Freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining

ILO Conventions

The freedoms to associate and to bargain collectively are fundamental rights. They are rooted in the ILO Constitution and the Declaration of Philadelphia annexed to the ILO Constitution. Their core value has been reaffirmed by the international community, notably at the 1995 World Summit on Social Development in Copenhagen and in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. These enabling rights make it possible to promote and realize decent conditions at work. ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization, adopted in 2008, noted that freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining are particularly important to the attainment of all ILO strategic objectives.

Strong and independent workers’ and employers’ organizations, and the effective recognition of their right to engage in collective bargaining, are major tools for labour market governance. Collective bargaining is a way of attaining beneficial and productive solutions to potentially conflictual relations between workers and employers. It provides a means of building trust between the parties through negotiation and the articulation and satisfaction of the different interests of the negotiating partners. Collective bargaining plays this role by promoting peaceful, inclusive and democratic participation of representative workers’ and employers’ organizations.

The continuing importance of collective bargaining in the twenty-first century derives from its potential as a powerful tool for engagement between employers’ and workers’ organizations to address economic and social concerns. It can strengthen weak voices and reduce poverty and social disadvantage. This can be done by applying collective bargaining to the needs of the parties and promoting voluntary agreements that sustain the well-being of individuals and enterprises.

The recognition of the right to collective bargaining is the key to the representation of collective interests. It builds on freedom of association and renders collective representation meaningful. Collective bargaining can play an important role in enhancing enterprise performance, managing change and building harmonious industrial relations.

Collective bargaining, as a way for workers and employers to reach agreement on issues affecting the world of work, is inextricably linked to freedom of association. The right of workers and employers to establish their independent organizations is the basic prerequisite for collective bargaining and social dialogue. The right to strike has been recognized internationally as a fundamental right of workers and their organizations and as an intrinsic corollary to the right to organize. Nevertheless, these fundamental rights are still not enjoyed by millions around the world, and where these rights are recognized, there continue to be challenges in applying them. In some countries certain categories of workers are denied the right of association, and workers’ and employers’ organizations are illegally suspended or their internal affairs are subject to interference. In extreme cases trade unionists are threatened, arrested or even killed.

The exercise of the rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining requires a conducive and enabling environment. A legislative framework providing the necessary protections and guarantees, institutions to facilitate collective bargaining and address possible conflicts, efficient labour administrations and, very importantly, strong and effective workers’ and employers’ organizations, are the main elements of a conducive environment. The role of governments in providing for an enabling environment is of paramount importance