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Freedom of association

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If you believe that there is an increased risk that your suppliers are denying workers their right to freedom of association, and you wish to include this topic in the annex to your Code of Conduct, you can add the following requirements to your Code of Conduct by clicking on "Save to clipboard".

Some countries impose systematic restrictions on the right of workers to freedom of association and collective bargaining. A lack of collective agreements may be a symptom of a number of different problems such as under-payment, forced labour, child labour, etc. In some countries, trade unions are subject to statutory restrictions. Freedom of association is therefore an area that can be extremely difficult to address, but still vitally important.

Right to form and join trade unions and the right to strike

In respecting this right, the supplier should see the following as essential steps:

a. Recognising the right of workers to join, form or not to join trade unions of their choice without fear of intimidation, reprisal or harassment;

b. Engaging in collective bargaining with legally recognised employee representative organisations to conduct negotiations on terms and conditions of employment;

c. Respecting workers’ rights to organise peaceful and properly authorised strikes.

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Below there is more information about various aspects of freedom of association:

Freedom of association and collective agreements
In accordance with the ILO Conventions, workers have the right to join a trade union of their choice with a view to protecting their employment rights. The supplier must respect the role of the labour organisations, allowing them to function independently. To the extent that this does not cause unreasonable damage to the supplier’s business interests, the supplier must also give the labour organisations access to the information, resources and facilities necessary for them to be able to fulfil their representative functions. 

While some Codes of Conduct mention freedom of association, it is important that the supplier also undertakes to respect the right of employees to collective bargaining. The supplier should also comply with the decisions reached by mediators or institutions that have been approved to handle such collective agreement-related disputes.

The supplier may in no circumstances dismiss employees or discriminate against them in retaliation for the employees' exercising their labour rights, raising grievances, participating in trade union activities or reporting a suspected breach of statutory provisions. 

Some countries allow exclusive agreements that require an employee to be a member of a particular trade union in order to be able to work for the supplier. Even though this topic continues to be the subject of debate, this is not a recommended practice. 

Finally, you should be aware that, even if the supplier respects its employees' right to freedom of association, trade union members may still be seen as betraying their non-unionised colleagues, because trade union activities are perceived as a threat to job security. This can increase the risk of physical or verbal harassment.

Such actions may also be tolerated or supported by the government. In such cases, it may be necessary for you to take measures to safeguard your suppliers' conditions, so as to ensure that the right to freedom of association is upheld.
 
If trade unions are prohibited by law
In some countries, trade unions may be limited by law. In such conditions, the supplier is still obliged to respect its employees' right to gather and associate freely, and the supplier must take the necessary steps to ensure that other types of employee meetings and representation are permitted The supplier must also take steps to ensure open channels of communication and negotiation between management and employees concerning all work-related issues. 

It should be noted that the alternative measures described here are only applicable in countries where the right to form trade unions and to collective bargaining is restricted by law, as such steps might otherwise be seen as an attempt to contain or circumvent existing trade unions. 

Other relevant information

Conventions and standards relating to freedom of association
Under ILO Convention no. 87 concerning freedom of association and protection of the right to organise and ILO Convention no. 98 on the right to organise and collective bargaining, employees have the right to: 

· Meet to discuss working conditions;

· Form trade unions;

·  Negotiate collective agreements; and

·  Take collective strike action.

However, the Conventions do not protect any negative freedom of association, i.e. the right not to become a member of a trade union.

Under ILO Conventions nos. 98 and 111 concerning discrimination, a supplier contravenes the right to freedom of association if it discriminates against employees on the grounds of activity or affiliation with a labour organisation or trade union. This applies in relation to employment, dismissal, promotion or other decisions.

A supplier may not penalise an employee in any way for affiliation with a trade union or any attempt to form a trade union. These Conventions also stipulate that a supplier may not support or promote a particular trade union. 

Trade union representatives
According to ILO Convention no. 135 concerning workers' representatives, the right for trade union representatives to have access to the supplier's premises in order to meet the employees, and that the supplier gives these trade union representatives access to the necessary information and documentation to perform their duties, is part of the right to freedom of association. The Convention also stipulates that the supplier may only dismiss trade union representatives if there are compelling grounds for such dismissal.

In addition to the aforementioned ILO Conventions, you can also refer to the The European Convention on Human Rights, which includes a general protection of freedom of association. The Convention thus grants the right to join a trade union of the employee's own choice. It is unclear how far this Convention protects the negative right to freedom of association – i.e. the right not to become a member of a trade union. The Convention is implemented in Danish legislation. Finally, you can also refer to specific UN Conventions, such as the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights and the UN International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Both refer to freedom of association, but do not protect the negative freedom of association.

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