Trade Unions in Transformation

How are trade unions adapting to changes in the world of work?

The world of work is undergoing a period of transformation, and trade unions are responding to workers' needs and aspirations with innovation and foresight. The ILO's Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV) has launched a program with trade unions that enables them to become agents of change and support workers through this process of transformation. In this interview, Maria Helena Andre, Director of ACTRAV, takes stock of the trade union movement and outlines the challenges trade unions are facing. Ms Andre stresses in particular the importance of social dialogue in formulating responses to new challenges in the world of work.

News | 02 June 2023
Maria Helena ANDRE, Director of the ILO's Bureau for Workers'Activities (ACTRAV)

ACTRAV INFO: As Director of ACTRAV, you've been in a unique position to observe the profound transformation taking place in the world of work, and indeed society at large, at close quarters. These upheavals have clear consequences for workers and require a strong response from trade unions. Within ACTRAV, you have developed a wide-ranging program on trade unions as agents of change. In your opinion, what are the main issues affecting workers' organizations?

There are several important points to emerge from the ILO’s Social Dialogue Report 2022. Firstly, let me deal with the representativeness of trade unions: according to the latest figures, trade unions are among the world's largest representative organizations, with over 251 million members. Moreover, membership has become more diverse in recent years. One positive development is the increase in unionization of self-employed workers, reflecting the changing nature of work and the fact that unions are increasingly able to attract members outside their traditional base. Trade unions have even modified their legal statutes to admit self-employed workers and provide workers in the informal economy with the opportunity to organize.

Indeed, in some countries trade unions or specific sections of trade unions, have been set up for this purpose. Thanks to unionization of the self-employed, union membership has increased by 3.6% over the last ten years.
An important caveat, however, is the fact that unionization has not kept pace with employment growth and, globally, trade union density is lower than it was 10 years ago. Moreover, the rate of unionization among people in non-standard or precarious employment, such as temporary workers, the self-employed, or workers in the informal and platform economies, remains lower than among workers in standard jobs.

I would  also like to point out that rates of unionization are higher among women than men. Nonetheless, more needs to be done to increase women's participation in union leadership. In addition, unionization rates are higher in the public sector than in the private sector.

Finally, it’s important to highlight geographical differences. Unionization rates vary considerably from country to country: if calculated for the entire employed workforce, including self-employed workers, it ranges from 3.9% in Central Africa to 31.4% in Northern Europe, or from less than 1% in Burundi to 79% in Iceland.

ACTRAV INFO: The world of work is profoundly changing. What do you see as the main challenges facing trade unions?

Trade unions are grappling with a labour market transformation that is taking many different forms. Technological progress, the greening of the economy, demographic change and ever-intensifying global competition are profoundly changing the landscape in which trade unions are looking to represent workers' interests.

To these challenges we can add the long-standing preponderance of informality. Multiple crises, including COVID-19, have severely tested the capacity and resilience of the social partners. Today, legal restrictions on union activity and violations of trade union rights, such as the right to organize and bargain collectively for all workers, are widespread. Unsurprisingly, trade union membership is lowest where trade union rights are restricted.

ACTRAV INFO: What strategies are trade unions putting in place to deal with all this?

These structural changes in the labour market problems present both challenges and opportunities, both in respect of organizing and representing the interests of union members and in terms of building their capacity to meet new challenges.
Since the turn of the millennium, trade unions have undergone significant restructuring and reorganisation to represent and serve an increasingly diverse membership. Of particular significance is trade unions’ increased emphasis on reaching out to the most vulnerable and lowest-paid workers. This includes informal workers, migrant workers, and domestic workers, all of whom are governed by a variety of working arrangements, including fixed-term and temporary contracts. More recently, trade unions have been looking to represent digital platform workers.

For example, in Jordan the government has established an office within the trade union to facilitate refugees' access to work permits. Meanwhile in Uzbekistan, trade unions have organized seasonal workers and facilitated dual affiliation to different unions in different countries. In Moldova unions have begun to establish agreements with unions in destination countries so that migrants have protection when working abroad. Meanwhile in Kyrgyzstan the Kyrgyz Migrant Workers Union, founded in 2019, focuses on several important areas, including pre-departure training in labour law. Such collaboration has proved effective in mitigating the negative effects of COVID-19 for migrant workers.

