Archive for the ‘Site announcements’ Category

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 🙂

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:

2012 in Review

Posted: January 15, 2013 in Site announcements
Tags: ,
2012 (film)

2012 (film) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Ok it’s that time again. I’m all in favour of transparency so had better walk the talk with a micro annual report.

Stats for the year just ended:

  • 46 new posts; half as many as in 2011
  • 106 new followers on WordPress and Twitter; almost exactly the same as last year
  • 7090 page views. This is almost double 2011’s 4078, however it’s mostly attributable to there being more content to attract search traffic. By my back-of-the-napkin math, the number of views-per-post was slightly less last year, at 64, than the previous year, at 68. To get that figure I’ve used the number of posts at mid-year as an average.

So it’s a slow old process building these numbers organically. There’s a great quote from the Canadian politician and businessman Martin Shulman who was asked, “What is the best way to make a million dollars?” He replied, “Start with $900,000”. I think the same can be said of web traffic! Anyway I’m not too worried about it. While the visits are gratifying, ultimately this is not a campaign website, I keep writing not to get more traffic but because writing publicly forces me to clarify my thinking on these issues. Hopefully it is getting more readable over time though.

The highlight of 2012 was the LabourStart Conference here in Sydney, which I was involved in. It was great to meet and speak with many people firsthand, including Yiyi Cheng from SACOM, Anita Gardner from IndustriALL and Eric Lee from LabourStart itself.

The biggest learning experience of the year related to the limitations of labour solidarity, in two ways connected with this conference:

Firstly, in the lead-up, LabourStart actively sought the participation of labour organisations that were affiliated with Global Union Federations (with exceptions, notably SACOM). I know for a fact that a number of more grassroots labour organisations wanted to participate but did not have the resources to attend. That’s unavoidable but the result is that the conference was skewed towards what you might call professional unionism. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, just noting that there were many voices who weren’t heard. At least Asian Women at Work got a speaking spot. To be fair, LabourStart wanted to have a broad appeal but they had reason to be cautious about inflammatory speakers, after unhelpful elements tried to hijack their previous conference in Turkey.

(As an aside, if I was running LabourStart I’d be courting grassroots Asian labour activists wherever possible. Why cling to the ITUC? They are talking about establishing their own news network for affiliates, which would be a competitor to LabourStart in countries where the labour movement is well established … that’s my two cents anyway)

Secondly, and even closer to home, around the time of the conference I was approached by one group lobbying for international students in Australia (who are mostly Asian) for assistance in receiving correct pay. It was heartbreaking but I was not able to assist them in my day job at an Australian union, as it just didn’t fit with our organising model and would have been a distraction at best.

The lesson I’ve learned firsthand is that cross-border co-operation is easier said than done. Apologies to the Swedish metalworkers who I criticised earlier in the year for a similar missed opportunity, I’m sure they tried to make it work.

Global Village

Global Village (Photo credit: dou_ble_you)

1962 was a remarkable year. Times began a’changin’.

It was the year of the Cuban Missile Crisis, the year in which Pope John XXIII convened the Second Vatican Council, and the year both the Beatles and Rolling Stones emerged onto the scene.

Meanwhile on the U.S. West Coast a little-known athlete named Phil Knight penned a paper as part of his MBA studies with the unremarkable title Can Japanese Sports Shoes Do to German Sports Shoes What Japanese Cameras Did to German Cameras?

The idea born in that paper became Nike and in 2012, fifty years on, Phil Knight is still the company’s president. He is also America’s 14th richest man.

The strategy of moving production to the lowest-cost countries has bedeviled the labour movement since it began to catch on in the 1980s and 1990s, playing workers in one country off against those in another. To date, no counter-strategy has had the clarity of Knight’s simple idea. It’s like Berlin’s metaphor of the fox and the hedgehog: activists (the fox) devise endless strategies to attack companies (the hedgehog) which evade new labour regulations simply by relocating yet again. There’s not much doubt who has the upper hand.

When will labour really get global?

The ‘official’ centre of the labour movement is the ITUC in Brussels, orbited by the seven global union federations. Their strategy relies heavily on Global Framework Agreements and ratifying of ILO core conventions. The jury is still out on their effectiveness.

However the labour movement is just too widespread to be able to fit under one organisational banner. There are other labour groups around. There is even another rival global body hanging around, the WFTU.

LabourStart is the closest thing there is to an ‘unofficial’ labour hub, and it will be holding its 2012 global solidarity conference in Sydney from 26-28 November.

Generally the LS vision follows a flux and transformation approach, being more of a forum in which ideas can emerge and be shared rather than attempting to direct or guide the process. This conference is going to depart from that slightly and will give activists across many disciplines an opportunity to work together with specific global campaign goals. The meta-issue with Nike and friends is Capital Mobility and it is not the only one that will be on the table. Insecure Work and dealing with Authoritarian States are also going to be tackled.

Here’s hoping for some exciting new ideas that we might see emerge.

[These were my comments at a screening of two documentaries, Behind the Swoosh and Tejid@s Junt@s (“Stitched Together”), held at my alma mater UTS on Thursday night. The two films are included as embedded links]

My name is Michael Walker, I am an alumnus of the UTS Law and Social Sciences schools and am now working for a union just one block from this building. I am also the author of the blog Fair For All dot org.

To begin tonight, I’ll briefly explain what Fair For All is about.

