Get Red Pepper's email newsletter. Enter your email address to receive our latest articles, updates and news.

×

A global war on labour?

The number of trade unionists killed, arrested or 'just' dismissed in the pursuit of their members rights has increased alarmingly over the past year, according to a survey by the International Trade Union Confederation. Italian labour journalist Vittorio Longhi, interviews ITUC general secretary Guy Ryder about this and other issues facing the international trade union movement

November 6, 2007
6 min read

Colombia is still the deadliest country in the world for trade unionists: 78 were murdered last year, while 33 died during police repression of strikes in the Philippines and 21 in Guinea. According to the International Trade Union Confederation’s latest survey of violations of union rights, the number of workers and unionists who are killed, arrested or ‘just’ dismissed is increasing alarmingly. Deaths have increased from 115 in 2005 to 144 in 2006 and the various forms of abuse and intimidation do not concern only developing countries but, more and more, also parts of the global North, like Europe and United States.

The ITUC survey seems to describe a situation of ‘war on labour’. Would you say that the anti-union culture is growing among companies and governments, that there is an attempt to deunionise labour globally?

The so-called ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of social standards, pursued by investors and governments alike in many, if not most, parts of the world, is certainly one of the main causes for a steadily rising hostility towards trade unions and trade union action. At the same time, more and more workers worldwide see the advantage of a collective defence of their social and economic interests. So, repression increases while unions grow stronger.

Beyond that, however, the ITUC itself is larger than the international trade union movement ever was before. So it naturally has more access to more information and the increase of information in our 2007 survey reflects that proportionally.

And yet, corporations claim to be more and more committed to the respect of human rights though corporate social responsibility …

Well, there are various views on that, but one view is predominant in the union movement, which is that the best way of monitoring employers’ compliance with national labour legislation and international labour standards in the workplace is to have it done by the workers’ legitimate representatives, i.e. trade unions.

Unilateral management initiatives cannot make up for the failure of governments to fulfil their responsibilities. Nor can CSR [corporate social responsibility] substitute for the role of trade unions in defending and advancing workers’ interests. CSR is only valuable where it helps governments do their job and creates room for workers to organise and to bargain collectively. Unfortunately, in the labour area most CSR activity seems to be directed at showing that it is possible to be ethical while doing business in countries where governments do not permit respect for workers’ human rights.

In regions like Asia, the GDP is growing incredibly fast, but there is still a very poor redistribution of wealth in terms of salaries, better conditions and social services. And your report shows that there’s a heavy repression against workers’ protests. How much are the single companies and governments responsible and how much have the market-driven policies of international institutions like the IMF, World Bank and WTO contributed to this unbalanced growth?

Most Asian governments have prioritised economic growth over the creation of decent work and this has created the current imbalance. These priorities were certainly consistent with IFI [international financing institutions] recommendations. The facilitation of exchanges through WTO liberalisation has accelerated the move of production to Asia and many Asian countries have competed between each other to attract companies on the basis of cheap labour costs, to the detriment of workers’ rights and wages.

The fact that China does not recognise freedom of association and trade union rights is one of the reasons why Asian workers have not received a fair share of economic growth. This applies within China itself, where inequalities are growing exponentially and where the number of social protests is on the rise, but this also applies to the whole continent because of this race to the cheapest labour costs country. It is also important to mention that growth in Asia has had extremely detrimental effect on the environment. China’s environmental degradation is alarming. Unions in Asia are negotiating with their governments and bargaining with companies to address these issues.

Many governments in western Europe, including centre-left ones, are privatising services and deregulating labour in the name of competitiveness. In fact, they do not create flexibility (or flexicurity) but a growing number of casual and temporary jobs. How do you think that trade unions in developed countries should respond on the issue of competitiveness?

On competitiveness, responses have to include training development, lifelong learning or employability as Europe cannot win by competing on the basis of cheap labour costs. It can only remain competitive by investing in its workers, making them better equipped and more productive in the global economy. Trade unions in developed countries have also to work in close solidarity with unions in developing countries to help them build their capacities and bargaining abilities, so that they can demand fair wages and working conditions for the exports they produce and so influence the whole global chain supply.

At the founding congress in Vienna, in November 2006, the new confederation has set out a list of priorities. What is ITUC’s current programme of action?

Our June meeting set out several special action programmes for the ITUC, which will require clear commitments and intensive action to realise. These areas of work we will deal with are migration, for instance, including building partnerships between trade unions in sending and receiving countries. Also, we will work for the organising of workers and trade union recognition in the world’s export processing zones, where some 60 million people, mostly women, are frequently subjected to intimidation and exploitation.

Then we will focus on the role of China on the world stage, in particular given the lack of freedom of association in that country. One example which is high on our agenda right at the moment is our work in the ‘FairPlay 2008’ alliance, which is putting pressure on the International Olympic Committee and the Beijing Olympics organisers to ensure that fundamental rights are fully respected right throughout the supply chains of the sports merchandise sector.

Our campaigns will range from the issues of climate change, to the ‘financialisation’ of the world economy in order to bring about real change in the policies and activities of the global institutions such as the WTO, IMF and World Bank. And through all of this, we will maintain and build our work at the International Labour Organisation, keep gender equality and anti-discrimination actions at the heart of our work, and support our affiliates in reaching out to young workers, who are increasingly under-represented in trade union membership, and thus exposed to exploitation.

In 2008, we are planning to hold an international day of mobilisation, to bring home to the world at large the values and objectives of the trade union movement, and to strengthen even further the bonds of international trade union solidarity.

