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Freedom of Association

The right of workers to associate freely can be compromised by legislative and practical barriers, including discrimination, intimidation and even violence.

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Contextual Risk Factors

Restrictions to the enjoyment of the right to freedom of association are driven by multiple underlying causes, from poor legal protections to company practices that discourage workers from organizing. Key risk factors include:

  • Inadequate legal frameworks offer a poor standard of legal protections of the right to freedom of association. This includes laws preventing workers from forming their own organizations freely or requiring compulsory union membership. Some countries do not afford migrant workers and public servants the right to freedom of association, even though this is in contravention to ILO standards.
  • Government interference in the formal registration process of unions: Governments may obstruct the bureaucratic process necessary for the legal recognition of trade unions, or even refuse to legally recognize unions for spurious reasons. Governments may also seek to exert influence or control over legally registered unions.
  • Weak enforcement of labour laws due to inadequate training, an under-resourced labour inspectorate or high levels of corruption. These contexts can enable local companies to discriminate against workers linked to unions and other workers’ groups or subject them to extreme abuses such as kidnapping or even murder. Ineffective judicial systems may hinder workers’ ability to remedy violations.
  • Obstruction of union activity by companies can take many forms, including outright refusal by companies to recognize a trade union, threat of dismissal or other forms of retaliation because of workers exercising their right to free association.
  • High levels of informality in a country’s workforce are indicative of poor working conditions and limited social protections. Where there are more workers in informal arrangements or precarious employment, membership of unions or other relevant organizations is generally much lower.
  • Lack of understanding of rights to freedom of association among workers: Particularly in countries with low trade union density, workers may not be fully aware of their rights to unionize or engage in collective bargaining. Poor awareness of the right to independent worker representation can act as a major deterrent in the realization of the right to freedom of association.