#ISS14: The Fall and Rise of Labour?

Trends in international trade unionism.

Speakers: Sanjiv Pandita, Asia Monitor Resources Center, Hong Kong, Kirill Buketov,
International Union of Foodworkers, and Rosa Pavanelli, Public Services International.

Date: Tuesday 8th July, 2014.

______________________________________________________________________

Video
Articles
Presentation
Suggested Reading

______________________________________________________________________

Video

Articles

“The secret war on workers in Asia”

by Josiah Mortimer

This article was also published in the New Internationalist, July 11th, 2014.

Asia workers die poster [Related Image]

AMRC poster

There’s a war going on in Asia – and it’s one that, unlike ISIS in Iraq or the chaos in Syria, is failing to make the headlines. It’s the war on workers that is taking place across much of the continent, according to the Executive Director of the Asia Monitor Resources Center in Hong Kong, Sanjiv Pandita.

The geographer David Harvey has termed this process ‘accumulation by dispossession’. Across the continent, workers are being forced off their land to make way for plantations, mining, or even real estate. They’re resisting – but employers and police are using the age-old methods of repression.

The recent surge in attacks on citizens has been propelled by the expansion of neoliberal policies in Asia, including controversial ‘export processing zones’ which lack any labour or environmental standards. In such areas, ‘everything is a commodity’ according to Pandita, particularly when inequality has soared in Asia, and particularly China, more than any other region of the world over the last 20 years.

And the figures are astonishing. 300 million people – almost the US population – are currently on the move in Asia, forced from rural land into the cities. This scale is ‘unprecedented at any time in the history of the industrial world’.

Of course, some end up in the factories that spring to mind in your head – the Yue Yuen factory in China where 80,000 shoe workers recently struck, or Foxconn where your iPhone was probably made. Most workers, however, don’t end up there.

Most will find themselves in an even more unregulated informal economy – picking shells, working informally on construction sites, gathering rubbish, and sex work. Informal work like this ‘employs’ up a quarter of Asia’s total population – one billion people. That’s 70% of total vulnerable employment in the world. It’s dangerous work, too. Over one million people die every year from work-related deaths in the region, according to conservative estimates.

These workers are not only dispossessed from their land and resources – forced out by multinationals with the help of the local state – but from their rights. And with very often no identifiable employer – whether because the supply chains are so long or because they are ‘self-employed’ – organising for better conditions is hard. But it can be done.

Following the Rana Plaza garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, the last year has seen some of largest strikes in Asia’s history. Again, the numbers are eye-watering. 100m workers in India went on strike last year – in one day. Millions stopped work in Hong Kong, Indonesia, and Bangladesh, the latter of which won a 50% wage hike in the textiles sector. Cambodia similarly saw a major general strike last December, met with a violent crackdown. And in Korea – mostly informal workers took radical action, particularly bricklayers.

Within these struggles, the question of unity between ‘formal’ and informal work has to be addressed. ‘We have to believe all working people are one – no matter what they are doing’, Pandita says. The question is how to bring all of them together. New ways of organising are occurring – the challenge, with no or secretive employers, is how and where to bargain. Instead, the bargaining must be political.

Even where informal workers are organising however, it is often separately. Home-based workers, sex-workers and street vendors are getting organised – but not as one.

In such situations, the question of leadership also emerges, somewhat problematically. Movements often draw external middle-class organisers who take over. Yet ‘the agents of change have to be workers themselves. We have to just be catalysts.’ Perhaps the current situation is just a temporary phase while grassroots leadership develops.

From Western workers, solidarity has to be genuine – ‘it can’t be based on pity’. Movements against ‘accumulation by dispossession’ are rising up, and the challenge for those in the global North is to offer solidarity without co-opting them. One thing is certain however – with living standards in the West being crushed by austerity, ‘all of us are workers now’. It’s time to start organising like we believe it.

Josiah Mortimer was a guest blogger at the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College, 7th – 11th July 2014. The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.

___________________________________________

“Public services under attack – international austerity and the fight-back” 

by Josiah Mortimer

Speaking to the Global Labour Institute’s 2014 International Summer School, Rosa Pavanelli, General Secretary of Public Services International, gave an account of the struggles public service workers are facing. This article draws on her speech to delegates in Tuesday’s opening plenary.

Rosa Pavanelli

Rosa Pavanelli of PSI

Public service jobs used to be considered the gold standard in much of the world. Well paid, good pension, decent holidays and solid trade union rights. In an era of neoliberalism however, these previously ‘most formal of formal workers’ are facing the kinds of attacks previously only associated with the most ruthless companies.

International Struggles

There’s an ideological background to this. Labour market and union ‘reform’ has been factor in almost all post-crash countries. In South Korea, the government has recently initiated the most violent attack on public services – derecognising unions in each sector. Privatisation of the rail industry and the mass firing of union activists have turned the country into what one delegate called ‘a war zone’ for workers.

