Pursuit of profit undermining workers' rights worldwide - UN expert
In a wide-ranging report highlighting the growing disenfranchisement of workers worldwide of their rights to peaceful assembly and association, a UN rights rapporteur has reminded governments that 'Labour rights are human rights'. Kanaga Raja reports.
FAILURE of economic policies in reducing poverty and inequality, the increasing power of multinational corporations and the fragmentation of the workplace, among other factors, have resulted in the disenfranchisement of the majority of the world's workers of their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the workplace.
This main conclusion was highlighted by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, Maina Kiai (Kenya), in his final report presented to the UN General Assembly on 20 October.
In his presentation, the rights expert said: 'Assembly and association rights in the workplace continue to be undermined for a large proportion of workers, mainly because of an economic world order that relentlessly pursues ever-increasing growth and profits at all costs.'
Meanwhile, the growing power and geographic reach of large corporations has meant that states are increasingly unwilling or unable to regulate these business entities and their attempts to place profits ahead of the rights and dignity of workers, he added.
Calling for fresh approaches, the Special Rapporteur said: '[T]he old ways of defending workers' rights are no longer working. Our world and its globalised economy are changing at a lightning pace, and it is critical that the tools we use to protect labour rights adapt just as quickly.'
'Labour rights are human rights. It is time for states and the human rights community to place labour rights at the core of their work,' said Kiai.
In a separate press release, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) welcomed the publication of the report by the Special Rapporteur and called on governments to act on its findings.
'We congratulate Maina Kiai on this landmark report, bringing the struggles of workers from around the world to the heart of the United Nations. Millions upon millions of workers are denied the right to organise and decent work by governments and through the actions of employers including some of the world's best-known companies,' said ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow.
'Governments need to act to ensure these rights, to end the twin scandals of poverty and exploitation in supply chains, and to formalise informal work,' she added.
In his report to the General Assembly, the Special Rapporteur said that the majority of the world's workers, particularly those in vulnerable situations, such as migrant, women and domestic workers, are disenfranchised of their rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the workplace.
That disenfranchisement is the result of many factors, including the failure of much-touted economic policies in reducing poverty and economic inequality; the increasing power of large multinational corporations and corresponding failure by states to effectively regulate and enforce norms and standards against those actors; the fragmentation of the workplace and diffusion of employer responsibilities across a range of actors; and the global crackdown on civil society that targets organisations and individuals working on labour issues.
'Workers are entitled to the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association regardless of their status within a country. Further, those rights are central to ensuring that workers can claim their rights to just and favourable conditions of work in the face of structural obstacles that keep them and their issues marginalised,' said the Special Rapporteur.
'States have obligations under international human rights law to ensure that everyone within their jurisdiction is able to exercise his or her rights. Those obligations include refraining from violating workers' rights, taking positive measures to fulfil the rights and protecting against violations by third parties,' he added.
Despite that, states generally prioritise economic and corporate interests at the expense of workers' rights, a counterproductive approach that exacerbates poverty and inequality.
'This situation must be urgently addressed, both to allow people to exercise their rights and to ensure the viability of the world's economic system.'
In this spirit, the Special Rapporteur called upon states, multilateral organisations, businesses and other stakeholders to commit themselves to creating the best possible enabling environment for the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the workplace.
According to the report by the Special Rapporteur, in recent decades, economic globalisation, implemented with as few regulations on companies and capital as possible, has been touted by many economists as an essential vehicle to global prosperity and the end of poverty.
The economic system that grew out of that philosophy has indeed led to a rise in global economic productivity and wealth, but it has also contributed to a dramatic rise in the power of large multinational corporations and concentrated wealth in fewer hands.
At the same time, states' power to regulate those business entities has eroded. Further, the world's recent economic growth has not been shared equally. Productivity and economic output have increased, but so has inequality, with the fruits of that growth going primarily to the wealthiest.
'Unconstrained power, whether public or private in origin, is a critical threat to the protection of human rights, including workers' rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association. The worldwide crackdown on those rights is contributing to a global crisis of governance.'
The majority of the world's workers, including informal, women, domestic, migrant and agricultural workers and day labourers, are often excluded from national legal protective frameworks, leaving them unable to exercise their fundamental rights to associate or assemble, and without access to remedies when their rights are violated.
According to the report, the impact of the lack of assembly and association rights is compounded for migrant workers by harsh immigration laws, unscrupulous labour recruitment organisations, militarised labour systems and rights-restricted structures in export processing zones.
Kiai pointed out that disenfranchisement is the shared condition of these workers and predominates across countries and global supply chains.
'Whether intentional or not, the legal environment for these workers promotes labour markets that fundamentally depend on powerless workers and a low-wage environment. Employers and others who evade the law and disrespect standards gain a competitive advantage over compliant employers, at the cost of workers' rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.'
