Labour Office

Globalization and
Workers' Rights

Bureau for
Workers' Activities


Report on Trade Union Rights Worldwide - 1996-1997


World Confederation of Labour

General introduction
Sub-Saharan Africa
Latin America and the Carribean
The impact of globalisation to Asian workers
Eastern and Central Europe
Western Europe and North America


For some time already, the World Confederation of Labour has published surveys on the state of trade union rights violations in the world. These dossiers, compiled so far in INFO-NORM by way of supplement to our review LABOR, have now become a report.

The present edition is about the impact of the globalisation on the international labour standards and goes to show that the human rights violations have grown worse in all the world regions. Everywhere we observe the general tendency of dismantlement of labour codes, erosion of social acquirements and rise in exclusion. The liberalisation of the world economy intensifies the competition between companies and gets a process going in which the employers respect less and less the workers’ rights.

This report, which is based on contributions from the continents and subregions, completed with a few concrete examples in various countries, bears witness to the constant downward pressure on the living and working conditions. It describes, further, the obstacles the trade unions run up against in their struggle to counter the logic of profitability at any cost and to combat the unfavourable social consequences of an economy which is growing increasingly international without fitting in with a sufficient and in some countries even non-existent overall social framework.

Through its NORM programme the WCL seeks to strengthen its member organisations in a struggle that exceeds the national borders. The increased flexibility, the higher work pace, the atypical contracts, in brief the sustained pressure on the working conditions, cannot be stopped unless international social regulations are developed and applied. With this edition the WCL supplies elements enabling us, all together, to reinforce the necessary worldwide social setting by means of an uninterrupted struggle to change course. As a matter of fact, the next WCL Congress, scheduled to take place in Sri Lanka from 1 to 5 December 1997, has made this its main task.

General Introduction

The period under review, covering part of 1996 and part of 1997, was marked by a deterioration of the trade union rights violations worldwide. The focus on more democracy in various regions in Africa, Asia, Latin America and Central and Eastern Europe, formerly dominated by dictatorial regimes, failed to prevent, paradoxically, a rise in social injustice and a decrease in the protection of human rights. This can be explained by the fact that the democratic opening in these regions took place in a context of economic globalisation. The truth is that neither in the countries with a democratic tradition of old nor in the regions on their way to democracy any worker, any trade union, is safe from the disastrous effects of this globalisation. Nevertheless, most countries throughout the world have ratified the ILO conventions and the international and regional instruments related to the human rights, which protect the workers against each violation of these rights. But the logic resulting from this globalisation is jeopardising or even abolishing the social workers’ rights.


The globalisation of the economy is rooted in the liberalisation of trade, the increase in the direct foreign investments of the multinational corporations and the worldwide integration of the financial markets. It is inspired by an exclusively neo-liberal view on society, according to which the market remains the only regulator. Competitiveness is the only factor of impetus. Everything is sacrificed to the cause of competitiveness in order to conquer parts of the market and to maximise the profits incessantly. Henceforth, the workers have to adapt to the new competition scheme on penalty of being excluded. Their acquired rights do not fit in anymore with the logic imposed by the modern system, so they have to renounce them. Working conditions and job security must not constitute an obstacle to the modern times.

Behind this striving for universality, globalisation hides in fact the confiscation of the political power and the repression of the pursuit of social justice for the benefit of the strongest economic actors. In order to regulate this globalisation, a single worldwide directorate seems to get constituted around the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and the World Trade Organisation. This triumvirate does not stop, under the pressure of international capitalism, arrogating privileges to itself and advancing neo-liberal policy lines.

Its consequences

In these circumstances, in which competitiveness, productivity, relocation and profit are the only topics, we have landed in an increasingly interdependent world, but a world out of balance. Imbalances, now, do not outweigh one another but become transversal — in North as well as in South, in East as well as in West. On the one hand there is in many countries of the North a concentration of power and wealth in the hands of a minority, on the other a deterioration of dependence and poverty in the countries of the South. In both regions, however, the gap between rich and poor is widening. This is the consequence of the logic which leads to subject the planet, in an anarchic manner, to the law of the market while despising the dignity of the individual. Moreover, the logic of competitiveness leads to the concentration of capital and to social exclusion. This makes globalisation a factor of exclusion. One of the most dramatic aspects are the repercussions on employment. Those who are still lucky enough to have a job are at the service of this market and must be competitive. They have no rights anymore, only obligations. They exist only as solvent consumers. Otherwise they are mere cogs among so many others. The social rights and the working conditions are under pressure and under constant threat. So, the globalisation has started a process of downward levelling of the social protection, labour laws, trade union rights and working conditions.

The 1996-1997 report

This report on the workers’ rights violations in the world seeks to draw attention to the impact of the globalisation on the respect for the international labour standards. Its purpose is not to analyse the interaction between globalisation and international labour standards, but to focus the attention on the social and trade union rights violations caused by the globalisation.

The cases mentioned in this report are striking illustrations of the deterioration of human rights violations all over the world. The facts have reached us thanks to reports from our member organisations in Africa, Asia, Europe, Latin America and the Caribbean, and North America.

The first thing we gather from their reports is the fact that the current globalisation is having all over the world a serious negative impact on the respect for the international labour standards.

Secondly, the report illustrates that the consequences of the globalisation differ from continent to continent. Africa, for instance, is flooded with labour code reforms in order to meet the requirements of competitiveness and profitability with the end in view of making the labour regulations more flexible. Latin America and the Caribbean are carrying through regional integration processes for the sake of multinational corporations, while creating free zones which make it easier to exploit the workers, in particular the women workers. In Asia the workers are at the mercy of the large multinational corporations. In Western Europe privatisation and relocation leads to close-downs of companies and to mass dismissals. In Central and Eastern Europe, lastly, the transition to the market economy causes a deregulation of the social legislation. All these measures give rise to trade union rights and labour standards violations everywhere.

