Freedom of Association

By Adam Turner
23 Nov 2021

Vital to the existence of democracy, freedom of association impacts business just as it does society. It brings people together to discuss ideas, issues, and possible solutions. Businesses that perceive it as “workers against employers” miss the opportunity to improve the workplace through dialogue and openness.

In a highly competitive economy, it can seem that workers and business interests head into opposite directions. However, a happy workforce will be highly motivated and invested into long term business growth.

Call a Croner HR expert today for advice on how to avoid and mitigate workplace conflict, on 01455 858 132

Let’s discuss the right to freedom of association and what it means for your business.

What guarantees freedom of association in the UK?

Guaranteed by Article 11 of the Human Rights Act 1998, freedom of association protects people’s right to associate with others. This refers to freedom to join groups where they discuss matters they want to talk about. It also includes the right to promote and to protect the interests of the members of these groups.

People’s basic right to associate with one another permeates all aspects of human life. Having a social life, as well as starting a business together rely on it.

Also called “freedom of assembly and association”, it covers political parties, trade unions and non-profit organisations too. It ensures that people can assemble to protest and lobby for causes.

Freedom of assembly and association

Freedom of association and employment law

In terms of employment law, trade unions gain recognition from employers in order to represent their workers. Businesses can also derecognise unions. In the case where a company does not acknowledge a trade union, workers can still get advice from the organisation. However, the union will not be able to represent them directly.

There isn’t a freedom of association act as such. Instead, two main pieces of UK law guarantee workers’ right to freedom of association in the workplace:

Political parties and trade unions tend to be the best-known freedom of association examples. Voluntary organisations and lobby groups also fall under the protection of the same laws.

How business supported civil freedoms in recent history

The best way to learn about how protecting workers rights drives business forward is to look at recent history.

Civil freedoms have evolved hand in hand with the progress of technology and the resulting industrial development. We can find great examples from periods of industrial boom to illustrate how it happened.  

In the UK, Manders Brothers made history in the 1920’s and 1930’s. They started a Works Council, a contributory pensions scheme and a sickness benefit scheme to support their workers. The company also introduced the 40 hours working week in their factories, which marked a first in the UK.

Also in the 1920’s, Ford Motor Company became one of the first companies in America to adopt the five-day, 40-hour week. This followed Henry Ford having more than doubled workers’ wages in 1914.

Looking at how highly successful businesses improved the lives of their workers can teach us valuable lessons today. It also highlights that trade unions and businesses can work towards common goals.

Why is freedom of association important?

With new working models and technologies challenging the contemporary workplace, companies and employees need to pull together to succeed. As we have seen above, economic interest and civil freedoms can and should go hand in hand.

What do businesses like yours have to gain from promoting dialogue with trade unions?

Freedom of association employment law

Firstly, you will smoothen the process of managing employee negotiations. Designated workers’ representatives will bridge between your workforce and you, and they negotiate collectively. This will save you time as compared to negotiating with each worker individually.

Secondly, working with trade unions will enhance trust and promote dialogue. It shows that you understand how to balance business growth and employee wellbeing.

 Through building trust and enhancing working relations, companies benefit long term from:

  • Effective communication that goes both ways – underlining both economic interest and workers’ rights
  • Shorter, more efficient conflict resolution
  • Increased staff retention
  • Increased morale and staff motivation
  • Decreased absenteeism
  • Increased productivity

How to recognise freedom of association in employment?

As we’ve already discussed, recognising trade unions and their representatives can benefit the workplace. Whether this applies to your business or not, as an employer you can take steps forward towards giving your employees a voice in the workplace.

Consider the following aspects to avoid unnecessary work conflict that could result in tribunal claims:

  • Recognise the right of employees to associate and join a trade union.
  • Enable representatives to run union related activities in a way that doesn’t interfere with their day-to-day work duties.
  • Put policies in place to prevent freedom of association discrimination.
  • Create a culture of openness where management and employees can share concerns and find solutions together.

Including a freedom of association and collective bargaining policy will address the above points. As with all workplace aspects, regulating how you will negotiate with trade unions marks an important step forward in resolving any collective requests and difficulties.

Different companies use such policies under different names, such as Unilever’s Human Rights Policy Statement.

Get expert advice with Croner

Some employers tend to disregard the need to recognise trade unions and freedom of association. This happens when contracts and policies do not address them.

Don’t set your company up for lengthy employment related conflict and potential tribunal claims.

We will help you put together the policies your business needs to regulate collective bargaining and trade unions activities. This will benefit both you and your employees, building trust and open communication.

Call a Croner HR expert and get advice on 01455 858 132.

About the Author

Image of Croner employee Adam Turner

Adam has been with Croner Reward for 3 years. He has over 15 years’ experience working with various organisations and sectors. He has a strong passion, breadth and depth for job evaluation and salary benchmarking. He has a strong customer focused work ethic, ensuring clients always get the best possible outcome for their organisations from their Reward Projects.

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