Info Service on WTO and Trade Issues (Oct16/19)
24 October 2016
Third World Network
United Nations: Pursuit of profit undermining workers' rights
Published in SUNS #8339 dated 24 October 2016
Geneva, 21 Oct (Kanaga Raja) -- Failure of economic polices in reducing
poverty and inequality, the increasing power of multinational corporations
and the fragmentation of the workplace amongst others 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
This main conclusion was highlighted by the United Nations Special
Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association,
Mr Maina Kiai (Kenya), in his final report presented to the UN General
Assembly in New York on Thursday, 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: "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
"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 Mr 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
organizations 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
In this spirit, the Special Rapporteur called upon States, multilateral
organizations, 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
According to the report by the Special Rapporteur, in recent decades,
economic globalization, 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 organizations, militarized labour
systems and rights-restricted structures in export processing zones.
Mr Kiai pointed out that disenfranchisement is the shared condition
of these workers and predominates across countries and global supply
"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 realization 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
"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 globalized economy are changing
at 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."
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
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 per cent of the world's workers labour in
the informal economy, where employment relationships are not legally
regulated or socially protected (another 13 per cent work on fixed-term
contracts). In some developing countries, informal jobs comprise up
to 90 per cent of available work.
"While the informal economy has always existed, deregulation
and the development of global supply chains have exponentially expanded
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 per cent 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 per cent of workers are employed
The report went on to cite numerous examples of violations of workers'
rights to peaceful assembly and of association in more than 50 countries,
ranging from 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,
to the assassinations of trade unionists.
It said globalization 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 ILO estimates, the world has 150.3 million migrant
workers, and an estimated 112.3 million of them (74.7 per cent) 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 dis-empower 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
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 two such programmes as being the Middle East
‘kafala' and United States guest-worker 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," Mr 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 United
The report also noted that today only about half of women globally
are in the labour force, compared to 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
"Discrimination, abuse and relegation to jobs at the bottom of
the global economy undermine women workers' ability to join and form
organizations 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 per cent 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 per cent
of women in management and higher professional positions and 61 per
cent of women in the service sector have experienced some form of
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 per cent of them are women; and that 11.5 million migrant workers
are domestic workers, about three-quarters of them women.
"Many countries do not recognize 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
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, however, as a positive step, 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 recognized in numerous international instruments,
including the Universal Declaration on 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," Mr Kiai
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 practice, that restrict
workers' rights or fail to enforce laws protecting those rights.
The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) found that 50 of
141 countries surveyed had such restrictions, said the report by the
Special Rapporteur. +