ITUC Global Rights Index 2018: With democracy under attack — it’s time to change the rules.

When the defenders of workers’ rights are jailed, freedom is taken from all of us. The suppression of workers’ rights and the number of arrests and detention of trade union members recorded in the 2018 ITUC Global Rights Index is on the increase.

Brazil, Iran and South Korea have all unjustly imprisoned leaders who have fought for workers’ rights. The arrest of former President Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil, the imprisonment of Mahmoud Salehi one of the founders of the Coordinating Committee of Labour Organizations in Iran and the three years served by Han Sang-gyun former leader of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) before he was granted parole last month are signs of the global attacks on workers’ rights and freedoms.

Shrinking democratic space for working people and unchecked corporate influence are on the rise. The 2018 Global Rights Index saw restrictions on free speech and protests and increasingly violent attacks on the defenders of workers’ rights. Decent work and democratic rights grew weaker in almost all countries, while inequality continued to grow.

Repressive regimes are spreading, with a deterioration of rights and freedoms in Algeria, Belarus and Egypt. Turkey’s descent into autocracy showed the fragility of peace and democracy.

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Democracy is under attack in countries that failed to guarantee people’s rights to organise, speak out and take action. Brazil passed laws that denied freedom of association, China restricted free speech and the military was used to suppress labour disputes in Indonesia. The number of countries that deny or constrain freedom of speech increased from 50 in 2017 to 54 in 2018.

Business interests led by the American Chamber of Commerce heavily influenced governments in a number of countries including Moldova and Romania, undermining collective bargaining. This was fuelled by the outrageous behaviour of many multinational companies, such as Samsung whose anti-union practices deny workers freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, as shown in internal company documents seized from their offices in Korea. Eighty-one per cent of countries have violated the right to collective bargaining.

The power of democracy to change the rules was shown with newly elected governments in Iceland, Canada and New Zealand acting in the interests of working people, with laws to close the gender pay gap, provide paid domestic violence leave, increase wages for care workers and the repeal of repressive labour laws.

The anti-union “Hobbit Law” brought in at the insistence of a powerful Hollywood studio to stop film and tv workers in New Zealand organising has been slated for repeal by the new government. Helen Kelly, the late leader of the NZ Council of Trade Unions and fierce advocate for workers’ rights would be pleased to see that rules can be changed.

The fifth edition of the ITUC Global Rights Index ranks 142 countries on the degree of respect for workers’ rights.

The ten worst countries for workers in 2018 are Algeria, Bangladesh, Cambodia, Colombia, Egypt, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

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Haiti, Kenya, Mauritania, Macedonia and Spain have all seen their rankings worsen in 2018 with a rise in attacks on workers’ rights in law and practice.

Ireland’s ranking improved in 2018 after freelance workers including journalists, actors and musicians were given the right to collectively bargain and be represented by a union.

The Middle East and North Africa (MENA) remains the world’s worst region when it comes to fundamental rights at work. Millions of migrant workers in Saudi Arabia are trapped in modern slavery under the kafala system.

Trade union members were killed in nine countries — Brazil, China, Colombia, Guatemala, Guinea, Mexico, Niger, Nigeria and Tanzania; and the number of countries where workers were exposed to murders, physical violence, death threats and intimidation significantly rose from 59 in 2017 to 65 in 2018. In Colombia alone, 19 trade union members were murdered, an increase of 11 from the previous year.

Despite the collective efforts to achieve better wages and working conditions, there was a rise in repression, intimidation and discrimination faced by working people. In the Philippines, India and Bangladesh, workers still struggled to assert their basic right to associate freely and faced the violent opposition of employers.

State repression of the independent labour movement intensified in Turkey, Kazakhstan and Belarus. The number of countries with arbitrary arrests and detention of workers increased from 44 in 2017 to 59 in 2018.

Even in democracies like Spain, authorities cracked down on peaceful strike actions and prosecuted union leaders using Franco-era legal provisions. Eighty-seven per cent of countries have violated the right to strike — a right enshrined in international law.

Collective action was systematically repressed in several African countries, including Kenya and Nigeria, where the authorities banned demonstrations in the education sector and sent in the army to attack protesters, killing one worker.

Global shifts are underway in working conditions for people. Sixty-five per cent of countries exclude groups of workers from the right to establish or join a trade union, an increase from 60 per cent in 2017. More and more workers in the global workforce are excluded from any protection under labour laws: 2.5 billion people in the informal economy, millions of migrant workers, those in precarious work and those working for platform businesses.

The corporate power of companies like Amazon continues to grow unchecked. The company is accused of intolerable working conditions in low- paid, insecure jobs in their warehouses in the UK and the USA. Strikes at their logistics centres in Italy, Germany and Spain took place for better pay and conditions, and Italian unions have now managed to force Amazon to make an agreement over working time arrangements. In Australia, Amazon said they will block Australian users to their US site in order to avoid paying the new GST tax applying to international companies.

Workers and their unions are the defenders of rights and freedoms, organising to build the power of working people, to stop the violations and end corporate greed. It’s time to change the rules.

Written by

General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.

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