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Future of work round table: how can institutions and regulations keep up?

Organisations and regulations are struggling to keep up with the evolving nature of work. Our panel of experts ends this round table by asking themselves how such institutions can stay relevant.

Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

Global patterns of work and employment will continue to evolve. How must existing regulations and organisations evolve in order to keep up?

Alejandra Ancheita
ProDESC

Shawna Bader-Blau
Solidarity Center

Anannya Bhattacharjee
Asia Floor Wage Alliance

Luis C.deBaca
Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center

Han Dongfang
China Labour Bulletin

Lupe Gonzalo
Coalition of Immokalee Workers

Theresa Haas & Penelope Kyritsis
Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network

Emily Kenway
Focus on Labour Exploitation (FLEX)

Reema Nanavaty
Self-Employed Women's Association

Elizabeth Tang
International Domestic Workers Federation

Alison Tate
International Trade Union Confederation

Alejandra Ancheita

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Alejandra Ancheita is the founder of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (ProDESC) in Mexico City.

In my practice as a human rights lawyer, I can see that the international fora of human rights are trying to evolve. But those institutions are very big institutions, and change is very complicated for them.

The International Labour Organisation, for example, is not answering the question of labour rights in the global economy. They are trying, but it's not enough. The International Organisation for Migration also has to change. They are very bureaucratic and in some context they actually play the role of recruiters, which can be very complicated. The UN is currently pushing for international action plans. Even the OECD, a very conservative institution, has developed international guidelines for in business and human rights for their members.

So a lot is happening. These international fora need to become even more proactive, but as a human rights lawyer I can say that the mechanisms and human rights law that they have developed have proven effective tools in our national courts. They might be flawed but they are still very useful.

Shawna Bader-Blau

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Shawna Bader-Blau is Executive Director of Solidarity Center.

There is an important tension to work out between localised democratic control – the sovereignty of people over their food, over their lives, over their land – and the fact that there is no economy anymore, no matter how local, that is unaffected by the rest of the world's economy.

That means we can't focus all our energy at the local and grassroots levels at the expense of global standards. We need both. Locally we need to reassert democracy and human rights. These are under attack around the world. And then, at the global level, there is a critical need to reimagine a binding, enforceable rights framework.

Take, for example, the possibilities of employment discrimination through online platforms. In their current forms, these platforms employers are basically unregulated in terms of how they pick and choose who they employ. You could have a platform one day say, "You know what? Indians, we don't want to hire them anymore because they're asking for too much money, and they ask too many questions about employment conditions. So, we want to hire people from some other country." You'd never know they had made that discriminatory decision.

That's just an example of why we need global regulations based on human rights frameworks. In the future of work in platform employment we can't have discrimination. We can't have someone sitting there somewhere deciding they're not going to hire me because I'm female, but they're going to hire you because you're male. Or the opposite. We can't allow that. So, we need to do both. We need to reassert democracy locally for people, and we need to re-envision existing global human rights institutions and how we're going to affect them.

Anannya Bhattacharjee

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Anannya Bhattacharjee is the International Coordinator of Asia Floor Wage Alliance.

The International Labour Organisation is the world's only tripartite organisation for labour. It is an extremely important organisation, but it is challenging to move things within it. That definitely gives opportunities to people who don't want to change anything. It gives them the opportunity to not change. It also frustrates people who want change faster, and certainly we can all say that it does not move as fast as one would like.

However, let there be no doubt that the ILO's standard making process and the standards that it has created and upheld since its beginning are golden. They must continue. They have to be protected. They have to be implemented. The ILO's global standards serve us in extremely good ways when we are talking about global production, because frankly, where else are there standards? National laws do not apply in the international area. While we do agree that national laws have to be followed by global capital, at the same time we need global standards for all kinds of things. Holding global capital accountable by measuring them against the ILO's labour standards continues to be very important.

One of the drawbacks of the ILO, and I think ILO knows this, is that it only recognises certain types of labour organisations. Certain labour unions are in their official membership, while large parts of the labour movement are not seen as being officially part of the ILO.

The good thing is that this alternative labour movement has nevertheless made its way into the ILO in many different ways. That has been important. We have done that ourselves in many scenarios. The domestic workers movement did that, although it had no recognition. The ILO, through our own resistance and knocking at the door, has opened its door a little bit wider. That trend needs to continue.

