people protesting

Legislative power

Law-making is an effective and powerful instrument for social transformation and the protection of labour rights. In the last year, positive legal steps were taken in some countries to further advance workers’ rights and social progress. However, in other countries, governments passed regressive legislation that severely undermined basic rights at work.

Repressive laws


Repressive laws

In January 2023, the Zimbabwean government published the Health Services Amendment Act and Criminal Law Amendment Bill that would stifle the rights of working people to freedom of expression and association.

The Health Services Amendment Act comprises a number of repressive strictures, including: those that restrict any collective job action, lawful or unlawful, from continuing for an uninterrupted period of 72 hours or more in any given 14-day period; that demand notice of any collective job action in writing 48 hours before it starts; and threaten that any individual who is a member of the governing body of any trade union that incites or organises any collective job action in the health service could be guilty of an offence and liable to a fine or to imprisonment of up to six months or to both.

The Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Amendment Bill provides for new crimes and heavy sentencing, including a crime for “wilfully damaging the sovereignty and national interest of Zimbabwe”; making it an offence for any Zimbabwean to seek support from a foreign country in a way that the government decides undermines the sovereignty, dignity, and independence of the country; and making it an offence to speak out against government policies, with penalties depending on the nature of the meeting held and the outcome of that meeting. The penalties for these new offences vary from a fine, to life imprisonment or a death sentence.

Both texts are currently before Parliament.

Asia Pacific

Repressive laws

Hundreds of workers protested in Visakhapatnam, Andhra Pradesh, India, on 22 and 23 August 2022 against the government’s new labour laws that consolidate 44 labour laws into four codes. The new labour codes, which cover wage regulation, industrial relations, social security and occupational safety, and health and working conditions, would deprive workers of their basic rights to go on strike, to form unions and to bargain with management.

The demonstrations were held ahead of a meeting with all of India’s labour ministers in the state of Andhra Pradesh intended to discuss the formulation and implementation of rules under the labour laws. Union leaders submitted a memorandum to the district administration after the rally, raising concerns over the new labour codes, which seek to weaken workers’ rights while promoting companies’ interests.

Despite strong opposition from unions across India, the Modi government held an all-states meeting on 25 and 26 August to ensure that state governments enforce the new codes.


Repressive laws

In response to the railway and NHS disputes in the United Kingdom, the government brought new primary legislation before parliament on 10 January 2023 which would enforce the unilateral imposition of Minimum Service Levels on railway workers, ambulance workers, and fire service workers, with provisions for the laws to extend to any services within the transport, healthcare, border force, education, nuclear decommissioning and storage, and fire and rescue sectors.

Under the proposed new laws, workers required to cross picket lines to run minimum services lose their legal protection from unfair dismissal if they continue to take strike action, and trade unions can face paying damages for not ensuring that work notices are followed.

There was no consultation with trade unions before the introduction of this legislation, and there is little opportunity to scrutinise or influence the legislation, as it is being rushed through Parliament on a curtailed timetable.

The draft legislation is another attack on the fundamental right to strike for workers in the UK, which already lacks constitutional safeguards and takes place in a draconian legislative environment for trade unions. Britain’s anti-union laws require a two-week notice period before the initiation of a strike. They also require an excessive majority of union members to vote for the strike action, both in terms of voter turnout and in terms of ‘yes’ votes. Additionally, in July 2022, the law was changed to allow the recruitment of agency labour to break strikes, a practice which was previously illegal.

Middle East and North Africa

Repressive laws

In January 2023, the Algerian government submitted amendments to Law 90/14, which should be adopted shortly by Parliament. The changes will severely impact trade union rights in the country and independent unions were not consulted by the government in their creation. The proposed amendments will have a significant impact on trade union activities, such as the possibility for trade unions to be affiliated to political parties, the right of the government to refuse the registration of a trade union without the possibility of appeal, the prohibition of unions from investing their income or buying real estate, and restrictions on membership of international organisations. The list of strictures is such that it makes it impossible for independent trade unions to operate in Algeria.

