Collective Bargaining and Equality: Making Connections

Article excerpt

The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work1 adopted in 1998 could not be clearer: "the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining" and "the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation" (ILO, 1998, Para. 2 (a) and (d)) are both so central to the ILO's social justice mandate (ILO, 1919) and Decent Work Agenda (ILO, 1999; Egger, 2002) that they are two of the four fundamental principles which Members of the ILO have a "good faith obligation ... to respect, to promote and to realize" (ILO, 1998, Para. 2). Both are among the immutable principles embodied in the ILO Constitution and represent robust standards of egalitarian and democratic inspiration that stress the centrality of enfranchisement within the world of work, reflected in the ILO's Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining Convention, 1949 (No. 98), and the Discrimination (Employment and Occupation) Convention, 1958 (No. 111). For generations, both these principles have been dynamically interpreted and applied by the ILO's supervisory machinery (Maupain, 1999; Swepston, 1998). And now, with the adoption of the ILO Declaration, both are urgently reaffirmed by the ILO and its Members "in a situation of growing economic interdependence" (ILO, 1998, Preamble, para. 7) as essential components to promote a vision of "sustainable development" that sees the economic and the social as mutually reinforcing (ibid., para. 3; Sen, 1999a; Languie, 1999; ILO, 2004).2

Despite the ILO's longstanding commitment to collective bargaining and the elimination of discrimination, initiatives to explore the interface between the two principles have only recently emerged, and have focused overwhelmingly on gender equality (ILO, 2003, p. 101). The ILO Declaration resists the impulse to establish a hierarchy between collective bargaining and equality, merely setting these principles apart from the broader range of labour standards. In an increasingly integrated transnational context that challenges traditional labour regulation structures, the time is now ripe to investigate the complex and changing relationship between these two fundamental principles and rights at work.

The starting-point for this article is that, despite an overwhelming rate of ratification of Convention No. 98, effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining remains elusive for the vast majority of workers. Globally, only a minority of workers benefit from the free and fair representation of their collective rights, needs and interests. Unequal access to collective bargaining shows how far dominant paradigms of collective bargaining have failed to reflect the plural structures of work, notably in the informal economy and in the developing world. Moreover, emerging post-Fordist paradigms pose difficult challenges to the founding concepts on which twentieth-century industrial relations were constructed.

This starting-point is important beyond its basic reminder that although the ILO's decent work vision applies to all workers, effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining is a "good" that remains merely an aspiration for many. In a limited number of countries, collective bargaining has been the principal means by which terms of employment are set; in other countries at the other end of the spectrum, collective bargaining is accessible only to a small number of workers. In most countries, moreover, those excluded from the effective exercise of collective bargaining rights include a disproportionate number of workers hailing from groups traditionally discriminated against on grounds including race, sex, religion, and national extraction, as listed in Convention No. 111.

Unequal access to collective representation is thus doubly problematic, because it challenges the internal "effectiveness" of collective bargaining and because it reinforces and potentially deepens inequality faced by groups traditionally discriminated against. …