"Worker empowerment is essential to the advancement of sustainable economic growth, inclusive international development, human rights, democratic resilience, fair competition, and growing a strong middle class in the United States and abroad."

– Presidential Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labor Standards Globally

What is Worker Voice?

Worker voice is the ability of workers to come together, collectively articulate their demands, and seek better terms and conditions of work. It is a bedrock principle of labor relations. Freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining are core enabling rights that are essential to effective worker voice.

Research shows there are six key components of effective worker voice.

  1. Elect:  Workers must be able to act together to establish organizations and democratically elect the leaders that represent them, free from interference by employers or the government.
  2. Represent:  Workers need to be informed of their rights, engaged, and mobilized for action. Elected organizational leaders must be fully accountable to their members and responsible for consulting them on key matters.
  3. Include:  Workers’ organizations, including organization leadership, need to be inclusive. These groups should address obstacles to full representation and participation of the diverse workforce in their ranks, including diversity of race, gender, and economic status.
  4. Protect:  Workers must be protected from retaliation when they speak up, including protection from losing their jobs or facing abuse, including harassment, threats, violence, coercion and deportation.
  5. Enable:  Workers need to be given the time and space to organize and engage in their union business and the training and information to fulfill their rights.
  6. Empower:  Workers must be empowered by labor laws, have the ability to pursue lawful actions to advance their objectives (including strikes), and have access to effective mechanisms to file grievances.

Who Plays a Role in Worker Voice?

As shown by these six critical components, worker voice is not just the responsibility of workers. Worker voice thrives only when governments and employers play their part. For the worker voice model to succeed, we need three key players in the framework:

  • Governments should enact and enforce strong labor laws that promote workers’ rights to collective bargaining and freedom of association, protect workers against management-controlled unions and retaliation for taking part in union activities, and ensure workers have access to effective grievance mechanisms through which to seek remedy.
  • Employers should give workers’ representatives the time and space to engage in their organizations’ activities without interference and provide relevant information about the company.
  • Workers and union leaders should make sure their organizations represent all their members inclusively and that organizational leaders keep their members informed and engaged.

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“Ensuring that workers have the right to organize and bargain collectively is vital for making global trade fair for workers in the United States and around the world.”

-Thea Lee, Deputy Undersecretary for International Affairs, U.S. Department of Labor

Why Does it Matter?

Strong labor movements are essential for healthy, inclusive democracies. Independent and democratic trade unions provide workers a voice in their workplace, community, and the political system. Unions and worker organizations make it possible for workers to defend their rights, advance their interests, improve wages and working conditions, and have a voice in the policies that affect their lives.

Evidence shows that worker organizations, through collective bargaining, policy advocacy and social dialogue, campaigning, solidarity, and mutual support, advance equality, racial and gender equity, good jobs, and healthier and safer workplaces. Acting collectively through their organizations, workers have also played a critical role in reducing child labor and forced labor.

Worker voice contributes to a culture and practice of democracy. When authentic worker voice exists, workers participate in collective efforts to elect their representatives, identify problems, propose solutions, negotiate agreements, and hold parties accountable – democracy in action, at work. And workers whose rights and livelihoods are secure have the stability to be engaged citizens beyond the workplace, in the community and the broader political sphere.

However, these activities are not carried out without risk. When workers organize and bargain collectively, they seek to alter power dynamics. In some cases, employers and governments may try to influence workers in their decision-making, dominate or undermine their organizations, or discourage workers from exercising their rights. This can include threats, violence, incarceration, and even killing of workers and trade unionists for carrying out what should be protected activities.

Workers have fundamental rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining. People in power —in government, companies, and the international community—have a duty to ensure that workers can access and exercise these rights.

Where Has Worker Voice Been Successful?

Research has found many successful cases of worker voice globally, which offer lessons about what facilitates and what inhibits authentic worker voice. These insights about genuine worker voice can contribute to broader policy development to strengthen democracy, inclusion, and equity. Explore the seven worker voice case studies:

  1. Enforceable Brand Agreements in Bangladesh, Honduras, India, Lesotho, and Pakistan
  2. USMCA’s Rapid Response Labor Mechanism in Mexico
  3. Worker Voice and the Struggles of Domestic Workers
  4. Worker Voice in Agricultural Employment in the United States
  5. Transnational Labor Rights Corridors: Central America, Mexico, and the United States
  6. Worker Voice in Authoritarian Regimes: Myanmar
  7. Worker Voice Approaches to Addressing Child Labor

Why is Worker Voice Critical for Companies?

Worker voice is good for the private sector. When workers are able to freely organize and advocate, they can shape safer workplaces and improve their wages and work conditions, which leads to more job satisfaction and less turnover.  Organized workers play an essential role in reducing labor risks in company supply chains, supporting stable labor-management relations, increasing predictability through collective bargaining, and securing better labor outcomes overall – all outcomes that support companies’ goals around responsible business and social compliance. Authentic worker voice is the best safeguard against risk and a proven, outcome-focused orientation to due diligence.

True worker voice mechanisms are worker-driven. Employers should give workers the time and space to take part in these activities without interference or retaliation. Employer-run initiatives, including voluntary corporate social responsibility, suggestion boxes, social audits, and employer-run committees, have proven ineffective at delivering the same kinds of labor outcomes as authentic worker voice.  Businesses that practice proper, outcome-focused due diligence understand that worker voice is vital, and more effective, at preventing and mitigating adverse impacts and risks.

What is ILAB Doing to Strengthen Worker Voice Around the World?

The U.S. Department of Labor’s Bureau of International Labor Affairs (ILAB) remains at the forefront of U.S. government efforts to advance labor rights and empower workers worldwide. ILAB is the largest government agency in the world devoted to strengthening global labor standards; enforcing labor commitments among trading partners; promoting racial and gender equity; and combating international child labor, forced labor, and human trafficking.

In December 2022, ILAB launched the Multilateral Partnership for Organizing, Worker Empowerment, and Rights (M-POWER), a historic global initiative focused on ensuring working families thrive in the global economy and elevating the role of trade unions and organized workers as essential to advancing democracy. M-POWER includes an approximately $130 million commitment by the U.S. Department of Labor, U.S. Agency for International Development, and U.S. Department of State for innovative technical assistance to empower workers and strengthen worker voice.

We work closely with the State Department and U.S. embassies around the globe to embed labor rights in our foreign policy, as outlined in the Presidential Memorandum on Advancing Worker Empowerment, Rights, and High Labor Standards Globally. Our labor attachés posted in several U.S. embassies are a key part of this work.

ILAB funds technical assistance projects to improve respect for labor rights by strengthening democratic, independent workers' organizations in countries and sectors around the world. For example, ILAB projects support workers’ efforts to organize, mobilize, advocate for labor rights, and improve quality of jobs in agriculture, the digital platform economy, manufacturing, and mining.  Additionally, our Research, Innovation, and Strategic Engagement project works with governments, workers, and employers to respect, promote, and realize workers’ freedom of association and collective bargaining rights globally.

Learn More about Responsible Business Conduct

Worker Voice is essential to responsible business conduct. To learn more, explore the U.S. Government Responsible Business Conduct and Labor Rights InfoHub, an online repository to communicate an all-of-government point of view, approach and suite of resources to advance labor rights outcomes in business operations and value chains.