Right to establish and join a trade union

The security services and employers in Israel use the threat
58%77%

Countries which excluded workers from labour protections increased from 58% of countries in 2014 to 77% of countries in 2022.

Right to establish and join a trade union

Blocked and excluded from labour protection – migrant workers, public sector workers, workers in export processing zones

Under international labour standards, all workers without distinction have the right to freedom of association. In 2022, 115 out of 148 countries excluded certain categories of workers from this right, often on the basis of their employment status.

Migrant workers, domestic workers, temporary workers, those in the informal economy and workers in the platform economy usually fell outside of the scope of labour legislation, and certain categories of public employees and employees in special economic zones were still denied the right to freedom of association.

Migrant workers

The Arab states region is one of the main destination regions globally for migrant workers. It is estimated that there are 35 million international migrants in the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) countries, and Jordan and Lebanon, of whom 31 per cent are women.

The proportion of non-nationals in the employed population in GCC countries is among the highest in the world, with an average of 70.4 per cent, ranging from 56 to 93 per cent for individual countries. Many of these migrant workers are low-skilled workers, in sectors such as construction and hospitality, or domestic workers. The majority of these workers are from Asia, with a sizeable number also coming from Africa (Egypt, Ethiopia, Kenya, Uganda).

While Qatar and Saudi Arabia undertook some major reforms to end the kafala, other countries in the region still relied heavily on this system of modern slavery and maintained the exclusion of migrants, the vast majority of their workforce, from the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Public sector workers

In a number of countries, certain categories of public employees were still denied the right to freedom of association.

Export processing zones

Workers are also often deprived of their right to freedom of association in the infamous special economic zones, where labour protections are either lowered or do not apply at all.

Union-busting

The practice of union-busting has seen more and more workers blocked from being able to form and join trade unions. Union-busting refers to a wide range of activities undertaken by employers to hinder the functioning of unions and to disrupt or prevent the formation of trade unions or their attempts to grow their membership in a workplace. ILO Convention No. 98 enshrines the right of workers’ organisations to adequate protection against any acts of interference by employers in their establishment, functioning or administration. However, in reality, many employers resorted to underhanded and illegal practices to impede workers from establishing a union in the workplace and to neutralise ability of unions to operate freely.

Workers excluded from labour protections

Middle East and North Africa

100%

All 19 countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021

Workers excluded from labour protections

In Morocco, certain categories of public employees were still denied the right to freedom of association, such as judges.

Workers excluded from labour protections

In the United Arab Emirates, foreign workers represented 89 per cent of the workforce. Under the kafala system, any attempt at escaping or fleeing an employer in the UAE is punishable by law. Runaway workers are imprisoned, deported, and face significant financial costs, including paying back their employers for the sponsorship fees without receiving salaries earned.

Horrendous reports of abuses have been exposed, like the case of a Nepali woman working as a domestic worker in a household in Dubai who was repeatedly sexually abused by her employer, his son and their relatives. Unable to escape, the 28-year-old tried to kill herself twice. She also tried to flee from the house, but to no avail. She then gave in to her employer’s demands, in the hope that it would help her escape. She managed to return home after two years of physical and mental exploitation.

Workers excluded from labour protections

In June 2021, 700 migrant workers from Africa were detained in the United Arab Emirates, denied access to legal or medical support. They were then deported. In 2021, migrant workers in the UAE were often denied timely payment of their wages and adequate overtime payments.

Workers excluded from labour protections

On 1 October 2021, the Dubai EXPO, a six-month international fair which welcomed 25 million visitors, opened in the United Arab Emirates. Despite the government’s promises, migrant workers across the country continued to suffer severe and frequent labour abuse. The almost eight million workers in the UAE remained at risk of suffering severe abuse facilitated by employment via the exploitative kafala system, with poor enforcement of regulation and with workers’ freedom to change employer curtailed. The most commonly reported types of abuse were conditions of employment (76 per cent); precarious and inadequate housing (56 per cent); arbitrary denial of freedoms (42 per cent); health and safety (39 per cent); verbal/physical abuse (13 per cent); human trafficking (5 per cent); deaths (5 per cent) and injuries (4 per cent).

