LRG workers’ rights are human rights!

On UN World Cities Day 2023, PSI calls on the UN, States, mayors and Local and Regional Governments, and allied organisations to take urgent action in dialogue and cooperation with unions to address the issue of LRG workers’ human and labour rights deficits as a priority: LRG Workers’ Rights are Human Rights!

The key role and the contribution of cities and local and regional governments (LRGs) to the realisation of human rights is increasingly acknowledged.  The Human Rights Council is now calling on States to support the capacity building of LRGs to comply with their obligations to respect, protect and fulfil human rights at the local level. Yet, the respect of the human and labour rights of LRG workers – the operational arm of LRGs - remains a major challenge in itself and stands in the way of the localisation of human rights in communities and territories. Inadequate staffing levels, poor and precarious working conditions, and scant or no access to freedom of association and collective bargaining are a daily reality for many LRG workers worldwide.

This is why on UN World Cities Day 2023 PSI’s message is “LRG Workers’ Rights are Human Rights!” as it calls on the UN, on States, on mayors and LRGs, and on allied organisations, to take urgent action in dialogue and cooperation with LRG workers’ unions to duly address the issue of LRG workers’ human and labour rights deficits as a priority so that LRGs’ responsibility to realise human rights at a local level can be truly upheld.

Local and regional governments (LRGs) are key to human rights implementation

The recognition of the key role and important contribution of cities and local and regional governments (LRGs) to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), to the realisation of human rights, and to the effective response to crises continues to grow.

In 2021, the UN General Secretary’s Report “Our Common Agenda” called for a stronger involvement of cities and LRGs to build more inclusive multilateralism within the UN and proposed the creation of an LRG Advisory Group within the system. In 2022, the Human Rights Council Resolution 51/12 on local governments and human rights underscored the significant contribution of LRGs to the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs),  including the promotion and protection of human rights. Resolution 51/12 also recognises the critical role of LRGs as frontline actors shaping effective responses to crises, protecting the most vulnerable, and tackling inequalities; and states that “one of the important functions of local government is to provide public services that address local needs and priorities related to the realization of human rights at the local level”.[i] It further calls for the promotion of a “human rights culture within public services and public servants’ knowledge” through training, awareness-raising and the provision of guidance tools to enhance “human rights education (…) for public servants at the local government level”.[ii]

What about the human rights of LRG workers?

As the Global Union Federation representing over 30 million public service workers worldwide at all level of government, Public Services International (PSI) is well positioned to appreciate the key contribution of LRGs – especially through the labour of their workers who implement policies on the ground - and that of equitable access to quality public services for all – in the fulfilment of human rights.

LRG service workers - PSI members - operate and deliver those public services that are essential to save lives, live a dignified life, and are gender transformative. They work in health, care, and social services; public emergency services and firefighters; water and sanitation; kindergartens and primary education; public transport; waste collection and disposal; energy generation and distribution; public and social housing; refugee and migrant reception services; libraries, culture, local police and many more.

LRG workers are the frontline government representatives in the trenches of the multi-crises the world is living through: pandemic and care; extreme weather events; fires, earthquakes and other disasters; displacement and war; plastic waste and pollution; to name a few. They are those essential workers who ensured continued public service provision throughout the Covid pandemic, often at the cost of their own lives; those who daily translate public policies on the ground and localise the UN global policy frameworks, including the SDGs, Sendai and the Paris Agreement. Their labour is the key instrument of the implementation of human rights at all levels of government. 

However, local public service workers often have to deliver life and planet-saving services with inadequate staffing levels: according to a recent PSI survey of over 2000 frontline health and care service workers, one in three around the world have seen patients in their care die due to a lack of adequate staffing as 75% reported a lack of well-enforced policy on patient/staff ratios.[iii]

LRG service staff often work in precarious, dangerous, unsafe and unhealthy employment conditions; earning poor or erratic pay; lacking basic human and labour rights such as freedom of association and collective bargaining”.[iv]

If LRGs are to truly uphold and realise human rights in their territories, governments at all levels need to ensure that they first and foremost uphold and realise the human rights of their workers – including their labour and trade unions rights – which are human rights. Only then can LRGs have the full capacity to implement human rights in the territories and communities of their jurisdictions through their government missions and public service delivery.

“There needs to be a coherent approach. If LRGs are to effectively uphold and implement human rights in their territories and communities, this implies ensuring that those same human rights are upheld for their staff, including labour and union rights, which are human rights”.

