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Worker rights are among the least protected human rights

New findings reveal that worker rights, such as the ability to form trade unions and to bargain collectively, are among the least protected human rights globally.

This revelation comes from the latest report by the CIRIGHTS Data Project, which hosts the largest human rights dataset worldwide. Since 1981, this project has provided an annual evaluation of countries based on their adherence to 25 internationally recognized human rights.

The recent report highlights a concerning trend: worker rights are consistently undermined.

The data shows that countries like Canada, Sweden, New Zealand, Norway, and Portugal score high in terms of human rights protections overall. Conversely, nations such as Iran, Syria, North Korea, China, and Iraq have the lowest scores.

A closer look at labor rights

David Cingranelli, a professor at Binghamton University, State University of New York, who co-leads the project, emphasizes the significance of these findings.

According to Cingranelli, foundational labor rights – which include the right to unionize, bargain collectively, and strike – are essential for the protection of other worker rights. However, these “gateway rights” are seeing a global decline.

Cingranelli’s research points out a direct correlation between the protection of labor rights and the overall socio-economic fabric of a country.

“It is unlikely that governments protect the rights to an adequate minimum wage, occupational health and safety, or reasonable limitations on work hours unless they allow workers to form independent trade unions and to bargain collectively,” he states.

Economic globalization and worker rights

The erosion of labor rights is not isolated to economically struggling regions. In fact, even in wealthy, democratic countries where labor rights are more protected, economic inequality has risen sharply.

Cingranelli attributes this phenomenon to economic globalization, which intensifies competition among nations and often leads governments to prioritize corporate interests over those of workers.

Moreover, in the world’s least developed countries, major agricultural, mining, and oil extraction industries exert considerable influence over worker policies. This pattern mirrors the early industrial stages in the United States, where worker rights were similarly marginalized.

“Corporate leaders typically prefer to distribute most of the profit from their activities to shareholders, not workers,” says Cingranelli.

This adversarial stance between companies and workers over the terms and conditions of employment underscores the importance of government intervention.

The role of government in labor rights

Governments play a crucial role in ensuring that worker concerns are heard and fairly addressed. Without adequate government policies, companies possess unchecked power to suppress unions and disregard worker rights, according to Cingranelli.

He notes that stringent labor regulations in one country can drive companies to relocate, further complicating the global landscape of labor rights.

Strengthening worker rights for a fair future

This comprehensive examination by the CIRIGHTS Data Project underscores a stark reality: worker rights are critically underprotected globally, threatening not just the welfare of workers but also the equitable economic progress of nations.

The findings serve as a call to action for governments worldwide to strengthen labor regulations and ensure that the rights of workers are upheld amidst the challenges posed by economic globalization.

More about worker rights

Worker rights refer to the set of legal protections and entitlements that employees have within the workplace, which aim to ensure fair treatment, safety, and equitable compensation.

Fair pay

Fundamental worker rights typically include the right to fair pay, which means being compensated at least at a minimum wage and receiving pay for overtime work according to laws. 


Safety standards are another critical area, requiring employers to provide a work environment free from hazards and to comply with occupational health and safety regulations.


Additionally, workers are often entitled to collective bargaining, allowing them to negotiate terms of employment, benefits, and working conditions through unions or other representative bodies. 

Discrimination and privacy

Anti-discrimination laws protect workers from being unfairly treated or harassed on the basis of race, gender, age, religion, disability, or other protected characteristics. Rights to privacy and respect in the workplace are also vital, shielding personal information and dignity.


The enforcement of these rights is typically managed by government agencies and through the courts. Workers can usually seek redress for violations through legal or regulatory means, and in many places, there are specific governmental departments dedicated to overseeing labor law compliance. 

Over time, these rights have been established to promote social and economic justice, improve living conditions, and protect workers from exploitation.

The study is published in the journal Human Rights Quarterly.


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