2019-2020 has seen a rise in repression of workers’ rights by governments and employers globally, with violations of workers’ rights hitting a seven-year high; breakdowns in rights to freedom of association, speech and collective bargaining pose challenges for companies seeking to responsibly operate in or source from a number of countries (ITUC Global Rights Index 2020)

Week of 22 June 2020

2019-2020 has seen a rise in repression of workers’ rights by governments and employers globally, with violations of workers’ rights hitting a seven-year high; breakdowns in rights to freedom of association, speech and collective bargaining pose challenges for companies seeking to responsibly operate in or source from a number of countries (ITUC Global Rights Index 2020)

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), a global network of trade unions that promotes workers’ rights and interests through international cooperation, released its seventh annual Global Rights Index. The Global Rights Index ranks 144 countries on respect for workers’ rights and “documents violations of internationally recognised labour rights by governments and employers.” The 2020 Index found that violations of workers’ rights have hit a “seven-year high,” remaining the same or worsening in almost every category measured by the Index.

Topline findings of the report are as follows:

  • “An increase in the number of countries that deny or constrain freedom of speech shows the fragility of democracies while the number of countries restricting access to justice has remained unacceptably high at last year’s levels.” ITUC reports that the COVID-19 pandemic has further exacerbated these issues by increasing tensions between government, employers and employees, and negatively impacting livelihoods for many of the world’s most vulnerable workers.
  • The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) is ranked as “the worst region in the world” for the seventh consecutive year. Conflicts and political instability in Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Libya create insecurity for workers and their families, and MENA governments are on the whole the most “regressive … for workers’ representation and union rights.”
  • The ten worst countries for workers in 2020 are Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Honduras, India, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe. Labor rights worsened in Jordan, Pakistan, South Africa, Togo and Venezuela; at the same time, labor rights improved in 8 countries: Argentina, Canada, Ghana, Namibia, Qatar, Sierra Leone, Spain and Vietnam.
  • 85% of countries ranked in the Index violated the right to strike: for example, Belarus, Guinea, Senegal and Togo banned worker strikes and demonstrations; government forces used violence to break up protests in 51 countries, including Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador; and protestors were arrested in Iran and Iraq. Further, the Americas “became the deadliest place for workers,” with workers killed at protests in six countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador and Honduras; workers were also killed in Iraq, the Philippines and South Africa.
  • 80% of countries violated the right to collective bargaining: for example, Egypt and Honduras instituted laws to make joining unions more difficult and removing some worker representatives from their positions. In addition, 89 countries enforced rules or practices that impeded the formation of unions, up from 86 countries in 2019.
  • 56 countries “denied or constrained freedom of speech,” an increase from 54 in 2019.
  • Activists in 61 countries were arrested or detained for labour advocacy, and in 72% of countries workers had “no or restricted access to justice.” Trade union leaders remain imprisoned in many countries. For example, 38 labour activists in Iran are “still arbitrarily imprisoned, often detained in remote secret prisons, subjected to ill-treatment and denied access to a lawyer.”

The Index identifies three global trends for workers in 2020:

  1. Dismantling of workplace democracy and the breakdown of the social contract: Over the past seven years, fundamental civil and political rights have eroded in many countries as democracies declined globally. ITUC reports that “[t]he number of countries that restricted freedom of speech and assembly has seen the highest increase in 2020. Restrictions on the right to strike have seen the biggest increase in seven years followed by the right to collective bargaining and the right to establish and join a trade union.”

  2. Surveillance of workers: ITUC reports that 2019 and 2020 saw an increase in surveillance of workers and labour activists globally, in violation of the rights to freedom of association and protection of workers’ representatives. 

  3. Legislative power: ITUC finds that legislation is being used as a tool both to protect workers’ rights and to undermine them. Some countries “passed regressive legislation that seriously undermined workers’ basic rights at work”, while other countries “adopted progressive laws which further advanced workers’ rights and social progress.” For instance, Qatar passed reforms that abolished employers’ ability to restrict workers from leaving the country and raised the minimum wage and Vietnam amended its Labour Code to give independent unions some of the same rights to recruit and collectively bargain as state-sponsored unions.
“The breakdown of the social contract is exposed in the 2020 ITUC Global Rights Index with violations of workers’ rights at a seven-year high. The trends by governments and employers to restrict the rights of workers through violations of collective bargaining and the right to strike, and excluding workers from unions, have been made worse in 2020 by an increase in the number of countries which impede the registration of unions – denying workers both representation and rights.”