Thirdly, the report stresses that the logic of globalisation is the same everywhere, notwithstanding the fact that its expression and impact differs from continent to continent and even from country to country. Yet, we have observed some general trends:

  • the dismantlement of labour laws, weakening the social standards;
  • social security reforms eroding the social acquirements;
  • labour market flexibility and a generalisation of precarious labour;
  • a rise in unemployment generating social exclusion;
  • an expansion of free zones shifting the power to the multinational corporations and allowing all sorts of abuses;
  • a repression or limitation of the trade union freedoms and the right to strike, making it easier to imprison or abduct trade unionists while putting a check on the constitution or registration of trade unions.

Fourthly, this report demonstrates that globalisation causes the violation of a very wide range of ILO conventions and recommendations such as the ones on trade union freedom, discrimination, employment, social security, labour relations, safety and health at work and wages.

In this sense, the basic challenge confronting the trade union movement consists in adding a social dimension to the globalisation. The international labour standards, as a means to achieve social justice, are indispensable and efficient tools to take up this challenge.

Position of the World Confederation of Labour

The World Confederation of Labour rejects this predominance of the market, though it recognises the importance of the market as a dynamic element of the economy. The market however — and this goes also for world trade — is no purpose in itself. It has to be at the service of social development. Many countries emphasise economic performance without taking into account the social aspects. Basically this is also the line of the international economic and financial institutions, for that matter. On the other hand, the wild competition leads to a social decline, for there will always be countries or companies found ready to pay their workers less for work in worse circumstances. The WCL pleads for a human economy and for a market subject to the regulations and political control of democratic and efficient states protecting the public welfare and the interests of society as a whole.

As a trade union movement the WCL has set out to give this globalisation a social dimension. The human being must be the centre of all our actions and goals, politically, economically as well as commercially. The mechanisms of pure economic profitability and boundless competition are the very negation of everything human in the relations between human beings and of every concept of brotherhood, coexistence and solidarity the human being aspires after. Globalisation must go hand in hand with respect for the international labour standards — hence the necessity of adopting and above all things applying an international social legislation which protects the rights of people against the power of the strongest, against deregulation, against speculation, against new kinds of slavery and against the exploitation of defenceless workers who are either deployed or thrown away, entirely at the mercy of the whimsical and almighty market. This obligation falls to all the governments which made commitments during the Social Summit in Copenhagen.

Facing the flagrant negation of the trade union rights, which is clearly on the rise in several countries, the World Confederation of Labour has launched a campaign to raise the awareness of the minimum labour standards. The current globalisation, based exclusively on competitiveness and the accumulation of wealth, is affecting seriously the human rights and the international labour standards. In launching this campaign, the WCL shows that the international standards are the privileged instrument to increase the weight of the social dimension in the globalisation and to protect the workers’ rights. In conducting such a campaign, the WCL seeks to add to international trade and development aid agreements multilateral social clauses which bear basically upon the freedom of association and collective bargaining, the minimum age for access to the labour market (child labour) and the ban on discrimination and forced labour. The WCL stresses, further, the importance of the application of the other ILO conventions as a basis for a fair society and humane labour relations.

In these times of globalisation and triumph of neo-liberalism, it is a matter of absolute urgency to draw the attention of the international community to the human rights violations resulting from this process. This report bears witness, in an enlightening way, to the developments all over the world. Its ambition is to raise the awareness of a reality which remains unknown in many cases, but which the WCL denounces vigorously.

Sub-Saharan Africa

One of the consequences of the globalisation in Africa have been the reforms of the labour codes, modifying the labour relations, the trade union rights and the situation on the labour market. The analysis of these reforms remains limited to the French-speaking African countries, in which the most striking effects have been recorded. It has to be pointed out, however, that some elements of the reforms are also found in the other African countries.

Impact of the labour code reforms on the future of the workers

The labour code reforms in sub-Saharan Africa reach back not only to the 1980s, but indeed far more to the years preceding the independence of the separate countries involved. The first reforms, proceeded to in the 1960s and 1970s, bore upon the Overseas Labour Code of 1952. One of the victories of the trade union movement in French-speaking Africa was indeed the adoption of the Labour Code of 1952 by the French National Assembly. After 50 years of humiliation, the African workers got at their disposal a whole set of legislative weapons protecting them against the abuses of the white employers. By virtue of the Code of 1952, the workers preserved their social security and could assert their basic rights. The Code made it possible to establish a uniform and complete labour legislation in all the overseas territories.

At the moment of independence this single labour code, operative in all the colonies, would serve as a basis for the national codes of each of the new African countries. In that they mimicked in many cases the laws of the former metropolises (Belgium, France), the national codes were not adapted to the new social, political and economic circumstances. In the 1960s and 1970s, each country proceeded to reform the Code of 1952. They updated the texts, but did not question their basic nature of protecting the workers and binding the employers. Few changes were introduced, despite successive amendments.

After 40 years of uniform application of the labour legislation inherited from the French and Belgian models — barring a few amendments —, the current labour relations would enter a crucial stage, marked basically by the socio-economic and political crisis facing the African continent. The relations would be confronted with this crisis and undergo considerable changes in the process. The structural adjustment programmes, set up in order to overcome the crisis, would have an impact on the labour legislation and on the labour relations. They would require swift adjustments of the labour legislation so as to bring them in line with the liberalisation of the economy, the privatisation of the public sector, etc. The African governments, confronted with the conditions imposed by the international financial institutions, opted for new labour code reforms. The special feature of this third generation of reforms is their scope: for one thing the basic nature of protecting the workers is profoundly deleted; for another, the texts are not the work of African legislators or governments but of international monetary and financial institutions — the International Monetary Fund and especially the World Bank — demanding more flexible legislative texts, tailored to the market economy.

