Labor rights respected nowhere on Earth

If labor rights were a test, the entire world would flunk. Basic labor rights are under sustained assault, but just how badly is quantified in a just released report by the International Trade Union Confederation in which every country scored below 50 percent.

To better summarize these results, the ITUC grouped the world’s countries into five rankings, with a ranking of one signifying the countries with the (relatively) best conditions for working people and a ranking of five signifying those with the most repressive conditions. Most of those countries with a ranking of one were in the European Union, but this group also included Togo and Uruguay. Those with a ranking of five include some of the world’s most repressive countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, but also Greece, Turkey and South Korea. The United States has a ranking of four. So much for the home of the free.

The ITUC describes itself as “a confederation of national trade union centres” that includes 325 affiliated organizations in 161 countries and territories. Its Global Rights Index summarizes data on the abuse of trade union rights around the world. The report’s introduction states:

“The increase in precarious employment relationships has further deepened the vulnerability of workers to discrimination at the workplace. Governments in the vast majority of countries have been convinced to alter their labour legislation to encourage various forms of precarious work. In virtually all countries, temporary work, agency work, subcontracting and other types of informal work are expanding rapidly. Given their unstable employment situation and the high risk of dismissal, precarious workers are discouraged from joining unions and being covered by collective bargaining. This means that workers in precarious forms of employment do not have the necessary support to improve their work situation.”

The report collects information on each country for 97 indicators derived from International Labour Organization standards. These indicators relate to one of five categories: Fundamental civil liberties; the right to establish or join unions; trade union activities; the right to collective bargaining; and the right to strike. It assigns a simple yes or no to each of the 97 questions rather than a more gradated system to eliminate any potential bias and because each is a “universally binding obligation” that all countries should respect.

Therefore, 97 is the highest possible score for any country. The highest score attained, however, was 43. The lowest was zero. Therefore, the study grouped the world’s countries into the five rankings, with each ranking containing roughly one-fifth of the total. The ITUC’s map of workers’ rights is below, with the brightest yellow those countries with a ranking of one (those with the most respect for rights) and the deepest orange and red those with a ranking of five (those with the least respect for rights).

ITUC map of workers' rights

ITUC map of workers’ rights

Countries with a ranking of four, such as the United States, Honduras, Indonesia and Kuwait, “have reported systematic violations. The government and/or companies are engaged in serious efforts to crush the collective voice of workers putting fundamental rights under continuous threat.” Only somewhat better are those with a ranking of three, such as Australia, Canada, Singapore and the United Kingdom, where “Government and/or companies are regularly interfering in collective labour rights or are failing to fully guarantee important aspects of these rights. There are deficiencies in laws and/or certain practices which make frequent violations possible.”

Those conditions are reflected in the dwindling number of strikes. During the 1970s, an average of During the 1970s, an average of 289 work stoppages involving 1,000 or more workers took place annually in the United States. In 2009, there were no more than five. Lockouts, in which management bars employees from working, have become more common, reaching record levels this decade.

That is a worldwide phenomenon, of course, in no way limited to any one country, including the one imposes its will on the rest of the world through a misguided ideology of “exceptionalism.” The ITUC notes in its report:

“[W]orkers are struggling everywhere for their right to collective representation and decent work deficits exist in varying degrees in most countries. Abuses of rights are getting worse not better and too many countries take no responsibility for protecting workers rights in a national context or through corporate supply chains. Based on reports from affiliates, workers in at least 53 countries have either been dismissed or suspended from their jobs for attempting to negotiate better working conditions. In the vast majority of these cases the national legislation offered either no protection or did not provide dissuasive sanctions in order to hold abusive employers accountable. Indeed, employers and governments are complicit in silencing workers’ voices against exploitation.”

A continuing race to the bottom is all that is on offer. Capitalists are well organized, across borders. Working people had better do the same.

22 comments on “Labor rights respected nowhere on Earth

  1. tubularsock says:

    It has always amazed Tubularsock that labor, the most significant contribution to the creation of a product, is treated as the beating boy. When profit is the sole goal in the process, not people and not even pride in an excellent product then the purpose of the creation of the product is empty, shallow, and of little value in real terms. If “real terms” is human dignity.

    And the workers themselves will buy “cheap” products due to the price rather than not buy it at all. Most products produced are not necessary to have in one’s possession in truth. Yet the idea of one’s worth being hinged on the stuff one owns is a concept that has created a downward slide for humanity.

