2019 ITUC Global Rights Index finds 10 worst countries for workers’ rights


Democracy in crisis as brutal repression used to silence age of anger: 2019 ITUC Global Rights Index finds 10 worst countries for workers’ rights

The systematic dismantling of the foundations of workplace democracy and the violent repression of strikes and protests put peace and stability at risk, says a new report – 2019 ITUC Global Rights Index – on workers’ rights. The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) representing 207 million workers in 163 countries and territories across the globe has prepared the report.

The 2019 ITUC Global Rights Index ranks 145 countries against 97 internationally recognized indicators to assess where workers’ rights are best protected in law and in practice.

According to the 2019 Index, extreme violence against the defenders of workplace rights saw large-scale arrests and detentions in India, Turkey and Vietnam.


The report said:

In Pakistan, labour leader Abdul Khaliq Sher was killed after attending a meeting with the power-loom factory owner, Muhammad Jamil, on Gojra-Samundri Road on 8 March 2018. The police reported that Jamil and Khaliq exchanged harsh words after which the former, along with his accomplices Malik Amjad and Muhammad Tariq, shot dead Abdul Khaliq Sher. Investigations are still ongoing at the time of writing.

10 worst countries

The report ranks the ten worst countries for workers’ rights in 2019 as Algeria, Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Kazakhstan, the Philippines, Saudi Arabia, Turkey and Zimbabwe. This is in no specific order. 

Brazil and Zimbabwe entered the ten worst countries for the first time with the adoption of regressive laws, violent repression of strikes and protest, and threats and intimidation of union leaders.

Belgium, Brazil, Eswatini, Iraq, Sierra Leone, Thailand and Vietnam have seen their rankings worsen in 2019 with a rise in attacks on workers’ rights in law and practice.

The worst region

The report said:

The Middle East and North Africa was again the worst region for treatment of workers, with the kafala system continuing to exclude migrants, the overwhelming majority of the workforce, from any labor protection, leaving 90% of the workforce unable to access their rights to form or join a trade union.

The absolute denial of basic workers’ rights remained in place in Saudi Arabia where an Indonesian worker was secretly executed.

In a repressive context for civil liberties generally, most Gulf countries continue to exclude migrants, the overwhelming majority of their workforce, from any labour protection. The year was marked with the exposure of horrifying abuses from Saudi Arabia, where migrant workers are trapped in exploitation and forced labour. The exclusion of migrant workers from the labour law means nearly 90 per cent of the workforce is unable to have access to their rights to form or join a trade union.

In Iran, the authorities intensified their crackdown on labour protests by violently attacking workers and carrying out mass arrests. In October 2018, over 250 truck drivers were detained during a nationwide strike against low wages. Similarly, in May 2018, 15 employees of the Heavy Equipment Production Company (HEPCO) were arrested for taking part in a strike to protest wage arrears. In October 2018, the Criminal Court of Arak sentenced the HEPCO workers to between a year and two and a half years in prison and 74 lashes for “disrupting public order” and “instigating workers to demonstrate and riot”.


The report said:

Conditions in Asia-Pacific deteriorated more than any other region with an increase in violence, criminalization of the right to the strike and violent attacks on workers. Ten trade unionists were murdered in the Philippines in 2018.

In November 2018, the State Railway of Thailand (SRT) began enforcing its claim for 24 million Baht (US$730,000) in damages against the State Railway Union of Thailand (SRUT) and seven of its officials. The claim, which began in 2011, arose out of 2009 industrial action by SRUT, where workers protested against a railway accident that had killed seven workers.

In China, Jasic Technology dismissed workers throughout the year when they tried to organize their own trade union. More than 40 workers were also arrested and accused of “gathering a crowd to disturb social order”


The report said:

In Africa, workers were arrested or detained in 49% of countries.

Attacks on workers reached unprecedented levels in Cameroon, Nigeria, Chad, Ghana, Eswatini and Zimbabwe as security forces fired live ammunition at protesting workers.

The Americas

The report said:

The Americas remain plagued by the pervasive climate of extreme violence and repression against workers and union members.

In Colombia alone, 34 trade unionists were murdered in 2018 – a dramatic rise from 15 in the previous year.

Colombia remains the deadliest for workers and union members. In Colombia, there were 10 attempted murders and 172 recorded cases of threats to life. Of the recorded murders, ten were members of the Unitary National Federation of Agricultural Trade Unions (the agricultural sector union) and 13 were teachers, a 126 percent increase from the 15 assassinations in 2017.

The country’s largest union the Unitary Central Union of Colombian Workers (CUT) said that under President Ivan Duque “Colombia continues its anti-union policy, violation of freedom of association, attacks on the peace process, breach of labor commitments demanded by the international community and the assassination of social leaders.”

The situation of workers in Brazil is no better off. Since far-right president Jair Bolsonaro rose to power the situation has dramatically worsened with the adoption of regressive laws that severely undermined collective rights.

Another Latin American country on the list is Guatemala, which remains affected by endemic violence against trade union leaders, compounded by a climate of impunity. In addition, many private companies, such as Bimbo, resorted to union-busting practices and anti-union dismissals.


The report said:

In Europe, workers were arrested and detained in 25% of countries. Trade union leaders were murdered in Turkey and Italy.

A number of strike actions were brutally dispersed by police forces, and protesting workers were prosecuted and sentenced for their participation in strikes.

In Belgium, 18 FGTB members were charged for blocking a road during a protest. The president of the FGTB Antwerp branch was sentenced but no penalty was imposed.

Similarly, in France, 5 CGT and FO members were summoned by the police for distributing flyers at a tollgate. The general secretary of CGT Lot was charged with “illegal occupation of public roads” and his trial scheduled for May 2019.

