Challenges and opportunities for trade unions in 2014

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), discusses achievements of the global trade union movement in 2013 and new challenges coming up this year. She stresses the role of the ILO in the fight for workers’ rights and says what she expects from the ITUC Congress in May 2014 in Berlin.

Feature | Brussels | 27 January 2014
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.
ACTRAV INFO: Looking back at 2013: what are the main achievements of the international trade union movement?

Sharan Burrow:
Without doubt, the growing momentum for domestic workers’ rights has been a highlight, with the ILO Convention coming into force in 2013. Eleven countries have already ratified, with more on the way. Most importantly, domestic workers around the world are organising into unions, putting up their demands for decent pay and working conditions, while receiving a lot of support from the ITUC family. This is a great example of how work at the ILO to develop and implement standards can link to concrete action… to organise workers and achieve dignity at work – in this case for some of the most exploited workers.

The international campaign for workers’ rights in Qatar, in the lead up to the World Cup, has also brought enormous global attention onto the appalling exploitation in one of the world’s richest countries. We will be putting further pressure on for reform, and it was interesting to note that finally FIFA itself, at the highest level, has insisted that Qatar meet ILO core standards. That pressure will be needed to bring about change, not only in Qatar but in other countries where migrant workers suffer from slave-like conditions. Hundreds of millions of people now know the reality, and we need to translate that awareness into action.

We have also been supporting emerging areas of activity such as union action in the Americas on the rights of indigenous workers.

ACTRAV INFO: So 2013 brought progress to workers around the globe?

I think so. We found innovative approaches to organising, especially amongst young people, and a real growth in international trade union solidarity – across borders and at the global level. 2013 was a year of real progress in setting up new building blocks for international campaigning to fight back against actions by those governments and employers who seek to deprive working people of their rights.

We have held the first programmes in the ITUC Global Organising Academy, refined our work on investor strategies, the use of international instruments such as the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and many other ways to bring to the table employers who oppose their employees’ rights to union representation and collective bargaining. The Global Union Federations have been especially active in this area, with new framework agreements with many multinational companies, and organising successes in many places.

The events at Rana Plaza in Bangladesh, where more than 1,100 workers lost their lives and 2,500 were injured, was one of the worst industrial disasters of modern times. Out of that terrible tragedy came a new, ground-breaking initiative – the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety. Despite the refusal of a minority of big companies to join it, UNI and IndustriALL were able to convince major clothing brands and retailers to work with the international trade union movement through the Accord to protect workers lives and livelihoods.

ACTRAV INFO: So the international trade union movement became stronger in 2013?

I agree. We note the steady growth in membership and impact of trade union movements in countries such as Brazil and Indonesia, breakthroughs on rights in Georgia and other countries where the international trade union movement has been active to bring labour reforms that improve workers’ lives.

In Swaziland, where the government has maintained its hostility to unions, we were able to use a Workers’ Hearing the spotlight onto one of the world’s last remaining absolute monarchies, working with South African unions and local civil society groups. The government’s decision to arrest Swazi and international union representatives only increased the level of attention to the grave violations of workers’ rights there.

ACTRAV INFO: According to you, what are the areas that still need improvement?

The challenges are many. As the ITUC’s global opinion poll series shows, the gap between what politicians and governments are delivering and what people actually expect of them is vast. Massive inequality, the lack of fundamental reform promised in the wake of the 2008 crisis, inaction on the clear and present threat from climate change, rampant corporate tax evasion – families and communities are crying out for action for the current and future generations, but the power of finance and capital has dampened or eliminated any will to act.

We have seen some movement at the global level, with the G20 in Russia again including many of our concerns into its statement, but not following through with the necessary determination. One sign of progress was agreement with employers from G20 countries on jobs and apprenticeships.

Progress on labour standards has been made in World Bank lending, the International Monetary Fund has been talking about inequality and the need to share the fruits of economic activity and collective bargaining is being seen finally as crucial to economic recovery and prosperity – but we’ve much to do to transform those sentiments into an end to destructive “austerity” policies. These very policies have brought several European countries to the brink of economic ruin, from which recovery is likely to take decades.