Labour code reform in the context of adjustment

Most African countries have amended or even entirely revised their labour codes in the context of the structural adjustment programmes. The revisions bore chiefly upon: the recognition of trade union pluralism, the challenging of the public employment monopoly, the recognition of the freedom of recruitment, the flexibilisation of the different types of employment contracts, the simplification of the procedures for dismissals for economic reasons and the distribution of responsibilities between those who put out work and the small subcontractors. All these elements fit in with the logic of the market economy as advocated in the structural adjustment programmes. These programmes indeed put the emphasis on privatisation, trade liberalisation and deregulation in seeking to substitute the free play of the market forces for state control and intervention. From this perspective, the revision advocated in them is aimed at a greater flexibility of some regulations so that they are better tailored to the market economy. In this market economy the law of supply and demand is prevalent. The value of labour takes precedence over the human value, everything is turned into a commodity. Labour becomes a commodity. Whereas it is the purpose of the labour legislation to regulate the individual and collective relations between workers and employers by ensuring a satisfactory balance between the interests of both sides, the purpose of the structural adjustment programmes is precisely to upset that balance. The programmes introduce new principles such as deregulation and flexibility, which run counter to the protection of the workers and favour the competitiveness of the companies.

If one looks at the revisions of the labour laws in the African countries, there is no denying that almost all of them have been introduced on the basis of this neo-liberal view on the market economy. The way the texts have been drawn up and applied does not fit in with an overall context in which both sides of industry are consulted and the social issues and the promotion of employment are given their due place. Nor do the texts respect the international labour standards, particularly the conventions related to the human rights (nos 29, 57, 98, 100, 111 and 138) and the ones ratified by the member states.

Changes in the new labour codes

In order to meet the requirements of competitiveness and economic profitability, the labour code revisions were aimed at more flexible regulations covering the various aspects of human resources management at company level and at the limitation of state intervention.

The introduction of the multi-party system and the democratic process resulting from it have found expression, in the world of labour, in the recognition of trade union pluralism and of the trade union freedoms. The new provisions simplify the procedures for constituting trade unions and reduce the control over their workings. The delay for registering a trade union has been extended in some countries (Cameroon, Mauritania), for instance, and also the institution of an administrative recourse in case a voucher attesting the constitution of a trade union is not issued has found general acceptance. Yet, this recognition of trade union freedoms clashes with the imperatives of the competitiveness of the companies. Indeed, all the texts share, at degrees varying from country to country, a set of conservative and regressive elements reducing the trade union freedoms1:

  • liberalisation of private employment agencies and end of the monopoly of the public agencies2;
  • generalisation of contracts of limited duration;
  • dismissals for economic reasons without any administrative authorisation;
  • the internal employment and labour market flexibility;
  • subcontracting regulations;
  • restrictions to collective bargaining;
  • tendency to check the right to strike;
  • decrease in the protection of shop stewards.

The employers’ organisations endorse by and large these reforms, which give their members more elbow-room: freedom of recruitment, facilities in the field of human resources management thanks to contracts of limited duration, restructuring facilities thanks to dismissals for economic reasons. The trade unions, for their part, have opposed them in many cases and delayed their application in some cases on account of the lack of respect for the three-party system. In Burkina Faso, for instance, the trade unions have found fault with the legislation of 1992 and demanded new amendments. In Mali, Gabon and Niger, the trade unions have threatened to call strikes and demanded the return to the three-party system.

The states are applying some provisions contained in the new national codes strictly by means of decrees or directives. The spirit of the law insists on consultation rather than negotiation. The action freedom of both sides of industry is limited by the insistence on the regulations to the detriment of negotiations and by the restrictions to the right to strike. This is a flagrant violation of the trade union rights and of the international labour standards. The reactions of the African trade unions to the application of these adjusted labour codes will give rise to reprisals against trade unionists and workers in the various African countries.

The elements of the new labour codes effecting a decline

  • The liberalisation of private employment agencies and the end of the monopoly of the public agencies3. This preference for private agencies and the competition that should emanate from it are aimed at more freedom for the employers, who are expected to give the workers jobs that are more adjusted to their personality and skills. In view of the continuously growing unemployment, the question arises to what extent these private agencies can still give the workers adequate protection in a constantly changing environment. The employer is left the freedom to recruit workers directly, without having recourse to an employment agency.
  • The generalisation of contracts of limited duration which neither increase the workers’ loyalty nor motivate them. The workers lose their job security. This kind of contracts makes it possible for the companies to recruit the staff necessary at a given moment, while limiting their financial commitments.
  • The dismissal of workers for economic reasons is subject only to information of the shop stewards, not to an administrative authorisation.
  • The internal employment and labour market flexibility. So as to enable the companies to adjust more easily to the contingencies of the market, the texts allow some amount of internal flexibility, which boils down to saying that the companies have henceforth the possibility of modifying the terms of the contract. The modifications can bear upon the job content and the organisation of the work, but guarantees for the workers have been included (term of notice and indemnity).
  • The subcontracting regulations compel the small entrepreneurs in this informal sector to abide by the official regulations if they want to obtain contracts. Subcontracting ( the fact of "a subcontractor recruiting by himself the necessary labour force to execute a contract or to render a service at a lump price" ( is henceforth subject to a number of legal obligations (registration, possession of a trade fund).
  • The limitation of collective bargaining. There is indeed no obligation to bargain, but the state remains an important partner at all the levels of the bargaining process. The obligatory and optional clauses contained in the codes continue to define the scope of the matters to bargain over. In some countries the procedures for bargaining over the main conventions compel the representative trade union, the employers’ organisation and the minister of Labour to set up a mixed committee chaired by the labour inspector.
  • The tendency to limit the right to strike. In some countries the law demands a compulsory prior conciliation and/or a negotiation chaired by the labour inspector, in some cases on the basis of an official complaints book.
  • The decrease in the protection of the shop stewards.

