ETUC Statement on the EU Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy

Respect for human rights and fundamental values should be guiding the Union in all its internal as well as external actions. In everyday life as well as in times of crises, the universality and indivisibility of human rights must be upheld to ensure human dignity at both global and local level.

The 2020–2024 Action Plan on Human Rights and Democracy launched on 25 March, commits the EU to the promotion of human rights, democracy and the rule of law in all its external actions. In view of this commitment, the ETUC recalls the need for a coherent rights-based approach across policy areas in the foreign policy of the EU. Multilateral and bilateral international partnerships are needed, including social partners, to promote democracy and peace, solidarity and respect for human, social and environmental rights. The EU should mobilise its international activities and relations to promote decent work, labour rights, equality, social justice and sustainable development.

The ETUC welcomes the reinforced focus of the Action Plan on economic, social, cultural and labour rights, together with the increased emphasis on the link between human rights and environmental challenges. In particular, the enhanced support to non-governmental actors and human rights defenders is crucial at a time when civic space is at risk of shrinking worldwide.

Social partners should be involved as key actors in all five lines of action set out by the EU Action Plan. Working together, trade unions play an important role in shaping a more sustainable future and are part of the solution. Trade unions protect and empower workers and individuals, and contribute to building resilient, inclusive and democratic societies with a focus on social and economic cohesion. Ensuring respect for human rights in light of the opportunities and challenges in particular brought by developments such as digital technology, trade unions are key actors and should be closely involved in shaping a human-centred approach to the future of work across the world.

The ETUC, as a human rights defender, reaffirms in its 2019 Congress Action Programme, its longstanding commitment to promote and defend fundamental human, labour and trade union rights as well as social rights, including the right to health and social care, water and sanitation, energy and education.

We call on the European Commission and the European External Action Service to take strong actions to defend the freedom of expression and the freedom of association, the right to bargain collectively and to collective action. Trade union rights are universal human rights. Still, union leaders and members across the globe are exposed to repression and violence, even murder. Worldwide 53 trade union activists were killed, in 2018 alone.[1] The EU must forcefully condemn such violence and attacks, appealing to authorities to take effective measures to end impunity.

Equality of treatment must be the rule to protect vulnerable workers and the 2014 ILO Protocol on Forced Labour should be applied and enforced without delay. Trafficking in human beings, in which women trafficked for sexual exploitation are the main victims, has to be stopped, using all available tools.

The situation of migrants as a humanitarian emergency is not sufficiently reflected in the Action Plan. Forced labour and exploitation are still widespread in many economic sectors, and the informal economy is often associated with a migrant workforce. Employers make profits from the undeclared work of migrants. Millions of asylum-seekers are stuck for years in camps and often subject to unjustified detention. Existing forms of cooperation between national trade union organisations must also be valued in the context of bilateral or multilateral arrangements among states with the aim of better protecting migrant workers and helping integration in hosting communities. The Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration is key to ensuring a global governance of migration.

The need to develop an EU human rights due diligence policy is identified in the Action Plan as a means to strengthen responsible business conduct. Violations of human rights, including workers’ and trade union rights, continue to take place throughout supply and subcontracting chains, on a global scale as well as within the EU internal market. The ETUC reiterates its demands for a UN Treaty on Business and Human Rights and calls on the Commission to present a European directive on mandatory human rights due diligence and responsible business conduct, protecting workers’ rights and environmental standards.

The Action Plan rightly recognises that the challenge of social inclusion in a time of rising inequalities. The UN Sustainable Development Goals and the ILO Decent Work Agenda need to be mainstreamed into all external activities of the EU. In the framework of the ‘Time for 8’ global campaign, the ETUC advocates the ratification and full implementation of the core conventions of the International Labour Organisation. The Global Deal initiative also provides a useful partnership to further build on, encouraging governments, businesses and unions to make commitments to enhance social dialogue and fundamental labour rights.

In order to create effective synergies between trade and human rights policies, in line with what the Action Plan suggests, Labour Officers should be appointed in all EU delegations around the world to promote and support a rights-based social model. They would provide information to the Chief Trade Enforcement Officer to facilitate the enforcement of labour and environmental rights in EU trade agreements. Similarly, EU investment in capacity-building for trade unions around the world is crucial, to facilitate independent monitoring of human rights and concrete improvements on the ground. The ETUC has been strongly advocating the inclusion of enforceable labour provisions in EU trade agreements and believes the EU must put in place an effective sanction mechanism for violations of labour rights.

By presenting a Proposal for a Council Decision pursuant to Article 22(2) TEU, the Commission and the High Representative invites the European Council to act by qualified majority voting on issues falling under the Action Plan. Identifying the Action Plan as a strategic interest of the Union, would not only recognise the importance of human rights in EU external actions, but also pave the way for more efficient decision-making on human rights and democracy in the foreign policy of the Council. This would allow the EU to speak up on international human rights situations that require the attention of the UN Human Rights Council, also in situations where the EU does not have the required unanimity. Similarly, it would prevent the watering down of policy decisions such as the annual human rights priorities the EU wishes to pursue within different UN bodies, and avoid the blocking of certain human rights requirements in EU partnership negotiations with third countries.




[1] International Trade Union Confederation (2019): 2019 ITUC Rights Index,