Interview with Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of ITUC

What are the challenges and opportunities for Unions in 2016?

The trade union movement faces significant challenges in 2016, in particular the respect of workers’ rights in many countries. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) talks about the challenges and opportunities for unions in 2016.

News | 27 January 2016
Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)
ACTRAV INFO: In 2015, what are the main achievements of the international trade union movement and which areas need improvement?

Sharan Burrow:
The trade union movement made global progress across several fronts in 2015. Modern slavery is now a major international pre-occupation thanks to union work around forced labour and migration in particular, as the level of global awareness has hugely increased, resulting in real pressure on governments and companies to end the acceptance and exploitation of forced labour. The link between exploitation of working people and corruption has been put centre-stage with the scandals engulfing many international sports federations and the disregard for the rule of law which they have shown for so many years.

There have been some notable increases in union membership at the national level in several countries, as the movement responds to the call by the ITUC Berlin Congress to bring the dignity and benefits of union membership to 20 million more workers by 2018. Organising has and always will be the core of union work, but the need for union power through union growth has never been more evident, nor more central. At the same time, attacks on fundamental rights by a number of governments, and hostility to union organising by corporations required constant vigilance and global solidarity actions by unions around the world to support colleagues facing these attacks, including arrests, detention and most tragically the killing of union officials and activists.

We have begun to see a long overdue shift in governments’ attitudes to the behaviour of multinational companies, resulting from union action for an end to the scandal of corporate tax avoidance and the failure to regulate the behaviour of multinational enterprises (MNEs) as they seek to boost profits through the impoverishment of working people. Global Union Federations (GUFs) have brought more companies, including some of the world’s better-known brands, to the negotiating table through global agreements. Unions have been at the forefront of tackling the refugee crisis, particularly in Europe, welcoming refugees and helping ensure their safety and inclusion into economic and social life. They are also standing firm in the face of xenophobic reaction and populist politicians who are fuelling resentment and fear.

We have carried forward the fight for ambitious and binding targets to put the world on a low carbon trajectory and ensure just transition as industry is transformed. The Paris Summit was a key milestone and has given us solid foundations to take this urgent and critically important work forward. And the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) now include decent work and social protection, thanks to the hard work of many trade unionists and allies in government.

The ITUC, active across all these and the other international issues of concern to workers, has stepped up its integrated and targeted campaign work, with significant results in particular in building momentum around the fight against slavery, national action on minimum living wages and the rights of women workers and others facing discrimination.

At the ILO, we were able to end the blockage of the supervisory system, with governments standing up for the system and in particular the right to strike.

ACTRAV INFO: One item on the agenda of the 105th International Labour Conference is decent work in Global Supply Chains. What are your expectations regarding this discussion in June 2016?

The supply chain model, which accounts for some 60% of global production, is failing workers. It is driving increased poverty and inequality, leaving working families without enough to live a decent life and threatening sustainability. Our recent report on the scandal of exploitation in global supply chains revealed that only 6% of the workforce of 50 of the world’s largest corporations are directly employed. We are campaigning for companies to take responsibility for their supply chains and ensure rights for the 94% hidden workforce. Some companies are finally recognising that not only is this model corrupt and exploitative, it actually threatens their own businesses as their reputations come under attack and purchasing power continues to decline. But many are content with the system of today and the opportunities it gives them to profit from the degradation of rights and workers’ health and safety in a race to the bottom.

We have very high expectations for the June 2016 discussion. A strong new ILO standard is required, that transforms production and ensures respect for fundamental rights across national borders.

ACTRAV INFO: In your view, what are the main challenges and opportunities for unions in 2016?

We are deeply concerned by attacks on rights by governments in every region and more broadly the closure of democratic space. This trend requires a robust response – nationally, regionally and internationally. Governments must respect working people, and stop bowing to the incessant demands for weakening rights from some of the world’s most powerful corporations.

Armed conflict is driving the greatest movement of refugees since the Second World War, and the threat of terrorism is evident in more countries than ever. Strengthening democracy and providing economic opportunity are critically important in overcoming these challenges, and the tried and tested mechanisms of social dialogue must be at the heart of the international response.

The global economic crisis has not been overcome, and the impacts of failed austerity policies are still feeding into the international system, with hundreds of millions of working people lacking the purchasing power desperately required to kick-start growth and the tragedies of unemployment and the informal economy remaining the reality for almost half of the world’s population. There is risk of an even deeper crisis, which will only grow unless governments take responsibility to regulate the financial sector and act forcefully against the corruption of global tax evasion, and create the basis for real growth and fair distribution of wealth. We are also facing the challenge of businesses, new and old, seeking to deploy the next wave of technology to weaken or destroy the employment relationship. We are looking forward to engaging in the ILO’s “Future of Work” process, which must be based on the respect for workers’ rights and social dialogue to shape the future evolution of work.

The Paris Climate Summit and the UN SDGs have provided solid foundations for union action for a just transition to a low carbon economy, and a new era of development. These opportunities will be central to our work in 2016 and beyond. The days of reckoning of the global sporting bodies now also provide the chance to end, for once and for all, the stain of workers’ rights violations and corruption which have become synonymous with major sporting events.

The frontlines and priorities set by our Berlin Congress will continue to provide the framework for ITUC action, working with our regional organisations, global union federations, Trade Union Advisory Committee(TUAC ) and of course the Bureau for Workers ‘Activities (ACTRAV) itself and the ILO more broadly.

The solidarity and humanity demonstrated by unions towards refugees, and union actions with migrant workers more generally, will be needed as much this year as at any time in history.

The bottom line for unions will remain the same in 2016 as it has always been – we need to organise workers in every sector and in every place, building union power to transform the world economy and defend democracy and rights.