Latin America and the Carribean

Latin America and the Caribbean is a region highly involved in the globalisation process. The impact of this vague of neo-liberalism in the continent has highlighted the social problems and encouraged disrespect for the international labour standards in several fields. This vague of neo-liberalism has provoked, further, the dismantlement of the social protection systems, a privatisation programme leading to mass dismissals in several countries, repression against trade unions and labour law reforms. This process, combined with the region’s social history, has given rise to social violence, poisoning in countries like Colombia the already fact that trade union leaders are assassinated.

Two other phenomena, the establishment of free export zones ( the maquilas ( and the regional integration, have marked the globalisation process in Latin America. They both have an impact on the respect for the international labour standards in the region.

Effects of Social Integration and Trade Agreements on the Trade Union Rights

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, the international environment, marked by neo-liberalism and the flourishing of the free-trade concept, exerted a strong influence on the Latin American countries. We witnessed a return to democracy and, as it were, a proliferation of bilateral or multilateral integration agreements: the Andean Pact, the Central American Common Market (MCCA), the Caribbean Common Market (CARICOM), and Mercosur. The last-mentioned agreement is the most recent and most important one in view of its dimension and the volume of its trade. It brings together the Cono Sur countries ( Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay and Uruguay ( and Chile, Bolivia and Peru, all three interested on account of the current difficulties within the Andean Pact. Mercosur indeed covers 60% of the surface of Latin America as well as 45% of its population and 50% of its gross product. Mercosur is a market of nearly 200 million people who account for a GDP of nearly $800 billion, which is the equivalent of 10% of the GDP of the NAFTA and the European Union. The trade within this zone amounted to $4.3 billion in 1990, just not $7 billion in 1992 and almost $12 billion in 1994.

To the new governments this new impetus to regional integration is a mere means, for the ultimate goal is a competitive position in world trade. This process of Latin American integration is part of an approach called "open regionalism" and fits in with the new strategy of trade liberalisation and reconquering a position on the world market. The goals of the integration differ from former attempts in that, this time, the establishment of free-trade zones is pursued. The Andean Pact and the MCCA are aimed at customs union, but Mercosur at a genuine "single market". Entirely in accordance with the "single market" concept, Mercosur provides for the free movement of goods, services, capital and workers without any reference whatsoever to the social dimension. Mercosur fits in with an openness of the Latin American economy to the world and with the growth of trade within the region.

The new regional agreements are meant to pave the way of the Latin American economies to the world market, on which competitiveness remains the only criterion of success. This neo-liberal integration model rids the state of its responsibilities and gives the market a greater role in the administration of society’s physical and social production. The private company imposes itself on the state in the model.

The trust in the market to solve the economic problems goes hand in hand with a mistrust of state intervention. The integration fits in with a neo-liberal logic according to which there is no redistribution anymore and in which the only actor of development is the all-regulating, internationally competitive private company. This is why this integration raises questions about the fate of the workers. For indeed, the neo-liberal logic advocates the privatisation of state-owned companies, the deregulation of the national economies by disregarding all the laws and regulations interfering with the free workings of the market, and a flexibilisation of the labour laws so that the "invisible hand of the market and of the productive factors" can operate without interference.

Confronted with the neo-liberal logic which subtends the Latin American integration process, the workers and their trade unions denounce the devastating effects on the living conditions of the peoples. Indeed, the Latin American neo-liberal integration model, which pleads for an open trade and for insertion into the globalisation process, has already destroyed companies and dismantled the productive apparatus, except for a few very specific sectors, who have been stimulated because they served the interests of the transnational corporations. One of the reasons was the impossibility of resisting foreign competition. The most obvious consequences are a staggering rise in unemployment, a brutal increase in critical poverty, malnutrition and infant mortality, cuts in wages and the impoverishment of the workers. Whereas in Western Europe, in spite of the privatisation process, social institutions such as unemployment and health insurance and redistributive tax measures remain operative, in Latin America everything is privatised to the point that some social institutions are forced to close down for lack of public investments. Neo-liberalism makes a stronger competitiveness and higher productivity a prerequisite for gaining access to the world market. Yet, there are is only one way to arrive at competitive prices: raising the productivity by lowering the labour cost. This is precisely what a number of Latin American countries have decided to introduced: the cheapest labour. This is, further, precisely the reason why the Latin American "new competitive industry" is the industry of free production ("maquila"), benefiting from the "comparative advantage" of cheap labour to the detriment of investments in technological research, vocational training, educational programmes and so on and so forth.

In this struggle, in which neo-liberalism develops a self-glorifying and hegemonic strategy, the rights of the workers and their organisations are violated systematically in the countries submitted to the logic of neo-liberal integration. Facing an integration resulting in a downward levelling of the social standards and workers’ rights, the main challenge to the trade unions consists in adding a social dimension to the regional integration.

The Fate of Women in the Maquilas

Maquilas or free zones are genuine fiscal paradises benefiting from state subventions and a political and social stability. They are free production zones accommodating assembly plants and companies which finish products manufactured elsewhere. In that they have no impact whatsoever on the national development, these plants and companies fit better in with the policies, strategies and interests of the countries of origin and the large enterprises which are turning more and more into world enterprises present everywhere and at the same time nowhere. They do not use the national natural resources, have less recourse to technological transfers and are given the advantage of import facilities and swift procedures to get exploitation permits issued. All possible conditions favouring their development are handed to them on a plate. NAFTA (the North American free trade agreement between the United States, Canada and Mexico) is indeed a setting which has favoured the expansion of maquilas all over Central America. Maquilas are estimated to accommodate 112 companies employing 35,000 workers in El Salvador, 198 companies employing 40,588 workers in Guatemala and 2,064 companies employing 56,854 workers in Mexico. It is to be feared that new trade agreements like MERCOSUR and the extension of NAFTA to the rest of Latin America will transform this subcontinent into one "gigantic maquila".

