ITUC Global Rights Index 2019: Democracy in crisis as brutal repression used to silence age of anger

photo: Chris Faga/NurPhoto/AFP

New technology allows employers to avoid paying minimum entitlements and exclude workers from labour laws.

The systematic dismantling of the foundations of workplace democracy and the violent repression of strikes and protests put peace and stability at risk, according to the annual ITUC Global Rights Index. Extreme violence against the defenders of workplace rights saw large scale arrests and detentions in India, Turkey and Vietnam.

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation said, “From Hong Kong to Mauritania, the Philippines to Turkey, governments are attempting to silence the age of anger by constraining freedom of speech and assembly. In 72% of countries, workers had no or restricted access to justice, with severe cases reported in Cambodia, China, Iran and Zimbabwe.

“The breakdown of the social contract between workers, governments and business has seen the number of countries which exclude workers from the right to establish or join a trade union increase from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019. The greatest increase took place in Europe where 50% of countries now exclude groups of workers from the law, up from 20% in 2018. Decent work is being affected and rights are being denied by companies avoiding rules and regulations.”

“No worker should be left behind because their employer chooses to adopt a business model that obscures employment responsibility or their government refuses legislation to enforce workers’ rights. More and more governments are complicit in facilitating labour exploitation because workers are forced to work in the informal sector of the economy,” said Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, ITUC.

Attacks on the right to strike in 85% of countries and collective bargaining in 80% of countries undermine the role of trade unions. All strikes and demonstrations were banned in Chad, while court orders were used to stop strike actions in Croatia, Georgia, Kenya and Nigeria. Europe, traditionally the mainstay of collective bargaining rights, saw companies in Estonia, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain undermine workers’ rights.

“Companies who have systematically attacked workers’ rights now face global protests. Uber is battling strikes and regulatory battles from Australia to South Korea, Mumbai to San Francisco. Workers in Amazon warehouses in Europe and the USA engaged in protest and strike actions and unions across Europe staged the biggest strike in Ryanair’s history. Corporate greed may be global, but workers’ actions are unified on a scale not seen before,” said Burrow.

The ITUC Global Rights Index 2019 ranks 145 countries against 97 internationally recognised indicators to assess where workers’ rights are best protected in law and in practice.

The report’s key findings include:

  • 85% of countries have violated the right to strike.
  • 80% of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining.
  • The number of countries which exclude workers from the right to establish or join a trade union increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019.
  • Workers had no or restricted access to justice in 72% of countries.
  • The number of countries where workers are arrested and detained increased from 59 in 2018 to 64 in 2019.
  • Out of 145 countries surveyed, 54 deny or constrain free speech and freedom of assembly.
  • Authorities impeded the registration of unions in 59% of countries.
  • Workers experienced violence in 52 countries.
  • Trade unionists were murdered in ten countries - Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe.

“Trade unions are on the front lines in a struggle to claim democratic rights and freedoms from the corporate greed that has captured governments such that they act against workers’ rights. We need a New Social Contract between workers, governments and business to rebuild trust as people lose faith in democracies. It’s time to change the rules,” said Burrow.

The report ranks the ten worst countries for workers’ rights in 2019 as Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Zimbabwe.

Brazil and Zimbabwe entered the ten worst countries for the first time with the adoption of regressive laws, violent repression of strikes and protest, and threats and intimidation of union leaders.

Belgium, Brazil, Eswatini, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Vietnam have all seen their rankings worsen in 2019 with a rise in attacks on workers’ rights in law and practice.

The Middle East and North Africa was again the worst region for treatment of workers, with the kafala system continuing to exclude migrants, the overwhelming majority of the workforce, from any labour protection, leaving 90% of the workforce unable to access their rights to form or join a trade union. The absolute denial of basic workers’ rights remained in place in Saudi Arabia where an Indonesian worker was secretly executed.

Conditions in Asia-Pacific deteriorated more than any other region with an increase in violence, criminalisation of the right to the strike and violent attacks on workers. Ten trade unionists were murdered in the Philippines in 2018.

In Africa, workers were arrested or detained in 49% of countries. Attacks on workers reached unprecedented levels in Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Ghana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe as security forces fired live ammunition at protesting workers.

The Americas remain plagued by the pervasive climate of extreme violence and repression against workers and union members; in Colombia alone, 34 trade unionists were murdered in 2018 – a dramatic rise from 15 in the previous year.

In Europe, workers were arrested and detained in 25% of countries. Trade union leaders were murdered in Turkey and Italy.

The ITUC has been collecting data on violations of workers’ rights to trade union membership and collective bargaining around the world for more than 30 years. This is the sixth year the ITUC has presented its findings through the Global Rights Index, putting a unique and comprehensive spotlight on how government laws and business practices have deteriorated or improved in the last 12 months.

The three global trends for workers’ rights identified in the 2019 Global Rights Index show that democracy is in crisis, governments are attempting to silence the age of anger through brutal repression, but legislative successes for workers’ rights are still being won.

“After four years of campaigning by Dunnes Stores workers and union activists, the Irish government brought in legislation to ban zero hours contracts and strengthen the regulation of precarious work. The New Zealand coalition government too, has continued to repeal regressive labour laws and restore protections for workers and strengthen the role of collective bargaining in the workplace,” said Burrow.

The 2019 ITUC Global Rights Index rates countries according to 97 indicators, with an overall score placing countries in rankings of one to five plus.

1 Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries including Iceland and Sweden.
2 Repeated violations of rights: 24 countries including Belgium and Republic of Congo.
3 Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Canada and Rwanda.
4 Systematic violations of rights: 39 countries including Chile and Nigeria.
5 No guarantee of rights: 35 countries including Brazil and Eritrea.
5+ No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including, Palestine, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.