The ITUC Global Rights Index exposes the failings of the world’s economic model – a New Social Contract can help us build a new one

Some countries will use the COVID-19 crisis to accelerate their attacks on workers, but we can use the 2020 ITUC Global Rights Index to stop this, and then reverse it.

We must do this because the 2020 Rights Index exposes the breakdown of the social contract between governments, employers and workers, with violations of workers’ rights at a seven-year high. Democracy and freedom are under sustained attack.

Governments and employers have restricted the rights of working people through limiting collective bargaining, disrupting the right to strike and excluding workers from unions. This has been made worse by a rise in the number of countries that impede the registration of unions.

A staggering 85 per cent of countries have violated the right to strike. Strikes and demonstrations were banned in Belarus, Guinea, Senegal and Togo and met with extreme brutality in Bolivia, Chile and Ecuador. In Iran and Iraq, mass arrests were made at protests.

Eighty per cent of countries have violated the right to collectively bargain. Egypt and Honduras both moved to circumvent collective bargaining rights by putting up obstacles to union registration and dismissing worker representatives.

Alarmingly, the number of countries that impeded the registration of unions increased to 89, from 86 in 2019. Sudan suspended all trade unions and associations, and in Bangladesh, of the 1,104 union registration applications examined between 2010 and 2019, 46 per cent were rejected by the Department of Labour.

An increase in the number of countries that deny or constrain freedom of speech shows the fragility of democracies, while the number of countries restricting access to justice has remained unacceptably high at last year’s levels.

Turkey and Hong Kong were among the most extreme examples of the 56 countries and territories that denied or constrained freedom of speech, up from 54 in 2019.

In 72 per cent of countries workers had no or restricted access to justice, with severe cases reported in Bangladesh, where labour courts have accumulated a three-year backlog, while a staggering 18,000 cases filed by workers were still pending. In Iran, as of March 2020, 38 labour activists were still arbitrarily imprisoned, often detained in remote secret prisons, subjected to ill-treatment and denied access to a lawyer.

Trade union leaders from Indonesia, Korea and Turkey were among high profile arrests in 2020; workers experienced arbitrary arrests and detention in 61 countries.

The worst offenders

This seventh edition of the Rights Index ranks 144 countries on the degree of respect for workers’ rights. The ten worst countries for workers in 2020 are Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Egypt, Honduras, India, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe.

Honduras has joined this group for the first time, while India’s repressive labour legislation has seen it re-enter since it first appeared in 2016. Egypt was one of the ten worst countries in 2015, 2017, 2018 and makes a return in 2020.

The Middle East and North Africa is the worst region in the world for working people for the seventh year running, with the ongoing insecurity and conflict in Palestine, Syria, Yemen and Libya, coupled with the most regressive region for workers’ representation and union rights.

Jordan, Pakistan, South Africa, Togo and Venezuela have all seen their ratings worsen in 2020. Several countries have seen their ratings improve, including Argentina, Canada, Ghana, Namibia, Sierra Leone, Spain and Vietnam.

Workers were killed, including at trade union backed protests, in nine countries: Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Ecuador, Honduras, Iraq, the Philippines and South Africa. With six of the nine countries, the Americas became the deadliest place for workers. Overall, workers were exposed to violence in 51 countries.

Into this we have seen the arrival of COVID-19; the greatest disruption to the world economy in generations. But let’s be clear, the challenges we face remain the same. The pandemic represents a convergence of crises: inequality and distrust, the climate emergency, women’s equality, racism, technology, the crisis of multilateralism.

The social and economic shock has seen workers in many countries exposed to illness and death due to the existing repression of unions and the refusal of governments to respect rights and engage in social dialogue. These countries have found themselves unable to fight the pandemic effectively, and under the cover of measures to tackle coronavirus they are advancing their anti-workers’ rights agenda.

But this is where the ITUC Global Rights Index is most effective because it is not just a list of violations: we will use it to build the new economic model the world needs as it recovers from the COVID-19 pandemic. It must be a resilient global economy built on a New Social Contract: a new commitment to workers’ rights, renewed investment in compliance and the rule of law, and workplace democracy. These are the foundations for a future where we leave no one behind.