Global Rights Index stresses the critical connection between workers’ rights and democracy

published 25 June 2024 updated 8 July 2024

"This year’s report makes for difficult reading – a clear and urgent wake-up call that the future of democracy and fundamental rights agreed by most countries at an international level are at risk”, warned Luc Triangle, ITUC General Secretary, as introduction to the 2024 ITUC Global Rights Index.

The figures in the latest issue of the report of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) speak for themselves. Nine out of 10 countries worldwide violated the right to strike in 2024, while about 8 in 10 countries denied workers the right to bargain collectively for better terms and conditions. 49% of countries arbitrarily arrested or detained trade union members. Despite some signs of improvements, the general picture displayed by the ITUC report is a “relentless attack on civil liberties and the interests of working people."

The ITUC Global Rights Index is an annual report that evaluates the state of workers’ rights across the world. The Index documents the violations of internationally recognised rights by governments and employers and rates countries on a scale from 1 to 5+, based on their compliance with international labor standards derived from International Labor Organization (ILO) conventions, with 5+ indicating the highest violation of rights.

Worst countries for workers’ rights

In this year’s report, the ten countries identified as being the worst for workers’ rights are Bangladesh, Belarus, Ecuador, Egypt, Eswatini, Guatemala, Myanmar, the Philippines, Tunisia, and Türkiye. This list echoes the work done by Education International in support of its affiliates.

Eswatini’s trade union leaders and human rights activists continue to be relentlessly persecuted in the country, with murders and abductions now commonplace. On 29 August 2023, Mbongwa Ernest Dlamini, President of the EI-affiliated Swaziland National Association of Teachers (SNAT), was dismissed from his teaching role for alleged absenteeism due to his union activities. Since 2020, Dlamini has been subjected to an increasing span of harassment and threats to his life that culminated in a gun attack.

Guatemala has long been plagued by endemic violence against workers. Engaging in the most basic of trade union activities remained a matter of life and death, and the government failed to provide protection to trade unionists or to investigate and prosecute anti-union crimes. In May 2024, Education International denounced the persecution faced by the leadership of the Sindicato de Trabajadores de la Educación de Guatemala (STEG), its member organisation in the country.

Workers and unions in the Philippines remained at the mercy of red tagging (being labeled by the government as communist or terrorist), violence, abductions, and arbitrary arrests. The government fostered a climate of fear and persecution, silencing the collective voice of workers. At the International Labour Conference earlier this month, Education International documented the cases of harassment and abductions suffered by the teacher union leaders from the Alliance of Concerned Teachers, including EI Executive Board member Raymond Basilio, who escaped abduction from a union meeting he was addressing in September last year.

In Myanmar, the situation for unions and workers has remained dire following the military takeover in 2021. Unionists, public sector workers and teachers, continue to actively resist military rule and work for democracy, despite facing incredible hardship and repression by the military junta. The Myanmar Teachers’ Federation (MTF) strives to enhance working conditions and advocate for education reform, with its President also serving as the Deputy Minister of Education of the National Unity Government (NUG).

Education unions under attack

The report also highlights specific cases of rights violations faced by EI member organisations.

For years, Iranian teachers have been voicing legitimate demands for decent working conditions and the recognition of their fundamental rights and freedoms. In September 2023, the authorities cracked down on teachers and their union representatives to suppress a resurgence of the 2022 May Day rallies, which were initially sparked by the extrajudicial killing of Jina Mahsa Amini in September 2022. Currently, 44 leaders and members of the Coordinating Council of Iranian Teachers’ Trade Associations (CCITTA) remain arbitrarily detained for their trade union activities. They have faced grave violations of their most fundamental rights.

The Index reports that, in an unprecedented number of countries, trade union offices and meetings faced raids from the police and state forces, severely impeding the capacity of unions to operate freely and carry out their activities. In Tanzania, police raided a meeting of the Tanzania Teachers Union (TTU), arresting General Secretary Japhet Maganga and nine other TTU leaders. The government also blocked Maganga’s application to fulfil his duties as a union official. The union leaders were eventually released after Education International and its member organisations in Africa mobilised to their defense.

The right to strike action is a vital tool for workers and their organisations to protect and defend their interests. Yet, many countries seek to undermine this internationally recognised right by adopting regressive or overreaching laws. In Nepal, over 50,000 teachers and members of teacher organisations – including the EI-affiliated Nepal Teachers’ Association (NTA), Nepal National Teachers’ Association (NNTA) and Institutional Schools’ Teachers’ Union (ISTU), took part in a mass protest in Kathmandu to denounce the Education Act, which seeks to prohibit teachers from organising, protesting, and demonstrating. Following the demonstration, numerous MPs demanded amendments to the Bill, in accordance with the national constitution and taking into consideration the teachers’ demands.

Workers’ rights and democracy

The Global Rights Index emphasizes the gravity of the current situation for workers’ rights worldwide. “There are clear signs that governments and companies are accelerating their efforts to trample on these basic rights that underpin the very nature of democracy and the rule of law,” stated Triangle. “Workers are the beating heart of democracy, and their voices are crucial to assuring the health and sustainability of democratic systems. Conversely, when their rights are violated, restricted, and undermined, democracy itself is on the line,” he added.

EI shares the views of ITUC that safeguarding workers’ rights is critical for maintaining the health of democratic systems. This perspective emphasizes the importance of international solidarity and the need for continued advocacy and support for trade unions worldwide.