Hundreds of fast food workers on strike in Milwaukee USA demanding a living wage and the ability to organise a union without reprisal. Credit: Joe Brusky
Hundreds of fast food workers on strike in Milwaukee USA demanding a living wage and the ability to organise a union without reprisal. Credit: Joe Brusky

Striking out – the erosion of workers’ human rights in the UK emboldens authoritarian regimes around the world

It’s quite unusual for the International Labour Organization (ILO) to get name-checked in Parliament.

But on 10 January, the Secretary of State for Business, Grant Shapps, declared that the ILO – as he put it “the guardian of workers’ rights around the world” – believed that his proposal for minimum service levels, to be enforced in the event of strikes in six different sectors, were “a proportionate way of balancing the right to strike with the need to protect the wider public.”

But Mr Shapps’ proposals go way beyond anything the ILO’s supervisory system of global labour standards has ever sanctioned due to the power grab at the centre of his plans. While the ILO grudgingly allows minimum services levels in certain cases, it insists that they are always negotiated between unions and employers or – failing that – decided by a genuinely independent arbiter.

The government’s proposals, on the other hand, would hand that power to just one individual – the secretary of state himself. With little or no accountability, but a good deal of vested interest, Mr Shapps will be able to set minimum service levels that – potentially – render a strike utterly ineffective and essentially meaningless.

The right to strike, enshrined in many international human rights instruments, has always had to be fought for. But in recent years there has been a grim struggle for unions to defend their most significant means of demonstrating the power of working people. The ITUC calculates that last year, 87% of governments internationally violated the right to strike, up from 62.5% in 2014.

Many of the worst offenders are, naturally, authoritarian regimes. In Turkey, President Erdogan issued a Presidential decree to stop a strike, claiming it was an issue of national security that tyre wire manufacturing should continue. In Brazil, the Bolsonaro regime managed to reduce the country’s collective bargaining coverage by an astonishing 45% during his time in charge. And in the US, one of the most dangerous legacies of Trump’s chaotic Presidency – an arch-Conservative majority on the Supreme Court – is threatening the right to strike by considering a case that would allow employers to sue unions for damages.

Meanwhile, the government of South Korea is invoking cold war national security laws to persecute trade unions, raiding union offices and leaders’ homes, just weeks after using anti-strike laws to end a national dispute with truck drivers.

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In this context, the UK government’s moves, alongside its notorious anti-protest Public Order bill and the introduction of voter ID, put it in concerning company.

All this, of course, is happening against a backdrop of rising global inequality. Collective bargaining, as well as being a basic right in itself, has been shown to be an effective tool in addressing inequality – to the extent that even the IMF is hosting blogs calling for workers’ power to be restored.

Many other European countries know this and build support for democratic unions into their development strategies. While government support for TUC Aid, the TUC’s development charity, ended shortly after the Conservative’s 2010 victory, in countries like Denmark and the Netherlands – as well as the USA – the union’s track record of securing better pay and conditions for workers, and of playing a vital role in preserving or restoring democracy, makes supporting their growth a development and foreign policy aim worth the time and money.

But collective bargaining depends on the right to strike – without it, it’s just collective begging. Unions’ ability to challenge exploitation and build the conditions necessary to achieve decent work relies on their ability to offset the chronic power imbalance that so often makes the needs of workers an afterthought for businesses and governments alike.

Back in the UK, the government’s desire to limit the right to strike has been a consistent theme across many recent governments. David Cameron’s 2016 Trade Union Act brought in challenging minimum thresholds for strike votes, something that would, the government told the ILO, “ensure [strikes] enjoyed a reasonable level of participation and support, to the benefit of everyone.”

Yet in 2023 mass participation and support seems to no longer be considered beneficial as the Cameron government once argued they would be, so the goalposts have shifted once again. The 2016 laws, which were described to the ILO by Zimbabwean workers as being the kind of thing their own government would bring in, are now suddenly not tough enough.

One of the new bill’s proposals is to make unions themselves liable for ensuring that their members respect the minimum service levels imposed by the secretary of state. In short, a union member, who may have democratically voted for lawful strike action, could be compelled to work at the risk of losing their job, and of their union being held liable. As well as being a fundamental assault on union democratic freedoms, as noted anti-slavery campaigner Aidan McQuade wrote recently, it sails dangerously close to forced labour as well.

There are, of course, worse regimes in the world, repressing their unions in more brutal ways. But what comfort it must bring those regimes when they see a country like the UK, which at the ILO has recently criticised the government of Hong Kong for suppressing the right to protest, and the government of Belarus for restricting trade union rights, abandoning human rights and labour standards.