The digital platform economy presents challenges but is also becoming a highly dynamic and innovative area of trade union intervention. In Argentina, the Association of Digital Platform Economy Personnel is organizing digital platform workers into a new trade union affiliated to the main Argentine trade union federations. In Indonesia, motorcycle and cab drivers have collaborated with trade unions to set up an action committee for online transport, which has engaged in dialogue with companies and the government to better regulate the sector. In Denmark, trade unions have signed a collective agreement with a digital work platform, covering issues such as the transition from freelance to employee status, insurance coverage, and dispute resolution. Meanwhile in Kenya, a cell phone application is used by informal economy transport workers to access health insurance
It is important to remember that unionizing young people is the key to any long-term strategy. Workers' ability to defend their rights and ensure decent working conditions depends on their capacity to act collectively, at the national, regional, and global level.
In countries or regions where trade unions are highly fragmented, better cooperation between them can enable them to speak with a single voice, improve their representativeness and give them greater input into decision-making.

For example, in Benin, Botswana and Mauritius trade unions have set up Joint Trade Union Councils, which have drawn up joint declarations, charters and protocols on the modalities of working together in national social dialogue fora. In Lithuania and Ukraine, unions have established structures of cross-border collaboration to improve the recruitment and representation of truck drivers in both countries.

Solid governance structures are also essential for trade unions, not only for their effective operation, but also to maintain their integrity and credibility with workers and the public at large. In the cases of Ghana and Viet Nam, trade unions have placed good governance at the top of their agendas to ensure that trade unions and union leaders act effectively, and prioritize integrity, transparency, and accountability.

Trade unions need to incorporate issues that matter to the workers of today and tomorrow into social dialogue and their broader agendas.

This brings me to my fourth point, the key cross-cutting element that runs through any trade union strategy: the ability to think critically and strategically, to anticipate change, and to try new things. This is what we are currently working on at ACTRAV.

ACTRAV INFO: When you say: "incorporating issues that matter to workers today and tomorrow into social dialogue and the broader agendas of trade unions", what exactly do you mean by this?

Trade unions cannot simply continue to view their mandates as organizing and representing workers around traditional issues such as wages or working hours. Technology, climate change, sustainable development, gender issues, equal pay, and violence and harassment at work – among many other issues - are growing in importance and must be included in social dialogue.

There are indeed some good examples of trade unions integrating technology-related issues into social dialogue, ranging from the right to disconnect (as in France), to data protection and algorithmic management, to the monitoring of technological surveillance of workers. On this point, I would  like to flag a recent agreement between the Spanish government and the social partners on workers' rights vis-à-vis algorithmic management.

The just transition to a greener economy is another important topic that has been taken up by trade unions and placed on the agenda of social dialogue, for example by incorporating green clauses into collective agreements. In South Africa and the United States trade unions have been working with NGOs and broader civil society on environmental issues. Moreover, in Colombia, trade unions have been involved in alternative social dialogue fora, at municipal and departmental level, on issues such as skills development, land management and post-conflict.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development is another opportunity for trade unions to be forward looking on issues that affect workers worldwide. It provides an important forum in which trade unions can engage in social dialogue on the broader issues of socio-economic change and sustainable development and how these affect workers the world over.

ACTRAV INFO: What lessons can trade unions draw from the COVID-19 pandemic in relation to social dialogue?

Trade Unions have played a crucial role in representing their diverse membership, both in dealing with the pandemic itself, and in promoting a people-centred recovery. Despite the challenges posed by the current crisis, including increasing violations of trade union rights, falling membership rates, and a hostile environment for trade unions in some countries, they have stood firm and taken part in political debates, collective bargaining, and awareness campaigns to support and protect workers and secure jobs around the world.
During the pandemic, we observed a very strong resilience on the part of trade unions which, despite a very difficult context, fought to protect workers’ rights.

