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Burrow: Global solidarity is the beating heart of our movement

Sharan Burrow was recently re-elected General Secretary of the ITUC at its 4th world Congress Building Workers' Power, held in Copenhagen in December 2018.

The UATUC Executive Secretary for International Relations Dijana Šobota talked with Sharan for our newsletter Sindikalna akcija.

 

The motto of the recently held 4th World Congress of the ITUC was Building Workers’ Power: Change the Rules. Which rules and why do we need to change them?


The global economic model has failed working people when inequality is at historic levels,  84 per cent of the world’s people tell us the minimum wage is not enough to live on, more than 70 per cent of our brothers and sisters have no social protection and the majority of workers are in precarious, often dehumanising jobs. The model of globalisation must change, and we demand a new social contract that guarantees decent work. The laws that protect workers, such as the right to organise unions, to bargain collectively for decent wages and working conditions, health and safety protection at work and many other areas are under attack around the world. Meanwhile, businesses, banks, platform business and big finance are able to escape regulation that would make them pay a fair share of tax, to respect workers’ rights, to protect the environment, to contribute properly to pension schemes and more – these are the kinds of rules that need to change. Businesses must be accountable, governments must ensure that businesses are properly regulated, subject to mandated due diligence and labour courts – plus, unions must have a seat at the table so that they can represent the interests of working people.


What motivated you to run again for the ITUC General Secretary?


Unions are at the front lines of exploitative wages and working conditions everywhere, and too many nations struggle for peace and democracy. I am proud of the work of unions everywhere, and it is only workers’ power that will ensure change. We have seen the ITUC family grow, and while we have made significant gains at global and national level, workers’ rights are under attack, and oppression, exploitation and inequality are growing. Many affiliates asked me to stay and strengthen our international response to fight back. I am privileged to stand with workers in this struggle.
I intend to use this four-year mandate to make the ITUC stronger and more effective, working with our member organisations across the world. Workers need strong unions, and that is as important at the international level as it is in each country and in every workplace.


When you look back at the past mandate, what would you single out as the most important achievements of the international trade union movement, and what as areas where we still need to improve our work and results at the international level?


The ITUC now represents more than 207 million members. We have deepened our organising capacity and begun to secure a sustainable future for the movement. On human and labour rights, we have secured a Convention on domestic workers at the International Labour Organization. There are now 150,000 domestic workers organised around the world under the banner of the International Domestic Workers Federation. We changed the rules in favour of these workers, many of whom work for very low pay and in bad working conditions. Domestic workers’ unions are continuing to grow, and through that organising strength will come yet more change for the better. And we are confident that by June we will have secured an ILO Convention on the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work. The achievement of the ILO Protocol on Forced Labour allowed us to campaign for eliminating modern slavery, and we are making real progress with ratification of the Protocol and changes in labour laws so far in 26 countries. We also campaigned strongly to get reform of labour laws in Qatar, one of the world’s richest countries, which will host the 2022 World Cup. Qatar is now changing its outdated and unacceptable laws, something which only happened because we, our colleagues in the Building Workers’ International and others have made the change happen through global campaign action. From that campaign, we have been a driving force in setting up a new Centre for Sport and Human Rights, a global body that includes trade unions, human rights groups, companies, governments, broadcasters and sports federations such as FIFA. The task of this new Centre is to clean up the world of sport – to end the abuses of workers’ and other human rights.

In the past four years, the ITUC has organised solidarity actions for trade unions that are being attacked, in more than 50 countries. Our annual ITUC Global Rights Index – which rates countries according to how good their labour laws are, also reveals often violent repression against workers who are trying to form and join trade unions. One of the main tasks of the international trade union movement is to provide solidarity support and assistance to unions wherever workers’ rights are under attack. We also frequently use the legal mechanisms of the International Labour Organization, taking cases against governments that violate international legal standards that the ILO sets through tripartite decision-making involving governments, employers and trade unions.

