The Guardian June 23, 1999

Workers' rights, union freedoms

by Tom Sibley
International Centre for Trade Union Rights This month marks the 50th anniversary of the two cornerstone International Labour Organisation conventions covering basic workers' rights and union freedoms, the right to organise, the right to collective bargaining and the right to strike.
These conventions have been signed by the majority of UN member states, with some significant exceptions, such as the US and China. These fundamental rights have come under attack as the neoliberal agenda of free markets, free trade and flexible labour markets has gathered pace. In Britain, we have seen anti-union legislation outlawing solidarity action and incrementally restricting any industrial and collective rights. These Tory laws were widely panned by international bodies. The ILO, the Council of Europe and the UN all reported adversely on the failure of British law to uphold the right to strike. In particular, they have highlighted the lack of protection given to workers taking strike action, which in British law remains a breach of the employment contract and can result in dismissal without the right to reinstatement even where the dismissal is found to be unfair at an industrial tribunal. But the case against the inadequacies of British employment law in protecting workers' rights goes much wider. Over the last 15 years the ILO has identified a number of shortcomings: * Banning solidarity action, such as boycotts and strikes against third parties; * Banning strikes aimed at the real employer by restricting lawful strikes to disputes with the nominal employer, which may be a separate company formed by the real employer; * Banning strikes in support of overseas workers; * Banning protest strikes against government, economic or social policies; * Banning the disciplining of strike-breakers under union rules; * Banning unions from paying members' fines. It would be good to report that the British Labour Government had taken the opportunity in the Employment Relations Bill now going through Parliament to address these fundamental issues. Alas, this is not the case. In all essentials, the right to strike remains as defined by the Tories, and Labour has failed yet again to incorporate best international labour standards into British law. But is the outlook any better internationally? Here the debate has really picked up following the collapse of the neoliberal experiment in Indonesia, South Korea and Malaysia. This, together with growing public awareness of the prevalence of child labour, poverty wages and appalling working conditions in many of the workplaces now supplying international markets, has given fresh impetus to demands for minimum labour standards across the world. In this struggle, the British Government trails behind most of the European Union and is less effective than even the US. The Clinton administration argues for linking trade agreements to minimum standards of workers' rights. Are they simply looking to protect their markets from low-wage competition, particularly from the newly industrialising Pacific? Or is a new consensus emerging for minimum labour standards around the world which reflect civilised democratic values and practices? We shall see. Perhaps the key question is what role the ILO can play in these issues. Set up in 1919 along with the League of Nations by the Treaty of Versailles, its objectives are broad and democratic, based on the principle that universal and lasting peace can only be achieved if it is based upon social justice, respect for human rights, humane working conditions, employment opportunities and economic security for all. It is a tripartite body, with representation from governments, trade union, and employer organisations from all over the world. Its most important activity is to get international labour standards drawn up as conventions to be ratified by member countries. Such conventions do not have the force of international law but non- compliance can lead to political embarrassment. Such standards also give national trade unions targets to aim for and ammunition with which to campaign. Despite ILO conventions, trade unions are under attack all over the world. But it would be a mistake to abandon the struggle to create an effective ILO not least at a time of rapid globalisation of the economy. For the potential remains to build alliances between the organised working class and all those peoples and countries bearing the brunt of the activities of the multinationals. The hopes of the ILO founders for peace with social justice on a world scale may not have been achieved but they remain valid. So does the need to develop international institutions which are both democratic and effective in the struggle to end poverty and oppression. Whether or not the ILO has the collective wisdom and will to protect standards and move forward to shape and help administer social clauses in trade agreements remains to be seen. Some voices within the ILO are calling for a radical change of direction, one which would seek to create different standards for workers' rights depending on levels of economic development. In other words, workers in the Third World could expect even less support from the international community than they get now. It is, of course, the slippery slope toward levelling-down everywhere that must be resisted. Much will depend on the willingness of the international trade union movement to fight for reforms to the ILO which strengthen its powers of enforcement and broaden its activities to include monitoring trade agreements. While the British Government favours closer working between the ILO and the World Trade Organisation, Labour leaders are very wary of including social clauses in trade agreements. Such a universal social clause could link trade liberalisation to the observance of core labour standards such as the right to organise and to be represented by independent trade unions as well as outlawing child labour and bonded labour. [Labour standards would become the excuse for industrialised countries to put up barriers to the entry of goods from third world countries.] These are some of the main issues facing the international labour movement. Much work needs to be done to strengthen workers' rights in Britain and campaign in the world community for concrete measures to make the giant transnational corporations more accountable for their activities.
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Acknowledgements Morning Star

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