    • So well put. When we exchange our dignity, even our humanity, for a bigger paycheck (those fortunate enough to have one), spending money and acquiring material goods that we mostly don’t need become the measure of our self-worth. Especially when we are endlessly bombarded with corporate-media messages reinforcing that noxious concept.

  2. I see that ITUC has left New Zealand off their map. NZ is somewhere between the US and France in terms of labor rights. Things seem to be turning around a bit with our living wage campaign.

    • You are indeed correct. France is among the countries with a ranking of one; New Zealand is a two.

      Living Wage Aotearoa New Zealand defines a living wage as NZ$18.80 per hour — a good goal. The campaign says it “brings together community and faith-based organisations and unions around a common goal of achieving a living wage as a necessary step in reducing inequality and poverty in our society.” Thanks for bringing this to our attention. (NZ$18.80 equals €11.80 or US$16.07.)

  3. JAH says:

    My “day job” is at a major T.V. network* .
    I’m a stagehand, and a union member,
    with a staff letter assigning me to a particular
    studio. When the crew was transferred some
    years ago to a different studio, we were
    told that we did not need our letter (contract)
    to be updated, that we were covered under
    the old letter.

    Meanwhile, as staff heads of department
    retire/leave, they are replaced by temporary “upgrades”
    who earn the same as a head of department,
    but no longer have the protection of a full time
    40 hr salary.

    It does not take a weather man to know
    which way the wind is blowing, even at a network
    that prides itself on it’s “progressive” investigation
    of human rights abuses. There’s show and there’s
    business, and business is engaged in it’s
    time honored modus of exacting maximum
    profit while shedding itself of any responsibility that
    it can.

    The union’s strength lies in it’s contracts in
    the Broadway theaters, where we won our
    strike. We lost the strike at my network 20
    years ago, and I’ve seen the gradual erosion
    of our contractual working conditions.

    More and more interns are being assigned
    to do what used to be our work. They have
    no contractual protections, and certainly
    don’t earn union wage.

    They still need workers who know
    how to mount and maintain a production,
    but the aim is to reduce us to the status
    of “ringers” and “firemen” to put
    out the “fires” that increasingly crop up
    under this “new” system.

    “Apres moi, le deluge”-

    In solidarity-


    * I doubt the CEO is reading Systemic Disorder,
    but I shall refrain from mentioning the network’s

    • So many of us are enduring work speedups, and without union representation and thus without the thinnest veneer of protection. I was was once a shop steward at a well-known financial media company, and even there my co-workers were either too scared, or wanting badly to earn a promotion, to ever speak up for themselves. The only union I’ve ever seen where the officers were more militant than the rank-and-file. Even a good union can do very little if workers won’t leverage the little bit of organization behind them.

  4. Alcuin says:

    I saw this coming over ten years ago. A great deal of the fault lies with the unions, I think. Very, very few union members have any knowledge of labor history and the union hierarchy long ago sold out to management. The union bureaucracy is self-serving and self-dealing in many different ways. You posted a piece in May, 2012 that went into the details of the Taft-Hartley Act and that was a major wake-up for me. The union membership is equally at fault for adopting a “me-first” attitude that is diametrically opposed to the famous I.W.W. slogan, “An injury to one is an injury to all.” There have been some minor noises over the years about how a New Union movement is on the move, but it hasn’t gained any traction that I can see. That is likely due to opposition from the existing union bureaucracy. Instead, the unions prefer to unionize public workers and other low-hanging fruit. Unions are businesses and their revenue is union dues. They are very careful not to endanger their revenue stream. It is going to take a return to the labor conditions of the 1920s and 1930s (we’re well on our way there) to reverse the tide. That was a vicious era – innumerable strikes, street violence, murders on both sides of the equation and general mayhem.

    The famous quote from Frederic Douglass applies here:

    “Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will. Find out just what any people will quietly submit to and you have found out the exact measure of injustice and wrong which will be imposed upon them, and these will continue till they are resisted with either words or blows, or both. The limits of tyrants are prescribed by the endurance of those whom they oppress.”

    Read up on Blair Mountain or the Ludlow Massacre.

    It’s a shame that history has to repeat itself.

    • You have summarized it very well. The concept of “craft unions” that organize only one portion of a workforce (thereby setting up conflicting interests among them) is surely a factor in the devolution of union organization. But even organizing entire companies into one union is not enough — entire industries must be organized with the contracts for each of the companies in a given industry coming up at the same time. A strike of a company and its competitors would surely get capitalists’ attentions.

