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National trade unions in a globalised world

Transnational bargaining, corporate accountability, and a full revamp of the global labour architecture – these are the challenges facing unions as they seek to address exploitation in global supply chains.

Penelope Kyritsis (oD): Can you start by telling us your name and what you do?

I’m Cathy Feingold, the international director at the AFL-CIO, which is the largest union federation in the US.

Penelope: Can you talk to us about the biggest obstacles for addressing labour exploitation in global supply chains?

Cathy: There are multiple obstacles to addressing this. I would say that first of all, it is the way that production is organised now in the global economy. It is a global fissured workplace, a term coined by David Wile, and because the workplace is so fissured the relationship between workers and their employers is made very much invisible. It is very hard for workers to have any kind of power, when they don’t really know who they are working for and what kind of power they have in negotiating with those employers.

It is very hard for workers to have any kind of power when they don’t really know who they are working for.

Penelope: And is there anything workers can do to become involved in seeking their own protection?

Cathy: Absolutely. The first thing is that we need to change the global architecture. What I mean by that is we need new global standards, like the one we are hoping to work on at the International Labour Organisation, and we need greater protections at the global level, for example the OECD guidelines – which exist – but right now are not that effective for workers.

We have a whole set of global tools and global mechanisms that need to be strengthened. But they are only going to be strengthened if governments effectively implement those standards at the national level. Also, since we know that no accountability could happen unless workers have real power, collective action demanding accountability both at the national and the global level is what we need to do to transform these relationships.  

Annette Bernhardt/Flickr. (CC BY-SA 2.0)

Penelope: And moving forward are there any promising initiatives for how these relationships can be transformed?

Cathy: Absolutely. I think we're in a very difficult time, because global capital is incredibly powerful, but that has meant that we’ve had to become more creative as worker movements. First, we have to recognise that worker movements need to build strong, strategic alliances with migrant rights organisations and feminist organisations, and we’re doing that and we’re committed to doing that.

Second, we absolutely need to be looking at new forms of bargaining – not just locally but also regional and transnational bargaining – and we’re experimenting with that because it is quite difficult right now. One of the pieces of the global architecture we need to address is the issue of extraterritoriality. We really need to see, when there is an issue outside of a worker’s country, whether there could be ways to address it.

So: we need transnational bargaining, we need new forms of thinking regionally about sectoral bargaining, and I think we have the Bangladesh Accord as a model. We also need to go towards corporate accountability that is binding. Those are the pieces that we need to be looking at in terms of the labour movement: building power from the ground up, and then shaping things from above with the global architecture.

About the authors

Cathy Feingold is the Director of the International Department at AFL-CIO, the umbrella body of U.S. labour unions. Twitter: @AFLCIOGlobal.

Penelope Kyritsis is an assistant managing editor for Beyond Trafficking and Slavery. She holds a BA in Postcolonial Legal Studies from Brown University. Follow Penelope on Twitter @_penelopeCK.


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