Second Global Report on freedom of association and collective bargaining

Freedom of association and collective bargaining are called fundamental rights in the workplace for good reason. These are the rights which make it possible for both workers and employers to join together to promote their interests and to defend other rights. The ILO Constitution upholds these rights, and they are set out in core Conventions. But what is their status in the world today? The second ILO Global Report on freedom of association and collective bargaining, Organizing for Social Justice, delivers a message of cautious optimism.

GENEVA - Four years after the first ILO Global Report on freedom of association and collective bargaining, the second, Organizing for Social Justice, paints a mixed picture, saying that the global picture is, on balance, encouraging, while noting that serious violations persist.

Commitments to respect and promote freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are accompanied by a growing recognition that these rights play a vital part in sound economic development and growth. In a globalized economy, the report says, they provide a connecting mechanism between social goals and the demands of the marketplace. The real debate "should not be on whether to respect these principles and rights, but on how best to respect and make use of them".

The report highlights collective bargaining's economic benefits, making wage determination more transparent, and contributing to the certainty and stability needed for sound investment decisions. Although collective bargaining varies enormously in terms of coverage and the level at which it takes place, success stories can be found at each level of bargaining. Different levels suit different issues.

Nevertheless, the report says, it is a "disturbing reality" that in many parts of the world and in a number of economic sectors, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are not respected. Violations of the rights of both employers and workers persist, and remain widespread. People continue to lose their lives and their freedom for attempting to organize and defend, collectively, their fundamental rights. Serious abuses include killings, violence, detention, and the refusal to allow organizations the right to exist and function.

The report points to the challenges which globalization presents to both employers' and workers' organizations. Employers' and workers' organizations increasingly need to strengthen their capacity to organize their current and future members, and to discuss and negotiate with each other and with national authorities. Both employers and workers at times face state pressures, illegal detentions, and difficulties in having their organizations recognized and registered. Certain categories of workers, such as those in the public sector, in agriculture, in export-processing zones, migrants and domestic workers, and those in the informal economy, often face serious difficulties in exercising their rights to organize and bargain freely. The report shows that at both national and international levels, employers' and workers' organizations have taken up the challenges by adopting policies and taking action to overcome the various difficulties they face.

Promoting and defending freedom of association, and these principles and rights, remains a central commitment for the ILO - addressed within a framework of technical assistance set up through the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. An action plan introduced by the first Global Report on freedom of association and collective bargaining in 2000, listed more than 50 countries which had requested technical assistance. Since then, many of those have negotiated projects or other activities with the ILO, aided by significant donor funding. This current report finds that the variety of technical cooperation activities is having a positive impact, working to build institutional capacity within governments, and employers' and workers' organizations, and improving relations between the three.

While significant progress has been made towards acceptance and realization of the principles of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, the report notes that too many people still do not enjoy these rights. Means of moving ahead include:

  • Working closely with constituents to move towards overcoming existing obstacles to ratifying and applying the relevant Conventions
  • Supporting organization and bargaining for vulnerable groups of workers
  • Understanding better how these principles can help to build a labour market which promotes rights, economic development and poverty reduction
  • Deepening the knowledge base, advisory services, and technical cooperation and awareness raising and advocacy activities relating to this principle