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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. The right to freedom of association and collective bargaining is one of five fundamental rights and principles at work which member states have to promote irrespective of whether or not they have ratified the respective conventions.

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.

Regional and Domestic Legislation

Companies are increasingly subject to non-financial reporting and due diligence obligations in the jurisdictions in which they operate, which often include disclosures on their performance. There are several high-profile examples of national legislation that specifically mandate human rights-related reporting and other positive legal duties, including the United Kingdom Modern Slavery Act 2015Australian Modern Slavery Act 2018, the California Transparency in Supply Chains Act 2010, the French Corporate Duty of Vigilance Law 2017German Act on Corporate Due Diligence Obligations in Supply Chains 2021 and the Norwegian Transparency Act 2022.

Also, in 2021 the Netherlands submitted a Bill for Responsible and Sustainable International Business Conduct, and the European Commission announced its Corporate Sustainability Due Diligence Directive (CSDDD). This Directive is likely to come into force between 2025 and 2027 and will make human rights and environmental due diligence mandatory for larger companies.

These mandatory due diligence and disclosure laws require companies to publicly communicate their efforts to address actual and potential human rights impacts, including violations in relation to freedom of association. Failure to comply with these obligations leads to real legal risk for companies.

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