Exclusion of workers from the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining
Even though Article 2 of ILO Convention 87 protects the right of all workers without distinction whatsoever to organise, a large number of workers are excluded from freedom of association and collective bargaining rights in a significant number of countries. For example, agricultural workers in Bolivia, Honduras and Jordan are often denied the right to organise or face major restrictions. A number of countries including Jordan and Kuwait exclude domestic workers from the coverage of legislation. Workers who are employed in export processing zones are often also excluded from freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining in an attempt to decrease ‘labour costs’ and to attract foreign investments. Similarly, workers in the informal economy are not effectively protected by labour legislation. Thus these workers are often exposed to precarious employment conditions and lack any form of representation of their collective interests.
Country case: denial of right to freedom of association to migrant workers in Qatar
There are about 1.2 million migrant workers in Qatar comprising about 94 per cent of Qatar’s workforce. Migrant workers often enter Qatar on false promises by recruitment agencies and employers on the nature of their work, wages, and working conditions. Upon arrival their passports are seized by their employers. The migrant workers cannot easily leave because of highly restrictive sponsorship laws that require the consent of their employer to change employment. They are also excluded from freedom of association and collective bargaining rights and trade unions are prohibited in enterprises with less than 100 Qatari workers employed. This leaves them without any sort of collective representation, making it impossible for migrant workers to demand their fundamental rights.
Collective bargaining rights
The right to bargain freely with employers with respect to conditions of work constitutes an essential element in freedom of association, and trade unions should have the right through collective bargaining to seek to improve the living and working conditions of workers they represent. Collective bargaining is crucial to making collective representation effective. It plays an important role in generating fair distributional results for workers and employers and in redressing the inherent unequal employment relationship, realising a degree of democracy in the workplace.
Yet, collective bargaining mechanisms are absent or insufficient in a number of countries. Increasing fragmentation of labour markets has meant that more workers are now employed in smaller units where trade union density is lower and consequently collective bargaining is more difficult. The internationalisation of production has altered power relations between trade unions and employers. Workers are less likely to bargain with their employers when they feel that their employment is threatened by enterprise restructuring, mergers, takeovers, dismissals and outsourcing of activities to countries with lower labour costs.
Country case: dismantling of collective bargaining rights by International Financial Institutions in Greece
Prior to the financial crisis, there was strong social and political support for collective bargaining rights in Greece. Workers had the right to bargain at various levels: national, sectoral, occupational and enterprise levels. Minimum standards were set at the national level and negotiations at the lower levels could provide for better conditions of work. However, the loan agreement concluded between the Greek Government and the International Monetary Fund, European Central Bank, and the European Commission as a result of the financial crisis forced Greece to introduce labour market reforms that has led to the deterioration of collective bargaining rights. In particular, several large unilaterally imposed cuts in public sector wages in contravention of existing collective agreements were introduced and collective agreements were banned for several years. ‘Territorial pacts’ were introduced that set wage growth below sectoral agreements, which contravened the existing ‘favourability principle’ under which workers were covered by agreements with the most favourable provisions. A 22% cut in minimum wages and a freeze in minimum wages for three years were unilaterally imposed. Finally, the automatic extension of sectoral agreements was prohibited. The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) found that the Greek reforms “violate the principle of free and voluntary collective bargaining.” The CFA warned that “the elaboration of procedures systematically favouring decentralised bargaining of exclusionary provisions that are less favourable then the provisions at a higher level can lead to a global destabilisation of the collective bargaining machinery.”
Workers who have to be concerned about being subjected to discriminatory measures because of their trade union membership or activities cannot exercise their right to freedom of association. To have a real choice workers have to be sufficiently protected by effective anti-discriminatory measures and employer interference. Anti-union discriminatory measures include prejudice in employment because of trade union membership or activities, such as dismissal or other aspects of employment. However, acts of anti-union discrimination remain widespread in a number of countries such as in Argentina and the United States. In Nepal, the union secretary at the microcredit agency of the Gramin Bikas Mahila Utthan was dismissed and the wages of five trade union members were suspended. Two hundred workers from the Swabalamban Micro Finance Development Bank were confronted with acts of harassment when attempting to bargain collectively.