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Future of work round table: stopping the race to the bottom in the world of work

A lack of labour rights is, for many countries, a serious competitive advantage. What needs to happen in business, politics and organising to stop this race to the bottom?

Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

‘The mobility of global capital allows firms to easily move operations across borders in search of cheaper labor or more favourable tax or regulatory systems. Therefore, if one country raises labor standards, it risks the loss of business, investment and jobs to another’ (Ford Foundation, Quality Work Worldwide, 2018 p. 4). What needs to happen in business, politics, or organising in response this race to the bottom? Are there any promising models emerging which effectively cross national boundaries?

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
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.

It's a very interesting question. One answer is to better explore how unions, which are still very much attached to national contexts, can develop effective alliances with other unions in other countries. There are some global unions, but not many.

My friends from the unions are going to hate me, but it is important to remember that worker organisation doesn't necessarily have to go through traditional unions. What is important is that they are organised. Only the collective power of workers has the possibility to balance the power relationships between the workers and the corporations.

We also need to keep working with our governments. We need to keep demanding that governments meet their obligation to protect national laws that give labour rights to the workers, and that strong judiciary systems enforce those rights. We also need to think creatively about how to utilise other types of initiatives to our advantage. For example, many countries have national action plans. How we can develop a new round of national action plans that actually have teeth when it comes to labour protections? There are many possibilities.

Shawna Bader-Blau

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Shawna Bader-Blau is Executive Director of Solidarity Center.

It has to start with all of us on the activist and organising side being really clear that the pursuit of profit at all costs is unsustainable. We need to be able to articulate that, and give examples why, and to create a common mission for addressing that incentive structure. The uncontrollable, unmitigated, unfettered pursuit of profits is not something that God ordained. It is something that men have created. It was made by people and can be unmade by people. Every right that has ever been created or established came through organisation, advocacy, and struggle. We can make these kind of changes. They might be big, major-scale changes, but they can happen because of social organisation of people with common vision.

There are, of course, also smaller interventions. The implications of the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh are massive in terms of opening up the realm of the possible for corporate governance. At the same time, in comparison to the size of the garment industry the accord is small. So it's an effort that we should be, and are, working collectively to try to replicate in different forms.

The accord is a negotiated agreement between workers and employers, which is akin to collective bargaining. It is completely replicable, scalable, implementable, and is built on the back of a 100-year history of trade unions and labour organisation. The reason such agreements are rare isn't because collective bargaining is some old thing that no longer works. It is because the systems that allowed workers to collectively bargain and have a say in their wages and working conditions have been fundamentally dismantled. But the model works. We need to reassert that and not be afraid to say that, especially in the context of the future of work.

The future isn't magically going to be a nice place, a nice time, because all this lovely technology exists and people can just sit around and receive salaries from the banks. All the same disenfranchisement that exists now very likely will exist on steroids in the future if we don't reassert democracy and democratic control over economies.

So there are big movements and smaller efforts. Both should seek to change the incentive structure through the reassertion of democracy. You do this through social movement activism and organising, and by replicating models of corporate accountability and corporate citizenship that work. The ones that work are negotiated with beneficiaries. They're not imposed by a company.

RESPONSE SPOTLIGHT

Is the race to the bottom over? Reflecting on ‘surplus’ populations in Cambodia

NITHYA NATARAJAN, KATHERINE BRICKELL and LAURIE PARSONS

Tanya Murray Li, a professor of Anthropology at the University of Toronto, describes the millions of unemployed or under-employed people across Asia as “surplus populations”. She writes, “For the 700 million Asians who live on less than a dollar a day, tiny incomes are ample testament to the fact that no one has a market incentive to pay the costs of keeping them alive from day to day, or from one generation to the next.”

This idea of a surplus population puts a whole new spin on the notion of a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of the trajectory of work. It forces us to rethink the very premise of the metaphor, and also to question how such populations can become lucrative for capital in other ways.