ACTRAV INFO: Core labour rights are still not respected in many places?

Workers’ fundamental rights remain under heavy attack in countries in every region. Workers in countries like Guatemala and Colombia continue to pay the ultimate price for their union activities, while governments in South Korea, Turkey and many other countries have continued or stepped up anti-union repression. The promise of the so-called “Arab Spring” has not become a reality for most people in the Arab world – labour standards have failed to improve, economic activity remains depressed and unemployment extremely high.

Incredibly, violations of workers’ rights in places such as Bangladesh and Cambodia mean that the family income for a worker producing garments or shoes for global markets is actually less per head than the UN’s extreme poverty of US$1.25. Governments have failed in their responsibility to ensure decent minimum wages and union rights, and unscrupulous employers, knowing that the alternative for workers is the desperation of the informal economy; have reaped full benefit from the failings of government.

The very fact that 40% or perhaps more of all workers across the world are forced to eke out a living in the informal economy is and strong indictment of the global economic system as it is today. There is enough wealth in the world to ensure productive prosperity for all, but too much of that wealth is held by few hundred individuals – much of it stashed away in tax havens.

ACTRAV INFO: The next congress of the ITUC will take place in May in Berlin. What do youexpect from it?

The Berlin Congress will be a Congress of innovation, with a very strong focus on frameworks for action. A concise overall draft Congress Statement is under development within the ITUC governing bodies for discussion at the Congress, covering the big issues of concern to the international trade union movement in the current era. This will be accompanied by focused and targeted frameworks for action in three areas:
  • Union growth, including corporate organising, strategic campaigning around global themes, organising in the informal economy, action on emerging issues and building our international capacity to mobilise comprehensive leverage to achieve organising and bargaining rights;
  • Sustainable jobs, secure incomes and social protection, bringing a sharper focus to our work on job security, action on climate change and for climate justice, social protection and poverty, financial reform and the global economy; and,
  • Realising Rights, including framing actions on Countries at Risk – the worst violators of workers’ rights and a “watch-list” of countries where there are major challenges on rights. The Congress will look at strategies and tactics to bring respect for rights and social and economic justice, and within this, of course the vital role of the ILO.
The ITUC already has a broad and deep set of policies adopted at the 2nd World Congress in Vancouver, to complement the detailed objectives set out in our Constitution. This Congress will be about positioning the international trade union movement for the challenges working people are facing, innovative approaches to complex problems, and realising the full potential of international trade union solidarity.

We will be launching the Congress web-pages at the beginning of February, were the detailed information will be available. We are looking for interesting examples of union activities to include on these web-pages to help enrich and stimulate the Congress debates, so we are asking unions to send us materials such as videos, photo-sets, documents and so on.

ACTRAV INFO: What do you expect from the ILO with respect to strengthening core labour standards?

I don’t think it is the ILO’s role to strengthen the trade union movement per se, but the ILO, its standards and its technical work are absolutely vital for social justice.

Collective bargaining is under heavy attack in many places, along with the very right to union representation, and the consequences of that in terms of massively-growing economic inequality are evident across the world. The trade union movement will remain as strongly committed to the ILO as ever, and we will be keeping up the pressure for the other social partners to show their commitment too. We are now seeing an interesting trend with multinational companies, some of which have actively opposed organising and collective bargaining rights over the years, calling for respect for core ILO standards in countries like Cambodia.

Incredible as it may seem in this day and age, there are countries where workers are still treated in conditions of modern slavery – having the ILO on the side of the most exploited people gives them hope that things will change for the better, and it is the responsibility of governments, employers and workers’ organisations to give the fullest support to the ILO, its mandate and its mission. We could not envision a world without the ILO, and those who seek to undermine its role and in particular the tried and tested standard-setting and supervisory processes, will be resolutely opposed by trade unions.