Just over a year ago, gendarmes in Cambodia shot to death five garment workers after previously breaking up strikes calling for wage increases. Authorities then detained 18 other demonstrators for months, eventually convicting them on trumped-up charges.
Cambodia’s employers paid for a full-page ad in the Phnom Penh Post justifying the violence, saying the right to strike was not fundamental. The ad said governments should have power to regulate strikes to “promote an environment of industrial harmony” and to “attract investment.”
The employers’ logic came straight from a dangerous debate taking place today: should the right to strike continue to be guaranteed under international law, or should governments decide whether strikes are legal – a route pushed for by employers. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is meeting this week to discuss this issue.
The ILO’s work has been held hostage by this debate since 2012, when employers’ representatives revolted. They declared that the right to strike was “fundamentally unacceptable to Employers.” And now some governments, including the US, are failing to take a stand against this view. This is potentially catastrophic. The ILO’s role as the custodian of labor rights is now at risk, as the right to strike is understood to be part of one of its conventions. Left unopposed, the current employer-led machinations threaten to undermine the rights of workers everywhere.
When the ILO tried to discuss right-to-strike cases involving firings, assaults, death threats, or even killings, employers’ representatives boycotted the proceedings. Now the ILO’s critical cases involving workers’ human rights are stalled.
The ILO, trade unions, and Human Rights Watch have all recognized that the right to strike is not unconditional. Governments can already restrict strikes by security service workers or others that might jeopardize public health and safety. But employers want governments alone to decide whether this right exists and give them the option to make any strike illegal. That is a recipe for widespread abuse.
If the impasse at the ILO cannot be solved, the organization’s constitution allows it to seek an opinion from the International Court of Justice in The Hague or to convene an ILO special tribunal. But employers have blocked both options. Worse, the US has aligned itself with Russia, Japan, and other governments opposing recourse to the court. In contrast, European Union, Latin American, and other governments have joined trade unions supporting a move to the court.
The US does not oppose the right to strike, but doesn’t like the International Court of Justice. Now its silence is threatening workers in countries around the world. As long as it blocks a turn to the court, it is putting a fundamental right at risk worldwide.