States and the European Union.
“Workers have been on the front lines of the global pandemic holding communities together. If governments don’t look after workers with rights and labour protections, workers can’t look after the economy. The risk to our democracies and economies is too much of a threat for governments to ignore.”