Total contempt for any labour legislation

The companies in question are strongly labour-intensive and employ cheap, chiefly female labour. The employers give preference to women, whom they subject to working conditions which damage their dignity as human beings and particularly as women. This preference is explained by the fact that women are more flexible and develop their aptitudes better on account of their fourfold function — woman, wife, worker and mother. Labour and social security laws do not apply in those maquilas. The working, health and security conditions escape each control and are left to the goodwill of the companies. These transnational companies, which apply the Japanese "just-in-time" and "total quality" theories, have developed a rapid production of various products in priorly determined quantities; they ensure optimum quality with practically a zero error margin. They reduce women to a mere executive role. The work is organised with a view to maximum exploitation: specialisation to extremes, individual treatment, ban on participation in the company management, mere physical approach to the labour force, overutilisation of the labour force to "do more with less". The women work by the piece without any wage prospect to match this. Their wages are very low, lower than the ones earned by men. Overtime hours are a matter of course if the production quotas are not reached. Pregnant women stand no chance of getting a job, and in some cases women have to present a certificate of non-pregnancy. Moreover, they fall prey to sexual harassment. As a result of the formal ban on trade unions the workers have no recourse whatsoever to trade union action. This explains the very low rate of unionisation. In these circumstances they are left without any legal, economic and social protection. The government authorities are well aware of the degrading situation facing women in the maquilas. Yet, they have ratified the relevant international labour conventions of the ILO.

The Impact of globalisation to Asian workers

Unrelenting threats

Economic, political, socio-cultural trends in Asia continue to forebode unrelenting threats against workers as globalization continue to engulf the whole region.

The Asian Miracle, acclaimed as the result of liberalization of economies and the economic growth has spawned In the region. has not resulted to social development. Criminality has risen as lobs and incomes dropped. The mobility of capital has caused massive migrations, underemployment and outright unemployment. The poor are socially excluded; the youth culturally displaced. Unequal distribution of wealth continues’ social stratification persists and environmental devastation pervades.

Political climate continue to be volatile. In countries emerging from totalitarian regimes, workers are faced with a two pronged struggle to nourish and defend the fragile democratic institutions and contend with the new forms of tyrannies-economic tycoons and global corporations. Expression of the peoples’ will without fear, intimidation or manipulation is a goal yet to be reached. National Interest and "Social stability is still a pretext to justify the restriction of civil liberties which often include those requiring all organizations to register with the police or other government agencies, and restrictions on public demonstrations which in some cases also allows governments to ban them altogether.

The widening gap between the rich and poor, exacerbated by "jobless growth" in Asian Economies, abuse of human labor, forced migration, secularism and the general tendency to suppress trade union and social rights in favor of economic progress, has spurred ethnic tensions’ racial violence and many more disruptive rampages which not even the military or policy could put under control.

Aggravating Critical Concerns

Development agression

The pursuit of economic growth ‘in the name of development’ without regard to its dire social, cultural and environmental consequences has been referred to as development aggression

Development aggression continue to assail workers In Asia. Development models adopted by most Asian countries have a strong bias for economic growth that largely neglect the social content so that the expected prosperity from economic growth is neither widely nor equitably distributed

In the Philippines as in many Asian countries, development policies currently followed, such as flexibilization, derogation or reversal of social gains, exploitative overseas contract work and appropriation of social security funds to finance market reforms, are raising new problems for workers and their trade unions and have resulted to the marginalization and disenfranchisement of workers Privatization and deregulation are two tragic examples that have caused retrenchments and abolition of necessary social subsidies. These policies are also weakening the legal basis of socially protective measures such minimum wage fixing, collective bargaining and social security. Both ways, these are generating social unrest and industrial disputes that result in a vicious cycle of investor loss of confidence, business relocation or investment pull out, unemployment, increasing poverty, all of which further stroke the fires of more widespread social unrest and continuing industrial strife.

Structural Adjustment Programs / Reforms

Structural reforms undertaken especially in developing countries In Asia, at the behest of IMF- WB, shifts the greater burdens almost always on the shoulders of the poor, vulnerable and marginalized sectors. The inadequacy of the social nets or its total absence provide no cushion for the adverse impacts of structural adjustments. An export-led industrialization strategy aimed at capturing foreign markets, while it earns foreign exchange, nonetheless, does not necessarily improve purchasing power as it also tends to increase the local prices of prime commodities and products produced for foreign markets. Privatization, aside from attacking job security and causing massive retrenchment in some countries also constricts the space for the practice of economic sovereignty and self reliance specially with the selling of strategic public industries and services.

In Pakistan, as in the other developing countries in Asia, the adverse impacts of development aggression, dictated upon by IMF and WB through structural adjustment programs, are manifested in multifarious ways such as

  1. dramatic increase in unemployment as a consequence of automation and technological innovations in production and of the non-transparent and indiscriminate privatization and deregulation programs of government and the private sector;
  2. escalation in the cost of living and reduction of social amenities as a consequence of social reforms including reduction of subsidies, increase taxation, increase services charges, fuel charges, gas charges;
  3. expanding labor force vulnerable to exploitation as a consequence of massive flexible informal and contract employment;
  4. interference from transnational corporations adversely affecting national integration where multinational and transnational commercial forces bear upon governments to establish export tree zones, and to relax the enforcement of labor laws so as to attract investments therein.

Labor relations, workers / Human Rights and Trade Union Freedoms

The adoption of free market oriented reforms in many Asian countries have resulted to the enactment of laws and policies that suppress trade union freedoms.

