Trade unions are membership-based civil society organisations (CSOs) that aim to defend the occupational interests of workers and to address economic and social policy questions of direct concern to workers. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is a confederation of national trade union centres with 315 affiliated organisations from 156 countries and a membership of 174 million.
Strong trade unions are essential to compensate for the asymmetric power relationship between workers and employers and to ensure sustainable and inclusive economic development. A conducive and enabling environment for trade unions to carry out their mandate requires a legal and institutional framework that provides sufficient protection of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining as well as the effective implementation of these rights.
The rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining
Clearly defined and coherent international legal instruments protect and promote freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.
The Universal Declaration of Human Rights proclaimed that “everyone has the right to form and to join trade unions.” This right was reinforced in 1966 by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The latter ensures the right of everyone to form and join the trade union of his/her choice, subject only to the rules of the trade union concerned; the right to join federations and confederations; the right to function freely; and the right to strike. Restrictions other than those prescribed by law and which are necessary in a democratic society have been prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.
The Treaty of Versailles (1919) and the preamble to the Constitution of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) refer to trade union rights as means to improve working conditions and to assure peace. The Declaration of Philadelphia (1944) further stated that freedom of association is essential to sustained progress. Subsequently, the ILO adopted the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87) and the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98). These conventions have established that freedom of association and collective bargaining rights include the right of workers to establish and join unions of their own choosing without previous authorisation and only subject to their own rules; the right to organise activities freely and not to be liable to dissolution or suspension by public authorities; the right to establish and join federations and confederations as well as international organisations; the right to adequate protection against acts of anti-union discrimination. Workers have the right to adequate protection against interference by employers, in particular the establishment of unions under the domination or control of employers. The convention also enshrines the right to collective bargaining.
At the regional level, the European Convention on Human Rights as well as the European Social Charter provide for the right to organise, to bargain collectively and the right to strike. The American Convention on Human Rights guarantees freedom of association in its Article 16 and the African Charter on Human and Peoples’ Rights in Articles 10 and 11.
Major challenges to the realisation of an enabling environment for trade union rights
Trade unionists constantly face various types of violations in many parts of the world. An outline of a few emerging issues and country cases may usefully highlight these various types of violations, which are experienced in many more countries beyond the examples given.
Fundamental civil liberties of trade unionists
Genuinely free and independent trade unions can only exist in a climate free of violence, pressure, fear and threats of any kind, where fundamental human rights are respected. The right of trade unionists to hold meetings on trade union premises, freedom of speech and the press and the right of detained trade unionists to enjoy the guarantees of normal judicial procedure at the earliest possible moment must be ensured.
Country case: denial of fundamental civil rights in Swaziland
Swaziland is governed by an absolute monarch that rules the country through a state of emergency decree that has been in force since 1973. Opposition parties and meetings are banned and the Suppression of Terrorism Act (renewed in 2010) is used to target trade unions.
Fundamental civil liberties of trade unionists are under constant attack from the government and security forces.
Trade unions were prohibited from protesting against the state of emergency in April 2012 when security forces blocked their marches and arrested and detained union leaders, such as Sipho Kunene, Deputy President of Trade Union Congress of Swaziland (TUCOSWA), and Muzi Mhlanga, Second Deputy General Secretary of TUCOSWA. Travel bans were imposed on trade union leaders such as Wonder Mkhonza, Deputy General Secretary of the Swaziland Processing, Refining and Allied Workers’ Union, Emmanuel Dlamini, Recording Secretary of the Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT) and Sidumo Dlamini, Chairperson of the SNAT’s Elections’ Committee. May Day celebrations in 2012 were stopped by police roadblocks, resulting in intimidation of trade union members, the confiscation of TUCOSWA banners, and the arrest of union leaders.