Message from the center: There is no center

Posted: September 17, 2015 in Rights around the world

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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