The fast changing environment is also putting labor relations systems and machineries into a permanent state of flux, encouraging experimentation and emergence of models that tend to compromise the gains of trade unions and social movements and undermine the old institutional basis of their existence and effectiveness. Such policies as in-house unionism, government imposed one company-one union policy, trade union monopoly or government sponsorship of trade union, pushes workers’ organizations into a state of disarray, weakening national, regional and international solidarity, discouraging membership and weakening the organizations’ financial bases.

In the Philippines, as elsewhere in Asia, labor 1aw is said to be uniform throughout the country, including, export processing zones (EPZ’s), although in practice local of officials attempting to maintain union free / strike free" policies frustrate organizing efforts in most EPZs. In Cebu, Philippines, it is reported that union organizers at the EPZ are blacklisted and are placed on the order of battle" (OB) of military and security personnel. Employers often attempt to intimidate workers trying to form a union with threats of firing or factory closure.

Recently, in the case of Philippine Geothermal Corporation, a subsidiary of UNOCAL in California, 200 workers were illegally retrenched and 200 more are facing imminent termination due to a pretended " reengineering" program which will transfer regular jobs to sub-contractors The move will leave only a work force of only about 100. Ironically, the Philippine Department of Labor and Employment which has avowed to pursue intensive employment promotion, has found the action of the company as a valid exercise of management prerogative and has therefore legitimized the erstwhile illegal retrenchment.

In Indonesia, South Korea, Thailand and Taiwan, trade union pluralism is zealously fought for by trade unionists. In Indonesia a workers’ organization not recognized by government, SBSI, continues to face military and police aggression, imprisonment, intimidation from government forces, harassment, discrimination in employment end terms of work, confiscation of union properties, and many other forms of violations against trade union and human rights.

Many governments in Asia contend, albeit erroneously, that the question of human rights is en internal matter and the advocacy of human rights considered encroachment upon national sovereignty. As a result to this contention, man, Asian governments propose a balancing" of civil liberties and social stability, personal rights and social obligations, individual interests and the common good. Labor Codes which are in the process of being formulated and reformulated in Asia therefore seldom encourage provisions that uphold trade union rights and freedoms.

In Cambodia, the workers have formed a first ever labor movement in the face of exploitative working conditions subjecting workers to unjust and inhumane treatment.

Strike and concerted activities are restricted. In the Philippines, the Committee of Experts of the ILO noted that certain amendments nave been proposed to legislation that the Committee had previously criticized for placing undue restrictions on the right to strike in nonessential services. The Committee remains concerned by the imposition of penalties in cases where strikes have been deemed illegal, at restrictions on the right of government workers to strike, at some restrictions on the right to organize and form a bargaining unit, which are in conflict with ILO Conventions on Freedom of Association.

According to the Center for Trade Union and Human Rights (CTUHR), which publicizes allegations of violation of workers, rights, attacks on striking workers continue to be a problem. CTUHR counted some 93 incidents in the first 10 months of 1995, involving over 7,400 workers, 5 of whom were killed. The CTUHR said that police were involved in nearly half of these cases.


The lack of local employment opportunities, mobility of capital and globalization has resulted to unprecedented groth of migrant workers. Migration is often undertaken as a necessity for survival and generally remains outside the scope of law and legal protection.

Eastern and Central Europe

After the political democratisation, which resulted in the disintegration of the communist regimes and the end of the centrally planned economies, the countries in Central and Eastern Europe are now in the process of a transition to the market economy. This transition is basically marked by the introduction of the market mechanisms, privatisation, the restructuring of companies and the modification of the socio-economic context. These elements, which have developed in a context of internationalisation, will allow these countries to secure a position in the world economy.

The transition to the market economy goes hand in hand with thorough reforms and modifications of the form legal and institutional structures which served as a basis for the centrally planned economies. From the perspective of their access to the world economy, these countries proceeded to a reconstruction of all their infrastructures which were no longer up to the standards of the market economy. This resulted in mass privatisation, the restructuring of companies and the dismantlement of the existing social security system. A new overall framework was worked out, defining the rules of the game of transactions, the entitlement to property and the circulation of the economic resources. Direct foreign investments are to ensure these privatisation and reorganisation processes, chiefly because of the lack of national financial resources. Countries like the Czech Republic, Hungary and Poland have started up unthinkingly such privatisation procedures.

In the socio-political field we have witnessed the creation of new political parties and the emergence of a civil society with new social actors: peasants’ organisations, mutual-assistance institutions, trade unions, etc. All this has profoundly shaken up the socio-economic environment, changing thoroughly the labour relations, the working conditions and the social protection of the workers. As regards the labour relations, there are difficulties in instituting another system, based on tripartism. In some countries there is a lack of trustworthy and organised partners capable of entering upon a genuine social dialogue. The prevailing climate of wild capitalism has not helped at all to further the introduction of a social dialogue.

The importance of the current transformations also finds expression in the social security reforms (retirement pensions, unemployment, health). We are obviously witnessing an erosion of the existing social protection system. Indeed, populations accustomed to a planned and centralised system in which the state guaranteed jobs, a social security and a health-care and education system, are now left to their own devices. A large part of the population is living below the poverty threshold. Important developments are going on, such as a swiftly rising unemployment, the stagnation of and even decrease in the active population, widening wage gaps and a decrease in real wages. Several of these tendencies are symptomatic of a more flexible labour market.

Despite the active job-creating strategy in some countries, there is no appropriate legal framework and employment policy. Privatisation has indeed made it a problem to solve the problem of job creation. The employment policies find themselves suffocated by the reciprocity between rising unemployment and limited financial resources. Such policies hardly stand a chance of finding a balance between job creation and unemployment benefits. There is not yet an answer to urgent issues such as the role of collective bargaining, labour regulations and the social dimension of the labour market. As far as safety and health at work are concerned, there is an obvious run-down of the workers’ protection systems.

