“Our world is broken – economic inequality is higher than ever. The vast majority of workers worldwide do not get a living wage and are afraid of what the future brings”, says Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), represents 207 million workers around the world.
She has something on her mind:
“The CEO’s of multinational companies don’t know their employees because they never meet them. They are too busy making billion-dollar profits. This is completely untenable. While global tech giants generate record-breaking turnover each quarter and the world economy is booming, workers in many countries are steamrolled”, says Sharan Burrow.
“We need to change the rules. 95% of the world’s population say we need to change the rules governing the world economy. The free rein of the multinationals need to stop,” she says.
-And this fight begins at the ITUC Congress in Copenhagen on 2 December. For a week, more than 1,000 trade union leaders from 163 countries will meet to devise a strategy for the trade union movement’s work for the next four years under the heading »Building Workers Power. Change the Rules«
A driving force for greater security
LO-President, Lizette Risgaard has big hopes that the trade union organisations will find a united approach to the fight for decent working conditions and the fight against social dumping.
“It is more necessary than ever that the trade union movement stands united across borders. If not, we risk an endless race to the bottom for many workers. At the national level as well as in the EU, the trade union movement needs to be a driving force for better pay- and working conditions and thereby ensuring greater security and fewer conflicts around the world,” says Lizette Risgaard.
She is proud that the ITUC has chosen Denmark as its Congress venue. This is the first time ever that the international trade union movement holds its world congress in a Nordic country.
“We have a long tradition for fighting for workers’ rights and a unique labour market model that supports decent and organised conditions at the workplaces. Hosting the ITUC Congress is an opportunity to show that the trade union movement is strong in this country and that we can cooperate with both employers and politicians”, says Lizette Risgaard.
Danish PM will address the World Congress
Some trade unionists from around the world may be surprised to see the Danish Prime Minister, Lars Løkke Rasmussen, leader of a centre-right government, address the delegates of the ITUC Congress.
Lizette Risgaard believes that this will be positive signal to the rest of the world showing how far you can get with dialogue rather than confrontation.
According to Sharan Burrow, the Nordic countries are a cosy little corner of the world when it comes to decent conditions on the labour market.
“Strong unions in the Nordic countries have largely succeeded in ensuring decent pay- and working conditions and – not least – redistribution, allowing many to have their share of increasing wealth. This is not the case in most other cases where we see hundreds of millions of workers who are exploited and underpaid and not allowed union membership”, says Sharan Burrow.
No rules, no rights and desperate to survive
The statistics according to Sharan Burrow are depressing:
- Eight in ten workers cannot make a living on the statutory minimum wage in their country. Textile workers in Bangladesh, industrial workers in China and farm workers in India get by on a minimum despite the fact that they often have 12-hour working days six days a week.
- Seven in ten workers have none or very poor social insurance. If a worker in a factory in Cambodia or Sri Lanka falls ill, there is no pay during sickness.
- Furthermore, there is no public insurance if you become unemployed – and to the majority of workers in Asia, Africa and South America – labour market pension is something completely unknown.
- Six in ten workers around the world have a precarious job and risk not having a job the next day or month.
“And, furthermore, a large part of the world’s population work in the informal economy. They can be street vendors, boot polishers, farm workers and many other things. The informal sector is characterized by desperation. There are no rules, no rights and no minimum wages. And people are desperate to survive”, the ITUC General Secretary says.
Sharan Burrow says that, in 2018, there is an estimated population of 45 million who are caught up in modern-day slavery and forced to perform domestic-, construction- or farm work without any rights and with no freedom of movement.
“This makes the Congress in December all the more important” she states.
Inequality and global money flows
At the Congress in December, peace, democracy and rights will be on the agenda as well as refugee flows, inequality, better regulation of the global money flows and the future world of work.
“The global labour market is changing rapidly these years – among other things due to digitization and robots. New technologies create platform companies where people offer their labour via apps. Finally, climate change means new types of jobs. We need to discuss this, and Denmark has shown the way by setting up the Disruption Council”, she says.
Sharan Burrow refers to the fact that the Danish government and the employers and the trade union movement has been discussing skills’ upgrading for two years now with a view to ensuring that Danish workers are prepared for a changing labour market.
Organising is vital
According to Sharan Burrow, organising will be a predominant issue at the Congress. ”If we are not a big and strong trade union movement in numbers, authorities and politicians will not be prepared to negotiate with us. Organising is therefore key to the trade union movement all over the world”, says Sharan Burrow.
In this part of the world, the freedom to join a union is take for granted. It provides a multitude of rights. However, in a long line of countries, organising carries a host of risks.
Every year, the ITUC maps out how the worlds’ countries treat workers and the trade union movement. In 2018, 80 countries violated fundamental workers’ rights. In large parts of Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, workers cannot freely join a union and strikes are outlawed.
But even in the US, there are systematic violations of the right to unionise and “union busting” is practised by companies such as Amazon and Walmart who target employees that try to join a union.
Even on European soil – Poland, Romania and Hungaria – often breach the international ILO-Conventions on workers’ rights.
Democracy is shrinking
Sharan Burrow is indignant that, in so many countries, it is dangerous for ordinary workers to simply join a union.
“Unfortunately, democracy is shrinking in many places in the world these years. But as a trade union movement, we have recently demonstrated that we are capable of organising workers in a police state like Qatar – soon to host the World Cup”.
“The Danish trade union movement showed amazing support in getting better conditions for the migrant workers from, among other places, India and the Philippines, who worked in modern-day slavery building the new football stadiums”, she says.
Now, we have an agreement to improve working conditions for more than half a million migrant workers in Qatar, notes Sharan Burrow.
“I will not accept that people are not allowed to organise in a trade union. We need to be careful in countries where there is violence and oppression, but by uniting and exerting an influence at the international level, we can succeed. Even under difficult conditions, you can organise workers. And this provides hopes for the future”, she concludes.
Even a small country can contribute
Lizette Risgaard hopes that both Danish employers and Members of Parliament will use the ITUC-Congress as a stepping-stone to discussing workers’ rights.
“There are places in the world where people are killed for joining a union. This is very shameful. Even though we are just a small country, we can still contribute a lot – if we want to – and I hope that everyone will”, says LO-Denmark’s President.
-Article translated and edited based on “Faglige ledere fra hele verden mødes i København: Grådige giganter skal stoppes nu” by Gitte Redder from the weekly newsletter, A4. Photo by Gitte Redder.