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Right to unionise must be recognised for all workers: ILO

More unions and collective bargaining are vital to help countries recover from the pandemic and to overcome crippling income inequality around the world, the United Nations said Thursday.

Amid isolated but high-profile efforts in the United States to unionise Amazon and Starbucks, the International Labour Organization (ILO) published a report detailing the benefits of collective bargaining.

In its first large report in a series on the importance of social dialogue, the UN agency stressed that collective bargaining ensures fairer wages across enterprises, sectors and industries.

“Countries where more workers are covered by collective agreements are also those with less wage inequality,” ILO chief Guy Ryder told reporters, insisting that the practice benefits should be seen as “a public good”.

The benefits of employees having a seat at the table and access to negotiating salaries and working conditions have been made more evident amid the pandemic and other dramatic shifts in the world of work, the report found.

“Where collective bargaining was supported and was an accepted practice, it played a key role in forging resilience during the Covid-19 crisis,” Ryder said.

– ‘Problem-solving tool’ –

“It is an extraordinarily powerful and useful problem-solving tool.”

He pointed to how such negotiations had, among other things, helped put in place protections for frontline workers, secured jobs, protected earnings and prevented the spread of Covid in workplaces thanks to paid sick leave.

Agreements aimed at facilitating teleworking during the pandemic are evolving into more durable frameworks for how to ensure decent hybrid and teleworking practices, the ILO said.

A number of agreements re-examined working time, for instance by mandating rest periods through a right to disconnect.

“In light of the transformations under way in the world of work… we need to ensure the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining for all workers in need of protection,” Ryder said.

Currently however, that is far from the case.

Thursday’s report, which examined collective agreements and union practices in 80 countries, found that around a third of employees have their wages, working time and other working conditions set by collective negotiations between trade unions and employers or employer organisations.

But there were significant variations across countries.

– Free from ‘any threats’ –

In the United States, where unions’ share of the workforce has steadily diminished in recent decades, data showed that only six percent of workers in private and commercial services were unionised, compared to over 60 percent in Sweden and Denmark.

Nevertheless, a recent poll indicated that 68 percent of Americans view unions favourably — the highest level since 1965.

“I do detect an upswing (in the United States) in the understanding of the importance and the value of trade unionism,” Ryder said.

There have been some recent high-profile wins for unions in the country, with the likes of Starbucks and Amazon seeing workers at some US locations vote to unionise for the first time.

Asked what recommendations he had for workers at the two companies faced with the question of whether to unionise, Ryder stressed that “collective bargaining remains a voluntary process.”

But, he added, it is “fundamentally important that when workers make the determination whether or not to organise… (they) should be free from external pressures, any threats, any duress.”

Ryder, a former trade unionist, said he was a “strong believer in collective bargaining.”

“If you’ve worked in settings where collective agreements are enforced and work in settings where they are not… believe me, you know there is a difference.”