How to restore workers’ rights – Sharan Burrow
The grim statistics on workers’ rights will only be corrected whether global standards are correctly applied.
This year’s Global Rights Index from the International Trade Union Confederation, the ninth annual comprehensive review of workers’ rights around the world, has revealed a continuing deterioration in workers’ basic human rights to join or form a union. and to bargain collectively.
Of the 148 countries covered, 113 exclude workers from union protection, up from 106 in last year’s report. Eighty-seven percent of countries violate the right to strike, collective bargaining rights are violated in 80 percent, and workers in 50 countries face physical violence as a result of their union activities.
Such denial of basic human rights is a major cause of low wages and stagnating or deteriorating living standards. This at a time when working families face enormous pressures from inflation, the impacts of climate change and growing job insecurity.
Failure to comply with international labor standards results in regulatory arbitrage, as multinational companies can take advantage of lax standards to keep wages low, operate unsafe and unhealthy workplaces and, in many cases, maintain feudal workplace structures. Companies that aim to do better, including ensuring decent wages and conditions for their workforce and maintaining constructive relationships with unions, face competitive pressures from those that base their business models on the operation.
The recent “Uber Files” show how 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 big companies like Amazon limiting wages and imposing harsh working conditions by devoting huge resources to preventing workers from organizing.
The impacts go beyond the workers of these companies themselves: their business practices have a chilling effect on rights elsewhere, putting other workers at risk. The public sector is also not immune, with wages falling even further than the cost of living and workers who in many cases kept countries afloat during the early stages of the pandemic, are being told that they must accept austerity, in the name of economic orthodoxy.
The erosion of respect for rights is largely due to governments failing to meet their obligations under the standards of the International Labor Organization. These standards are developed through tripartite negotiations at the ILO and when governments ratify them they commit to ensuring that the standards are implemented.
In fact, by the mere fact of being member states of the ILO, governments are subject to its control over compliance with two of the most fundamental standards, convention 87 on freedom of association and convention 98 on right to organize and collective bargaining. — even if they have not ratified them. The strength of the ILO stems in large part not only from the presence of governments among its members, but also from the participation in its supervisory processes of workers’ and employers’ representatives.
This strength is undermined, however, when governments commit to rights and a regulated labor market at the ILO, but refuse to weave these standards into the fabric of international trade and financial systems. It is ultimately the workers who are the big losers in this contradiction which weakens the ILO since the exclusion of workers from trade union membership, by act or omission of the government, weakens one of the crucial pillars of the tripartite system. Placing ILO standards at the heart of trade and finance rules would make a huge difference and help reverse the growing inequalities and economic insecurity that characterize the global economy today.
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Of course, it is not just governments that have the responsibility to act. The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights establish the corporate responsibility to comply with the standards and the pillars on which compliance should be based. These require due diligence to identify and prevent the risk of breach, provide complaint procedures and ensure remedy.
Businesses must perform 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 remedies equally important. In many countries, labor laws are weak, labor inspection is inadequate or non-existent for a large part of the workforce and, even where systems are in place, penalties for violations are paltry. .
Some companies take this seriously on their own accord, with due diligence and remedies built into their operations, but a large number of private employers do not. This is why unions, and others, are campaigning for due diligence to be mandatory in law.
A number of countries, mainly in Europe, have answered the call and have started legislating mandatory due diligence. This has not always been done in a way that meets all the demands of the unions – demands based on real 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, labor and other human rights standards, on which the European Commission has presented a proposal in February. This would cover companies 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-sized enterprises are excluded, but non-European enterprises that meet the thresholds and generate income in Europe would be included.
Recognizing the need for a directive, given the failure of voluntary initiatives, the European Trade Union Confederation has formulated clear demands on what should be included in such an instrument:
- all companies must be covered, including their supply and subcontracting chains;
- since workers’ rights to union membership and other protections are human rights, these should also be protected as core components;
- the directive should provide for effective remedies and access to justice for victims/workers, including trade unions;
- liability should be introduced for cases where companies fail to meet their due diligence obligations, without prejudice to joint and several liability frameworks, and
- the directive should ensure the full involvement of trade unions and workers’ representatives, including European works councils, throughout the due diligence process.
The ETUC describes the committee’s proposal as an important first step, but a bare minimum.
New social contract
While significant progress is being made and existing standards such as the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises are having an impact, the rules of the global economy continue to disadvantage workers. This is why the ITUC calls for a new social contract, based on living wages, workers’ rights, social protection, job creation, equality and inclusion. This will be the theme of the ITUC World Congress in November in Melbourne.
The world has a strong body of international labor standards, set through the ILO and, in many cases, respected and enforced by governments. But the exclusion of these norms from the rules of trade and finance, and the ability of irresponsible companies to violate them as part of their business model, must end.
Without this, the dismal scores of the ITUC Global Rights Index will continue to deteriorate and workers in all regions will continue to experience inadequate wages, unsafe and unhealthy jobs and increasing precariousness in their working lives and those of their families. dependents.
Sharan Burrow is General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.