Workers excluded from labour protections

Saudi Arabia went through a period of legislative change in the past years, and legal reforms came into force on 14 March 2021.

With the reforms, the ability of workers to transfer jobs has been facilitated, and employers' permission to leave the country is no longer required. Another important reform in Saudi Arabia was that of the labour courts, which have been automated to ensure speedy and effective justice and improve transparency.

For decades, restrictions on mobility have been used by employers to exploit and abuse migrant workers. Therefore, these developments were much awaited and constituted a big step for millions of migrant workers in the country.

However, the reform did not address all the long-standing issues, as it only applies to around 6.7 million migrant workers. 3.6 million domestic workers, farmers, shepherds, home guards, and private drivers remain excluded. In addition, the reform still contains restrictions whereby workers can only transfer sponsorship without the consent of the sponsor after completing one year of contract or upon the expiry of the work contract. Domestic workers face more restrictive conditions to change an employer within two years of the contract. Moreover, the reform did not lift all restrictions to exit and re-enter visas, especially for domestic workers.

Workers excluded from labour protections

Since 2017, Qatar has engaged in a set of important reforms to abolish the kafala system and extend labour protections to migrant workers in the country. In January 2020, Qatar adopted two ministerial decrees allowing employees to change employers at any time during their contract (by removing the No Objection Certificate) and to leave the country either temporarily or permanently without having to obtain the permission of their employers (by abolishing the exit visa requirement). In addition, domestic workers are now given a standard employment contract and receive pay slips from their employers.

On 20 March 2021, Qatar’s non-discriminatory minimum wage came into force, applying to all workers, of all nationalities, in all sectors, including domestic workers.

In addition, the reforms established labour courts to resolve complaints regarding the non-payment of wages, and a Workers’ Support and Insurance Fund was created.

At workplace level, committees of workers have been elected to address workers’ complaints while joint committees were established at sectoral level (including hospitality, construction, security, and transport).

Finally, Qatar has established a dispute settlement system accessible to migrant workers.

Workers excluded from labour protections

Palestinians’ access to work in Israel and the illegal settlements is tightly controlled through a repressive permit system, security checks and checkpoints. Only Palestinians with valid work permits can be “legally” employed by Israeli businesses. Out of the estimated 133,000 Palestinian workers in Israel and the illegal settlements, roughly 94,000 had a work permit. The overwhelming majority (99%) of permit holders are men, and most work in the construction sector.

Permits are issued for the duration of up to six months but can be arbitrarily annulled at any time by employers or Israel’s security services. Employers often used the threat of annulling permits to discipline workers who join unions, demand rights, or are involved in any form of political activity.

Africa

95%

95% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

Compared with 90% in 2021

Workers excluded from labour protections

The legislation in Rwanda still prohibited political office holders and officers of the security services to establish and join trade unions.

Asia Pacific

87%

87% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021

Workers excluded from labour protections

In the garment sector, which represents an overwhelming share of Bangladesh’s export economy, over 500,000 workers employed in export processing zones (EPZs) were not allowed to form or join unions, which left them without real power to bargain for better working conditions. The situation worsened with the implementation of the 2019 Export Processing Zones Labour Act (ELA) which states that the workers can only be a part of a workers’ welfare association (WWA), where the workers may not be given the full scope of collective bargaining. It is strictly prohibited for the workers to organise any protest within the EPZ, and any protests are often met with violent retaliation from the EPZ authorities.

Workers excluded from labour protections

In Japan, the law still excluded firefighters and prison staff from the right to establish and join trade unions.

Workers excluded from labour protections

In 2021, Goundar Shipping, a major Fijian ferry company, sacked three Filipino seafarers after they said they wanted to take leave to speak to union representatives about their rights and how they could get home. They were among a group of more than 20 Filipino seafarers brought to Fiji to operate and maintain its fleet of passenger and cargo ferries. They were given promises of decent wages and conditions. When they arrived, the company informed the seafarers that they would be paid 60-70 per cent less than what they were promised.