      Of course, I am only tinkering with reforms here, even if what I suggest appears to be a gigantic shift given the reality of our neoliberal world. Transcending capitalism and instituting a new system designed on meeting human need instead of private profit is ultimately our only salvation. We can’t reform and unreformable. I truly hope we do not have to go all the way back to the 1920s and the 19th century, but, as you said, we are headed that way rapidly.

      • Jeff Nguyen says:

        I’m the building rep for our local teacher’s union. There seems to be little understanding even among teachers of the historical importance of the unions and the real world value that collective bargaining has added to the dignity of untold numbers of workers in this country. In my not-so-humble opinion, unions need to do a better job of outreach and solidarity beyond their prescribed enclaves. When the labor unions joined up with Occupy Wall Street, it sent a powerful message to the elite. Teachers’ unions should be standing in solidarity with fast food workers lobbying for a dignified wage.

        Thanks for keeping us informed and aware.

        • I definitely second your opinion. Two years ago, unions, Occupy and immigrants rights groups joined hands and created the biggest May Day demonstration I’ve ever seen in New York City. This year, Occupy and immigrant groups were in one place and the unions were someplace else. Having been a part of the former, I never saw a single union banner or sign the entire day.

          Demonstrations don’t solve problems or create coalitions; they serve to signal popular anger and are an organizing tool to let people know they are not alone in their thinking. But if we can’t get together even for symbolic events like May Day rallies and marches, how can we organize for real, concrete change? And it’s union leaderships that most need to reflect on that question.

        • Alcuin says:

          Jeff, you might be interested in this article. It’s about MOOCs and how they are manifestations of capitalism in education. After MOOCs decimate universities, are public schools next on the list?

          • Jeff Nguyen says:

            “Academia has been relatively sheltered from the neoliberal onslaught on those basic rights and conditions hard-won by the labour movement, and subsequently revoked by governments who prioritise the figure of the shareholder rather than the welfare of the citizen.”…That was a good article. In this case, the corporate-backed “reform” movement has trickled up to the colleges/universities.

            K-12 has provided the laboratory for the Gates Foundation to push the Value Added Measure (VAM) score, an indecipherable algorithm loosely inspired by the stack ranking method that Microsoft tried and failed to use to evaluate it’s own employees. It’s voodoo statistics for those who missed out on the Reagan-era.

            Now, the push is to evaluate professors based on their student’s outcomes post-graduation and undermine the holy grail of academia, tenure. In the colleges of education, a professor would be evaluated based on their student’s performance at the school that hires them. This should go well.

            My district uses MOODLES, a Modular Object-Oriented Dynamic Learning Environment for professional development. There is a big push in many states for virtual schools and virtual teaching. In Florida, all high school students must take at least one virtual course to graduate. The for-profit K12, Inc., has been investigated in Florida for using noncertified teachers for their virtual courses. Jeb Bush is good with this.

            I recently posted about some of the latest developments in the corporate co-opting of public education:

        • Alcuin says:

          That’s discouraging, Jeff

        • Alcuin says:

          It was discouraging to the post you linked to, Jeff. I wish I knew the answer. My hope is that the students are aware, in some way, of how they are being manipulated by the elite with their testing programs, but somehow, I doubt it. I don’t know where you find the energy to participate in that soul-sucking environment. You’re a better man than I.

          • Jeff Nguyen says:

            Some days are better than others. The most discouraging part for me is the lack of awareness and interest by many (not all) of my fellow educators in questioning these agendas beyond complaining about the extra work. I’ve come across the term educational malpractice which I think is a good way to describe what we’re doing to kids.

            As for myself, I’m aware of the fine line between working within the system and becoming an amorphous part of the system.

            Now, hi ho, hi ho, it’s off to work I go…

  5. Jeff Nguyen says:

    Land, labor and (natural) resources seem to be the trinity for capitalists in any language.

  6. Alcuin says:

    I found two articles that give the history of how socialism was successfully co-opted by the capitalist class. Part 1 covers from the mid-1950s to the end of the 1960s and Part 2 continues the story up to the end of the 1970s. It’s an interesting read – it lays out all the principal players and connects the dots of how the elite co-opted the Left. One item that caught my eye (that I had never read before) is that George McGovern’s doctoral dissertation was on the Ludlow Massacre. Well, at least I did one thing right in my life – I voted for McGovern!

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