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Global Worker Rights Increasingly Under Attack During Pandemic

By the Democracy & Human Rights Working Group*

For 150 years, independent trade unions have worked to protect and promote core worker rights, including freedom of association, freedom of collective bargaining, and the right to strike. The trade union movement directly address power and leaders on both economic and political grounds, with the aim of creating fair, shared prosperity in an environment where free speech and free association are permitted and protected. Throughout history, workers have played a critical role in bringing about positive change. In the United States, we have an 8-hour workday, retirement benefits, and child labor laws because of the worker rights movement. In East Europe in the 1980s, Soviet-dominated governments were overturned as underground trade union leaders demanded freedom. South African unions helped end apartheid, and workers in Brazil helped transition their country from a 20-year dictatorship to a democracy.

Unfortunately, worker rights are increasingly under attack around the world. According to the International Trade Union Confederation’s 2019 ITUC Global Rights Index, which ranks 145 countries based on their respect for workers’ rights, 107 countries in 2019 excluded workers from the right to establish or join a trade union, up from 92 in 2018. Eighty-five percent of countries violated the right to strike, with Chad banning all strikes and demonstrations, while 80 percent of countries violated the right to collective bargaining. Countries in the Middle East and North Africa are the worst offenders, with Egypt having disbanded all independent trade unions and Saudi Arabia using millions of migrant workers essentially as slaves. Dozens of countries have denied or constrained freedom of speech and assembly or obstructed the registration of unions, and arbitrary arrests and detention increased from 59 in 2018 to 64 in 2019, including mass arrests of workers in China, India, Turkey and Vietnam.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, conditions for workers have worsened dramatically, as hundreds of millions globally have lost their jobs. With this increase in job losses, people have been taking on work in the informal sector that does not provide social and economic protection such as healthcare and severance pay. Approximately 60 percent of the global workforce currently labors under these conditions. Even if workers have not lost their jobs, most countries do not pay wages high enough for workers to have savings, which means when the coronavirus began, the majority did not have a financial safety net to fall back on. Supply chain workers were especially hard hit, as many brands and retailers, especially in the apparel industry, have refused to meet their financial commitments to suppliers who filled tens of billions of dollars in orders but remain unpaid, leading to widespread job loss. Female workers have been disproportionately affected by the pandemic, as they are overrepresented both in the informal sector and on the front lines of combatting the virus, such as in the healthcare sector, putting them in greater danger. The rise in authoritarian responses to the pandemic has impacted the trade union movement as well, as restrictions on assembly have resulted in situations such as in Burma, where no more than five people are allowed to gather at a time, except in factories where workers are expected to appear for work without social distancing measures in place. They cannot protest these unsafe conditions, however, because of the restrictions on assembly.

While independent trade unions continue to fight for their members and have achieved some target=”_blank”victories in recent months, too often it takes a tragedy to force change. In Bangladesh, it was only after over 1,100 garment workers died when their factory building collapsed that an enforceable agreement was reached to provide safe workplaces for employees. The U.N. International Labour Organization (ILO) is a key entity which brings together workers, employers and governments to negotiate labor standards, but much more needs to be done. Recommendations for the U.S. administration, Congress, and the 2020 presidential candidates for promoting and protecting global worker rights include:

  • Increasing resources to U.S. government entities responsible for labor rights, including the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor at the U.S. State Department; the Bureau for International Labor Affairs at the U.S. Labor Department; the Center for Excellence on Democracy, Human Rights and Governance at the U.S. Agency for International Development; the Office of International Affairs at the U.S. Treasury Department; and the Office of Labor Affairs at the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative; as well as funding for the National Endowment for Democracy, which allocates a portion of its resources to the Solidarity Center.
  • Strengthening U.S. labor diplomacy by pushing for the inclusion of labor issues in bilateral commercial diplomacy and human rights and economic dialogues.
  • Establishing a core group of like-minded governments that will address global worker rights during economic diplomacy efforts at meetings of the G20 and advance concerns about labor rights connected to global events, such as the February 2022 Beijing Olympics.
  • Including labor rights as an integral part of the U.S. government’s human rights agenda at all levels.
  • Reviewing bilateral and global trade agreements to ensure that they include enforceable labor protections.
  • Restricting imports of products into the U.S. that do not comply with codes of conduct that require countries of origin to permit the right to organize, the right to strike, and provide safe work conditions.
  • Increasing coordination with international nongovernmental organizations in Europe and elsewhere in order to raise awareness of worker rights violations, increase pressure on countries to make improvements, and support negotiations between governments, employers, and workers to reach enforceable agreements to protect workers.
  • Strengthening enforcement of existing prohibitions on the import of goods made with forced labor.
    Taking concrete steps toward ratifying ILO Convention 190 to address and eradicate gender-based violence and harassment at work, as well as considering other ILO core conventions.
  • Enhancing the use of trade preference mechanisms, such as the Generalized System of Preferences and the African Growth and Opportunity Act, to hold beneficiary countries accountable to labor rights commitments.
  • Exploring additional strategies for holding corporations doing business in the U.S. accountable for labor rights violations in their global supply chains, such as establishing a tripartite working group (U.S. government, business, and labor groups) that focuses on this issue.


* The Democracy & Human Rights Working Group is a nonpartisan initiative bringing together academic and think tank experts and practitioners from NGOs and previous Democratic and Republican administrations, seeking to elevate the importance of democracy and human rights issues in U.S. foreign policy. It is convened by Arizona State University’s McCain Institute for International Leadership. The views expressed here do not necessarily represent the positions of individual members of the group or of their organizations.

Publish Date
March 10, 2021