Useful links

ITUC survey

Vittorio Longhi video on the ITUC founding congress

Red Pepper is an independent, non-profit magazine that puts left politics and culture at the heart of its stories. We think publications should embrace the values of a movement that is unafraid to take a stand, radical yet not dogmatic, and focus on amplifying the voices of the people and activists that make up our movement. If you think so too, please support Red Pepper in continuing our work by becoming a subscriber today.
Why not try our new pay as you feel subscription? You decide how much to pay.

The ‘alt-right’ is an unstable coalition – with one thing holding it together
Mike Isaacson argues that efforts to define the alt-right are in danger of missing its central component: eugenics

Fighting for Peace: the battles that inspired generations of anti-war campaigners
Now the threat of nuclear war looms nearer again, we share the experience of eighty-year-old activist Ernest Rodker, whose work is displayed at The Imperial War Museum. With Jane Shallice and Jenny Nelson he discussed a recent history of the anti-war movement.

Put public purpose at the heart of government
Victoria Chick stresses the need to restore the public good to economic decision-making

Don’t let the world’s biggest arms fair turn 20
Eliza Egret talks to activists involved in almost two decades of protest against London’s DSEI arms show

The new municipalism is part of a proud radical history
Molly Conisbee reflects on the history of citizens taking collective control of local services

With the rise of Corbyn, is there still a place for the Green Party?
Former Green principal speaker Derek Wall says the party may struggle in the battle for votes, but can still be important in the battle of ideas

Fearless Cities: the new urban movements
A wave of new municipalist movements has been experimenting with how to take – and transform – power in cities large and small. Bertie Russell and Oscar Reyes report on the growing success of radical urban politics around the world

A musical fightback against school arts cuts
Elliot Clay on why his new musical turns the spotlight on the damage austerity has done to arts education, through the story of one school band's battle

Neoliberalism: the break-up tour
Sarah Woods and Andrew Simms ask why, given the trail of destruction it has left, we are still dancing to the neoliberal tune

Cat Smith MP: ‘Jeremy Corbyn has authenticity. You can’t fake that’
Cat Smith, shadow minister for voter engagement and youth affairs and one of the original parliamentary backers of Corbyn’s leadership, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali

To stop the BBC interviewing climate deniers, we need to make climate change less boring
To stop cranks like Lord Lawson getting airtime, we need to provoke more interesting debates around climate change than whether it's real or not, writes Leo Barasi

Tory Glastonbury? Money can’t buy you cultural relevance
Adam Peggs on why the left has more fun

Essay: After neoliberalism, what next?
There are economically-viable, socially-desirable alternatives to the failed neoliberal economic model, writes Jayati Ghosh

With the new nuclear ban treaty, it’s time to scrap Trident – and spend the money on our NHS
As a doctor, I want to see money spent on healthcare not warfare, writes David McCoy - Britain should join the growing international movement for disarmament

Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India
Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, by Shashi Tharoor, reviewed by Ian Sinclair

A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour
A Death Retold in Truth and Rumour: Kenya, Britain and the Julie Ward Murder, by Grace A Musila, reviewed by Allen Oarbrook

‘We remembered that convictions can inspire and motivate people’: interview with Lisa Nandy MP
The general election changed the rules, but there are still tricky issues for Labour to face, Lisa Nandy tells Ashish Ghadiali

Everything you know about Ebola is wrong
Vicky Crowcroft reviews Ebola: How a People’s Science Helped End an Epidemic, by Paul Richards

Job vacancy: Red Pepper is looking for an online editor
Closing date for applications: 1 September.

Theresa May’s new porn law is ridiculous – but dangerous
The law is almost impossible to enforce, argues Lily Sheehan, but it could still set a bad precedent

Interview: Queer British Art
James O'Nions talks to author Alex Pilcher about the Tate’s Queer British Art exhibition and her book A Queer Little History of Art

Cable the enabler: new Lib Dem leader shows a party in crisis
Vince Cable's stale politics and collusion with the Conservatives belong in the dustbin of history, writes Adam Peggs

Anti-Corbyn groupthink and the media: how pundits called the election so wrong
Reporting based on the current consensus will always vastly underestimate the possibility of change, argues James Fox

Michael Cashman: Commander of the Blairite Empire
Lord Cashman, a candidate in Labour’s internal elections, claims to stand for Labour’s grassroots members. He is a phony, writes Cathy Cole

Contribute to Conter – the new cross-party platform linking Scottish socialists
Jonathan Rimmer, editor of Conter, says it’s time for a new non-sectarian space for Scottish anti-capitalists and invites you to take part

Editorial: Empire will eat itself
Ashish Ghadiali introduces the June/July issue of Red Pepper

Eddie Chambers: Black artists and the DIY aesthetic
Eddie Chambers, artist and art historian, speaks to Ashish Ghadiali about the cultural strategies that he, as founder of the Black Art Group, helped to define in the 1980s

Despite Erdogan, Turkey is still alive
With this year's referendum consolidating President Erdogan’s autocracy in Turkey, Nazim A argues that the way forward for democrats lies in a more radical approach

Red Pepper Race Section: open editorial meeting – 11 August in Leeds
The next open editorial meeting of the Red Pepper Race Section will take place between 3.30-5.30pm, Friday 11th August in Leeds.

Mogg-mentum? Thatcherite die-hard Jacob Rees-Mogg is no man of the people
Adam Peggs says Rees-Mogg is no joke – he is a living embodiment of Britain's repulsive ruling elite