The increase in autonomous trade unions and the emergence of independent employers’ organisations have not prevented that some groups of workers are well represented by this new kind of trade unions, whereas other groups seem to have been excluded or are underrepresented. The rise of social problems as a result of liberalisation has resulted, in some countries, in the emergence of an authoritarian state which refuses to recognise autonomous trade unions.

Notwithstanding this diagnosis by the Central European trade union movement, the privatisation and restructuring process is pursuing its goal of conquering a place on the world market. This process is a threat to the workers in that some are losing their job while others are unable to find one, whereas the social security systems are not catering for the needs of the workers. The workers are being exposed to terrible ordeals, and their trade union rights are constantly menaced or violated.

Western Europe and North America

The current crisis in Europe and the successive rises in the rates of unemployment in most European countries have instituted a culture of fear: fear of unemployment, fear of risk, fear of the future…

The European Union is paying today the price of its monetarism and neo-liberal indoctrination. In advocating fervently free trade, the total deregulation of the financial flows and budgetary austerity, the European Union has left it to the market to develop a genuine project of society. The unanimity of the member states on the matter of pulling down the borders, combined with their blockades in matters of economic and social cohesion, is the underlying cause of the present vulnerability of the European economy.

The European social model in jeopardy

The reunification of Germany was paid for, in the early 1990s, by the entirety of the member countries of the Union at the price of a major rise in interest rates and of Bonn imposing Draconian austerity measures in order to build the Economic and Monetary Union. The convergence criteria the governments inflicted on themselves in the Maastricht Treaty to make the future single currency credible, have destroyed the little elbow-room they could still demonstrate at national level.

A few decades ago, the crisis would no doubt have triggered off the side-effect of a recession. In this regard, however, the terms of the world economy have changed to the point that Europe has been taken completely by surprise. The accelerated progress in the communications technology, the higher quality of the labour force in some developing countries and the gradual liberation of world trade as a result of the Uruguay Round have started the internationalisation of the economy.

For lack of anticipation, and while confronted with a dramatic recession, the governments of the Fifteen have yielded a considerable part of their regulatory power to the international financial markets and to a few hundreds of multinational corporations. Today the volume of the capital traded at stock exchanges all over the world exceeds three to four times the annual worldwide GDP. The tendency prevailing at those exchanges is to rake in immediate profits by transforming productive investments and shares into short-term financial investments. Thanks to this practice, liquid assets are swiftly reinjected to fuel international speculation, which is far more lucrative for the big shareholders whose movable interests constitute in many cases their unique source of income.

The European economy has been dragged along in this movement. It is inclined to structure itself on the basis of extensive flows. In other words, it avoids constituting stocks and an overcapacity in order to constantly maximise the profits and minimise the risks. Most economic sectors, including the services one, are developing in a similar way, a way marked by a very strong rise in subcontracting and by pressure for more labour flexibility. As a consequence, the production is permanently on the fringes of a breakdown on account of the shorter delays and the higher pace.

The ever-higher rates of unemployment enable the companies to reduce the wages and to neglect the acquired workers’ rights. The European social model is under serious threat of unemployment, which is tearing up the active population and has introduced a system of insecurity. The precariousness is growing due to the generalisation of employment contracts of limited duration and part-time work. The tacit ban on trade unions, flexible working hours, compulsory overtime work or the use of improper self-employment: all these concessions are just as many sacrifices on the altar of flexibility. The term refers in fact coyly to the gradual deregulation of the labour market and to a slow disentanglement of the social protection systems.

Internationalisation or Europeanisation?

Though internationalisation is one of the active germs of the current social dumping in Europe, it is not the direct cause of it. The first cause is the inconsistency of the economic, social and tax policies pursued by each of the member states separately. This inconsistency has indeed allowed the present state of affairs which jeopardises the acquirements after 150 years of workers’ struggle. The bitter struggle the member states of the European Union have put up among themselves for years to attract, each on its own territory, a maximum of foreign investors is the consequence of a basically free-trade and competitive concept of the European construction.

The Single Act Treaty, signed in 1985, was aimed to establish a single market observing strict and loyal rules of competition. The Commission, now, is competent to fight a mere limited number of distortions: the public aids, the arrangements and the abuses of predominant positions. So, the member states remain free to pursue territorial seduction policies, staking on differences in fiscal treatment, wage fluctuations and regional employment policies, which are in many cases inefficient anyway, because of their windfall effects. Lower-wage countries like Portugal and Ireland, but also the United Kingdom which refused to ratify the Maastricht social protocol, could drain that way part of the economic blood of their partners.

In contrast with most of its European partners, the economic barometer of Great Britain, which can be compared to the one in the United States, is set fair. It indeed benefits by a relatively low rate of unemployment (6%) and a sustained growth. But the price the British workers had to pay for Thatcherism is the one a number of decision-makers want now the rest of Europe to pay. This finds expression in the massively rising percentage of the population living below the poverty threshold, in the tumbling buying power, in the widening gap between poor and rich, in the increasing dismissal facilities, in the ever-longer working hours, in the suffocation of the trade unions, in the dismantlement of public services… On account of the budgetary imperatives of the single currency which are tying up the member states, the social guarantees and advantages seem to have become the only really variable adjustments.

Yet, despite the fact that they are regularly quoted as an example, the unemployment figures of the United Kingdom are nonetheless questionable, to the extent that they do not include the cohabitants and put part-time work on a par with full-time work. The manipulation of the ways to calculate rates of unemployment is no English exclusivity and tends to become general practice in the rest of the Union. It makes it possible to mask the inefficiency of the stop-gap employment policies, in many cases the source of administrative exclusion, whereas only measures of a European scope can henceforth have a favourable impact in this matter.