Trade unionists murdered

The report said:

Trade unionists were murdered in ten countries: Bangladesh, Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, Honduras, Italy, Pakistan, the Philippines, Turkey and Zimbabwe.

Erosion of collective bargaining

The report said:

In many European countries, like the Netherlands, Estonia and Spain, companies often bypassed collective bargaining with unions and pushed for individual agreements directly with workers.

In Norway, after a 35-day strike and the conclusion of a collective agreement to end the dispute, the owners of Norse Production, a salmon producer, bankrupted the company and established a new subcontractor at the same place and with the same management. None of the unionized workers from Norse Production were hired in the new company and the collective agreement was not renewed.


The report said:

Amazon has a long history of suppressing freedom of association: it has hired law firms, fired worker spokespersons and even shut down a call centre to suppress organizing efforts. Amazon workers took action over working conditions and collective bargaining rights urging customers to boycott Prime Day sales in July 2018. Workers at warehouses in England, France, Germany, Italy, Spain and Poland engaged in strike action. Concerns vary by country and included an increase in hours, lack of health benefits and difficulties in establishing collective bargaining agreements.

Uber and US, Europe

The report said:

Global ride-hailing company Uber is one of the world leaders for attacking workers’ rights. It cuts corners on employment standards and is under legal challenge in multiple jurisdictions. Workers face poverty wages, debt servitude, mental health issues, and health and safety due to long hours. Women and young drivers are disproportionately affected. Unions are demanding collective bargaining rights and the right to join a union; a living wage for all drivers, regardless of their employment status; decent, safe working conditions for all drivers, men and women. Uber is presently facing strikes and regulatory battles in Australia, Belgium, South Korea, London, Mumbai, New York, Seattle, San Francisco and many more cities across the world.

Key findings of the report:

  • 85% of countries have violated the right to strike.
  • 80% of countries deny some or all workers collective bargaining.
  • The number of countries which exclude workers from the right to establish or join a trade union increased from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019.
  • Workers had no or restricted access to justice in 72% of countries.
  • The number of countries where workers are arrested and detained increased from 59 in 2018 to 64 in 2019.
  • Out of 145 countries surveyed, 54 deny or constrain free speech and freedom of assembly.
  • Authorities impeded the registration of unions in 59% of countries.
  • Workers experienced violence in 52 countries.

Three global trends

The three global trends for workers’ rights identified in the 2019 Index show that

  • democracy is in crisis,
  • governments are attempting to silence the age of anger through brutal repression, and
  • legislative successes for workers’ rights are still being won.

The ITUC has been collecting data on violations of workers’ rights to trade union membership and collective bargaining around the world for more than 30 years. This is the sixth year the ITUC has presented its findings through the Global Rights Index, putting a unique and comprehensive spotlight on how government laws and business practices have deteriorated or improved in the last 12 months.

The ITUC Global Rights Index 2019 rates countries according to 97 indicators, with an overall score placing countries in rankings of one to five plus.

  1. Sporadic violations of rights: 12 countries including Iceland and Sweden.
  2. Repeated violations of rights: 24 countries including Belgium and Republic of Congo.
  3. Regular violations of rights: 26 countries including Canada and Rwanda.
  4. Systematic violations of rights: 39 countries including Chile and Nigeria.
  5. No guarantee of rights: 35 countries including Brazil and Eritrea.

5+. No guarantee of rights due to breakdown of the rule of law: 9 countries including, Palestine, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.

Constrained freedom

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation said, “From Hong Kong to Mauritania, the Philippines to Turkey, governments are attempting to silence the age of anger by constraining freedom of speech and assembly. In 72% of countries, workers had no or restricted access to justice, with severe cases reported in Cambodia, China, Iran and Zimbabwe.

Attacks on the right to strike in 85% of countries and collective bargaining in 80% of countries undermine the role of trade unions. All strikes and demonstrations were banned in Chad while court orders were used to stop strike actions in Croatia, Georgia, Kenya and Nigeria. Europe, traditionally the mainstay of collective bargaining rights, saw companies in Estonia, the Netherlands, Norway and Spain undermine workers’ rights.

“The breakdown of the social contract between workers, governments and business has seen the number of countries which exclude workers from the right to establish or join a trade union increase from 92 in 2018 to 107 in 2019. The greatest increase took place in Europe where 50% of countries now exclude groups of workers from the law, up from 20% in 2018. Decent work is being affected and rights are being denied by companies avoiding rules and regulations.”

“No worker should be left behind because their employer chooses to adopt a business model that obscures employment responsibility or their government refuses legislation to enforce workers’ rights. More and more governments are complicit in facilitating labour exploitation because workers are forced to work in the informal sector of the economy,” said Sharan Burrow.

“Companies who have systematically attacked workers’ rights now face global protests. Uber is battling strikes and regulatory battles from Australia to South Korea, Mumbai to San Francisco. Workers in Amazon warehouses in Europe and the USA engaged in protest and strike actions and unions across Europe staged the biggest strike in Ryanair’s history. Corporate greed may be global, but workers’ actions are unified on a scale not seen before,” said Burrow.

“Trade unions are on the front lines in a struggle to claim democratic rights and freedoms from the corporate greed that has captured governments such that they act against workers’ rights. We need a New Social Contract between workers, governments and business to rebuild trust as people lose faith in democracies. It’s time to change the rules,” said Burrow.

“After four years of campaigning by Dunnes Stores workers and union activists, the Irish government brought in legislation to ban zero hours contracts and strengthen the regulation of precarious work. The New Zealand coalition government too, has continued to repeal regressive labour laws and restore protections for workers and strengthen the role of collective bargaining in the workplace,” said Burrow.


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