Public Services International, the Global Union Federation for public service workers, is used to privatisation battles – organising in industries which are often publicly funded and subsidised, but increasingly privately owned.

In the US, the Supreme Court last week ruled that there’s no obligation for care workers to pay union dues to unions collectively bargaining for them. These workers often work alone. They are now even more isolated – especially if their unions become toothless in the face of the court decision.

And internationally, at the last ILO conference, for first time delegates couldn’t reach a conclusion on the centrality of the right to strike – despite convention 87 of the ILO convention deeming it fundamental – because employers were so strongly against. It’s a frightening turn for workers of all sectors, as that is one of the only legal bases unions have on the global scale.

But there is some good news. The UN Women’s organisation recently recognised the role of unions as key to addressing the problems of women.

Moreover, until recently trade unions were previously not allowed to participate in UN discussions on migration. Now, after years of struggling from PSI and others, they can. With migration becoming a vehicle for new kinds of slavery, it’s an important milestone.

For public service workers, the water campaigns in the UN are equally important. In 2010, water was deemed a human right, providing the legal background for the massive 2013 struggles in Europe for water to be publicly owned – many of which won, in Paris and elsewhere.

And in the IMF, Christine Lagarde has recently said austerity is creating more injustice and poses a threat to democracy.

A turning point?

The ruling class, then, is getting scared. We are at critical point of class conflict. In response to a global ruling class, unions must likewise organise internationally, not just in one workplace. The welfare state wasn’t won in one shop floor but by the entire working class.

Multinational capital has a strategy. Unions can’t afford to navel-gaze. Whether in care homes, railway stations or outsourced water plants, public service workers in today’s climate of privatisation, cuts and union-busting know this better than ever.

Josiah Mortimer was a guest blogger at the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College, 7th – 11th July 2014. The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.

___________________________________________

“How workers can win”

by Josiah Mortimer

There’s a question every trade unionist must stop and ask at some point: ‘what am I organising for?’

For Kirill Buketov, international campaign officer of the International Union of Food and Allied Workers (IUF), the central driver behind is fundamentally that ‘we are dissatisfied with the way the world is run.’ Putting this into positive action means being political – and possessing a few vital qualities.

Kirill Buketov 2

Kirill Buketov of IUF

Buketov raises some examples. In Moscow under the Soviet Union ‘what really shook the system is when workers went on strike.’ But to be successful, it took organisation and leadership. At first, workers struck without any idea what they wanted – state officials simply sent them back to work until they had some demands. It was only when they had a strategy that change began. In contrast, the Occupy movement was unsustainable and didn’t last because it lacked organisation.

For Buketov, every conflict is at root the same – ‘you need organisation, strategy and commitment to win – to fight until the very end’. He points also to the Kazakhstani oil workers’ struggle in 2011 when 26,000 workers walked out for six months. It was brutally crushed and achieved nothing. Why? They decided not to have organisation, changing their negotiators every time. There was no strategy or organisation.

But the most poingnant example is today in Ukraine. There, the Maidan movement was a genuinely popular democratic movement – and it achieved Yanukovich’ resignation. But right-wing forces abused the situation to lead the country after the left failed to create structures, organisation and strategy for when Yanukovich resigned. In sum, the right-wing were more prepared.

In a global economy however, if we want to be organised, we must work cross-borders. That’s where social media steps in – rank and file cross-border movements can utilise Facebook and Twitter to help build international platforms for organising people to fight and win.

The recent Thai shrimp industry slavery scandal, which the IUF is currently working on, shows that operating internationally for solidarity across borders is more vital than ever. To win, workers will need the ‘organisation, strategy and commitment’ that Buketov stresses is necessary. And with 250,000 slaves in the industry, they really do need to win.

Josiah Mortimer was a guest blogger at the Global Labour Institute’s third International Summer School for trade unionists at Northern College, 7th – 11th July 2014. The views expressed in this article are therefore solely those of the author in his personal capacity and do not necessarily represent the views of GLI.

Presentation

Suggested Reading

Sanjiv Pandita

Asian Labour Update, quarterly journal for Asian labour news and analysis.

AMRC, Feb 2014, Report on Investigative Report on Crackdown in Cambodia.

Pandita, Sanjiv. 2014. “Letter from China. Environmental and Labor Change in China- Victims Become the Agents of Change”, in International Labor and Working-Class History, No. 85, Spring 2014, pp. 201–205.

Pandita, Sanjiv and Panimbang, Fahmi. 2013. “Global Suppply Chains: Struggle within or against them?”, draft of chapter that appears in the book Lessons for social change in the global economy : voices from the field”, edited by Shae Garwood, Sky Croeser and Christalla Yakinthou; Lexington Books 2013.