Trade Union Movement

Sharan Burrow: What are the challenges and opportunities for unions in 2017?

How can women’s trade union membership be improved and what are the unions’ priorities regarding the discussion on the future of work? These are some of the major challenges facing the trade union movement in 2017. In the following interview, Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) discusses the main achievements of the trade union movement in 2016 and highlights major challenges and opportunities for unions in 2017.

News | 30 January 2017
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
ACTRAV INFO: In 2016, what were the main achievements of the international trade union movement and which areas need further improvement?

Sharan Burrow:
While 2016 was a turbulent year in international politics, with the global economy still very weak, inequality at historic levels and conflict causing enormous loss of life and driving millions of people from their homes, trade unions all over the world continued to get real and important results for working people. Internationally, it was a busy year, with many successes and yet many challenges still ahead.

The 2014 ITUC Congress in Berlin recognised that to build workers’ power, unions must organise and it mandated us to put organising at the centre of all our work, through campaigning for decent work, through building the necessary international “scaffolding” for union organising and through training organisers to ensure they have the skills and strategic capacity to help workers organise into unions. The ITUC Organising Academy trained a total of 539 organisers from some 50 countries in 2016, with 140 of those focused specifically on young workers. Our Frontlines activity on global supply chains exposed the scandal of 50 of the world’s largest companies having a hidden workforce of 94% of their total labour force having no direct relationship with the multinational itself and CEOs taking no responsibility for the people who generate the wealth for shareholders. With very strong public engagement in this campaign, more and more CEOs are recognising the scandals of exploitation and even slavery in their supply chains, and we need to maintain pressure to make them act as responsible employers across their entire supply chains. We are also beginning to see politicians accepting that the rule of law and due diligence must apply not only at home but across borders as well, giving a strong basis for progress on this issue at the G20 under Chancellor Merkel’s leadership.

2016 also saw the fruition of a key trade union demand around climate change, with Just Transition being formally adopted at the Paris and Marrakech climate talks, and we’ve now established a Just Transition Centre to provide policy advice, advocacy and expertise as unions seek to negotiate the transition to a zero carbon zero poverty world. This is of course closely connected to our work on sustainable development, with the UN SDGs providing a template for decent work as a central policy objective.

The focus we have put on modern slavery has galvanised enormous support, and despite resistance in particular from some Gulf countries, governments and employers alike now know that the world is watching and is ready to act to end the evil of forced labour, wherever it occurs. The world of sport is not immune to this, and the exposure of egregious violations of workers’ rights connected to mega sporting events has led to the establishment of a platform for human rights and mega-sporting events, involving an historic collaboration between unions, sports bodies, employers, human rights and anti-corruption groups, as well as the ILO and the UN High Commission for Human Rights. Through this, we aim to end the “groundhog day” of repeated violations virtually every time a major global sports event is prepared. Also, with ten ratifications already of the protocol to Convention 29, which has now entered into force, we have a powerful instrument and momentum to move forward the struggle to end slavery.

The ITUC’s “Countries at Risk” programme has enabled us to refine and focus international action around countries which are the worst offenders. Pressure on these governments has in many cases led to positive change, however, the challenges are still huge, with some governments still imprisoning trade unionists, and workers still facing discrimination, physical violence and even death simply for standing up for their rights. The ITUC Global Rights Index has now become a key reference, exposing violations and documenting trends such as a worsening climate in many European countries. Globally, almost 50 per cent of countries have enacted legislative or regulatory constraints on democratic rights and freedoms, resulting in reduced civic space and undermining freedom of association.

Advocacy at the global level around inequality, the failure of austerity policies, faults in the international trade system and the failure to create enough jobs was central to our work in 2016. Inequality in particular is now widely recognised as a problem in the vast majority of countries, although the international financial institutions in particular are still to learn the lesson, despite the warnings of their own researchers. The deficiencies in many trade agreements, with negotiations shrouded in secrecy, are now at centre stage, including the Trade in Services Agreement being exposed in our report last year as yet another recipe for corporate greed and bad news for working people. 2016 will be seen as the year that this kind of agreement will not be accepted by people, although the populist solutions on offer are no better. We launched the fight for living minimum wages in 2016, and accelerating that campaign will be crucial for working families, and indeed for fighting inequality and bringing back demand to the global economy through the purchasing power of the many rather than the capture of vast wealth by the one per cent.

ACTRAV INFO: One of the major challenges for the trade union movement is increasing women’s trade union membership and their representation in top decision-making positions. How can unions achieve this?

The ITUC Priority “Count Us In!” aims to achieve just that. This involves direct commitments from some 150 affiliates to national action plans for women in leadership, and also working on issues of particular concern to women, so that they see a trade union movement which is open and relevant to them. Campaigning to stop violence against women and working for a good result on gender-based violence in the ILO discussions has been a priority. We also launched our first report demonstrating the social and economic benefits of investing in the care economy, helping to put this issue on the map. We also made progress on organising domestic workers, with now 500,000 members of the IDWF, and achieving recognition that domestic work must be covered by labour legislation. ILO Convention 189 is central to this. More women are being trained as negotiators and new clauses on sexual harassment, maternity rights, equal pay and child care are being put into collective agreements around the world. There remains much to do to achieve full equality at work, in society and in trade unions, and the specific work under this priority, along with mainstreaming gender issues across all our work, will be the bedrock for progress.

ACTRAV INFO: In June 2017, labour migration will be at the centre of discussions at the ILO. What are your expectations regarding this discussion?

With populist “us and them” politics moving into the mainstream, demonising migrants and refugees and ignoring the overwhelming benefits of policies which are based on rights, including the right to work and equal treatment in the workplace, for refugees and migrants make this issue one of the crucial questions of the moment. We are seeking a system of global governance of migration, with national governments playing their part, and the ILO in a leading role. Fair recruitment, respect for ILO standards, action against trafficking and confronting the populist and even fascist discourse will be essential.

ACTRAV INFO: In your view, what are the main challenges and opportunities for unions in 2017?

While 2016 was a year of many achievements, we need to build on these and, in many cases, turn words and commitments into action. So in 2017, we will be campaigning, lobbying and organising on the established ITUC frontlines and priorities that have dominated our work in 2016. Along with this, we have two related initiatives coming out of our General Council meeting in Vienna last December. The future of work will be a key area of work in 2017 and up to our next congress at the end of 2018 in Copenhagen. We will be engaging in dialogue with our affiliates and Global Union Federations across the scope of this big topic, looking at regulation, development, just transition, negotiating on technology, and fighting against the concentration of power and the erosion of employment relationships which are features of the so-called “platform” economy. The second initiative is around freedom, democracy and peace which are under serious threat in a world which is increasingly unstable and unpredictable. A focus for this will be an international conference which we will be organising in the second part of 2018.

The ITUC, Global Union Federations, TUAC, our regional bodies and most importantly our national affiliates have achieved much in 2016, and working together we can do more and better in the coming year. We look forward to cooperating with the ILO in this, and, of course, ACTRAV in particular.