The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are fundamental worker rights. Since they enable people to voice and represent their interests, they are key to the realisation of both democracy and dignity, to holding governments accountable and to empowering human agency, the report underlined.
These rights are also a means to level the unequal relationship between workers and employers, thereby helping workers correct abuses and gain access to fair wages, safe working conditions and a collective voice.
'At the same time, the global attack on labour rights has made it disturbingly clear that the old ways of defending workers' rights are no longer working. Our world and its globalised economy are changing at a lightning pace, and it is critical that the tools we use to protect labour rights adapt just as quickly,' said the rights expert.
'A first step towards that goal is to obliterate the antiquated and artificial distinction between labour rights and human rights generally. Labour rights are human rights, and the ability to exercise those rights in the workplace is a prerequisite for workers to enjoy a broad range of other rights, whether economic, social, cultural, political or otherwise.'
Global supply chains
The rise of multinational companies has driven structural changes in the global economy aimed at cutting costs, increasing corporate profits and limiting corporate responsibility to workers, the report noted.
Production and the provision of services are divided among different places with different employers in different countries. That has allowed lead firms to shift production of goods and services to companies in countries with lower costs and fewer regulations, putting pressure on manufacturers and service providers in global supply chains to cut costs. These structural shifts have drastically changed traditional employment relationships and systems.
Today, an estimated 60.7% of the world's workers labour in the informal economy, where employment relationships are not legally regulated or socially protected (another 13% work on fixed-term contracts). In some developing countries, informal jobs comprise up to 90% of available work.
'While the informal economy has always existed, deregulation and the development of global supply chains have exponentially expanded its growth.'
Millions of informal workers labour in global supply chains, where some of the worst abuses of freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are found and where migrant workers are often concentrated.
'States often weaken labour rights in order to attract investment, establishing special export processing zones where freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association are either sharply curtailed or explicitly prohibited. States may also use investor agreements as excuses to weaken labour standards.'
The Special Rapporteur argued that global supply chains are putting downward pressure on wages and working conditions, and distancing workers from their rights to freedom of association because workers fill permanent jobs but are denied permanent employee rights.
These arrangements - found in both formal and informal work, including part-time, short-term or temporary contracts, on-call schedules, multi-layered sub-contracts or franchises, and bogus self-employment schemes - are designed to drive down costs.
As a result of the widespread use of this practice, 1.5 billion people - 46% of the world's total number of workers - are working in so-called 'precarious employment'. In both Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, more than 70% of workers are employed that way.
The report went on to cite numerous examples of violations of workers' rights to peaceful assembly and of association in more than 50 countries, including outright bans on all legitimate unions, racial discrimination, gender-based violence, the use of precarious and informal labour, restrictions on the right to strike and to form or join a trade union, and the assassination of trade unionists.
Exploitation of migrant workers
The Special Rapporteur said globalisation is taking place in the context of the largest migration of people in human history, from rural to urban areas, within countries and across borders.
According to recent International Labour Organisation (ILO) estimates, the world has 150.3 million migrant workers, and an estimated 112.3 million of them (74.7%) are in high-income countries.
Low-wage migrant workers face severe economic exploitation, social exclusion and political disenfranchisement. They are often denied their freedoms of peaceful assembly and of association because of their irregular status or by structural barriers in legal channels that systematically disempower workers.
Many find themselves trafficked, in conditions of forced labour or slavery, isolated, unpaid, with restricted freedom of movement and no access to justice. Because most migrant workers are effectively barred from forming and joining unions, they are unable to advocate to improve wages and working conditions.
'Migrants have become a massive, disposable, low-wage workforce excluded from remedies or realistic opportunities to bargain collectively for improved wages and working conditions,' said the Special Rapporteur.
Having legal status does not ensure workers can exercise their fundamental rights. Most temporary or circular migration programmes structurally deny or inhibit rights to assembly and association and leave workers at the mercy of employers.
The rights expert cited the Middle East kafala and United States guest-worker programmes as being two such programmes.
In many Middle East countries (such as Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Saudi Arabia and Qatar), this hyper-rigid system ties a migrant worker's presence in the country to a visa sponsored by a citizen. Workers' ability to reside, work or even leave the country is subject to the approval and whims of a migrant's sponsor, who has near-total control over the worker's existence.
Nearly the same is true in United States guest-worker programmes, where visas are tied to specific employers.
'From a legal standpoint, these States have delegated oversight, control and responsibility for foreign nationals to private companies and individuals. Such devolution of responsibility has led to gross abuses and denial of fundamental rights.'
The report noted that every year the United States has more than 100,000 guest workers on temporary H-2 work visas in sectors like landscaping, construction, seafood processing and agriculture. Although they are documented migrants, guest workers report being cheated of their wages, threatened with guns, beaten, raped, starved and imprisoned. Some have died on the job.
