Published: 08/06/2012

On June 6, the ITUC released the 2012 edition of its essential Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights. This year’s survey confirms that Colombia remains the most dangerous country for trade unionists, with 29 women and men murdered in the space of a year for belonging to a union. Guatemala follows, with 10 assassinations.

Impunity remains the rule in both countries; those who murder union workers have little to fear.

The report also highlights the massive violations of the basic rights of the migrant workers on whom the production of global wealth depends, the fragility of union rights in the contested regimes which have emerged from the ‘Arab spring’ along with the absence of worker rights in many countries of the Arabian peninsula and Persian Gulf, ongoing repression in China, the erosion of trade union rights in Europe under the cover of ‘austerity’, and much more. The survey deserves the widest possible distribution.

Two days’ before its release, the Employers Group at the ILO, led by the International Organization of Employers, blew up the Committee of Experts on the Application of Standards by refusing to discuss the Committee’s report, meaning that many of the key cases and emblematic rights violations highlighted in the Annual Survey would not be even considered. by one of the ILO’s most important bodies. The Committee will therefore not do its work at this year’s International Labour Conference in Geneva even if it can somehow be cobbled back together. A question mark hangs over its future, and thereby over the future of the ILO as the international body which sets standards for the world of work.

A key ingredient in the IOE’s standards-busting operation was the employers’ challenge to the ILO’s authority to review cases involving the right to strike – a right which historically has been deemed to be implicit in Conventions 87 and 98 if the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are to be effectively exercised. According to the employers, the ILO, by reviewing the application of this right by member states, was ‘creating jurisprudence’. This absurd contention constitutes a rejection, not only of the standing of the ILO Conventions, which have the force of international treaties, but of human rights law in general. The Conventions form part of customary human rights law – in fact one of the oldest constitutive elements. Workers’ rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining are also set out in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the international covenants which codify its application. Through its application, law generates jurisprudence. That is its function.

Last year, the IOE used its collective bullying power to get Colombia removed from the list of countries deserving special examination by the ILO. Like sharks in a feeding frenzy, this only excited their blood lust. In recent years they have opposed the adoption of new standards as such and called for the abrogation of Convention 158, which aims among other things protects against anti-union dismissals. Now they have declared war on the ILO as such. It is reasonable to suppose that this is an opening feint to test the incoming Director General.

In the world described by the ITUC’s Annual Survey, a world of organized violence, trafficking, imposed impoverishment and the wholesale violation of basic rights, workers more than ever need effective enforcement of international standards. In a word, applied jurisprudence, however antithetical that may be to the hired guns now sabotaging the ILO.

In the early days of the French Revolution of 1789, members of the Third Estate -a group which included some of the ancestors of today’s employers – vowed to continue the work of defending rights when they were locked out of the king’s Estates General. If employers at the ILO refuse to discuss standards, the Workers’ Group should pledge to continue defending rights at the ILO, invite governments and employers of good will to take part in the deliberations and carry on with the job.

Companies which claimed to have ‘welcomed’ and now ‘respect’ the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (which specifically reference conventions 87 and 98 along with other basic human rights instruments) should be challenged to declare whether their “recognition” of rights stops with recognizing rights in the abstract or extends to actually recognizing and negotiating with unions, and whether they are prepared to act concretely in response to concrete violations of worker rights. If the answer is yes, they should accordingly condemn the IOE’s attack on the ILO.