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

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