We have to always remember that institutions are only as important as the movements. We must strategically use the institutions and push them to become more accountable, to become more open, and to become more inclusive. If we just retreat from institutions, then we would lose the mechanisms that are out there. I am not for that type of a retreat. We have to work through these institutions.

We should also not forget that much has happened. We cannot judge these institutions simply by the years of our individual lifetimes, which are quite short. We have to look at them through the historical record. By no means can we just give these institutions up so that they become more and more amenable to those who do not care about our welfare. We have to be there, at the table, and negotiating our positions.

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Luis C.deBaca

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Ambassador Luis C.deBaca, of Yale University’s Gilder Lehrman Center, directed the U.S. Office to Monitor/Combat Trafficking in Persons under President Barack Obama.

We no longer have the luxury of the siloed institutional structures that we currently have. The fight against unscrupulous employers sometimes gets stopped by the intermural fights and navel gazing of the modern slavery movement, or the anti-trafficking movement, or the labour movement, or whatever we're wanting to call it these days. We’ve taken our eye off the ball while trying to figure out which one of us is going to be in charge, or whether something flows from the 1956 convention, as opposed to the 2000 protocol, etc.

In the meantime, unscrupulous employers, the folks who tolerate them and their supply chains, and the folks who purposely traffic people, continue to do their work. They are not being distracted by whether this is an issue for the International Organisation for Migration, as opposed to the UN Office of Drugs of Crime, as opposed to the International Labour Organisation, as opposed to UNICEF, or as opposed to the Financial Crimes Task Force. The answer, of course, is that this is a problem for all of those entities.

We need to stop thinking of ourselves as separate. Instead, we need to figure out what each of us can bring to the mix and then move forward. Because the other side, whether it's the corporations or the abusive bosses fuelling their profits, is not taking the time to think about our silos. Except, perhaps, to see how to exploit them.

FOLLOW-UP

After nearly 20 years of the Palermo Protocols, how do you assess their impact?

LUIS C.DEBACA

I think that they're working, in part because they have been an extremely disruptive force. Without this brash, young, and active challenge from the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime and the protocols themselves, I suspect the IOM, the ILO and other international entities would've continued to chug along with the forced forms of exploitation subsumed into other parts of their mission.

Previous mechanisms just didn’t work. Whether we’re talking about the 1956 Anti-Slavery Convention, the 1957 Forced Labour Convention, or even the 1999 Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, none of these were focused on victims in the communities in the way that the three-P paradigm – prevention, prosecution, protection – of the Palermo Protocols is.

Likewise, look at how older British or US paradigms dealt with the sex industry. These laws basically exempted sex workers from ever being classified as being enslaved, even if they had suffered coercion. Instead, they subjected them to a legal regime based on international commerce and movement that considered sex workers unwanted commodities, as opposed to people whose rights may have been violated. That might be the most important part of the Palermo Protocol: it says that it doesn't matter if a person in prostitution chose to do that work, were forced into it, or had crossed a border or migrated. Rather, it focuses on whether they were held in compelled service at any time, regardless of initial consent or foreknowledge, and no matter whether they are in their hometown or thousands of miles away. Conceptually, these changes ended up expanding protection to a lot of people who had been exempted from earlier human rights concepts.

Read on...

Han Dongfang

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Han Dongfang is the Executive Director of China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong.

Good labour laws are always better than bad laws but the key is implementation. Both China and India have decent labour laws. But due to weak trade union representation and a lack of effective workplace collective bargaining practices, labour laws in both of these countries are not fully implemented.

Before talking about changing government attitudes towards the implementation of labour law, however, we need to establish a collective bargaining system tied to trade unions so that workers can then take the lead in enforcing existing labour laws and improving future legislation.

No matter how production chains evolve in the future, the focus of labour will remain the same: ensuring the fair and reasonable distribution of profit (salary, social insurance, training programs etc.) through the exercise of collective bargaining and solidarity. For this to happen however, national trade unions need to get back to local organising and strengthening solidarity in the workplace. Without workplace and local organising based on effective collective bargaining, global solidarity will have nowhere to go or no real role to play. In other words, global initiatives will only be effective if there is strong workplace and local organising.