We know that the destruction from climate change also destroys jobs and livelihoods, and that’s why we are so strongly committed to the fight against climate change. To win that fight, governments and companies need to accept our call for Just Transition and implement their commitment from the Paris Agreement and the subsequent guidelines we negotiated at the ILO. Workers must have a have a say in how industry, production and services are put onto a pathway that does not pollute the earth with carbon dioxide. It means that change has to be planned, with resources for retraining workers, helping them meet the costs of adjustment and transforming high-carbon workplaces into carbon-neutral workplaces. In the past four years, we have got international recognition for this principle, and we are now accelerating our Just Transition work in different countries, cities and companies as well as expanding the idea of Just Transition to situations where new technology is transforming work.

Another important result has been the work of our ITUC Organising Academy, which has trained over 1,000 trade union organisers in different countries, helping unions to expand their membership and enabling workers who might not meet a union organiser to actually meet and talk with one.
We have set up an international migrant recruitment adviser website, giving information to workers who are looking to work as migrant workers abroad. It gives them information about their legal rights and also allows workers to “rate” agencies which they use to find work in other countries. Hundreds of companies have already been rated, giving vital information to workers from countries like Nepal and Indonesia, who risk severe exoloitation when they become migrant workers.

We have produced a series of reports which uncover the anti-worker and tax-avoiding activities of big multinational companies, focusing on some of the worst examples of corporate greed such as Samsung, which exploits workers in its factories and its suppliers, and had denied responsibility for the chemical poisoning of workers in its production lines. We’ve also produced major reports on the social and economic benefits of investing in child care, aged care and other areas of the care sector, which is helping to shift the momentum towards countries spending more on care, and also reaping the economic reward from that spending through higher economic growth.
These are some of the main highlights of what we have achieved in the past four years. If I tried to include everything we’ve achieved together internationally, I’m afraid I would run out of space in this article.

 

The  Congress outcome shows there is a division in the trade union movement – one might even say different visions of how to build and in which direction the union movement should go. In order to build workers’ power and to manage to change the rules, we will need the unity and commitment of all affiliates. How to achieve this unity and organisation that is strong, efficient and relevant?


Firstly, I would say that democracy is the lifeblood of trade unions, and the fact that there was an election at Congress is a normal part of trade union life.

There were different visions at Congress, but there were no big differences over policy.  Our policy statement was adopted unanimously, and some major changes to the ITUC’s rules were also agreed without argument. Organising for change is central to the struggle for decent wages and conditions, for safe work and for labour rights and compliance. Our strength is the only remedy against corporate greed and the concentration of wealth. I don’t believe there are significant divisions in the aspirations of working people or their unions, but I believe the only way to win the struggle is to organise and campaign together for a new social contract with the floor of labour guarantee for all workers, universal social protection, a new standard for workers in platform business such as Uber, and to strengthen social dialogue and collective bargaining everywhere.

The ITUC is the biggest democratic organisation in the world, with trade unions from all continents, different traditions, different trade union cultures and histories. We need unified action and unity of purpose because it is through our diversity, and the strength of our membership, that we can be strong.


What will be the greatest challenges for trade unions in the next period, and what are the priorities of the new ITUC leadership in the attempt to respond to those challenges?


We will continue to face many of the same challenges we face today, but I would like to point to two emerging ones. The first is that democracy itself is at stake. We are seeing the rise of strongmen presidents and prime ministers in many countries, and this is extremely dangerous to human rights and peace itself. Throughout more than 100 years, trade unions have promoted and defended democracy, and that task is getting more important every day now.

The second is the impact of technology and, most importantly, how it is controlled and who controls it.  The massive benefits and potential of digital technology in particular are masking a darker side of giant data corporations controlling more and more of people’s lives including at work.  And most of their overall workforce is underpaid and the companies themselves often pay virtually no tax.  The world needs to get on top of this problem, and trade unions have a big role to play in that.


207 million workers make up the membership of the ITUC, which makes the ITUC the largest democratic organisation in the world. However, that is still only seven per cent of the total global workforce. The goal set at the 4th ITUC World Congress is to reach 250 million members by the next congress. How to achieve this, if we take into regard especially the increasing share of precarious and atypical workers in the total employment, who are extremely difficult to organise and represent? Can the trade unions reverse that trend and how?

