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Friday, December 10, 2010

Trade unions have a role 
to play in international development
Economic growth without workers rights, social protection
 and a voice in decision-making does not amount to development

            We're often told that the rights workers have in the UK are only possible in developed economies. We went through an industrial revolution marred by children up chimneys, interminable working days and appalling industrial accidents and diseases - the argument runs - and developing countries need to do the same before they can have modern workplace rights.
            It's not, strangely, something that trade unionists in developing countries often say, though. We – and our colleagues in the global south – see no reason why people can't learn from Europe's industrial revolution, and do it better.
            That's why unions have a role to play in international development: building better economies, communities and societies. We want vulnerable workers to have the same protections as permanent workers. We want women to have equal pay. And we want workers everywhere to be treated with respect.
            "Decent work" is a term developed by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the UN's workplace agency, which provides a voice not only for the world's governments, but for workers and employers too. It has developed a set of core labour standards – freedom from child or forced labour, freedom from discrimination at work and freedom to join a union and bargain with employers. We think these are vital to any sustainable model of development. Created with the active involvement of workers from the global south, these are universal values, not imposed from the north.
            We're currently pressing the ILO to adopt a convention on the rights of domestic workers. The TUC representative in the negotiations is Marissa Begonia, a London-based domestic worker originally from the Philippines, and a member of our largest union, Unite. In June, the TUC brought representatives from our partners the Nepal Independent Domestic Workers' Union (NIDWU) to the ILO headquarters in Geneva.
            The NIDWU president, Sonu Donuwar, told us: "I wanted to make domestic work into decent work and that is why I became a trade unionist. As a union, we try to make sure that employers recognise that domestic workers are like other workers and should enjoy full rights."
So decent work includes workers' rights – as well as better jobs, social protection and a voice in decision-making. Those elements are also crucial to development, because growth alone – industrial revolutions without social rights – does not amount to development.
            The UK's international development secretary, Andrew Mitchell, speaking at the London School of Economics in October, said that growth needed to be "broad-based, inclusive and sustainable; in which all people benefit from the proceeds of prosperity and in which even the poorest have access to the opportunities and markets that it creates." That's the sort of growth that requires not only entrepreneurs, but trade unionists. People to make wealth, and people to make sure it is spread around more fairly.
            As Helen Clark, the former prime minister of New Zealand and now administrator of the UN Development Programme, says in the foreword to the TUC's new international development strategy: "Development is about far more than just increasing gross domestic product per capita. Fundamentally, development must also be about improving people's ability to shape their own lives. Through union organizations workers can have a more effective say, not only on wages and conditions, but also on the wide range of policies which have an impact on their lives."
            The TUC has three main goals for international development work with our partners in the global south's trade unions: that all workers, including the vulnerable, can enjoy decent work; that all workers and their families enjoy safe working conditions, social protection and access to quality public services; and that all workers, speaking through their unions, promote and defend human rights, equality and social justice.
            Trade unionism is not a foreign import into most southern countries. It's simply what workers do when they join together to influence their working lives. But there are foreign imports into the global south, and multinational companies are one of the most obvious. Last year, we assisted our colleagues in Pakistan to protest about the culture of casual labour and lack of union rights at a Unilever factory. As a result of our partnership, Unilever has agreed to create 200 new, permanent jobs. Local worker Siddiq Aassi said: "I have been working at Unilever Khanewal for more than 20 years, but never imagined I would one day enter the factory as a permanent worker."
            For Aassi, trade unionism brings rights that he wants and deserves now. Not a luxury, and not something to aspire to in the future, but a vital component of lifting 1.4 billion workers around the world out of poverty.

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