Besides, upholding workers’ rights for their own staff is also good for LRGs. A 2022 US study found that LRGs which ensure good working conditions for their own workforce benefit in multiple ways. First, because LRG jobs tend to be on the low scale of the public sector, it is mostly women and minorities who work in local public services, so improvements in this field work towards general equity goals. Second, ensuring good working conditions in LRG workplaces helps to attract and retain qualified workers, all while minimizing the high cost of frequent turnover. Third, LRGs are often the major employers in rural and disadvantaged areas, and decent working conditions including pay have a multiplier effect in the community stimulating inclusive local socio-economic development. Fourth, by setting themselves as model employers, LRGs can define the standard for the private and non-profit employers in the community. Finally, by resisting – and reversing – privatisation, they ensure better conditions for LRG workers, while making overall savings and guaranteeing better quality services in the mid- and long term.[v]

PSI Recommendations for strengthening LRG capacity to realise human rights

On 28 August 2023, the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) convened an expert meeting for States, LRGs and stakeholders to discuss enhancing capacity-building for local governments to incorporate human rights into all their work, in compliance with Resolution 51/12. PSI participated and contributed with two statements (First PSI Statement, Second PSI Statement) and a submission to the OHCHR’s call for input.

Key PSI recommendations include the following:

  1. States should channel adequate levels of public investment to build local government capacity: not only physical infrastructure, but human capacity, as professional, trained workers in adequate numbers, with stable, direct employment and in decent work, as per the definition of the International Labour Organization (ILO).

  2.  Devolution needs to be adequately funded, to strengthen LRGs with adequate staffing in decent working conditions so it can operate properly; and must provide national industrial relations frameworks conducive of constructive social dialogue and collective bargaining between local government employers and representative worker organisations.

  3.  The implementation of human rights is a core duty of States and so is deeply entrenched with the delivery of equitable access to local quality public services for all in their territories. Such core responsibility implies that capacity should not be depleted through austerity cuts, hiring freezes, and externalised via outsourcing, privatisation, and the systematic use of private consultants in public administrations. Conversely, local government capacity to uphold human rights must be (re)built in-house, including through the de-privatisation, (re)municipalisation, and insourcing of key services such as water and sanitation.

  4.  Public service workers’ union representatives must be included from the onset in the design and implementation of public policies and training curricula for local government employees, as they are the frontliners and experts of public service delivery and human rights policy implementation in cities and territories.

  5.  It is necessary to ensure mechanisms to liaise, communicate, pool expertise and synergize between and among UN bodies and agencies, including between the OHCHR and the ILO on this critical matter. It is crucial that States - in dialogue and cooperation with LRGs - enhance subnational government representation of in the national delegations involved in all human rights implementation mechanisms. This includes ensuring meaningful representation of LRGs at the International Labour Conference (ILC).

  6.  There is also an urgent need to ensure an effective, integrated, and consistent approach across UN bodies and agencies with mandates to realise human rights based on the fact that labour and union rights are human rights, too; and that they are enabling rights for public servants and public service staff at all levels of government to uphold and realise human rights, in the territories, cities and communities under their jurisdiction. 

  7.  When it comes to the provision of life-saving public services, and to seeking innovative, practical solutions to the multi-crises of the world, LRG employer and worker representatives need an appropriate space and meaningful mechanisms to engage in constructive dialogue; to form joint recommendations, and to channel their expertise and voices in the multilateral system.[vi]

  8.  States need to ensure a legal and practice framework conducive of the respect of LRG workers’ human and labour rights, and are responsible for ensuring that LRG employers have the powers and the resources to bargain collectively and in good faith with their workers’ unions. This would also ensure them decent working conditions, with adequate staffing levels and proper personal protective equipment and work tools to serve their communities and fulfil their public policy missions.

When we board an airplane, the security message tells us that in case of loss of cabin pressure, before we are able to help others, we need to first place correctly our own oxygen mask. The issue of LRG capacity to implement human rights is no different.

This is why on UN World Cities Day 2023 PSI’s message is “LRG Workers’ Rights are Human Rights!” as it calls on the UN, on States, on mayors and LRGs and allied organisations to take urgent action in dialogue and cooperation with LRG workers’ unions to duly address the issue of LRG workers’ human and labour rights deficits as a priority, so that LRGs can realistically develop the capacity to embed and uphold a human rights approach across all their activities.



Assemblée générale des Nations unies, A/HRC/RES/51/12 Les collectivités locales et les droits de l'homme, p.2, Résolution adoptée par le Conseil des droits de l'homme, 6 octobre 2022, Cinquante et unième session 12 septembre-7 octobre 2022, Point 3 de l'ordre du jour, Promotion et protection de tous les droits de l'homme, civils, politiques, économiques, sociaux et culturels, y compris le droit au développement.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Site web de l'ISP, "L'ISP révèle que la moitié des travailleurs de la santé et des soins dans le monde sont sur le point de démissionner", 12 octobre 2023.

[iv] Droits syndicaux, conditions d'emploi et relations de travail dans le secteur des collectivités locales et régionales, ISP LRGNext2021 Brief #7 (2021).

[v] Gerstein, T. et Gong L., The role of local government in protecting workers' rights, Economic Policy Institute, Harvard Law School Labor and Worklife Program and Local Progress, 13 juin 2022.

[vi] Inclusive multi-level governance : the case for the meaningful involvement of local and regional governments and public service trade unions in the multilateral system of the future, in Spotlight on Global Multilateralism "Perspectives on the future of international cooperation in times of multiple crises", Global Policy Forum (2023).