The right to strike is one of the most cherished and fundamental rights of all.
It is an essential last resort, when an employer refuses to negotiate decent wages and working conditions, or when workers are facing the risk of injury, disease or death on the job.
And strikes are also the underpinning of so many revolutions that have tossed dictatorships aside and opened the path to democracy.
Just about every country in the world recognises that workers have the right to take strike action. Some 90 countries even have it enshrined in their national constitution.
The International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) global polling shows that public support for the right to strike is so strong that it is almost off the scale.
There are unacceptable restrictions in many countries, but the basic right is widely accepted throughout the world in law and in practice.
There are just a handful of countries where workers have absolutely no right to take strike action – the hermetic dictatorship of North Korea of course, and the increasingly notorious “kafala” countries of the Persian Gulf, such as the Emirates, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.
The kafala system gives the employer complete control over their workers.
Millions of migrant workers, mostly from poorer countries, are trapped in this system.
They can’t change jobs unless their employer allows them to, they can’t leave the country unless their boss signs an exit visa, and trade unions and strike action are totally forbidden.
This leaves the worker completely powerless and open to the most barbaric exploitation.
Poverty wages, appalling levels of death and injury at work and abusive treatment by supervisors and managers are the daily reality for the huge numbers of workers; the men building infrastructure for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar, the women domestic workers, and all the other jobs that generate the fantastic wealth held by a few ruling families.
Life without the right to strike, life without a union, is for them a life of desperation.
That’s far from the reality for most working people in the world, although in many other places basic rights for working people are far from fully respected.
There are plenty of employers that respect their employees’ right to union organisation and to withdraw their labour.
Lufthansa CEO Carsten Spohr for example, who defended his employees’ right to take industrial action when he was mocked by Qatar Airways boss Akhbar Al-baker during a recent pilots’ strike.
From the fringes to the centre
But there are others who want to eliminate the right to strike as a fundamental part of the international legal framework.
What used to be a radical fringe of right-wing ideologues in global employer circles has now moved front and centre.
Despite decades of recognition by the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) expert international panel of judges and law scholars that the right to strike is firmly entrenched in international law, the International Organisation of Employers (IoE) is seeking to change the rules, challenging long-standing legal principles and blocking the good functioning of the tripartite Standards Committee at the ILO’s annual conference.
For most people, the inner workings of the ILO may seem far away from their daily concerns – it is hardly a topic of conversation at the kitchen table.
But the IOE is not simply playing legal games.
Their intent is to weaken the ILO, and to roll back hard-won gains that workers have made, bit by bit, putting the world of work onto a road that leads to a deeply unpleasant destination.
At the end of that road is kafala for everyone. When people’s right to withdraw their labour is taken away, they end up as little more than slaves, entirely dependent on what their boss decides and with no means to push back.
In November, governments, employers and workers will make a huge decision at the ILO – whether or not to seek a definitive opinion from the International Court of Justice on the right to strike in international law.
We, the workers, want to settle the issue by seeking the Court’s guidance, and we are counting on governments to stand up against employer militancy and join with us in the fight for justice.
In my country Sweden, people have chosen to end their affair with conservative doctrine and are looking to a progressive future with a new government.
A government that cares about people and their rights and wants a fairer and more just world.
Sweden must not be left alone to follow this path and we’re looking for others to join us on the road to a fairer and more just future. A future where nobody is forced to work against their will.