ACTRAV's report ‘A Global Trend Analysis on the Role of Trade Unions in Times of COVID-19’ outlines the central role played by trade unions in the global response to COVID-19, both through social dialogue and targeted actions for their members, and society at large. Let me illustrate a few examples:

Firstly, trade unions negotiated protective measures for frontline workers in terms of occupational safety and health and the protection of wages. For example, in Germany trade unions signed a collective agreement that instituted a scheme protecting 80% of workers’ pay.
Secondly, the pandemic forced trade unions to rapidly formulate positions on emerging issues such as teleworking. In Italy the government and social partners signed an agreement to relax regulations on teleworking.
Trade unions successfully negotiated the extension of social protection to self-employed workers; campaigned against violations of workers' and trade union rights, such as the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining; and defended the rights of vulnerable groups of workers, such as migrants.

In addition, trade unions secured mitigation for particularly hard-hit sectors, such as tourism, healthcare, transport, and retail. In Paraguay, trade unions negotiated a reduction in value-added tax (VAT) on certain products in addition to the temporary suspension of other taxes. Moreover, trade unions have made massive strides in strengthening their digital capabilities.

ACTRAV INFO: The pandemic placed enormous pressure on union membership and in many cases led to a shortfall in the payment of union dues. However, some unions succeeded in increasing their membership during the pandemic, often thanks to successful collective bargaining, as in Malawi and Mozambique. And in the very different, but equally complicated context of the USA, trade unions were able to make positive progress during the pandemic by organizing and unionizing workers in businesses ranging from Amazon to Apple to Starbucks. Workers' organizations have indeed formulated impressive responses to major challenges during the COVID-19 pandemic. In your opinion, what is young people's involvement in social dialogue and the trade union movement in general?

If we want young people to be involved in social dialogue, we must start by ensuring that young people are represented in the social partners, both in terms of youth membership, and by ensuring their active participation in decision-making structures and in the setting of trade union agendas.

Today, many young workers feel less inclined to join trade unions. This is a problem. If we look at the age profile of union members, the 55-65 age bracket are significantly more unionized than younger workers. Simply put: if trade unions fail to reverse these figures, unionization rates will fall even further, as unionized workers retire and are replaced by younger workers.

This trend is particularly pronounced in countries with a young demographic, often the same countries as those experiencing high rates of youth unemployment. However, there are many examples of trade unions allocating the necessary resources and establishing structures for youth involvement, and where young people have become the driving force behind a revival in the trade union movement. In Australia, youth worker centers, embedded within trade unions, provide a one-stop shop that provides legal assistance to young workers and seeks to organize workers virtually using podcasts and social media platforms such as TikTok. In the case of Bahrain, trade unions have developed a mobile application to mobilize and recruit young unemployed workers, while in Serbia, unions are using a mobile phone app to target young workers.

It is also essential that youth issues are placed high on trade union agendas and are prominent in social dialogue fora. The ILO is currently discussing a new standard on apprenticeships. This is relevant to many workers, but particularly to young people. Other issues, such as gender equality, sexual identity, technological change, and environmental issues are of particular interest to young workers. It is essential that trade unions focus on these issues, and ensure they are front and centre in social dialogue.

ACTRAV INFO: How can social dialogue be made more relevant and effective?

Obviously, there are a range of issues that determine the relevance and effectiveness of social dialogue: the legal framework, respect for fundamental rights and the socio-economic context are key factors in this regard. However, there is one element I'd like to emphasize, namely the ability of the social partners to adapt to the challenges of today's and tomorrow's labour markets - and, more broadly, to the challenges facing society at large. This brings me back to my initial point, namely the ability of trade unions to adapt to uncertainty and change in the world of work.

The pandemic has provided a laboratory for unions, not only in learning how to manage a global health crisis, but in crisis management more broadly. COVID-19 is not the first nor will it be the last crisis. In the meantime, we are facing multiple crises, ranging from a climate crisis to geopolitical instability, inflationary pressures, and economic slowdowns, among a range of others.

The social partners need to be made more aware of good practices in strategic thinking, innovation, and change management. Through learning from these successful experiences, they can build their capacity to adapt to the multi-pronged transformation in the world of work.
In conclusion, for me, the relevance and effectiveness of social dialogue will depend on the strength of the social partners and their strategic ability to adapt to the key challenges facing the labor market - and society at large – both today and in the future.