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The Global State of Workers’ Rights: Free Labor in a Hostile World
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The report, which examines the global state of worker and trade union rights for the year 2009, outlines serious and systematic violations of internationally recognized labor norms in every part of the world except Western Europe. Countries are ranked on a five-category scale: Free, Mostly Free, Partly Free, Repressive, and Very Repressive on a color-coded map which gives a vivid, visual image of the state of labor freedom throughout the world.
The study assesses the state of workers’ rights both globally and on a regional basis. Data for the analysis are drawn from Freedom in the World 2010, the latest edition of Freedom House’s annual report on political rights and civil liberties, covering developments in 2009. A total of 165 countries are included, constituting all those with modern economies and significant trade union movements; narrative reports are provided for 50 of these countries.
Among the more disturbing findings is that 40 countries, or nearly one-quarter of those assessed, were judged to have either Repressive or Very Repressive labor rights environments. At the other end of the spectrum, 41 countries, or almost one quarter, were found to have “Free” labor rights environments. Of these, 26 were European Union member states.
Of the 14 countries ranked as Very Repressive, three—Belarus, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan—are in the former Soviet Union; four—Burma, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam—are in Asia; three—Libya, Saudi Arabia, and Syria—are in the Middle East; three—Equatorial Guinea, Eritrea, and Sudan—are in sub-Saharan Africa; and one—Cuba—is in the Americas. Among the countries designated as Repressive are China, Egypt, Iran, Singapore, Venezuela, and Zimbabwe.
Among other significant findings are the following:
In Middle Eastern countries that previously adhered to “Arab socialist” development models, the tradition of dominant party control over the labor movement endures. In Egypt, for example, unions must be affiliated with a federation that functions as an appendage of the ruling party and controls union elections.
Some governments have adopted laws barring local unions from accepting foreign financial assistance, a potentially significant restriction given the long history of European and especially American union support for workers’ struggles in developing countries and authoritarian settings.
The absence of genuine unions almost certainly contributes to job-site deaths and injuries. In China, where toothless state-controlled unions prevail, thousands of workers die each year in factory and mining accidents.
Forced or coerced labor is a matter of government policy in a number of the world’s more repressive societies, including Burma, Eritrea, and China.
In a positive development, labor activism is on the rise in several countries where official unions are under the control of the government. Both Egypt and China have seen an increase in strikes and protests in recent years. And unlike in the past, when the authorities would likely have responded with repressive tactics, the regimes have more recently tended to respond with at least partial concessions.
In maintaining control over organized labor, former communist countries and those, like China, that retain a Leninist system of political control have a built-in advantage due to their legacy of total state-party domination of the trade union movement.