Education International
Education International

Trade union rights are human rights

published 16 January 2009 updated 16 January 2009

Trade union rights are human rights. They are protected by international and regional treaties, such as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the European Union Charter of Fundamental Rights and Freedoms and others.

The international legal framework provides that states must protect trade union rights by creating a system for complaints about violations, adjudication, remedies, and punishment. For example, a government must not only refrain from punishing workers for trying to organise unions. It must also enforce mechanisms that deter employers from taking action against union organisers. This is especially important in education, where the government itself is often the employer. Trade union rights, like any other basic human rights, should be respected no matter what level of development exists in the country concerned. These are our fundamental rights Right to freedom of association: This covers the right of individuals to ‘associate’ together; to form and join workers’ organisations to promote their economic and social interests. Some states have tried to curtail teacher unions by hindering people from joining, by imposing reprisals on those who do, or by obliging them to join state-approved organisations. Article 23 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights recognises the right of everyone to form and to join trade unions for the protection of his or her interests. In a number of countries, teachers employed by the state are only guaranteed the right to form professional associations, not unions. This means that governments are guilty of restricting the rights of those they employ, and hence are violating the provisions of International Labour Organisation Convention 87 on freedom of association. The ILO Committee of Experts has repeatedly stressed that “teachers in public schools should be provided with a legal framework to exercise their right to form trade unions.” Governments in Ethiopia, Lesotho and Eritrea curtail the rights of teachers employed in the public sector to form or join trade unions. China and India have not ratified Conventions 87 and 98, thereby curtailing the rights of millions of teachers. Other countries that have not ratified the Convention on freedom of association are Iran, Malaysia, New Zealand, Nepal, Saudi Arabia, Singapore, United Arab Emirates and Vietnam. While Pakistan ratified Convention 87, teachers are only allowed to register as professional organisations. In Thailand, teacher associations have no right to bargain collectively. In Bangladesh, teachers are forbidden to form trade unions. Some countries also have sought to limit union organising by imposing cumbersome registration processes; by requiring minimum levels of membership; by assimilating workers’ organisations into political associations; and by denying the legal status required to open bank accounts, to hire employees, and to rent or own premises. The right of association extends across borders, but some countries have tried to hinder participation by trade unionists in international meetings. This is a fundamental trade union right, and governments should therefore abstain from measures such as withholding travel documents. Right to internal governance: The right to freedom of association also covers the right of workers’ organisations to draw up their rules and constitutions, elect representatives, decide on a programme of activities and undertake legitimate and peaceful activities. Teacher organisations in a number of countries have suffered significant hostile and intrusive interference by governments in their internal affairs. The ILO has considered that the removal of trade union leaders from office by government is a serious infringement of trade union rights. Suspension of legal status and dissolution of a union should be subject to appeal to an independent and impartial judicial tribunal. Right to assembly: This right should not be denied except in situations of national security or public safety. However, international standards limit the use of force by authorities and require that law enforcement officials should use force only as a last resort, in proportion to the threat posed, and in a way to minimize damage or injury. Right to strike: Although the right to strike is not an absolute right, it is recognised in international treaties. The right to strike is often banned in the public services, and obstructed by cumbersome procedures. Some governments include schools and universities under the scope of “essential services.” Germany persists in its long-standing denial of the right to strike of all civil servants, including teachers, despite repeated ILO criticism. In Japan and Korea, public employees are banned from striking. Right to collective bargaining: The ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work defines the "effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining" as an essential right of workers. In June 2007, the Supreme Court of Canada noted that: “The right to bargain collectively with an employer enhances the human dignity, liberty and autonomy of workers by giving them the opportunity to influence the establishment of workplace rules and thereby gain some control over a major aspect of their lives, namely their work.” Collective bargaining allows workers to achieve a form of workplace democracy and to ensure the rule of law in the workplace. Unions are the pillars of democracy A free and vibrant trade union movement is one of the pillars of democracy and an indicator of a nation’s progressive development. Trade union rights are well protected by international legislation which requests states to ensure that the trade union rights can be exercised. What is lacking is implementation. Teacher organisations are facing increasingly sophisticated attempts by governments to restrict their operations. EI has consistently supported its affiliates to become aware of their rights, to extend the scope of trade union rights in their country, and to make their governments accountable for respecting core union rights. By Dominique Marlet

This article was published in Worlds of Education, Issue 28, December 2008.