Archive for the ‘Rights around the world’ Category

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.

Related posts:


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.

Also related:

Talking Union

 by Paul Garver

Insuregency Trap cover image

Eli Friedman’s Insurgency Trap: Labor Politics in Postsocialist China is indispensable for anyone trying to understand what is happening with hundreds of millions of internal migrant workers in China today. Postsocialist China has become the world’s largest manufacturing center and exporter to the rest of the world, and the future of Chinese society and of the global economy hinges on whether the new Chinese working class remains excluded from its social and political system.

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Greetings from Bogor, Java!

I’m attending the conference of the Asian Transnational Corporation monitoring network. Listening to the country reports yesterday there was a pretty clear consensus on what are the most pressing issues for labour across the region. They are:

  1. Living wages In the majority of countries in the region, the minimum wage is not enough to live on.
  2. Subcontracting An employer ploy to avoid labour regulations. The good news is that determined organising can counteract it despite the complete lack of legal levers to pull. I found it interesting that the representatives spoke of the disadvantages exclusively in relation to the loss of social welfare benefits and not at all about two other reasons I’m familiar with in Australia: difficulty in collective bargaining and the work/life balance problem of losing control over working hours.
  3. Union busting – Ranging from its most blatant forms of disappearances of union activists in the Philippines and Bangladesh through imprisonment in China to sacking and retaliation against union members (a method used nearly everywhere) to more subtle methods used in Malaysia and Korea of setting up toothless unions and/or denying registration of legitimate unions on spurious technicalities.
Indonesia seems to be making the most progress. So much so that businesses have been putting signs outside their factories advertising that they do not use contract labour. The thought crossed my mind that if they succeed in formalising the workforce and having a powerful labour-political nexus that will bring problems of its own. Then again, which would you prefer? A politics dominated by a compromised but still effective labour movement or a politics dominated by the close friends of capitalists? I know which I’d rather have.
One observation that remained with me was Hilmar Farid’s comment that Indonesia will work out differently to the Anglo nations because here the waves of economic change that took a century in Australia or the USA are all happening at once. People are coming in off the farms and finding themselves in advanced industries like electronics whose management have equally advanced anti-union strategies. Yet another reason to think twice before proffering advice.

Photo: Chinese Wal-Mart activist

Indonesia Pavilion at Expo2010

Indonesia Pavilion at Expo2010

This is where I was on this day three years ago: the Indonesia Pavilion at Expo 2010 in Shanghai.

Indonesia is Australia’s largest neighbour but I knew embarrassingly little about it and it was only by random chance that I visited their pavilion at all (it happened to be located near the main axis).

If you ever get a chance to attend a World Expo, do! The next will be held in 2015 in Milan. It’s like being able to visit all the countries in the world at once. After I returned, what passes for ‘big issues’ in the daily papers have seemed incredibly trivial. It also sparked a desire to do something more meaningful with my spare time, which eventually took the form of this blog.

Conscious of the widespread poverty in Indonesia 482469_4532530598733_388566560_nI figured I could best assist by donating my knowledge on labour relations. With some research I discovered that there is a small office in Jakarta called the Trade Union Rights Centre and I travelled to Jakarta to meet with them in late 2010. Fair For All kicked off soon after. While the site is not country-specific, Indonesia has been covered frequently.

Looking back, you can see how it has gradually sunk in with me that Indonesians can look after their own. Moreover, they should look after their own. To have someone ride in and purport to fix things is problematic on two levels: Firstly, no matter how well-intentioned, that someone will carry their own cultural assumptions which will make the work more difficult than it needs to be. Secondly, the whole purpose of labour rights is empowerment and having someone else do it for you undermines this.

You can see the turning points in hindsight:

  • My very first post was about light manufacturing on Batam Island – drawn largely from the bleak portrait painted in the newsletter of the IMF (now part of IndustriALL)
  • About a year later after I had the opportunity to travel to Batam Island and see it for myself … and it’s not nearly as horrible as I expected. Moreover many of the island’s one million workers belong to the highly active manufacturing union FSPMI which has been winning double digit wage increases.
  • A few months later I learned that Indonesia’s three peak labour organisations – representing divergent ideological approaches – worked together to stage the nation’s May Day rallies. Who am I to lecture them, then? We can barely manage that here in Sydney!
  • Lastly in this post I recognised that Indonesia’s primary market is its own domestic one so, even if foreign multinationals could be forcibly signed on to better labour conditions, it still wouldn’t go a long way in raising overall living standards.

In short: Indonesians have their own thriving movement for progress which doesn’t need my help, not in a direct sense anyway.

  • You can read more on the website of the journal IndoProgress although if you don’t speak Bahasa Indonesia you’ll need to use translation software to follow it.

Related post:


The second-ever post on this blog was about Apple and Foxconn. I haven’t come back to them since, mainly because I figured that the story had been picked up by the mainstream media and an investigation was commenced. Then I came across this:

Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations (George Orwell – via @FredrikGertten)

The so-called investigation into Foxconn which took place in 2012 has made me despair of the media who uncritically reported that lots of progress has been made. Anyone with a high school diploma who read the entire report could see that the main issues are not resolved at all, and wage levels are not even mentioned.

In response I have put together my own White Paper, highlighting the shortcomings of Apple and Foxconn’s remediation point by point, which you can download here:

I spoke with SACOM before publishing this. There is no democratic union at Foxconn so, as the people in touch with the workers, SACOM are probably the next best thing. They say the workers’ priorities are:

  1. A better system for scaling of production during peak times, and
  2. Worker input into selection of union reps.

As you’ll see in the Paper, neither of these issues have been addressed at all.

See also:

IKEA at Tempe near Sydney’s International Airport

As Western children play today amidst all those shreds of Christmas paper wrapping and, no doubt, many adults queue up to return or exchange unwanted gifts, I wonder how many of them pause to think that IKEA, that friendly, funky store would have so many labour rights issues?

Workers in IKEA Turkey for example, report being intimidated when they attempt to join the local union, Koop-Is Sendikasi especially after a union activist on the site was sacked.

Interestingly the countries where IKEA management play by the rules are mostly in Northern Europe while the reported problem locations are found in an arc through Southern and Eastern Europe. This is in line with the predictions of Geert Hofstede’s Power-Distance Index (PDI) as they are all countries with a high PDI score; in other words, where workers tend to believe management are inherently unjust and, conversely, where management tend to believe their role requires them to get their hands dirty (I provide this as a possible explanation, not as an excuse).

The problematic sites are:

  • Portugal
  • Spain
  • Italy
  • Greece
  • Turkey
  • Czech Republic
  • Russia

The retail global union federation, UNI, has made IKEA a focus company for a co-ordinated campaign amongst affiliates and in countries where there is no strong retail/warehouse union. UNI spokesman Alke Boessiger said:

To us it is clear that all workers at all IKEA workplaces are equal and have the right to the same good working conditions and the same rights to become a union member and negotiate a collective agreement

To its credit, IKEA appears to be heeding the “reputational challenge” that all of this presents and is in discussions with UNI about addressing them.

Here is UNI’s Research Brief and below is their video explaining the goals of the campaign:

You can follow the latest on this campaign at