The link between the visa and employer provides a coercive element: workers who complain about working conditions can be fired, and must leave the country or face deportation.
'This contingent relationship quells workers' efforts to exercise freedom of association and assembly. Workers who attempt to exercise their rights are often blacklisted by employers, who use the threat of denied future work opportunities to silence workers,' said the Special Rapporteur.
In the United Kingdom, gang-master-controlled work in the hospitality, food-processing and agriculture sectors often exploits migrant workers through wage theft or confiscation of passports. The prospect of dismissal and loss of the legal right to work and remain in the country chills the exercise of rights by these workers.
'Because police investigations tend to focus more on immigration enforcement than claims of serious maltreatment of migrant workers, access to justice is denied. Forced labour is also a significant and growing problem in the United Kingdom.'
'Violence with impunity is also common,' Kiai said. In Mexico, migrant farmworkers at one of the country's biggest tomato exporters were physically assaulted when they complained about lack of food or tried to leave the work camp where they were kept 'as prisoners'. Camp bosses threatened workers who demanded their illegally withheld pay. The indebted workers could not enjoy their assembly and association rights for fear of losing wages that would not be paid until the harvest. The company received World Bank financing and supplied major US grocers.
The report also noted that today only about half of women globally are in the labour force, compared with more than three-quarters of men. Three-quarters of their employment is in informal and unprotected work, making women far less likely than men to be in trade unions and enjoy work-related protections, including assembly and association rights.
'Discrimination, abuse and relegation to jobs at the bottom of the global economy undermine women workers' ability to join and form organisations that defend their interests.'
Perhaps the fiercest deterrent to the exercise of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association for women is gender-based violence, which affects more than 35% of women globally. While violence against women generally is increasingly in the global spotlight, its occurrence at work continues to be neglected or ignored.
Gender-based violence at work includes physical abuse; attempted murder and murder; sexual violence; verbal abuse and threats; bullying; psychological abuse and intimidation; sexual harassment; economic and financial abuse; stalking; and more.
A recent survey in European Union countries found that 75% of women in management and higher professional positions and 61% of women in the service sector have experienced some form of sexual harassment.
Women workers in countries as diverse as Bangladesh, Cambodia, the Dominican Republic, Haiti, Jordan, Swaziland and Tunisia have reported verbal, physical or sexual abuse, sexual harassment or rape at work.
Women union leaders in Guatemala are 'especially targeted' with threats, violence and murder. Women workers report being punched to force miscarriages, or abducted while waiting for transportation to and from work. In Guatemala, more than 5,000 women and girls were killed between 2008 and 2015.
According to the report, situated at the intersections of gender, race, migration and informality, domestic workers represent a large component of the global workforce excluded from the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and to association.
ILO estimates that 67 million people globally are domestic workers, and 80% of them are women; and that 11.5 million migrant workers are domestic workers, about three-quarters of them women.
'Many countries do not recognise domestic labourers as "workers" under the law, meaning that they have little ability to exercise their assembly and association rights at work. Roughly 90 per cent of domestic workers lack effective social protections, leaving them and their families in economically and socially vulnerable situations.'
The Special Rapporteur cited several examples of laws that differentiate domestic workers from other workers.
The United Kingdom excludes domestic workers from limits on hours of work, minimum wage and health and safety provisions. Canada, Finland, Japan and Switzerland similarly exclude domestic workers from minimum wage legislation.
Many countries, including the United Kingdom and France, exclude domestic workers from the jurisdiction of labour inspectorates in deference to employers' privacy. Canada (Ontario), Ethiopia and Jordan exempt domestic workers from laws covering trade union representation.
The rights expert noted as a positive step, however, that 30 countries have now extended labour protection to domestic workers.
He pointed out that the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are recognised in numerous international instruments, including the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, and the International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.
'Both trade unions and the right to strike are fundamental tools to achieving workers' rights, as they provide mechanisms through which workers can stand up for their interests collectively, and engage with big business and government on a more equal footing. The State is obligated to protect these rights for all workers,' Kiai underlined.
He also said the right to strike has been established in international law for decades, in global and regional instruments, and is also enshrined in the constitutions of at least 90 countries. The right to strike has, in fact, become customary international law.
Many states place obstacles, both in law and in practice, that restrict workers' rights or fail to enforce laws protecting those rights. The ITUC found that 50 of 141 countries surveyed had such restrictions, said the Special Rapporteur.
Kanaga Raja is Editor of the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS), which is published by the Third World Network. This article was originally published in SUNS (No. 8339, 24 October 2016).
*Third World Resurgence No. 314/315, October/November 2016, pp 53-56