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Definition & Legal Instruments


According to the ILO, the term “Freedom of Association” refers to the right of workers and employers to freely and voluntarily establish and join organizations of their own choice. Freedom of association is a fundamental human right proclaimed in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and is important as:

  • It is the enabling right to allow effective participation of non-State actors in economic and social policy, central to democracy and the rule of law. Ensuring that workers and employers have a voice and are represented is, therefore, essential for the effective functioning of not only labour markets but also 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.

Workers form unions so that they can engage in collective bargaining. The ILO defines collective bargaining as a voluntary process through which employers and workers discuss and negotiate their relations, in particular terms and conditions of work. Participants include employers themselves or their organizations, and trade unions or, in their absence, representatives freely designated by the workers.

  • The ILO states that collective bargaining allows both sides to negotiate a fair employment relationship and prevents costly labour disputes. Typical issues on the bargaining agenda include wages, working time, training, occupational safety and health, as well as equal treatment.
  • According to the ILO, countries with highly coordinated collective bargaining tend to have less inequality in wages, lower and less persistent unemployment, and fewer and shorter strikes than countries where collective bargaining is less established.

Legal Instruments

There are many international instruments that affirm and guarantee the right of freedom of association. Such instruments place requirements on States to protect and respect these rights.

ILO Conventions

The ILO has adopted two specific conventions on freedom of association. They are legally binding instruments, ratified and used by most countries as guidance to their own national laws. They are part of the eight ILO “fundamental” conventions covering subjects that are considered to be fundamental rights and principles at work. These two conventions outline the rights of workers and employers to form and join organizations of their own choice and to carry out their activities in full freedom and without interference.

These conventions have been ratified by most ILO Member States. This means that in most countries relevant national legislation should be in place to implement the terms of these international legal instruments. This, however, by no means ensures that the provision or enforcement of legal protection is of equal efficacy across all countries. In due diligence, it is, therefore, important to check the ratification status for particular countries as an indicator of potentially more limited state protections of freedom of association. All related labour standards on freedom of association can be found here.

The freedom of association is included as one of the Ten Principles of the UN Global Compact: “Principle 3: Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining”. The four labour principles of the UN Global Compact are derived from the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

These fundamental principles and rights at work have been affirmed and developed in the form of specific rights and obligations in International Labour Conventions and Recommendations and cover issues related to child labour, discrimination at work, forced labour and freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Member States of the ILO have an obligation to uphold the freedom of association, even if they have not ratified the Conventions in question.

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