With many of the seafarers unable to afford return tickets, they agreed to stay on with the company and were given fresh promises of repatriation following an additional year of work. The company then said that flights and quarantine costs were too expensive due to Covid and refused to honour its obligations to get the seafarers home. The seafarers had lodged official complaints with the Fijian authorities in September 2020, December 2020 and January 2021 to no avail.

Working in harsh conditions and isolated for months on ships, migrant seafarers are among the most vulnerable categories of workers and often do not have access to unions.

Americas

76%

76% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

Compared with 72% in 2021

Workers excluded from labour protections

In the Bahamas, prison staff were excluded from the legislation on the right to organise.

Workers excluded from labour protections

In 2021, there were major concerns about the widespread breach of workers’ rights in the business process outsourcing (BPO) sector in Jamaica, one of the fastest-growing industries in the Caribbean. Of the 40,000 BPO workers in Jamaica – whose roles varied from customer service to technical support, sales and more – nearly all were working on fixed-term and temporary contracts, and not one of the 70-plus companies operating on the island had allowed trade union representation within their firms.

Thousands of young workers were lured into call-centre jobs, enticed by promises of good salaries and skilled work within a high-tech, global industry, only to find themselves facing a completely different reality once the contracts were signed: long hours, short or no breaks during busy periods, and environments where employers hire and fire at will. While not explicit, the language in their contracts implied that organising and collective bargaining were grounds for dismissal.

Meanwhile, BPOs benefited from special privileges, as they operated under special economic zone (free zones) legislation as “public utility services”. This arrangement resulted in a range of tax exemptions and anti-union laws: for example, there can be no strikes unless unions give employers six weeks’ notice.

Workers excluded from labour protections

The Taboga sugar mill in the province of Guanacaste, Costa Rica's main sugar-cane-producing area, receives hundreds of people every year to work in the harvest, mainly migrants from neighbouring Nicaragua.

The local union SINTRAICA, affiliated to the IUF, has demanded that the company's management, the Ministry of Labour and the relevant authorities respect workers’ rights at Ingenio Taboga, an agro-industry company, and improve the terrible conditions in which the migrant workers work and live, including through compliance with the collective agreement on subcontracting and agency labour. Joining a union remained difficult for migrant workers in the industry.

Europe

41%

41% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021

Workers excluded from labour protections

Under Turkish law, senior public employees, magistrates and prison guards were excluded from the right to organise.

Union-busting

Middle East and North Africa

100%

All 19 countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021

Union-busting

In April 2021, a waste-sorting plant for the city of Jerusalem operating in the Atarot settlement industrial zone undermined workers’ rights. Some 110 of its Palestinian workers joined Maan Union to fight against exploitative working conditions. Employers used financial constraints imposed by COVID-19 to weaken workers’ unionising efforts. Dozens of workers were forced to take leave of absence without pay, others were to stay on the factory grounds without appropriate arrangements if they were to keep their jobs, and nine workers were fired, including union leaders.

Union-busting

In 2021, a number of workers who tried to form trade unions in Oman were subjected to arbitrary decisions by their employers to prevent and obstruct them from forming trade unions; these decisions included dismissals and transfers to remote locations.

Union-busting

On 11 July 2021, the Ministry of Electricity in Iraq issued a directive banning trade union committees and instructing employees in public-owned companies not to engage in such committees under penalty of criminal prosecution. In addition, the Iraqi Ministry of Industry and Minerals issued disciplinary warnings against two union leaders in retaliation for their unionising efforts.

Union-busting

While shortly before, in June 2021, elections for employee delegates were held throughout the country, union members of the Webhelp and Sitel Group call centres in Morocco were unfairly dismissed. At Sitel, employees who had created a union office with the Union Marocaine des Travailleurs (UMT) were dismissed or suspended without pay. At Webhelp, employees attempting to form unions at various worksites faced intimidation and pressure from management.

Africa

95%

95% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

Compared with 90% in 2021

Union-busting

In South Africa, about 100 workers at Rhodes University began a strike on 10 August 2021 after the institution failed to recognise their union, the National Union of Public Service and Allied Workers (NUPSAW). Having unionised over ten per cent of the university workers, NUPSAW had approached the university on 29 April 2021 seeking recognition, including the right to organise and recruit members and hold meetings on campus.

