New Report Cites Major Threats to Workers’ Rights Across the Globe | Freedom House

New Report Cites Major Threats to Workers’ Rights Across the Globe

Washington, D.C.

A Freedom House report released today found that the rights of working people and trade unions were under serious duress throughout much of the world, and that authoritarian regimes are using increasingly sophisticated methods of control.  The report, The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World, found that one-third of the global population lived in societies in which workers’ rights suffered a significant degree of repression.
 
The report, which examines the global state of worker and trade union rights for the year 2009, outlines serious and systematic violations of internationally recognized labor norms in every part of the world except Western Europe.  Countries are ranked on a five-category scale: Free, Mostly Free, Partly Free, Repressive, and Very Repressive on a color-coded map which gives a vivid, visual image of the state of labor freedom throughout the world.
 
The United States was ranked as Mostly Free, trailing Western Europe, Canada, Australia and a number of developing countries.  The report noted that while American law guarantees workers core labor rights, the overall political environment in the U.S. is distinctly hostile to unions, collective bargaining, and labor protest and has encouraged growing resistance to unions by employers. Management has used a variety of tactics to forestall unionization and has shown a willingness to violate labor law if it would result in the defeat of a campaign to gain bargaining recognition for a union. 
 
The most serious problems were found in the Middle East and former Soviet Union, with major problems also noted in Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.  For example, in the former Soviet Republic of Belarus, the Trade Union Law of January 2000 and subsequent presidential decrees create an atmosphere in which independent trade unions face harassment, and their leaders are frequently arrested and prosecuted for peaceful protests and dismissed from employment. In Saudi Arabia trade unions are banned outright.
 
Arch Puddington, director of research at Freedom House and editor of the workers’ rights report, pointed to the growing sophistication of the techniques of control by authoritarian regimes as an especially troubling development.  “Under the old authoritarian model, any initiative outside the realm of the party-state was impermissible,” Puddington said.  “Modern authoritarians have developed methods of workplace control that are more nuanced and flexible, and in a sense more insidious than the more direct and brutal methods of the past.” 
 
The study assesses the state of workers’ rights both globally and on a regional basis. Data for the analysis are drawn from Freedom in the World 2010, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties, covering developments in 2009. A total of 165 countries are included, constituting all those with modern economies and significant trade union movements; narrative reports are provided for 50 of these countries. 
 
Puddington noted that the report’s release coincides with the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Polish Solidarity trade union, a movement which made a critical contribution to the collapse of East European Communism. “The history of Solidarity reminds us that organized labor has played—and continues to play in societies like Zimbabwe—a crucial role in the struggle for freedom. The findings of this study also remind us that unions are an essential element of stable democracies, and that when we weaken unions, we weaken the entire democratic fabric.”
 
Major Findings
 
Among the more disturbing findings is that 40 countries, or nearly one-quarter of those assessed, were judged to have either Repressive or Very Repressive labor rights environments. At the other end of the spectrum, 41 countries, or almost one quarter, were found to have “Free” labor rights environments. Of these, 26 were European Union member states.
 
Of the 14 countries ranked as Very Repressive, three—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—are in the former Soviet Union; four—Burma, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam—are in Asia; three—Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—are in the Middle East; three—Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, and Sudan—are in sub-Saharan Africa; and one—Cuba—is in the Americas. Among the countries designated as Repressive are China, Egypt, Iran, Singapore, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
 
Among other significant findings are the following:
 
  • In Middle Eastern countries that previously adhered to “Arab socialist” development models, the tradition of dominant party control over the labor movement endures. In Egypt, for example, unions must be affiliated with a federation that functions as an appendage of the ruling party and controls union elections.
  • Some governments have adopted laws barring local unions from accepting foreign financial assistance, a potentially significant restriction given the long history of European and especially American union support for workers’ struggles in developing countries and authoritarian settings.
  • The absence of genuine unions almost certainly contributes to job-site deaths and injuries. In China, where toothless state-controlled unions prevail, thousands of workers die each year in factory and mining accidents.
  • Forced or coerced labor is a matter of government policy in a number of the world’s more repressive societies, including Burma, Eritrea, and China.
  • In a positive development, labor activism is on the rise in several countries where official unions are under the control of the government. Both Egypt and China have seen an increase in strikes and protests in recent years. And unlike in the past, when the authorities would likely have responded with repressive tactics, the regimes have more recently tended to respond with at least partial concessions.
  • In maintaining control over organized labor, former communist countries and those, like China, that retain a Leninist system of political control have a built-in advantage due to their legacy of total state-party domination of the trade union movement.
 
To view the full report, click here.
 
Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.  
 
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Freedom House is an independent watchdog organization that supports democratic change, monitors the status of freedom around the world, and advocates for democracy and human rights.

Join us on Facebook and Twitter (freedomhouse). Stay up to date with Freedom House’s latest news and events by signing up for our newsletter.