In view of this observation the European Union has adopted, for a long time already, a confused attitude, condemning the absence of a social and fiscal harmonisation while limiting its interventions in this regard to a few issues on which there is a consensus. Even worse, the structural funds policy which is aimed to fill the gap between the development leeway of certain regions and the European average, has fuelled the "Euroshopping" phenomenon, which consists in companies harvesting maximum (local and Community) subsidies by relocating time and again production units within the European Union.

So, the refusal of the member states to follow a long-term concept and to act in concert has created conditions favouring the intra-European relocation of companies. Indeed, contrary to the prevailing view, 75% of the cases of relocation recorded in Europe (ie close-downs compensated for by the opening, in other places, of units producing for the same markets) harm one member state for the benefit of another.

Relocation is not a recent phenomenon. It has always existed, but has now entered a new stage with the emergence of competitors capable of producing sophisticated goods at still relatively low cost. Anyway, only a few sectors remain affected by the toppling of this balance of power. The so-called "Asian dragons" are controlling at the moment the technology to produce and develop basic elements in computer science or the metal-using industry. So, countries with an even lower wage cost, such as Indonesia and the Philippines, have seized control over industries like textiles and electronics for the masses, which are less demanding in qualified labour.

Though the opening of the borders and the increase in volume of the worldwide flows are sources of major concern about the future of the European model, the reality of the figures goes to show that their impact is still relatively weak to the extent that they influence just a few key sectors. Moreover, these new industrial countries do not yet generate a trade surplus out of proportion.

The Union remains largely competitive in many areas of economic activity, in which it can play its comparative advantages, including over the American and Japanese markets. So, the competitiveness of the European exports is less a problem of labour cost than one of recurrent training and investments in research and development. The companies, now, have focused their activities in this latter field for the greatest part on raising the productivity in order to reduce the production cost. This logic is the fruit of the dogged competition between the OECD member countries, which is the underlying cause of the consecutive overproduction crises in various branches of industry, which justify all those current degreasing and restructuring schemes.

Competitiveness has become the only prism through which the actors of the system seem henceforth to see their mutations. The private actors consider this to be the fruit of a rise in productivity emanating from technical innovation in the production process, from a growing flexibility imposed on the workers, and from a prospective strategy to ensure their presence on the markets. The political leaders take the view that competitiveness is calculated on an individual and national basis in the first place. The adjustment variables are then linked up with the wage cost, the rate of exchange, the legal framework of labour and, to a lesser extent, infrastructures and the quality of labour.

The problem of Europe is therefore, in the final analysis, linked up with "Europeanisation" as much as with internationalisation. By the economic integration of the Union, the member states have wanted to gain prosperity in increasing trade and deregulating the markets. Yet, the too great disparity in living standards and the too slow harmonisation of the social and fiscal systems within the Union have led the governments to stick to the dogma of competitiveness and to pursue in the same way, among themselves, policies centred exclusively on supply.

For lack of a political Europe and under the pressure of the deflationary requirements of Maastricht, each country has taken, on its own, measures in the field of wage restraint and flexibility. All the efforts to effect a reconstruction through demand have been destroyed, and the investments in new technologies reduced, despite the fact that they benefit each and everyone whereas their costs are to be borne only by the member states that take the initiative.

In 1993 Jacques Delors advocated in his White Paper "Growth, Competitiveness, Employment" that "macroprojects" should be set on foot. Such projects, in most cases communication networks with a European dimension, are to be financed by the European Union and give a boost to employment thanks to the creation of new markets. After having applauded the spirit of the document, however, the European governments blocked its concrete implementation on account of the failure of their discussions on extending the budgetary powers of the Union.

As a consequence, the industrial policies of Europe remain limited to a set of target programmes the results of which are on a par with the means invested: risible as compared to the needs. Yet, in investing in product creation more than they have done so far, the Europeans could refine their comparative advantages and gain a strong position on new markets. Unfortunately, the facts indicate little improvement, and the Union is trailing in quite a few promising sectors on account of too isolated actions, but also of a rigid management culture. The restructuring strategies and plans proposed by the managers indeed match, too often, the standard schemes inspired by audits carried out by large Anglo-Saxon companies. If they distanced themselves somewhat from those schemes, the managers could contemplate other options such as internal reorganisation operations based on voluntary shorter working hours.

Internationalisation is a mere indirect cause of the lesser social concern of Europe for the benefit of competitiveness. Indeed, the whole of the political, economic and trade union actors of the fifteen member states cruelly lack consensus in many fields. The market regulations have to change, but by no means to disappear. The current complete anarchy of the international speculative flows shows to what extent this logic can be destructive and effect eventually the disentanglement of the state.

Labour flexibility is not the cure-all. Not only does it not solve the problem of unemployment, it is even maintained by it. The line of thought behind wanting to prescribe this remedy is not only uselessly devastating for the quality of life of the individual people; it is also, as the case of Vilvoorde goes to show, inevitably integrated into a concurrence of circumstances ending up in relocation once the maximum has been drawn from the workers.

In leaving the commands of the European economy in the hands of technocrats rooted in the ideology of "uniform thinking" and competitiveness, Europe is heading straight for the dismantlement of its social assets and jeopardising its ability to bring in future a genuine collective project to a favourable conclusion. In the final analysis, this downward social levelling is self-destructive in that the system will end up backfiring by downgrading the human resources which constitute tomorrow’s prospects.

In this respect two major challenges await the European Union from now to the year 2000: the single currency to restore the economic weight it can pretend to, and the Intergovernmental Conference which has to provide it with political institutions tailored to its new worldwide environment.

Globalization and Workers' Rights


International Labour Office
Bureau for Workers' Activities
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