This is also the second time in less than a year that the Algerian government has changed legislation that affects union activity, without any consultation with unions.

Repressive laws

In Israel, lawmakers have tabled a bill aimed at preventing a union from launching a strike in solidarity with a cause that does not have direct impact on the work of its members. This would prevent unions from joining nationwide protests on various issues. The bill covers the right to strike of workers in the national electricity, water, ports, public transport and health sectors, as well as the Israel Stock Exchange and the Bank of Israel. Histadrut vigorously opposes this legislative initiative to restrict workers’ right to take strike action.

Legislative reform

Workers’ unions are integral to positive change and despite a backdrop of increasing restriction, campaigning unions are negotiating improvements to their members working lives through directed organisation and alliance building. Over the past year workers have benefitted from collective action in Sierra Leone, Canada and Chile, demonstrating the power of unions to deliver lasting changes for workers.


Legislative reform

On 19 January 2023, the president of Sierra Leone signed a bill requiring public and private entities to reserve 30 per cent of their jobs for women. The law also assures women at least 14 weeks of maternity leave, equal pay, and training opportunities.

The law is aimed at comprehensively addressing the gender imbalances in a country where women experience systematic discrimination and where it is a widespread practice to fire them if they become pregnant.

The 30-per cent jobs quota also applies to management roles, to stop employers merely hiring women to lower-level jobs to comply with the new law. It applies, too, to the 146-seat parliament and the civil service.

Employers who do not respect the quotas can face a fine of up to 50,000 leones (US$2,600) for each violation.


Legislative reform

In early February 2023, Chile adopted a law granting a “right to restorative rest” for private health workers and pharmacy workers in recognition of their tireless work throughout the pandemic.

The law, which was backed by the Federación Nacional de Sindicatos del Sector Salud Privada (FENASSAP), will give 14 days of rest for all private sector workers who worked during the pandemic and can be used over a period of three years.

The Covid-19 pandemic exacerbated the already difficult working conditions of millions of care workers in Chile. In 2021, a law had introduced a ‘right to rest’. However, it only applied to public health sector workers and left out private sector workers who had worked in equally challenging circumstances.

Since then, FENASSAP has fought hard to ensure that their members in the private sector also received the right to rest, and after sustained pressure, their members will now receive the same entitlements.

Legislative reform

In November 2022, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE) and Canada’s labour movement celebrated the repeal of Bill 28, draconian anti-worker legislation introduced by the Ontario government. The bill unilaterally imposed a collective contract on 55,000 education workers and levied hefty fines for striking. The move escalated a bitter dispute over salary demands for education workers, including custodians, early childhood educators and education assistants.

Earlier in 2022, the Canadian Union of Public Employees (CUPE), which represents more than 700,000 workers across Canada, had called for an 11.3 per cent pay rise for its education support workers in Ontario – often the lowest-paid in schools – arguing that stagnant wage growth and high inflation had hit these workers the hardest. The Ontario government countered with a 2.5 per cent annual raise for the lowest-income workers and 1.5 per cent raises for others.

With little progress on negotiations and a strike planned on 4 November, the government fast-tracked Bill 28 on 3 November to strip workers of their right to strike, force a contract, and impose fines for striking workers of CA$4,000 (US$3,000) and for the union – CA$500,000 (US$375,000) – a day. To justify this move, the Ontario government invoked the rarely used legal mechanism known as the Notwithstanding Clause, which allows provincial and territorial governments to override certain portions of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for a five-year period. The legislation marked the first time in the country’s history that the right of workers to collectively bargain and to strike was legally stripped away.

Despite the threat of heavy fines, thousands of education workers peacefully walked out on 4 November to protest the imposed collective contract and the ban on strikes.

Faced with the determination of thousands of workers and their unions, on the morning of 7 November the provincial government committed to repeal the bill and head back to the bargaining table.