Inter-American Court Confirms Workers’ Right to Union Representation

A key decision of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights has re-affirmed that the rights of trade unions are protected in the Inter-American System, issuing an Advisory Opinion in response to a case brought by the Government of Panama in 2014.

In its amicus brief and oral testimony to the Court, the ITUC, supported by its regional organization TUCA, argued that freedom of association under the American Convention on Human Rights, should include not only the protection of individual workers but also their trade unions as organisations. The Court agreed, affirming the importance of unions as indispensable to defend the rights of workers, embedding protection under Article 8 of the Protocol to the American Convention for workers seeking justice from employers and governments.

The majority of the Court ruled in favour of the ITUC’s position, despite submissions from Argentina, Colombia and Guatemala, which would have deprived workers of this protection. The ITUC also argued that corporations do not have “legal person” standing, and the Court again accepted the ITUC’s arguments on this issue. Had the decision gone the other way, unions would not be able to challenge interference in or limitations to their activities, including the right to federate and confederate, or join international organisations, nor have standing to bring those claims.

ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow said “This ruling is crucial in the Americas, with the highest human rights authority in the region re-affirming the importance of the role of trade unions at a time when workers’ human rights are under sustained attack in many countries. For many people, particularly in Central America, the right to union representation is a matter of life and death. It is a welcome sign that when so many employers in the Americas fail to respect the ILO, the eminent jurists of the Inter-American Court of Human Rights have stood firm. Regional bodies such as this have an important role to play and we will continue our work to secure the respect for ILO standards at the regional level as well as through national legal processes and through UN and other global bodies.”

Advisory Opinion available at: