The periphery appears in the core, the South in the North

-Professor Andreas Bieler

Anyone in the labour relations club will tell you that the epicentre of the world of work is the ILO. That’s where the big hitters all get together: national union leaders, industry leaders and state regulators. Together they nut out the ILO protocols which states adopt and form the foundations of their labour laws.

Last week I attended the triennial Congress of the International Labour and Employment Relations Association (ILERA). ILERA enjoys a semi-formal status with the ILO, which appreciates having a brains trust to put forward ideas for future protocols and conventions.

The limitations of this perfect, rational view of the world of work reminds me of Giordano Bruno’s intuition that the cosmos is bigger and more complex than the tidy and contained theory of Ptolemy. There is a vast space out there that labour relations doesn’t explain well. The future labour movement will not resemble the congenial tripartism that prevailed in the 20th Century. Consider the world’s three largest countries by population (soon to also be the three largest economies):

  • Independent unions do not exist in China. There is only the ACFTU state union. It does not affiliate either to the ILO or to the global union federations. What it does have however is over 200 million members – more than all of the unions represented at the ILO put together.
  • Unions have essentially been defeated in the United States. They still exist but with 7% coverage they have no influence at all over the economy or over labour policy.
  • Unions have never gained a foothold in India because formal employment (i.e. having a wage, and an employment relationship) has never caught on. 90% of people working in India are part of the informal economy.

So, in short, for the 3 billion inhabitants of these three countries, goings on in Geneva are almost irrelevant.

Conference speakers and organisers, like the ILO itself, were well aware of the problem:

Describing the regulated world of work as defined by the ILO is to describe a situation in which a shrinking minority of the world’s workers find themselves. The task ahead is adapting to describe the world as it is and not as we have known it.

I wasn’t just an observer and had an opportunity to address the conference. My contribution was a paper, co-written with Surendra Pratap of New Delhi’s Centre for Workers Education, that appealed to delegates to examine new means that workers are already using to demand their rights. To make the point, we used examples of successful advocacy from un-unionised workers in South Asia. You can access it through the links below.

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Union officials Joe and Jane congratulate managers Zanko and Anthony on the arrival of the new, safer stock picker, driven by Dave.

Union member Dave showcases the newly-arrived, safer stock picker. Union officials Joe and Jane and managers Zanko and Anthony all worked to this moment.

Here are two of my colleagues at a furniture distribution centre in Western Sydney. The photo is for an article in the next edition of the union journal about an innovative safety improvement that resulted from constructive collaboration between the union and site management.

The picker in the photo is the first of its kind. It is designed to lift goods up to 8 metres off the ground. The operator walks out of the cage onto the platform where he or she moves goods on and off the shelves. A harness is provided so they can’t fall but that’s only half the problem: if you place too many goods on the platform, the weight can tip the whole picker. Sadly one of these officials has dealt with a situation where exactly that happened, resulting in the death of a worker who fell onto a concrete floor.

The good news is that the hazard was raised with site management who accepted that it was a legitimate concern and set about working with Toyota to devise this first-of-its-kind picker that automatically measures the weight on the platform and sounds an alarm if load limits are approached.

I post this on here because the Murdoch-dominated press coverage of unions in Australia is so overwhelmingly negative that it’s worth remembering what the real work of unions looks like on a day to day basis.

I might also add that fresh data out of the UK shows that, in recent years, rises in union density are associated with rises in productivity.

The happy picker operators at this site are in no doubt why that is so.


20150607 Not-getting-paidMany readers know that I’m a union official in my day job. Starting a fortnight ago, I’m now leading a renewed drive of my union into the fashion modelling industry. Nothing like a challenge: models are about as difficult to organise as you can imagine. They do not have a fixed workplace or even an ’employer’ and effectively work on a gig basis. Their negotiating power is almost nil (you can read what it’s like in first person in this recent xojane feature).

This is a twist given that I’ve been blogging about other aspects of the fashion industry for several years, e.g.:

Then again, the high number of posts about fashion supply chains may not be so surprising: the producers of The True Cost assert that the fashion industry accounts for one-sixth of global employment.

More poignant is that I started writing about insecure work in the Global South in 2011, never guessing that I’d end up fighting it right here, on the home turf. What I didn’t appreciate back then is that, outside of union strongholds, the very notion of employment has been disintegrating in the developed world.

The periphery appears in the core, the South in the North (Professor Andreas Bieler, September 2014)

While precarious forms of labour have always been predominant in the Global South, they have increasingly also spread into the Global North. As a result, trade unions are under pressure, as it is much more difficult to organise a workforce in temporary, vulnerable and constantly changing employment relations (ibid, May 2015)

We can’t sit back and ignore the growing number of people in nonstandard employment just because it’s difficult to reach them. Unions remain the Rolls Royce vehicle of worker voice; if we don’t grow into these areas, the situation will eventually become so intolerable that some other organisation will fill the void but they will lack the resource base and expertise to provide the ‘full service’ workplace representation that comes with union membership.

So it’s really important that this succeeds. Wish me luck! Please check out and ‘like’ the Facebook Page to watch how it goes :)

Originally posted on stop samsung - no more deaths!:



Hankyoreh21, a weekly magazine of South Korea, analyzed the compensation standards that Samsung had proposed in the mediation process to address workers’ death and health problems. 

According to Hankyoreh21’s analysis, only 14 people (8.5%) of the 163 victims absolutely met Samsung’s compensation standards. If a variety of provisory clauses that Samsung presented is applied, 107 people (65.7%) are automatically excluded from compensation. 

We translated the article into English under the consent of Hankyoreh21. You can read the full version of translation below, and the original article in Korean can be read at here.

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21st Century citadel

Citadel for 21st Century aristocrats?

One thing absent from this blog is a ‘Theory of Everything’, reducing everything back to one fundamental explanation. The closest I’ve come may be a recurring line that humans tend to make decisions in a reactive way, a.k.a. short-termism. Locke and Spender’s book Confronting Managerialism: How the Business Elite and Their Schools Threw Our Lives Out of Balance certainly provides a grand unified theory of everything wrong with the world of commerce, including the issues with globalisation that I highlight on this blog and a lot more besides.

The idea can be summed up very briefly: “managerialism” (as distinct from management) is the belief that membership of the management caste and its codified knowledge gives one an entitlement to govern, and not just to govern companies but governments and nonprofit institutions as well. This knowledge is acquired in business school. Yet, the authors argue, business school education is disconnected from real life. It describes the world in quantitative terms that assume perfect, closed systems and ignores tacit knowledge. It mistakes the balance sheet for reality. Despite its hubris, Business education had no role in instigating the biggest revolutions in business in the last 40 years: the quality revolution and the tech start-up phenomenon, both of which happened in spite of rather than because of what people learn in business school.

That wouldn’t be so bad if managerialism was a purely theoretical belief but business schools are not fringe organisations; people instilled with these notions do become real-world managers. The result is managers who, with their excessive emphasis on financialisation, believe their main task is to drive up the stock price, not to make products well. Products are of secondary importance only. The results speak for themselves: tottering companies in the Anglophonic world that lurch from one stock price boosting initiative to the next, undermining their own long-term value before being bought out or collapsing under their own weight (not that the responsible executives care, having long since departed for new pastures). Locke and Spender contrast this with German and Japanese firms where managers do not think of themselves as a caste apart and adopt more collaborative governance styles aimed at the long-term prospering of the enterprise for the benefit of all involved including, not least, customers.

Locke and Spender also comment on the failure of Christian Churches in the English-speaking world to provide a moral counterbalance to the amorality of Business School education (something I too noticed last year in this post). In both the Chinese and Islamic worlds, economics is paired with ethical imperatives. By contrast, ethics as taught in Business school is subservient to economic values and therefore ultimately futile:

self-interest in financial firms cannot be a “good” unless their market trades are involved in wealth creation. Since they are not, and business schools are doing nothing institutionally to promote financial markets as wealth-creating entities, business school talk about ethics is a concoction of fantasy (p. 173).


My only criticism of the book is that it spends lots of time talking about cultural differences which is all very illuminating but I expected more space would have been allocated to business education specifically. I’d suggest William Deresiewicz’s Excellent Sheep might make a better starting point for anyone interested.


Right on the second page, there is an acknowledgment of former Christian Brother Godfrey Regio’s film Koyaanisqatsi as the source of the book’s subtitle “How the Business Elite and Their Schools Threw Our Life Out of Balance”. In a pleasing circularity, the end credits of Koyaanisqatsi acknowledge the work of former Jesuit Ivan Illich for ‘inspiration and ideas’ and Illich, fittingly, is best known for a book titled Deschooling Society.

I wrote about Illich’s ideas in this post.

