What does a lack of Labour Regulation do to Freedom of Association?

Anneliese Fernandes

Policy brief: What does a lack of Labour Regulation do to Freedom of Association?

Overview of the 323rd Governing Body meeting on the Arab Region

The purpose of the Governing Body meeting on” Regional perspectives on development cooperation in The Arab States” was to discuss the possibility of the International Labour Organization (ILO) expanding its development projects in the region over the next 2 years (GB 323/POL/6). The Arab region consists of 11 member states and the occupied Palestine territory. These member states are Iraq, Jordan, Lebanon, Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen. The meeting involved discussions on possible types of technical assistance, core financing, as well as tackling issues of youth unemployment, women’s empowerment and social protection. Representatives of the Arab Group, Workers’ Group, African Group and ASEAN (Asia & the Pacific) Group contributed to the discussions, highlighting the creation of more and better jobs as vital to development in the region. The meeting concluded with a draft decision requesting the Governing Body to expand its development cooperation program and develop a regional mobilization strategy for 2015-2017. Further action will be discussed during the 325th Governing Body November 2015 meetings. However, an ongoing problem relates to constraints on Freedom of Association (FOA) in the Arab region and weaknesses relating to compliance (GB.323/INS/8). These two problems have been illuminated as major obstacles to the creation of more and better jobs and a challenge to the tripartite system of the ILO (GB.323/POL/6; GB.323/INS/8; GB.323/INS/9).

The Arab Region

It is important to begin by noting that statistical data relating to this region is not collected on a systematic and widespread basis (Tzannatos 2014). This makes labour administration activities, including planning, coordination and performance management, more difficult to undertake. Over the past couple of years, the region has been affected by the 2008 economic crisis and the ‘Arab spring’ that began in 2011. Both these events have exacerbated preexisting problems of unemployment and socio-political insecurity. Declining oil prices are an additional concern for the oil exporting countries within this region.

Unemployment in the region is especially high for young people, with the informal economy growing as a result of the insecurities within the region. In most countries in the region the risk of unemployment is high regardless of workers’ education and income levels (Tzannatos 2014). Social unrest resulting from unemployment and marginalization has been highlighted in the GB meetings as a factor impeding further development efforts. This has especially been the case since the Arab Spring, which has led to decreasing confidence in governments and their ability to tackle unemployment and problems of marginalization.

Freedom of Association

Freedom of Association and its counterpart, collective bargaining, are vital to the process of social dialogue and ensuring that basic human rights are respected. Social dialogue is important at all levels, and has been found by not just the ILO, but by the World Bank and IMF as well, as being central to the effectiveness of development programs as it allows for harmonized coordination and representation of different groups and regions. The importance of social dialogue in reaching goals of sustainable development and ensuring the core conventions of the ILO are observed was reiterated throughout the 323rd General Body meeting. Freedom of Association and collective bargaining are vital tools for encouraging the spread of decent work. However, according to the Workers’ Group, a lack of social dialogue and constraints on freedom of association in some Arab states are slowing economic development (GB.323/POL/6; GB.323/INS/8; GB.323/INS/9). Freedom of Association is a vital factor determining the success of labour administration, especially at the local level.

Arab states in this region range from low income to high income states, all with different capabilities and resources available to implement and regulate policies. Some states such as Jordan have been recognized for their progress in implementing conventions such as Convention 1952 (No.102) on social security (GB.323/POL/6). On the other hand, other states have been accused of failing to comply with ratified conventions and doing too little to ensure freedom of association. This has especially been the case for Qatar and Bahrain, especially in respect of migrant workers (GB.323/INS/8; GB.323/INS/9).

For instance, Qatar’s case of non-compliance with ILO Convention No. 29 (on forced labour) has been of particular interest and controversy as it highlights the challenges faced by the ILO in regards to ensuring conventions are respected by governments (GB.323/INS/8). According to the Workers’ Delegates to the 103rd session of the International Labour Conference, Qatar has violated Convention 29, particularly through human trafficking of forced labour. The government of Qatar, however, emphasized that it has made progress in strengthening regulatory mechanisms and its labour inspection services. The Workers’ Group with the support of the US, Canada and Nordic countries, advocated that the ILO establish a Commission of Inquiry to evaluate the validity of the government of Qatar’s claims. However, the office decided to defer the case to the GB meeting in November 2015, allowing time for the government of Qatar to submit information regarding the actions they had undertaken.

The Challenges

Issues such as Freedom of Association and labour administration cannot be treated separately. In order for labour standards to be upheld by governments and employers, an effective regulatory system needs to be in place. Such a system should not only focus on the visible aspects of labour standards, such as clean and safe work environments, but also the latent aspects that require more vigilance and long-term efforts. Collaboration with workers in both the formal and informal sectors is also needed for a more comprehensive understanding of the core issues, with representation of migrant workers being provided for.

Ensuring Freedom of Association requires appropriate laws and the promotion of equity amongst genders, local workers and migrants. Awareness of the benefits of such laws and ideas, as well as the consequences of the lack of them, should be stressed within these countries. Social unrest resulting from unfair treatment or lack of opportunities can be minimized through effective communication and education. Long-term structural programs that involve several actors on all levels are needed, especially considering the crises currently faced by the region.

During the GB meeting, a representative of the Workers’ Group pointed out that although the ILO report states that Arab countries have ratified most FOA and collective bargaining conventions, such as Conventions 1948 (No.87) and 1949 (No.98), they are still poorly enforced in some areas, particularly in the Gulf region (GB.323/POL/6; GB.323/INS/9). The Workers’ Group representative also claimed that there is a lack of respect for trade union rights in parts of the Gulf. Long-term awareness-raising can help to show employers and governments the economic benefits of having freedom of association and collective bargaining.

However, as the ILO has pointed out, because this region is currently recovering from economic crises and undergoing political crises, as in Syria, long-term solutions become extremely complicated. Changes to perceptions of equity and freedom of association pose a great challenge to the ILO and its members, and tend to be at the bottom of the to-do list during such harsh times. Cultural interests have to be considered, and incorporated into ILO conventions appropriately.  Still, as the March 2015 meetings regarding the Arab region have demonstrated, there has been widespread recognition of the problems, in terms of both root causes, and administrative clashes amongst the three groups. The call by the office for countries to provide sufficient proof that they have implemented ratified conventions shows that the ILO has recognized the requests of the Workers Group, whilst also allowing governments and employers time to improve working conditions. The upcoming meetings in July and November will be a good opportunity for all groups to showcase their progress since these meetings, and will be a deciding factor in what action the ILO will need to take to tackle non-compliance in relation to ILO conventions and labour rights.


GB 323/POL/6 (March 2015) “Regional perspectives on development cooperation: The Arab States”, Policy Development Section Technical Cooperation Segment, Governing Body 323rd Session, Geneva.

GB.323/INS/8 (March 2015), “Complaint alleging non-observance by Qatar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), and the Labour Inspection Convention, 1947 (No. 81), made by delegates to the 103rd Session (2014) of the International Labour Conference under article 26 of the ILO Constitution”, Institutional Section, Governing Body 323rd Session, Geneva.

GB.323/INS/9 (March 2015), “Reports of the Committee on Freedom of Association: 374th Report of the Committee on Freedom of Association”, Institutional Section, Governing Body 323rd Session, Geneva.

Tzannatos, Z. (2014) “Labour demand and social dialogue: Two binding constraints for decent work for youth in the Arab Region”, Employment Policy Department:  Employment Working Paper No. 164, Employment and Labour Market Policies Branch, International Labour Organization, Geneva.


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