It sounds old school but it is time to get back to basics and rebuild workers’ capacity to bargain collectively. Taking a step-by-step approach, one workplace at time, and then one industry or region at a time, workers will be able to gain a fair and reasonable share of the profits and enjoy decent pay for decent work. The is no shortcut to reversing the race to the bottom, only the gradual rebuilding of workplace organising and collective bargaining for workers.

Lupe Gonzalo

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Lupe Gonzalo works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

If international institutions are going to have any relevance in this conversation about human rights and global supply chains, they have to hear directly from the people affected. I've been in spaces and have talked to people in different countries who have no idea which worker organisations are in their country or which challenges they're facing. That has to change. If they're going to be relevant in this conversation, they have to create spaces to hear directly from the people affected by the problems. They need to learn what support these workers need and then act on that information.

The dynamics should be that workers first establish which rights need to be protected. They need to have a strong and powerful voice in that process. These other bodies then need to come in behind and figure out how to actually implement and enforce them, and ensure that these rights are now part of the broader landscape. If they're really going to make a change, if they're really going to have a impact on labour standards internationally, they have to take that approach.

Translated by Marley Moynahan at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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Theresa Haas & Penelope Kyritsis

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Theresa Haas is Director of Outreach and Education at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network.

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Penelope Kyritsis is Outreach and Education Coordinator at the Worker-driven Social Responsibility (WSR) Network.

Penelope: A lot of discussions around the future and technology sensationalise computerisation and artificial intelligence as a threat, implying that the dynamics leading to the precarity of workers at the bottom of supply chains are somehow new. They aren't. It’s not technology rendering workers vulnerable to extreme labour exploitation, but the fact that wealth and power are not concentrated in the hands of workers. So if institutions want to keep up, if they truly want to help workers, the only way they can do that is by putting power in workers’ hands. Computers aren't the problem.

Theresa: ILO conventions remain useful in terms of setting universal standards around these particular issues. Unfortunately the ILO does not have an effect on the enforcement mechanism. Many countries have adopted ILO conventions as part of their national law, but they are not enforced because those governments lack the resources and the political wealth to effectively enforce their own laws. So ILO conventions and international standards are only useful if there is an effective enforcement mechanism component. Absent that, new conventions or standards are not solutions to the problems we've been talking about.

If you could persuade governments to enforce those laws as a matter of policy that would be wonderful. But we acknowledge that although that is the ideal way for things to happen, it's not realistic to expect that it’s going to happen anytime soon. If what we want to do in our lifetime is see real change for workers, we have to go after the people at the top of the chain, which are the brands.

Emily Kenway

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Emily Kenway is senior advisor on human trafficking and labour exploitation at Focus on Labour Exploitation. Until recently she was private sector adviser to the UK’s office of the Independent Anti-Slavery Commissioner.

Firstly we need to be upfront about what doesn't work. There was a community organiser in the US named Saul Alinsky who said, "don't get trapped by your own tactic". That is something we all need to think about, including the big institutions working on labour issues like the ILO. Are they actually having the impact that is needed, or are they running to catch up while the Amazons of the world run rings around everybody?

I think this comes down to being more systemic. Obviously regulations need to be more systemic in terms of crossing national boundaries and addressing supply chains all the way through. But organisations and campaigns also need to focus less on particular companies, particular jurisdictions, or particular issues, and instead work to change the structural pillars underlying all of these problems.

In the UK, that could mean something like campaigning to build migration status into anti-discrimination law. Under the Equality Act of 2010 immigration status is not protected while nationality and ethnicity are, yet we know that lots of migrant workers are being discriminated against for that reason. That would immediately enable migrant workers to access their rights in the UK. Or we could push for limits in supply chain tiers like there are in Oslo. These make it easier for workers to claim rights, for companies to ensure there’s no trafficked labour in their supply chains, and for unions to gain ground.

