A worker at a garment factory in Viet Nam (photo: ILO/Aaron Santos)

Labour rights are human rights: UN report

19.10.2016

A powerful new UN report on freedom of assembly criticizes the “artificial distinction” between labour and human rights.

The United Nations has released a report on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association in the workplace, to be presented to the 71st session of the general assembly today, 20 October 2016.

The report, by special rapporteur Maina Kiai, finds that the growing concentration of corporate power weakens labour rights. Although states are required under international law to respect and promote workers’ rights, the strength of multinational corporations means they often fail.

Workers need protection now more than ever: globalization means the unprecedented growth of complex global supply chains, mass labour migration and a large informal economy. Most of the world’s workers are excluded from legal frameworks, and have no collective bargaining cover or union protection.

“Our world and its globalized economy are changing at a lightning pace, and it is critical that the tools we use to protect to labour rights adapt just as quickly,” Kiai said.

“A first step towards this 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 these rights in the workplace is prerequisite for workers to enjoy a broad range of other rights, whether economic, social, cultural, political or otherwise.”

Some of the worst violations happen among informal, migrant and women workers in global supply chains. The report highlights the violation of migrants’ rights, including the kafala system in the Gulf states, the H2 guest worker visa in the USA, and gang-masters in the UK.

Women are channeled into low-wage, low status jobs, in the least protected segments of the economy. The gender wage gap is 77%, women do the bulk of unpaid care work, and many face verbal, physical or sexual abuse, sexual harassment or rape at work.

The report finds that there is a coordinated attack on workers’ rights, both at national and international level, with the ILO employers’ group arguing in 2012 that the right to strike, protected by Convention 87, did not exist at all.

Many states fail to protect workers’ rights to freedom of assembly: this includes outright bans on independent unions in countries like Saudi Arabia and China, new labour laws in India that increase flexibility, crackdowns on unions in Egypt and South Korea, and states in the US providing incentives to Nissan and Volkswagen to remain union-free. The report criticizes the Olympic Committee and FIFA for failing to protect workers’ rights in the 2016 Rio Olympics and upcoming Qatar World Cup.

Corporate social responsibility has created a multibillion dollar voluntary compliance industry that has been completely ineffective. This is in stark contrast to binding agreements, like the Bangladesh Accord, negotiated with unions.

The report concludes with a set of recommendations to states, businesses and civil society, including trade unions, the ILO and the UN.

States should ratify all relevant international and regional human rights instruments, including ILO Conventions 87 and 98. They should assure that labour rights can be exercised by everyone, regardless of type of work, sector or immigration status.

Business should recognize workers’ rights to form unions, engage in collective bargaining and action, including the right to strike. They should stop union busting and reprisals against activists.

Unions and civil society should work more closely together, and human rights organizations should recognize labour rights as part of their core mandates. Unions should do more to reach out to disenfranchised workers, including migrant and informal workers.

The UN should integrate labour rights into all its programmes, and ensure that workers’ rights are protected in all tendering and lending.

IndustriALL assistant general secretary Jenny Holdcroft said:

“It is really important for the UN General Assembly to recognize that human and labour rights are inseparable. Freedom of association is under attack everywhere and trade unions are in the front line of defense.”