ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow congratulates UGTT Secretary General Houcine Abassi on the Tunisian unions' Nobel Prize win at ITUC AGM. Photo: ITUC
Workers’ rights: no longer safe anywhere? #BAD2015
I’ve just come back from the annual meeting of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) general council, held ahead of the CUT Brazilian trade union movement’s congress in Sao Paulo. As usual, we heard appalling tales about union repression and the persecution of workers from around the world. And we were buoyed up by the announcement on the first day of the general council meeting that our Tunisian colleagues in the UGTT had shared in this year’s Nobel Peace Prize, demonstrating that, as ILO Director General Guy Ryder tweeted, #socialdialogueworks.
But the big news of the three-day meeting was that the restriction of trade union rights was no longer a phenomenon practised by autocratic regimes. Democracies are getting in on the act, too, with Finland, Spain and the United Kingdom the latest to experience a new global phenomenon. Are workers’ rights safe anywhere?
The ITUC publishes an annual Global Rights Index which shows the worst offenders in terms of abusing trade union rights as determined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Earlier this year we ran a series of blogs about the ten worst offenders. We’ve always sort of assumed that these were problems that affected other countries – feudal anachronisms like Saudi Arabia and Swaziland, failed states like Iraq, or theocracies like Iran.
We’ve argued that UK labour laws have been out of compliance with ILO standards for years too, of course, and there are developed democracies like the USA which stand out for failing to ratify all eight of the ILO’s core conventions. Countries like Australia seem to suffer regular Royal Commissions to attack trade unions whenever Labor is out of office. But, especially in Europe, we have argued that the social model protects union rights, and it is a condition of EU membership that all eight ILO core conventions are ratified.
Since the global crisis struck, that is no longer the case. So-called ‘programme’ countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal have experienced European Commission-sponsored assaults on collective bargaining, and both Spain and the UK have governments seemingly committed to criminalising strike action, even if the British Government does seem to be wavering on its more outrageous restrictions. Even Finland – part of the Scandinavian home of social democracy and union rights – has seen an attack on collective bargaining which brought tens of thousands onto Helsinki’s normally demo-free streets this autumn.
Amnesty International have identified a growing shrinkage of ‘democratic space’ – the potential for peaceful protest and legitimate challenges to authority, and the UK Trade Union Bill is an example of a measure that would restrict the ability of vulnerable workers to challenge bad behaviour by their bosses. It’s part of a worldwide trend, and one that the global trade union movement is now aware of and becoming active against.
As well as the Nobel Peace Prize, there are other signs that we can win our campaigns. The Canadian trade union movement has convinced their Supreme Court to insist that the right to strike is a fundamental human right, and the Irish trade union movement has secured new legislation that restores collective bargaining. These are important victories not just because they will secure rights at work and better terms and conditions for working people, but because they show we can succeed.
Freedom is now the watchword of the whole global trade union movement. It’s vital so that workers can have a voice.