When asked why the university would not recognise the union, its senior communications officer said, in blatant violation of South African laws, that NUPSAW was not sufficiently representative.

Union-busting

In June 2021, the Société des Brasseries du Mali (BRAMALI) proceeded to targeted dismissals of the company union officials, including the union deputy general secretary, the communication secretary and the finance secretary. Several other union officials were on the waiting list to be dismissed and given eight days' notice. The firings came amidst a union struggle at BRAMALI after a three-day strike in May 2021.

Union-busting

Workers at Style Industries Ltd, a manufacturer of synthetic hair, have been fighting since 2015 to have their union, the Kenyan Union of Hair and Beauty Workers (KUHABWO), recognised. KUHABWO recruited 3,811 workers out of a workforce of 6,000, of whom 85 per cent are women, but the company did all it could to harass and discourage union members. When union officials came to recruit workers during breaks or lunch time, the employer used the police to harass and arrest the workers to stop them from speaking with union representatives.

The dispute became deadlocked at conciliation, and the case went to the Employment and Labour Relations Court, which issued a restraining order against the company in 2017. The order instructed Style Industries to stop “victimising, intimidating, coercing, harassing, and indulging in unfair labour practices” and allow for the case to be finalised in court. Further, the court said the company must stop terminating contracts and dismissing union members because of their union membership.

Despite the court’ decision, the company’s union-busting tactics continued, and in May 2021 it dismissed another 150 union members. Those who were not deterred by the move and remained union members were threatened with dismissals.

A solidarity campaign was launched in June 2021 to raise awareness of the company’s anti-union tactics.

Union-busting

Since October 2020, Amadou Diallo and Alhassane Diallo, respectively secretary general and deputy secretary general of the Sheraton Grand Conakry workers' union, have been seeking reinstatement after their anti-union dismissal. Despite international solidarity campaigns and a complaint to the ILO, the management of the hotel has stubbornly opposed their reinstatement.

Workers of the Sheraton Grand Conakry, which is the largest hotel in Guinea, began organising in March 2019 in response to low wages, unpaid overtime and an absence of healthcare provisions. The lengthy unionisation process ended with the successful union election on 11 February 2020. Throughout this time, hotel management tried all possible means to stop the election, and in a blatant union-bashing move, resorted to unfairly dismissing the two union leaders.

Asia-Pacific

87%

87% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021

Union-busting

In 2021, Hyundai helped set up a car manufacturing plant in southwest Korea so that it could produce cars cheaply and, crucially, without unions. The new car plant, opening in late 2021, is operated by Gwangju Global Motors (GGM), a newly established company founded by the city of Gwangju, which has a majority share of 21 per cent, while Hyundai has a 19 per cent stake. The aim was primarily to avoid unionised labour. Most of the workers at Hyundai itself are unionised and have successfully taken industrial action to achieve higher wages. Average annual pay at Hyundai is 88 million won. At the new plant, dubbed the "half-wage factory", the average annual pay is 35 million won, which is below the national average of 42.34 million won for company employees.

Union-busting

In May 2021, management at the Fairmont Sanur hotel in Bali, Indonesia, part of the Accor chain, individually contacted workers who had been dismissed in July 2020 to offer them their jobs back, but only on condition that they denied their union membership.

In April 2020 the workers had agreed to a massive 70 per cent pay cut to keep the hotel going during the pandemic. Despite this, management still tried to force 68 workers to sign “voluntary” resignation letters at the end of July 2020. All of them were members of the recently formed Serikat Pekerja Mandiri (SPM) union. The workers refused and two days later received termination letters declaring them redundant.

The letter the workers had to sign to get their jobs back stated: “It is true that I work as a Fairmont Hotel employee, hereby declare voluntarily and knowingly without any coercion from any party that I have never joined the membership of Serikat Pekerja Mandiri (SPM). Thus, I made this statement letter in truth.”

Of the workers contacted, only four agreed to sign, while 38 continued to fight for reinstatement on the grounds of unfair dismissal.