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Originally posted on Centre For Workers Education:

International Capital Mobility, Global value chains and the Emerging Labour Movement in Asia

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Book on Emerging Trends in Factory Asia

In the last three decades, there has been a sea change in the global political economy and the socio-economic and cultural environment of the society as well as the physical environment. The world of labour has been decisively changed, not for the better, but for the worse. This was accompanied by the downfall of many labour movements as well as social, cultural and political movements. As the socio-political and economic structures that existed up to the late 1970s and early 1980s gradually changed and were then decisively transformed in 1990s, the socio-cultural and political movements of that period were also marginalised and later were largely made irrelevant. With the restructuring of economies and industries and in this overall anti-labour environment, trade unions were by and large paralysed and…

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The past few days saw the coincidence of two events relating to Bangladesh factory safety, the latest developments since the April 2013 Rana Plaza disaster that resulted in the death of over 1,000 workers who were making clothes destined for the shelves of American and European retailers.

The first is the 2000-person World Congress of UNI Global Union, one of the global union federations (GUFs) behind the Bangladesh Accord, which is still underway in Cape Town. The second was the 3700-person Dhaka Apparel Summit and associated International Trade Expo for Building and Fire Safety, held in Dhaka. The latter were held with the involvement of the Bangladesh Alliance, the rival, employer-led response to Bangladesh factory safety.

The two events illustrate the difference in the two approaches, which could be characterised as bottom-up versus top-down. The GUF-backed Accord regards independent trade unions as the optimum solution. However there is a catch: unionisation in Bangladesh’s garment sector is almost negligible and neither the government nor employers encourage their formation. The Accord’s backers are of the view that the workers of Bangladesh may be waiting around forever if fully-fledged unions were seen as the ‘only’ solution and have accepted the proximate goal of establishing work health and safety councils in the various factories who sign up to it. Such councils are not the same as independent unions but at least, it is hoped, they don’t displace unions.

Other than completing many safety inspections it is difficult to measure what the Accord has accomplished. At least there has not been another Rana Plaza so that is something.

What bothers me about it is that there is a garment workers’ union in Bangladesh, the National Garment Workers Federation (NGWF). This is them:

Hameem 3

Hameem PM pic 3

Curious what the guy with the microphone is saying? Yeah, me too. Something tells me he isn’t talking about how great the factory conditions are but rather voicing grievances about wages that are too low to live on, wage theft and recalcitrant employers. Unfortunately we aren’t hearing his voice, we are hearing from the Global North staff doing the much narrower work of the Accord, telling us how much progress has been made.

The problem is, the NGWF has only a very small number of members in an industry with 4 million workers. Yes it’s legitimate and democratic but it does not have the reach to make a significant impact. What does one do, stand by and wait for it to scale up, which may never happen? Essentially the GUFs are doing nothing different to what many NGOs and UN bodies do: intervening to prevent disaster rather than waiting for local organisations to develop the capacity to do it themselves. That’s fine as long as there is a real plan to hand over but I’ve not heard that there is one, only a hope that it will be possible at some point in the future.

In fact there is no guarantee that unions in the developing world will ever “grow up” into mass-membership organisations that practice a congenial form of tripartism (co-operation between workers, employers and the state), as the affiliates of the GUFs do. I am not convinced that the twenty-first century economy will be structured in a way that will allow that to happen. Rather than looking at developing world labour movements through the lens of the twentieth century we should accept that the developing world of today is not going through the comparatively gently staged process of modernisation that happened in Europe and the United States. People are moving directly from their parents’ farms to a first job in workplaces with inscrutably complex ownership structures (see related post). Perhaps those of us in the Global North should spend more time learning how people are grappling with this reality on the ground and ask how we might assist them to win power in their workplaces before rushing at short-term but possibly unsustainable fixes.

Still … it’s better to get most of what you want than hardly any of what you want

The limitations of the Accord’s approach should be kept in context. Total inaction was a real possibility, which would have resulted in no improvement at all. However we also have an example of how not to do it; the Bangladesh Alliance who are behind the Dhaka Apparel Summit who obligingly drew attention to the difference this past weekend.

The industry groups backing the Alliance make themselves the subject rather than the object of the process. They proactively ‘sell’ safety and training products to businesses operating in Bangladesh. One has to wonder just how beneficial this really is to Bangladeshi workers. A bunch of white expat workers fly in and sell products to other white expat workers. The money probably doesn’t even change hands in Bangladesh. I smell opportunism. Meanwhile the Bangladesh government, rather than actively directing what is going on, stands back and watches.

As I learned earlier in the year,

What would have been really good for Bangladesh as a country would be to establish an internal market for higher-end manufacturing of this sort, creating higher-paying employment for Bangladeshis. Alas it appears the opportunity has been missed and the Alliance’s net contribution to the situation is to make people in the Global North even richer. Meanwhile, street demonstrations over wages will continue in the streets of Dhaka.

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