Unions, including mine, have over the last century improved living standards in this country out of sight. To earn the cost of a loaf of bread, a shop assistant of a hundred years ago had to work for two hours. Today: only about five minutes.

When you walk into a shop you don’t have to be too troubled about the working conditions of the employees … not usually anyway.

What you should be troubled about is the working conditions of the unseen people making the stuff on the shelves.

In decades past – take Darrell Lea Chocolates as an example – in decades past the workers in Darrell Lea shops were protected by the Shop Award safety net. Workers in the Darrell Lea factory in Ramsgate, which is just down the road from my house, were protected by the Factory Award safety net. Delivery drivers were covered by the Transport Industry Award.

This is still how it works in Darrell Lea. Those three awards guarantee a reasonable rate of pay and conditions of work for everyone making Darrell Lea chocolates, including rest breaks, sick leave, four weeks of annual leave, and overtime payments.

In the last thirty years or so, this has become the exception rather than the norm.

Contrast that with Masters Home Improvement.

Masters opened up a very large store out near Narellan just before Christmas last year. If you walk through, you will be hard pressed to find any goods made in Australia whatsoever.

The products sold in Masters are mostly made in factories in Asia – very often by people who are not paid enough to support a family, who are docked their pay if they are sick and who are often working exposed to hazardous chemicals. Because their regular rate of pay is so low, they work long hours of overtime, often 70 or more hours per week, to provide for their families.

They do all this to make our t-shirts, our jeans, our sneakers, our phones and our iPads.

These people, who feed and clothe the world, deserve the protection of basic labour standards, regardless of where they live.

So Fair For All is my project to raise awareness about the crucial need for improvement. It’s not part of my day job; the union I work for is essentially a mutual society for the benefit of its members. It’s not an NGO and it doesn’t exist to roam around solving the world’s problems, so Fair For All is something I work on in my own time [see related post on national self-interest].

So, how do we feel about this? As consumers we are all participating in an unjust system, whether we like it or not.

We are all participating in an unjust system, whether we like it or not.

It’s true that the problem is big and complicated and has no easy solution but that’s not to say that we should throw up our hands and say that nothing can be done.

Tonight we are going to view two short films about people who have done something about it – college students in both cases. Many of you here tonight are college students and I think I can assume because you are here that you don’t need persuading about this issue and want to do something yourselves. Sit tight, we’ll come to that at the end!

Also on your seats you will find a pamphlet for the Playfair 2012 campaign [the pamphlet can be downloaded here], which has been shining a spotlight on the working conditions of sportswear makers in the lead up to the London Olympic Games. The campaign co-ordinator from the global garment and textiles union has kindly agreed to join us by Skype during the break between the films. She is actually in Geneva – fortunately it is only about 11 o’clock in the morning there!

This first film we’re going to watch, Behind the Swoosh, is about conscientious objection and the power it can have if done effectively. One athlete refused to wear the logo of a sportswear maker associated with sweatshops until it cleaned up its act, and his stand has had a large impact at his college and even on the company. Beyond that I’ll let it speak for itself.

One thing this film brings home is how tenaciously companies will fight to protect their brand. They will stare down strikes if they can but they will not allow their brand to be trashed without responding.

This is what Playfair2012 is striving to do. Playfair has the same agenda as Team Sweat: ensure that workers are:

  • paid enough to live on,
  • provided with ongoing rather than short-term employment contracts, and
  • allowed to establish and join trade unions without being victimised

This second film we’ll see takes a different approach altogether. It is about Alta Gracia, a former sweatshop in the Dominican Republic that has been reopened as a workplace that pays its employees a living wage and – and this is the most important bit – connected to a reliable market for ethical apparel. Alas, it’s not enough to rely on people’s goodwill to pay above-market prices, you need to supply them with something unique [see related post].

I took the liberty of touring the UTS gift shop earlier. As expected, the branded apparel is made in China. Nothing wrong with it coming from China per se, it’s just that this tells me that no one has ever pressured the university over its apparel procurement.

Ethical procurement policies are not all that difficult to have put in place, it’s been done successfully down the street at the University of Sydney. Two Victorian campuses are completely Fairtrade. Dozens of American universities source from Alta Gracia.

So why not bring them to UTS too?

This is my 100th post and seemed like an auspicious moment to review FairForAll’s first year.

I think I’ve matured as a blogger; I started off mostly posting content from elsewhere on the web. Now I keep that on Twitter and only post original commentary on here. I’m surprised, looking back, how I haven’t drifted away from the original subject, despite the fact that I’ve learned quite a lot and my views on a number of matters have become more nuanced.

The focus is now pretty clear: this blog belongs to the worldwide Living Wage campaign.

What strikes me is that most groups working on this issue fall either side of a North/South divide that spend little time talking to each other. I hope to be able to assist in that. So I like to think of this blog metaphorically as a radio or wireless repeater, transmitting the signal from one camp into another and vice-versa.


The vital stats for 2011 were as follows:

  • 94 posts
  • 4,078 page views
  • 123 followers across WordPress, Twitter and Facebook
  • 1 live event (a film screening), attended by 40 people

WordPress has provided a more visually arresting version of these figures. Click here to see the complete report.

To those of you who follow on one of the social networking sites: thanks for your support, it’s nice to have regular readers!

Hello from Indonesia, readers! Not a lot to say just now however I hope to be able to bring you some voices from Batam in due course.

If you want to read more about the situation of the electronics workers on Batam, there is an excellent write-up on Asia Monitor Resource Center’s website:

Related post: