a. Freedom of Association and the Right to Collective Bargaining
The constitution provides that a person shall enjoy the liberty to unite and form an association, cooperative, union, organization, community, or any other group. The Labor Relations Act (LRA) and State Enterprise Labor Relations Act (SELRA) remained in effect. The LRA allows private-sector workers to form and join trade unions of their choosing without prior authorization, to bargain collectively, and to conduct legal strikes with a number of restrictions. Workers seeking to demonstrate or strike were subject to limits on assembly of more than five people under the 2015 Public Assembly Act and NCPO order No. 7/2014.
Legal definitions of who may join a union and requirements that the union represent at least one-fifth of the workforce hampered collective bargaining efforts. Under the law, only workers who are in the same industry may form a union. For example, despite working in the same factory, contract workers performing a manufacturing job function may be classified under the “service industry” may not join the same union as full-time workers who are classified under the “manufacturing industry.” This restriction often diminished the ability to bargain collectively as a larger group. Labor advocates claimed companies exploited this required ratio to avoid unionization by hiring substantial numbers of temporary contract workers. The law also restricts formal affiliations between unions of state-owned enterprises (SOE) and private-sector unions because two separate laws govern them. Therefore, workers in state-owned aviation, banking, transportation, and education enterprises may not affiliate formally with workers in similar jobs in private sector enterprises.
The law allows employees to submit collective demands if at least 15 percent of employees are listed as supporting that demand. The law allows employees in private enterprises with more than 50 workers to establish “employee committees” to represent workers’ collective requests and to negotiate with employers and “welfare committees” to represent workers’ welfare-related collective requests. Employee and welfare committees may give suggestions to employers, but the law bars them from submitting labor demands or conducting legal strikes. The law prohibits employers from taking adverse employment actions against workers for their participation in these committees and from obstructing the work of the committees. Therefore, union leaders often join employee or welfare committees.
The SELRA allows one union per SOE. SOEs in the country included state banks, trains, airlines, airports, marine ports, and postal services. Under the law civil servants, including teachers at public and private schools, university professors, soldiers, and police, do not have the right to form or register a union; however, civil servants (including teachers, police, and nurses), and self-employed persons (such as farmers and fishers) may form and register associations to represent member interests. If a SOE union’s membership falls below 25 percent of the eligible workforce, regulations require dissolution of the union.
The law forbids strikes and lockouts in the public sector and at SOEs. The government has authority to restrict private-sector strikes that would affect national security or cause severe negative repercussions for the population at large, but it did not invoke this provision during the year.
Noncitizen migrant workers, whether registered or undocumented, do not have the right to form unions or serve as union officials. Registered migrants may be members of unions organized and led by citizens. Migrant worker participation in unions was limited due to language barriers, weak understanding of rights under the law, frequent changes in employment, membership fees, restrictive labor union regulations, and segregation of citizen workers from migrant workers by industry and by zones (particularly in border and coastal areas). In practice thousands of migrant workers formed unregistered associations, community-based organizations, or religious groups to represent member interests.
The law does not protect union members against antiunion actions by employers until their union is registered. To register a union, at least 10 workers must submit their names to the Department of Labor Protection and Welfare (DLPW). The verification process of vetting the names and employment status with the employer exposes the workers to potential retaliation before registration is complete. Moreover, the law requires that union officials be full-time employees of the company or SOE and prohibits permanent union staff.
The law protects employees and union members from criminal or civil liability for participating in negotiations with employers, initiating a strike, organizing a rally, or explaining labor disputes to the public. The law does not protect employees and union members from criminal charges for endangering the public or for causing loss of life or bodily injury, property damage, and reputational damage. The law does not prohibit lawsuits intended to censor, intimidate, or silence critics through costly legal defense.
The law prohibits termination of employment of legal strikers but permits employers to hire workers or use subcontract workers to replace strikers. The legal requirement to call a general meeting of trade union members and obtain strike approval by at least 50 percent of union members constrained strike action, particularly in the face of the common manufacturing practice of shift work at most factories, made it more difficult to achieve a quorum of union members. The law provides for penalties, including imprisonment, a fine, or both, for strikers in SOEs.
Labor law enforcement was inconsistent, and in some instances ineffective, in protecting workers who participated in union activities. Employers may dismiss workers for any reason except participation in union activities, provided the employer pays severance. There were reports of workers dismissed for engaging in union activities, both before and after registration, and, in some cases, labor courts ordered workers reinstated. Labor courts or the Labor Relations Committee may make determinations on complaints of unfair dismissals or labor practices and may require compensation or reinstatement of workers or union leaders with wages and benefits equal to those received prior to dismissal. The Labor Relations Committee is comprised of representatives of employers, government, and workers groups, and there are associate labor court judges who represent workers and employers. There were reports employers attempted to negotiate terms of reinstatement after orders were issued, offering severance packages for voluntary resignation, denying reinstated union leaders access to work, or demoting workers to jobs with lower wages and benefits.
In some cases judges awarded compensation in lieu of reinstatement when employers or employees claimed they could not work together peacefully; however, authorities rarely applied penalties for conviction of labor violations, which include imprisonment, a fine, or both. International organizations reported DLPW leadership increasingly promoted good industrial relations and enforcement during inspector training across the country. Labor inspection increasingly focused on high-risk workplaces and the use of intelligence from civil society partners. Trade union leaders suggested that inspectors should move beyond perfunctory document reviews toward more proactive work site inspections. Rights advocates reported that provincial-level labor inspectors often attempted to mediate cases, even when there was a finding that labor rights violations requiring penalties occurred.
There were reports employers used various techniques to weaken labor union association and collective bargaining efforts. These included replacing striking workers with subcontractors, which the law permits when strikers continue to receive wages; delaying negotiations by failing to show up at Labor Relations Committee meetings or sending nondecision makers to negotiate; threatening union leaders and striking workers; pressuring union leaders and striking workers to resign; dismissing union leaders, citing business reasons; violation of company rules, or negative attitudes toward the company; prohibiting workers from demonstrating in work zones; and inciting violence to get a court warrant to prohibit protests. For example, an automotive company, upon reinstating nine union members who had been locked out since 2014, transferred the workers to distant work locations and reduced their pay to the minimum wage. There were reports that a firm and union workers reached impasse on collective bargaining arbitration with the Ministry of Labor and locked out workers after they went on strike. After workers conceded to most of the company’s proposals, the company forced the locked-out workers to attend a four-day camp at a military base to “learn discipline and order,” undergo five days of training by an external human resources firm, where they were expected to “reflect on their wrongdoing,” one day of cleaning old people’s homes to “earn merit,” and three days at a Buddhist temple, with no regard for their religious beliefs. The workers were also made to post apologies to the company on their personal social media accounts.
In some cases employers filed lawsuits against union leaders and strikers for trespassing, defamation, and vandalism. For example, during the year private companies pursued civil and criminal lawsuits against union leaders, including civil damages for allegations of disruption of production lines due to illegal strikes, trespassing, and civil and criminal defamation. Human rights defenders said these lawsuits, along with unfair dismissal of union leaders, and were used by employers to attempt to camouflage or justify antiunion activities or other efforts to promote workers’ rights; such tactics had a chilling effect on freedoms of expression and association (also see section 7.b.).
During the year there were reports some employers transferred union leaders to other branches to render them ineligible to participate in employee or welfare committees and then dismissed them. Some employers also transferred union leaders and striking workers to different, less desirable positions or inactive management positions (with no management authority) to prevent them from leading union activities. There were reports some employers supported the registration of competing unions to circumvent established unions that refused to accept the terms of agreement proposed by employers.
There were also reports government officers interrupted collective bargaining and association efforts of public hospital and social security office workers who demanded increased wages and welfare benefits for temporary employees.