Despite US insistence at global forums that developing countries adopt international labour standards, basic worker rights in the US are routinely violated, particularly by private employers, according to a major new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch

by Jim Lobe

Washington, 31Aug 2000 (IPS) -- Despite US insistence at global forums that developing countries adopt international labour standards, basic worker rights in the United States are routinely violated, particularly by private employers, according to a major new report by the New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW).

In recent decades, employers have increasingly ignored or circumvented laws designed to ensure workers’ rights to organise, while the government has largely failed to enforce them with tough and timely sanctions against abusive employers.

As a result, less than 10% of private-sector workers are unionised, down from nearly 40% in the 1950s, according to the 213-page report, which was released on the eve of the official observance of the annual ‘Labour Day’ holiday Monday, September 4.

“Workers’ freedom of association is under sustained attack in the United States, and the government is often failing its responsibility under international human rights standards to deter such attacks and protect workers’ rights,” according to the report, ‘Unfair Advantage: Workers’ Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards.’

If Washington wishes to be credible in such forums as the World Trade Organisation (WTO), where it has pushed for the adoption by all members of enforceable core labour rights, it should ensure that they are respected at home, the report argues.

“The cards are stacked against workers in the United States,” according to HRW director Kenneth Roth. “The US government cannot effectively press another country to improve labour standards while violating them itself. It should lead by example.”

As part of that process, the report calls for a new understanding by labour, government, and business that worker rights are basic, internationally recognised human rights, and not simply a tool used by unions in economic disputes with employers.

It says the Congress should ratify international conventions guaranteeing the right to organise. At the same time, courts and administrative bodies should incorporate international labour law and standards into their own work.

The report, based on field research throughout the country, as well as specific cases which have been adjudicated in recent years, follows a similar blast by HRW at the US record on child labour issued last June.

That report, ‘Fingers to the Bone: United States Failure to Protect Child Farm Workers,’ found that hundreds of thousands of child farm labourers, some as young as 12 and 13, work in abusive and sometimes dangerous conditions in the United States. Working as many as 18 hours a day during peak harvest time, these children - most of whom are Latino - risk their health from pesticide poisoning, heat sickness and equipment injuries, according to the report.

It noted that laws governing minors working in agriculture are far less stringent than those for other economic sectors, despite a general ban in US labour law on “oppressive child labour.”

In addition to bans on child and forced labour, core international labour rights, as defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and its Conventions, include the freedom of association, the right to organise.

Freedom of association - most often expressed in the organisation of trade unions - is the bedrock workers’ right under international law on which all other labour rights, including the right to bargain collectively with employers and the right to strike, rest.

Those rights were officially recognised in the United States as a result of legislation passed during the Depression of the 1930s. The laws, which included the National Labour Relations Act (NLRA), established a National Labour Relations Board (NLRB) to enforce the laws and investigate and remedy violations.

In recent decades, however, NLRA enforcement has fallen far short of its original goals, according to the report, as the NLRB and the courts have failed to adopt tough and timely sanctions against employers who violate the law.

Despite a strict NLRA ban on employers punishing workers for trying to organise fellow-workers into unions, for example, thousands of workers each year are fired from their jobs or suffer other reprisals, including surveillance, harassment, deportation, and suspension, for exercising their right to freedom of association.

“Any employer intent on resisting workers’ self-organisation can drag out legal proceedings for years, fearing little more than an order to post a written notice in the workplace promising not to repeat unlawful conduct and grant back pay to a worker fired for organising,” the report says.

In one case, a worker fired for five years received only $1,305 back pay and $493 in interest when the court issued a final ruling.

“Many employers have come to view remedies like back pay for workers fired because of union activity as a routine cost of doing business, well worth it to get rid of organising leaders and derail workers’ organising efforts,” according to the report, which charges that a “culture of near-impunity” for abusive employers appears to have taken hold.

Indeed, in the 1950s, workers who suffered reprisals for organising efforts numbered in the hundreds each year. In 1998, the number reached nearly 24,000.

Legal delays and weak remedies are not the only ways that worker rights are routinely violated, according to the report. In addition, millions of workers - including farm workers, domestics, low-level supervisors, and “independent” contractors who are really dependent on a single employer - are denied the right to organise and bargain collectively by law. They may be fired with impunity for trying to organise a union.

As employer-worker relationships have become more complex, the 1930s model of fixed-employee groups working for a single union - the situation which was most conducive to collective bargaining - has become outdated.

Existing rules also may strongly favour employers at the expense of workers. For example, employers can force workers to attend “captive-audience meetings” on work time. Such meetings can include “predictions” - but not “threats” which are banned by law - that the workplace may be closed down if workers vote to unionise. Union organisers are given no comparable access.

In addition, workers generally cannot engage in “secondary boycotts” to show solidarity with strikers in other unions.

To meet international worker rights standards, the government needs to enact new legislation to ensure that the right to organise is fully enforced. Among other measures, the report calls for tougher and more rapidly enforced sanctions against abusive employers and the extension of the right to organise to farm workers and temporary employees to whom it is effectively denied now.-SUNS4732