Ethical consumerism could evolve in this way too. It needs to turn away from using audits to check up on particular issues and instead toward supporting unions.  This just doesn't exist. Why can’t I tell which supermarket or fast food chain has a recognised union? This matters because unions and worker-led organisations are long-term structures that build power over time, build leadership, and that can continually protect rights and fight for new rights. They are the lynchpin of long-term change, and that is where consumer attention should be directed if we are going to have ethical stamps and that sort of thing. It shouldn't be possible for a business to stand on a responsibility platform, to win awards for responsibility, and not have a recognised independent union. Yet that happens all the time.

Working in this way would have a ripple effect. Take international standards, like those created by the ILO. They are useful for making national governments pay attention to things but then it comes down to how they’re implemented on the ground. It comes back to what all of this always comes back to: the need for national and local organised activity to ensure things are done properly with an eye toward achieving lasting systemic change. Most importantly, trade unions and civil society organisations need to ensure that we don’t play the game of being grateful for consolation prizes from capital. We are bargaining for scraps at the moment against a legislative and global economic framework which empowers capital. That has to change but it won’t unless we make the right sorts of targeted, disruptive, systemic interventions.

Reema Nanavaty

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Reema Nanavaty is Director of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA).

To be perfectly frank, neither the policy makers nor the governments nor the multilateral institutions have any clue how the future of work is going to evolve. What kind of technological advancement is going to happen? Where is it going to happen? How is it going to impact work? Nobody has any idea. This is why there is economic growth but it is jobless.

So however well-meaning they are, however more they want to do something for the poor and for informal sector workers, they themselves have no idea what it should entail. This has meant that their views on responsible business and alternative economic models have been heavily influenced by corporations. That's why I said, right in the beginning, that for informal workers innovation is a crucial part of their coping strategy. They have to keep innovating day in and day out for their own survival.

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Elizabeth Tang

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Elizabeth Tang is the General Secretary of the International Domestic Workers Federation.

They need to stick to and affirm the ILO's four principles. They really have to believe in them and never give up. Freedom of association and collective bargaining are the prerequisites for workers' power. These principles are constantly being challenged by corporations. So how we continue to defend them is very important.

Secondly, workers' organisation are constantly evolving. These institutions and also more traditional trade unions need to open their eyes to see what is really happening. When we first started IDWF people didn't really know what to do with us. Our organisation didn't look like a traditional trade union. We didn't use the methods they used. Only a few domestic workers' unions are capable of signing collective agreements, the majority cannot. So we had to find other ways to get rights and are our methods are still evolving.

People found it very hard to accept that we are not signing agreements. They were afraid that by working with us they would become tainted somehow. That we would be a bad influence on their members. Their sectors were already facing many challenges, and their members were no longer working in the same protected environments. So their members were also looking for new ways of organising and of getting rights, and their leaders felt challenged. This sort of attitude has to change.

Alison Tate

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Alison Tate is Director of Economic and Social Policy at the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

I think that the difficulties around intervening through these different institutions suggests that we need more coherence across their policy prescriptions. They are saying all the right things. It's now about actually taking action and making sure that happens.

That's why building workers’ power and having new models of ways in which workers come together is so important. It acknowledges that workers and the unions that represent them are the foundation for that bargaining and that aligning of power across the economic systems. For us it is about having a foundation of social dialogue.

The ILO is a really important institution in that. It's the international parliament of the workers if you like, the place where employers and governments and workers come together for a process of negotiation and consensus building to create policies and legal standards that need to be applied across the world. That's why these institutions were founded and they are as relevant today as they ever were. Our job is to make sure that they're doing that effectively.

Discrimination in employment remains a major, major challenge, whether that be for recognition of women's pay rates, issues around hours of work, issues of the disproportionate number of women working in the informal economy, or whether it's about access to maternity provisions.

These notions still have not become reality for the majority of working women. There is certainly recognition that that is important, and there have been major strides in achieving that. But not in all work places and not in all industries. And not for all women.

The ITUC is leading a campaign for a convention on the elimination of violence against women and men in the world of work. This would be a legally binding instrument that governments would then need to support, ratify, and promote. They would need to make sure that the provisions are taken in their own national labour laws and that businesses adhere to it.

RESPONSES

This project is supported by the Ford Foundation but the viewpoints expressed here are explicitly those of the authors. Our support is not tacit endorsement within. The aim was to highlight new ideas and we hope the result will be a lively and robust dialogue.


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