Global Cooperation

Workers' rights are vital to revitalizing democracy. Here's why

Democracy is a key factor for humanity to be able to work together to meet the challenges facing the world.

Democracy is a key factor for humanity to be able to work together to meet the challenges facing the world. Image: Unsplash

Luc Triangle
General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
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Global Governance

This article is part of: World Economic Forum Annual Meeting
  • 2024 looms as pivotal year for workers amid ongoing armed conflict, climate change and disruption from technologies such as artificial intelligence.
  • All of these situations involve choices made by a relatively small number of powerful people, only some of whom have a democratic mandate.
  • Restoring democracy that delivers dividends for workers is integral to combating climate change and building a more sustainable future.

Possibly more than any year, 2024 looms as a pivotal year for the future of working people, indeed all people. Armed conflicts continue to cause death and destruction, the Earth’s climate is close to a point of no return as global warming accelerates, burdens on public health are becoming unsustainable and it is still not known whether regulators will ensure that the positive potential of advances in digital technology, especially artificial intelligence (AI), fully outweigh the risks.

All these phenomena have one thing in common – they are due, in whole or in part, to choices made by a relatively small number of powerful people. Some of these people are democratically-elected leaders with genuine mandates from the people.

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Others, including leaders of some powerful and influential countries, have no such democratic legitimacy and are accountable only to themselves and those who help them stay in power. This constrains the choices which democratic leaders can make in resolving the great issues facing humanity.

Much of the world’s population lives under non-democratic systems, deprived of any real say in the future of their country, or indeed in their own future. In democratic countries, the fallout of decades of austerity policies, 15 years of economic spasm and the economic precarity that results are converging with an avalanche of misinformation.

Many voters, overwhelmed by these forces, are being driven into the arms of politicians who may echo their sentiments but offer simplistic, divisive and even destructive policies.

Democracy vital to addressing global challenges

Democracy is in distress, yet without it, humanity will be unable to work together to meet the challenges facing the world. That is why the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) is putting democracy front and centre in 2024.

Restoring a democracy that delivers dividends for all working people is integral to combating climate change, ensuring sustainable peace, protecting public health and harvesting the best from technological change. These are the five big challenges working people confront in the coming year.

While electoral representation is a key feature of any good democratic system, it is not the only element. Accountability, public participation, inclusion and many other parts make a democracy whole. Yet for the majority of people their work, from which they should be able to derive not only a decent livelihood but also a sense of value and connection, is a place where democracy is entirely absent.

Democracy at work comes from being part of a trade union, enabling people to negotiate and bargain collectively for decent and fair wages, working conditions, terms of employment, skill development and other things vital in a rapidly changing world.

Trade unions provide a democratic system of checks and balances in the workplace, one that assures working people are treated as human beings and common contributors to an enterprise or industry rather than mere commodities.


The ITUC Global Rights Index has, over the past decade, documented an alarming and consistent erosion of democratic rights at work.

The 2023 Index report shows that significant violations in the right to collective bargaining occurred in 80% of countries, 73% of countries impeded the registration of trade unions or banned them altogether and 69 countries saw arrests and detention of people simply because of their trade union involvement – something guaranteed in international law but too often denied in national law.

By every metric, the decline in respect for democratic rights at work tracks closely with the decline in economic equality and a rise in political instability.

When democratic rights are locked out of the workplace, working people are not only deprived of the possibility to help shape their own working lives, but their civic lives as well. Countries with lower rates of trade union membership and collective agreement coverage consistently place poorly on democracy researchers’ rankings of liberal and political democracy.

People who spend their days in democracy-free workplaces are also left in a much more precarious situation than would be the case if they had the mutual protection of a union. Canadian researchers evaluating the wage premium for union workers globally found differences as high as 20% in some countries.

A 2022 German study found that “worker participation [in trade union activities] fosters pluralistic democratic values”. Denying the majority of the world’s working people these life-changing advantages propels distrust in institutions, and often in democracy itself.

The ITUC’s Global Polls in 2020 and 2022 revealed how trust in governments is declining, and how action of concerns around the climate, economy, wages and other issues of concern could restore it.

Advancing democracy at work, through respect for internationally-recognized rights, is the key to revitalizing democracy in all spheres of life. With it, the vision of a New Social Contract, built on key workers’ demands for decent jobs, rights in the workplace, living wages, social protection, and equality and inclusion, can be realized.

The importance of a democratic mandate

Democracy also goes to the heart of one of the key themes for Davos 2024 – achieving cooperation amidst competition. Where decision-makers carry the authority and integrity of a robust democratic mandate and are thus obligated to be accountable for their actions, their decisions stand to gain greater support and their societies to develop greater social cohesion.

This provides a sound framework for managing the sometimes conflicting pressures of competing while also cooperating. It establishes the strong foundations needed to maintain peace and stability while navigating the transitions required by accelerating climate, technological, social and public health changes.

The same is true in the world of work. When democratic rights are stripped away each time a person goes to work, and only retrieved in the few remaining waking hours of the working day, coercion rather than cooperation becomes our primary experience.

It then informs how we behave in our private and public lives in myriad ways. Far better that cooperation arises through mutual respect and freely-given consent. That’s what drives healthy competition guided by shared values and allows for shared prosperity.

That is why the ITUC will put democracy front and centre in the coming year, because it is the most widely-held shared value among workers. It is also the most effective mechanism for building the unity of purpose needed to address our other key priorities – peace, climate, public health and technology.

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