Labor rights are among the newest group of legal and human rights conceptualized in history. The ability to join a union and engage in collective bargaining with employers is something we all take for granted — it wasn’t all that long ago that workers throughout the industrialized world fought and often tied for such basic freedoms, and to this day many continue to do so.
In fact, if the results of the Global Rights Index is any indication, there is still a long fight ahead. Conducted by the the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), a labor rights alliance, this comprehensive study examines the state of workers’ rights in 139 countries based on 97 indicators, such as the ability to join unions, access due process ,and receive legal protection. Nations are ranked one a scale of 1 (best) to 5 (worst).
Among the countries with the best rating were Uruguay, Togo, Sweden, South Africa and Slovakia. Some countries received such poor assessments that they actually went off the scale: Central African Republic, Libya, Palestine, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Ukraine had the dubious distinction of being awarded a 5+ rating.
As for the U.S., it received a lowly 4 for weak union rights and uneven collective bargaining.
“Countries such as Denmark and Uruguay led the way through their strong labour laws, but perhaps surprisingly, the likes of Greece, the United States and Hong Kong, lagged behind,” ITUC general secretary Sharan Burrow wrote. “A country’s level of development proved to be a poor indicator of whether it respected basic rights to bargain collectively, strike for decent conditions, or simply join a union at all.”
As the following map shows, the worst places to be a worker include China and India — large, poor, and corrupt countries that each have the largest labor forces in the world — and major conflict zones such as the Middle East and North Africa. Unsurprisingly, the more authoritarian and unstable a country, the least likely it is to have a high score (which often goes the same for other rights too).
For a developed country, the U.S. scores poorly, with its second-worst numbered score placing it in the ranks of Thailand, Sierra Leone, Peru and Panama. In comparison, the best rated countries — unsurprisingly — were Western European countries like France, Germany, Belgium and the Netherlands.
The ITUC’s report couldn’t have come at a more topical time, as the issue of workers’ rights continues to gain media and academic attention. It was only last week that workers in over 150 U.S. cities and 30 countries staged the biggest fast-food strike in history, bringing attention to low wages, sparse benefits, and poor treatment (such as inflexible hours and no sick days).
Sure enough, the ITUC also found that the act of striking — one of the most common forms of addressing employment grievances — was also the most frequently violated right in the past year.
America’s poor rating is particularly concerning to me, not only as an American citizen and resident, but also for the fact that the U.S. remains very influential in promoting economic and business policies abroad. As the study points out, the U.S.’s relatively high level of development has yet to amount to better conditions for workers. While America remains a rich country (and still the richest by a wide margin) it also has the largest poverty rate of any comparably developed nation (as the article notes, it doesn’t bode well for the U.S. to match up to Sierra Leone in a human rights issue).
Similarly, corporate profits continue to soar while the average worker faces wage stagnation, longer work hours, and poorer working conditions. The contradictions inherent in this report and similar observations — that the U.S. developed but still poor, economically vibrant as a whole but financially stagnant across classes, nominally democratic but lacking in workers’ rights — speaks to the unsustainable nature of this system.
Of course, this is an increasingly global problem, one that is being felt far worse in the parts of the world that are most becoming prominent in the global economy, such as China and India. As global inequality rises and production shifts to oppressed third-world workers, will we soon reach a breaking point? We’ve already seen history’s largest fast-food strike thus far. What else is in store for workers and the global economy?