The right to form trade unions ('freedom of association') and to bargain collectively with employers are the fundamental rights of all people at work.
These rights are laid down in two Conventions of the International Labour Organisation (ILO):
- ILO Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise, No.87 (1948) bans any act of discrimination against trade unions. It protects employers' and workers' organisations from mutual interference and promotes collective bargaining.
- ILO Convention on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, No.98 (1949) protects workers who exercise their right to organise.
In the Republic of Ireland
The right of free association and the right to join a union are enshrined as fundamental rights in the Irish Constitution. However, it is unclear whether employers are legally obliged to recognise unions. If they are not, then the right of workers to be in a union could be meaningless, in the recent opinion of one Supreme Court Judge.
Workers' rights to union representation in the Republic are largely based on voluntary procedures, on the grounds that legal obligations on employers might frighten off multinational investors. Employers often use this to frustrate trade unions, by failing to give workers' representatives time off or facilities for union activities. Trade unions are arguing for the law to be tightened.
In Northern Ireland
The Employment Relations (Northern Ireland) Order 1999 safeguards workers' rights to form and join trade unions. However, it still falls short of some international standards. The ILO has, for example, criticised the British Government for banning solidarity action such as sympathy strikes. The Government is trying not to bring in some positive elements of European social legislation too, such as employees' rights to information and to be consulted by their employers.
You can even lose your life
In some countries, intimidation, threats and even murder await workers who attempt to organise trade unions. The International Trade Union Confederation's Annual Survey of Trade Union Rights Violations reveals an appalling record of union-busting, anti-union laws, intimidation and violence against workers' representatives in 2007. A worldwide total of 91 trade unionists were murdered for defending workers' rights, with Colombia, where 39 lost their lives, by far the worst offender yet again. Second-worst was Guinea, where the regime of President Lansana Conte was directly responsible for the killing of 30 unionists during brutal repression of union-organised public demonstrations against corruption and violations of fundamental rights. The Survey also notes a disturbing upsurge in violence in Guatemala as trade unions were increasingly targeted, with four unionists murdered and a worsening climate of threats and harassment.
The Survey, which covers worker rights violations in 138 countries, reveals a number of disturbing trends, including collusion between some governments and employers to deprive working women and men of their legitimate rights to union membership and representation. Serious and systematic harassment and intimidation was reported in 63 countries.
Colombia remained the most dangerous country for trade unionists, with 39 assassinations. Whilst the number of murders went down in 2007, other forms of violence increased, with a doubling of the number of attempted killings and increases in forced removals, illegal raids, arbitrary arrests and threats. The vast majority of the violations were committed against workers in the agriculture, education and health sectors.
Guinea undoubtedly holds the worst record in that respect. During huge demonstrations in January and February, which were based on a series of legitimate demands, the police repression was ferocious. The official death toll was 129, with 1,700 people injured. Dozens of trade union leaders were beaten and arrested. Rabiatou Diallo and Ibrahima Fofana, the two main leaders of the trade union group (the "Intersyndicale") that organised the strike, narrowly escaped
The military government of Burma continued to wantonly violate labour rights, sending six workers to prison for over 20 years in connection with May Day activities, jailing a leader of the underground Burma Railway Union, and ordering in the military and the police to repress labour protests in factories.
Bangladesh's military-backed Government declared a state of emergency on January 11 that explicitly banned all trade union activities and authorised arrests and detention without warrants or evidence. Police and army officials entered factories to intimidate workers, military intelligence detained union activists and labour rights defenders, and Ministry of Labour officials threatened to de-register militant garment worker trade unions.
Restrictive laws in a number of Asian countries like China bar involvement in independent trade unions. The Chinese police frequently used violence to disperse worker protests, causing grievous injuries, and arrested the workers' rank-and-file leaders.