“A force to build a better world for working people, now more than ever”: the ITUC Global Rights Index at 10

This year marks the tenth edition of the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) Global Rights Index; the first and most comprehensive round-up of violations of workers’ rights around the world.

Based on internationally recognised fundamental rights at work and spanning nearly 150 countries, the ITUC Global Rights Index is widely acknowledged as the leading source of information on collective labour rights and is used by trade unions, governments, civil society organisations, and increasingly by companies around the world as the most reliable yardstick against which respect for workers’ rights can be evaluated.

But why do we need it? The Index is now, more than ever, a powerful force to build a better world for working people. It has been used to force governments to improve workers’ right in return for international loans, trade unions have used the Index for targeted action to force legislative change and, crucially, the Index bears witness to daily struggle of workers’ rights activists around the world.

Exposing violations

The ITUC has been documenting and exposing the violation of workers’ rights for four decades through narrative information published in our Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights. In 2014, the ITUC Global Rights Index was developed for the first time in order to increase the visibility and transparency of each country’s record on workers’ rights.

The 2023 Index ranks 149 countries depending on their compliance with collective labour rights and exposes violations in all regions of the world. It combines descriptive texts detailing facts on real-world violations faced by workers and numerical ratings from 1 to 5+ for each country, revealing the varying degree of collective labour rights enjoyed by workers across the world. Some examples include:
• In South Korea, Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering filed a US$35 million damages claim against the leaders of the Korea Metal Workers’ Union for alleged financial losses due to strike action.
• In Ecuador, during a national strike, five people were killed by the police, who used deterrence weapons in a lethal manner and arrested dozens of participants.
• In Eswatini, the brutal shooting and murder of Thulani Maseko, a human rights and trade union rights lawyer and activist, was widely condemned by the global community, and Sticks Nkambule, the Secretary General of the Swaziland Transport, Communication and Allied Workers Union, faced intimidation and harassment designed to silence him.
• In Egypt, the authorities have continued to arbitrarily refuse to register independent unions in several economic sectors, often citing that unions controlled by the employer already existed.
• In the United Kingdom, union busting, attempts to introduce legislation curtailing the right to strike and protest, and violations of collective bargaining agreements have become systematic.

The Index also serves as a benchmark for workers’ rights globally.

The methodology is grounded in international standards of fundamental rights at work, in particular the right to freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.

National legislation and case reports communicated by ITUC national affiliates are analysed by the ITUC legal team and read against a list of 97 indicators based on International Labour Organization (ILO) Conventions:
No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize
No. 98 on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention
• And jurisprudence of the ILO supervisory mechanisms.
Violations in law and in practice are identified and categorised under consistent, predetermined and clearly defined categories.

Providing a unique global benchmark for workers’ rights

The Global Rights Index is a powerful tool for campaigning and advocacy which the ITUC uses in international forums and in its communications and reports on global issues or on specific countries. As the largest confederation of trade unions in the world, the ITUC responds to violations of workers’ and trade unions’ rights wherever they occur. In a growing number of countries, workers and their representatives face significant hurdles in defending their rights collectively and are exposed to extreme violence and abuse. The ITUC is engaged in a comprehensive and intensive campaign to support their struggle for fundamental rights.

The Index is also widely used by ITUC affiliates for national campaigns on policy changes and law amendments which, if effected in law and practice, can potentially have an impact on a country’s rating.

As international organisations and institutions increasingly rely on the Index to assess the situation of workers’ rights and to decide on possible technical cooperation or financial assistance to provide to countries, the Index acts as effective leverage to encourage governments to bring their laws, policies and practices in line with international labour standards.

For example, the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB) imposed as one of its conditions for the allocation of a loan to Mexico that the country improve its rating in the Index. In 2020 and 2021, Mexico adopted reforms to put an end to protection contracts which represented the biggest hurdle to genuine collective bargaining in the country and consequently, its Index rating improved. Taking into account the changes effectuated by the government, including its new Index rating, the IDB granted the loan to Mexico.

National legislative assemblies have also shown a growing interest in the Global Rights Index:

• In 2019, the Brazilian Congress held a special session to discuss the inclusion of the country in the list of 10 worst countries for workers’ rights. At the time, Bolsonaro’s government had introduced legislative changes in the revised Consolidation of Labour Laws which established as a general principle that collective agreements prevailed over legislation, and that it was therefore possible, through collective bargaining, not to give effect to the protective legal provisions, with the sole limit of a few labour rights set out in the Constitution.
• That same year, in the United Kingdom, a motion was tabled by members of the House of Commons noting that the country was “rated by the International Trade Union Confederation Global Rights Index as a Regular Violator of Rights, category three, which is among the worst in Europe”. The parliamentarians expressed “grave concern at the finding that the Government and employers are regularly violating workers’ rights or failing to guarantee them” and called on the Government to “undertake a comprehensive review of workers’ rights to enhance the role of collective bargaining in the workplace”.

By rating nearly 150 countries on their respect for fundamental rights at work, regardless of their level of economic development, size or location, the Global Rights Index provides a unique comparative framework and a global benchmark for law and policymakers.

Increasing corporate accountability

By exposing violations of workers’ rights, the ITUC Global Rights Index holds accountable governments and companies alike.

Companies have an obligation to respect internationally recognised human rights, including collective labour rights, and to avoid actions that undermine or hinder the practice and take-up of these rights by workers.

As more and more countries adopt human rights due diligence legislation, workers and society at large are demanding more corporate accountability and the Index has become a leading source for decision-makers in assessing and addressing gaps in workers’ protection, especially in global supply chains.

In a context of increased scrutiny on business behaviour, positive steps have also been taken by some companies and consultants in corporate social responsibility to integrate the ITUC Global Rights Index in their human rights impact assessment.

Fostering change

In 2014, the ITUC Global Rights Index was conceived as a means to observe and analyse the degree to which countries and companies uphold the rights of workers. Almost a decade later, the Index has established itself as the only database of its kind and an authoritative source to assess the situation of workers’ rights in the world.

In many countries, trade unions are at the forefront of the fight for democracy and often they are the only independent voice remaining. By systematically exposing governments’ attacks on workers and their representatives, including arbitrary arrests and brutal crackdowns on peaceful strikes and protests, the Index has helped bring more awareness and understanding of the intrinsic links between workers’ rights being upheld and the strength of any democracy.

It has also contributed to reveal business practices which helped perpetuate state failure to promote, respect and fulfill their human and labour rights obligations including oppression and violence against citizens and workers and to demand more accountability from companies in their own business decisions and operations regarding their responsibility to respect human and labour rights and use their leverage in doing so.

The Index is a powerful catalyst for change. It fulfils a crucial role in providing the basis for targeted action by the international trade union movement, at the domestic and international level, in particular, in countries at risk, and increasingly serves as a human and labour rights risk assessment tool for investment decision-making.