We are seeing more and more cases almost every day where unions are winning organising drives with precarious and informal workers, and these workers are increasingly demanding union representation. We need to be in contact with them, ensure that our union structures are the right ones, and also take up the to stop bogus employer-controlled arrangements and ensure that every worker, whatever the employer says, has the right to a union and collective bargaining.
I am also confident that we are seeing a shift amongst unions to give organising top priority, which I believe is essential to reach our ambitious target. I also think that the work already done by our Organising Academy is making a difference and that this will grow.


This year we mark the 100th anniversary of the ILO, a unique and key institution within the UN system. However, the central role of the ILO in the world of work, and especially its standard setting and supervisory mechanisms, have recently come under increasing attacks by employers but also governments. How to strengthen the role of the ILO and especially how to ensure the full respect of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining? How to strengthen the position of the Workers’ Group at the ILO and how can the ITUC be more influential and efficient in that context?

At major moments in history, especially after the destruction caused by two world wars, the world has turned to the ILO for solutions to provide the economic security to people that guarantees peace. One hundred years after the ILO was founded, we are facing very uncertain times, and now is the time to strengthen the ILO yet more, even as big business and financial interests are trying to weaken it. In the past few years we have fought successfully to defend the right to strike as an international right that knows no borders, and we will certainly need to rise to the occasion again and again in the future. The best way to strengthen the Workers’ Group at the ILO is to defend and advance the role of the ILO itself. We need to help people understand just how important the ILO is, so that they demand that their governments support it.

At the ILO’s Centenary Conference in June, we will be fighting for the adoption of an ILO Declaration to guide the future of work and put the world on a human-centred economic path. The key to this is a new social contract, built on workers’ rights and social dialogue involving governments, unions and employers. This must be underpinned by a Universal Labour Guarantee which guarantees every worker the right to union representation, collective bargaining, protection from discrimination, from child labour and from forced labour, and which also guarantees living wages and limits on working hours. We are also calling for international regulation of platform or “Uber” companies, and regulations that protect data privacy and enable the world to handle the challenges of digitalisation.


To many trade union members, the ITUC seems as yet another abstract international institution for which it is not clear to them how it contributes to their working and living conditions. How to explain to our shop stewards, who on a daily basis have a difficult job to organise and protect members’ rights at the workplaces and rightly consider it the most important and most concrete trade union task, why it is important to be a part of international trade union associations and what their purpose is?

Our purpose is to achieve the kinds of things I have set out above. Capital is global and labour must have its own global dimension as well. There many ways to get directly involved in our work, from acts as simple as signing one of our global petitions through to joining public meetings and demonstrations for climate justice, to help get imprisoned trade unionists freed, and many other areas. Our work may seem a long way from the daily realities of trade union members, but in many ways it is very close. We’re always happy to explore with our affiliates how we can help close the gap and bring the international work closer to members.


Apart from understanding the role of the ITUC, should we – and can we – put extra efforts to bring the concrete activities of the ITUC closer to members on the one hand, and on the other hand enable them to participate more directly in those activities and thus feel that their voice reaches the very top of the international trade union movement? In other words, how to build the feeling of belonging to the international trade union movement and pride, which trade unions very often have at the national level?


As I said before, we’re always looking for ways to bring members into closer contact. Perhaps we should have a more detailed discussion with your leadership about which areas we are working on would be of most interest to the membership, and look for ways to engage them.  We’re also happy to provide briefings to groups or trade unionists either at our offices in Brussels or when the occasion arises, in Croatia.

 

Capital has no borders. How can we achieve cross-border unity of the trade union movement and its efficiency in development and defense of labour, social and trade union rights?


We have the right instruments – the ITUC and its Regional Organisations, the ETUC, Global Union Federations – and we have to continually strive to increase collaboration and effectiveness. Most importantly, when trade unionists in one place are facing repression – dismissal, violence, imprisonment or worse – we must all stand up for them. Global solidarity – working together across borders – is the beating heart of our movement.