8. Freedom of Association

Sustainable Development

Decent work

Economy Social Environment Employment Protection Rights Dialogue
Relevant SDG Targets
8.8, 16.3, 16.6, 16.10
Relevant Policy Outcomes
2, 7, 10

On this page: DWA-SDG Relationship | Cross-cutting policy drivers | Partnerships | ILO Capacity | Resources

Freedom of association23is a fundamental human right proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights24(1948). It is the enabling right to allow effective participation of non-state actors in economic and social policy, lying at the basis of democracy and the rule of law. Ensuring that workers and employers have a voice and are represented is, therefore, essential for the effective functioning not only of labour markets but also of overall governance structures in a country.

The right of workers and employers to form and join organizations of their own choosing is an integral part of a free and open society. In many cases, these organizations have played a significant role in their countries’ democratic transformation. From advising governments on labour legislation to providing education and training for trade unions and employer groups, the ILO is regularly engaged in promoting freedom of association. (39).

Closely linked to freedom of association is the issue of collective bargaining; collective bargaining25is a fundamental right that is rooted in the ILO Constitution and reaffirmed as such in the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Collective bargaining is a key means through which employers and their organizations and trade unions can establish fair wages and working conditions, and ensure equal opportunities between women and men. It also provides the basis for sound labour relations. Typical issues on the bargaining agenda include wages, working time, training, occupational health and safety and equal treatment. The objective of these negotiations is to arrive at a collective agreement that regulates terms and conditions of employment. Collective agreements may also address the rights and responsibilities of the parties thus ensuring harmonious and productive industries and workplaces. Enhancing the inclusiveness of collective bargaining and collective agreements is a key means for reducing inequality and extending labour protection.

Freedom of association and collective bargaining are among the founding principles of the ILO. Soon after the adoption of the (fundamental) ILO Conventions C.87 and C.98 on freedom of association and collective bargaining, the ILO came to the conclusion that a supervisory procedure was needed to ensure compliance with the relevant conventions in countries that had not ratified them. As a result, in 1951 the ILO set up the Committee on Freedom of Association (CFA) for the purpose of examining complaints about violations of freedom of association, whether or not the country concerned had ratified the relevant conventions. The CFA is a Governing Body committee, and is composed of an independent chairperson and three representatives each of governments, employers, and workers. Further details on the functioning of the CFA are provided here.
Over the years the ILC has adopted a number of additional Conventions and Recommendations relating to collective bargaining, such as C.154, the Collective Bargaining Convention (1981); a full list of related instruments is listed here.

DWA-SDG Relationship

As mentioned above, freedom of association is a democratic human right under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and therefore central to the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda which seeks to “realize the human rights of all” (Preamble to the Declaration). SDG target 8.8 calls for the protection “of labour rights of all workers”; target 16.3 seeks to promote the rule of law both nationally and internationally, target 16.6. demands the development of “effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels (which are essential for the protection of the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining), and target 16.10 enjoins the protection of fundamental freedoms.

Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are the subject of two of ILO’s eight fundamental core conventions and constitute a central pillar of the ILO. They are an important contribution to the rights-based dimension of the 2030 Agenda. Policy outcomes 2 (labour standards), 7 (compliance) and 10 (workers and employers) are of particular importance for the enforcement of the rights to organize and to bargain collectively, but all other policy outcome must promote these rights within their respective sphere.

Cross-cutting policy drivers

The ILO Social Justice Declaration recognizes that freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining are particularly important to enable the attainment of the four strategic objectives of the ILO, as “enabling” rights for all other rights at work. They are therefore cross-cutting policy drivers in their own right.

Tripartite social dialogue is a pivotal element of the implementation strategy of C.87 and C.98 in that it strengthens the tripartite constituents’ capacity to engage in ILO standards-related processes globally and at the country level, including follow-up on the comments of the supervisory system.

The Declaration of Philadelphia reminds us that right of collective bargaining is "fully applicable to all people everywhere"; moreover, SDG target 8.8. seeks to “protect labour rights of all workers, including migrant workers, particularly women migrants, and those in precarious employment”; in reality, however, one may encounter inequalities and discrimination at the country level, and the concerns and aspirations of marginalized groups must be duly taken into account when promoting the freedom of association and the right of collective bargaining.

Partnerships

All UN agencies have the obligation to promote the fundamental human freedoms and rights, including those enshrined in C.87 and C.98. The ILO maintains a particularly close partnership with the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) who has appointed a Special Rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, and with the UN Global Compact. Trade unions, employers’ organizations and civil society groups worldwide refer to the two fundamental ILO Conventions when fighting for their rights. Several development partners support ILO’s work in areas related to collective bargaining, including the US Department of Labour, the EU, Germany and Sweden.

ILO Capacity

ILO’s work on Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining is co-ordinated by two ILO units: the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work Branch (FUNDAMENTALS), which promotes FoA through development cooperation, and the International Labour Standards Department (NORMES), which supervises the application of FoA standards and principles, and provides technical assistance in this regard, including through the standards specialists in Decent Work Technical Teams. The work is further supported by the headquarter staff and field specialists of the Bureau for Employers' Activities (ACT/EMP) and Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV). Work on gender and collective bargaining is supported by the Gender, Equality and Diversity Branch (GED) and the Inclusive Labour Markets, Labour Relations and Working Conditions Branch (INWORK). In addition, the ILO experts working in technical cooperation projects related to collective working add their expertise and capacity to the Office’s standard-related work. The International Training Centre, Turin, offers numerous courses related to international labour standards (see the updated list here).

Resources

Reports, information material and data-bases can be found at the Freedom of association topic page and the Collective bargaining topic page. Publications on collective bargaining and labour relations can be accessed here. The ILO NORMLEX database provides information on the comments of the ILO supervisory bodies on the application of freedom of association standards and principles.


23 - Defined as follows by C.87, article 2: “Workers and employers, without distinction whatsoever, shall have the right to establish and, subject only to the rules of the organisation concerned, to join organisations of their own choosing without previous authorisation”.

24 - Article 20: (1) Everyone has the right to freedom of peaceful assembly and association. (2) No one may be compelled to belong to an association.

25 - ILO C.154 (article 2) defines the term “collective bargaining” as “all negotiations which take place between an employer, a group of employers or one or more employers' organisations, on the one hand, and one or more workers' organisations, on the other, for: (a) determining working conditions and terms of employment; and/or (b) regulating relations between employers and workers; and/or (c) regulating relations between employers or their organisations and a workers' organisation or workers' organisations.”

39. ILO. Freedom of association. ILO - Topics. [Online] 17 November 2016. /global/topics/freedom-of-association-and-the-right-to-collective-bargaining/lang--en/index.htm.