Union-busting

In August 2021, the Kerala Bank Thiruvananthapuram district branch in India brought in new by-laws limiting the union activities of its staff. Under the new rules the unions may not intervene in any decisions relating to transfers. Shortly after that announcement, two women leaders of the Bank Employees Federation of India (BEFI) were transferred outside their district. Both women were members of the BEFI women’s subcommittee, and both worked in the same unit. They were transferred to two different places, with immediate effect. According to BEFI, they were transferred for taking union leave to take part in the union’s General Council convention.

Union-busting

The NagaWorld Hotel and Casino complex in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, has consistently denied their workers the right to union representation. For more than two decades, management has refused to fully recognise the Union of Khmer Employees of Naga World (LRSU).

Union-busting

On 24 September 2021, a meeting was planned to take place in the Bangladesh Independent Garment Workers Union Federation (BIGUF) office in Chattogram to form a regional committee of the IndustriALL Bangladesh Council (IBC). However, a phone call from the police to IBC’s senior vice president Salauddin Shapon put a stop to it. Another meeting was planned to be held in a different area the following day. But again, the police contacted the vice president to say the meeting could not take place there either.

In a third attempt, the IBC decided to hold the meeting at the office of another affiliate, the Bangladesh Textile and Garment Workers League (BTGWL). When IBC leaders arrived, police officers, including some in plain clothes, blocked the gate and did not allow anyone to enter.

Americas

76%

76% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

Compared with 72% in 2021

Union-busting

In 2021, Coca-Cola Uruguay imposed a restructuring to lay off sixteen workers in Montevideo and eighteen workers in the department of Salto. The company claimed that it would lay off those who had received a disciplinary sanction in the past. In reality, the company targeted only unionised workers in Salto.

The Coca-Cola Workers’ Union (STCC) tried to argue for their reinstatement during a 45-day negotiation, without reaching an agreement with Coca Cola. On 4 August 2021, the STCC unanimously resolved to go on strike for seven days.

Union-busting

During the pandemic, the Luxottica management at the manufacturing and distribution centre in McDonough, USA, used a company-issued app called “LiveSafe”, allegedly to inform workers on COVID-19 issues in the workplace. In reality, the app served as a platform for management to send anti-union messages about purported “risks” of union organising, including that workers might lose pay and benefits if they succeeded in forming a union. In addition to the app, management created an anti-union website vilifying unions and suggesting dire consequences if workers signed a union card. The company also hired anti-union consultants and required workers to attend mandatory, union-bashing “captive-audience” meetings with no opportunity for response by union supporters.

On 15 July 2021, national and international labour groups filed a complaint under the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises, alleging severe violations of workers’ freedom of association rights at the Luxottica USA.

The Luxottica manufacturing and distribution centre in Georgia employs 2,000 workers. Luxottica is a division of the EssilorLuxottica group, the world’s largest provider of vision care and eyewear products, serving a global market with over 150,000 employees around the world.

Union-busting

During 2021, Heinz-Glas Peru continued with its anti-union policy to disband the union and prevent collective bargaining. The company offered help for the disaffiliation of members, even going to their homes, sending them the letter of disaffiliation, calling them one by one to encourage their disaffiliation and offering a position with a higher income to those who would choose to disaffiliate.

Union-busting

At the end of April 2021, AB InBev La Constancia, in El Salvador, one of the world's largest brewers, unjustly dismissed 32 workers, all members of the IUF-affiliated Constancia Workers' Union (SITRACONSTA). On 30 July 2021, the company fired 30 more unionised workers. The union requested the immediate reinstatement of the unjustly dismissed union members, recognition of the union and the commencement of collective bargaining. The company consistently refused to give way to bargaining, arguing that it did not have time because of its restructuring plans and pandemic coping measures.

Throughout 2021, La Constancia has maintained its anti-union policy of intimidating union members by telling them that layoffs are SITRACONSTA's responsibility and offering job security to workers who prove that they have resigned from the union.

Europe

41%

41% of countries excluded workers from the right to establish and join a trade union.

No change from 2021

Union-busting

In June 2021, fifty-four workers of the ASD Laminat Factory in Düzce, Turkey, were dismissed as a result of their membership in the Turkish Wood and Paper Industry Workers’ Union (AGAC-IS). The company refused to recognise the union and resorted to union-busting schemes, such as arbitrarily dismissing unionists and pressuring other workers to renounce their union membership. After a four-year legal battle, a local court ruled in favour of the workers’ reinstatement earlier this year. However, the company continued to defy the court’s decision and intensified its anti-union practices. On 30 June, it started dismissing workers immediately after the pandemic “lay-off ban” was lifted. As of 14 July 2021, another 19 workers had been fired.

Union-busting

When workers at smartphone producer Salcomp in Istanbul, Turkey, exercised their fundamental right to join a trade union, they faced intimidation, threats and dismissals. Working conditions at the plant were untenable. During the pandemic, overtime was imposed without the workers’ consent and only partly paid. Breaks could only be taken at the managers’ discretion, and since there was no canteen, workers had to eat in containers for a while. Many workers became ill with COVID-19.

When the workers decided to join the Turkish Metalworkers’ Union (Türk Metal), in August 2021, management launched a union busting campaign. Workers were intimidated, threatened and 170 union members were dismissed. Around 80 per cent of the dismissed workers were women. After six days of protest, workers managed to get Salcomp to reverse its decision and reinstate all dismissed union members.

Salcomp produces smart phones for the Chinese multinational Xiaomi, the second largest smartphone maker in the world. There are around 800 workers at the site in Istanbul, and there are plans to increase the workforce to 2,000.

Union-busting

In November 2021, EasyJet gravely interfered in the union elections at its Barcelona (Spain) centre by dismissing the CC.OO. representative. This anti-union dismissal had no other motive but to thwart union growth in the company.

Union-busting

In the private sector in Greece, employers dismissed, transferred and downgraded unionised workers or used the threat of such measures against workers to discourage them from joining a union.

Union-busting

United Paper Mills (UPM) sacked the shop steward at its Kaukas sawmill (Finland) in April 2021. The company claimed it was a legal dismissal connected with closing one production line at the sawmill and with a “renewal of the management model”. Unions, on the other hand, saw the move as part of an attempt to undermine the trade unions, coming not long after the announcement that UPM was going to scrap the collective bargaining system.

Union-busting

In June 2021, two Turkish companies, Cengiz İnşaat and CI-AY Mühendislik, were hired to reconstruct a railway section in Croatia. From the beginning of the project, SGH, an affiliate of the Union of Autonomous Trade Unions of Croatia (SSSH) in the construction sector, contacted the management of the two companies to discuss the need to apply the sectoral collective agreement for all the workers working on the reconstruction project, including Turkish workers brought in for the project. The two companies obstinately refused any attempt by SGH to disseminate information to workers.

On 17 February 2022, SGH visited the workers on the construction site during their break and handed them leaflets on the rights under the collective agreement. Workers reported a series of violations of their rights, including working 250-300 hours a month and not being paid overtime. Immediately thereafter, seventeen workers received a text message informing them that they had been fired.

Union-busting

In Bulgaria, workers faced many obstacles to joining trade unions as employers terminated unionised workers, harassed trade union leaders, established yellow unions and refused to collect union dues, despite check-off agreements.

Union-busting

Following the restructuration in April 2021 of the social security administration in Armenia, which merged municipal services and three state administrations into one, all of which had their own union, the management of the newly created Unified Social Service (USS) decided to cease the application of the check-off agreements and the collection of union dues. This unilateral decision had a disastrous impact on the unions’ finances and their capacity to operate. Despite insistent requests from the presidents of the unions, the issue remained unresolved.

The security services and employers in Israel use the threat of annulling work permits to discipline Palestinian workers who join unions.Hazem Bader / AFP

Nine-year trends: Right to establish and join a trade union

Companies violating the right to establish and join a trade union

NagaWorld Hotel and Casino complex

Cambodia

Alexandria Spinning and Weaving Company

Egypt

Empresa Portuaria Santo Tomás de Castilla

Guatemala

Société des Brasseries du Mali

Mali