Standard Marxist political economy has long held that a key power differential between companies and their labourers is that there are far more workers than there are jobs. This creates a ‘reserve army of labour’ and thus downward pressure on labour prices – a phenomenon that capital is keen to perpetuate. Yet Li argues that the vast numbers of low-paid labourers are no longer required to further increase profits, even in reserve. Labour competition is already so high and prices are already so low that millions of lives have become simply surplus to the needs of industrial and services sector-led growth. Read on...

Anannya Bhattacharjee

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

When you have a situation where the government is not enlightened enough to take on these issues, there's a lot of work to be done to raise their awareness of the problem. I think it's something one can attempt, but it's not being attempted a lot. We are doing some small experiments here and there, but on the whole it's not something that has been prioritised.

What we really need is a movement of people to finally upend the status quo. The movement has to be built by all of us who are in the labour rights, human rights, women's rights, and migrants' rights movements. And by those who live in the headquarters of global capital as citizens and consumers. This is the only solution I see right now. We need to build a movement of people to hold capital accountable.

There are some indicators that things are changing. The International Labour Organisation has definitely been able to organise spaces to begin some of these discussions. In 2016 it held its first tripartite discussion on regulating global supply chains. Last year the discussion was on migration. This year it was on gender-based violence. These discussions are being had, but it's not going to be an easy road. The employer lobby is really refusing to take responsibility, even though their position is becoming more and more unattainable.

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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.

This is why we recently changed the Tariff Act in the United States. This act from the 1930s, among other things, prevented the importation of slave-made goods. However, it came with something called the ‘consumptive demand exception’. This allowed products to be imported, regardless of whether slave labour was involved in their production, if no one in the US was producing them. Its original purpose was to secure the flow certain, strategically important goods, such as rubber, and was predicated on the idea that most things were still being made in the US. Now, in the globalised economy, almost everything is made somewhere else.

We were finally able to get Congress to get rid of the consumptive demand exception. Now, we’re able to actually look to see if slave-made goods are coming in. If so, we're going to seize them, we're going to prevent them from coming into the United States. I think you will soon see enforcement around that act.

Unless people want to set up two supply chains, one that would come into the US and one that would go everywhere else, they will need to take this into account. They’ve created a new office in Customs and Border Protection to lead on this. It is only about six months old now. They're bringing in people from the labour world, not just folks from customs and immigration. They’re hiring people who have dealt with MSIs, with companies that show little respect for the law, and who have good, long-term relationships with unions. I think that the seriousness with which they are staffing that office bodes well.

The US Trafficking In Persons Report is also meant to catalyse a shift. It has been criticised by many for being a unilateral reporting mechanism. But even the folks over at UN Office of Drugs and Crime, which are supposed to be the keepers of the Transnational Organised Crime Convention which has the trafficking protocol in it, admit they're dependent upon what each individual state gives them to put in their own report. They assemble all the self-assessments togethers, whereas the TIP report provides an outside assessment along the lines of prevention, protection, and prosecution. It looks at capacity and corruption, and tells some uncomfortable truths every year. That does seem to make a difference. When you turn up the heat for long enough on a country, they start to make change.

For example, we’re now seeing in Thailand a different level of training and expectation than before. Not just for the police, but the labour ministry as well. A lot of that would not have happened if we had just left that cosy relationship with seafood industry alone. But, by being a real pest, and by doing it for long enough, we were able to put pressure on the companies buying those goods. I think that we can actually say that there's been some real changes in Thai shrimp.

Han Dongfang

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

This question is rather misleading because it mixes up two major forces affecting labour standards: organised labour and the government. Government policy on labour standards is highly dependent on whether or not labour is well-organised. If workers are strongly organised with a focus on workplace collective bargaining, the respective government will have to consider the demands of organised labour before changing labour policy.

The size of country’s labour force is another major factor. The countries with the biggest labour force will have the biggest impact on international labour standards. China and India provide a huge proportion of labour to the world labour market. Improving labour standards in these two countries will have a significantly larger impact on the world labour market than most other countries. Given the vast size of the labour force in these two countries, there is nowhere else companies engaged in the race to the bottom can go if they want to maintain their same capacity.

CLB is lucky enough to be able to focus our strategy on workplace collective bargaining and organising in these two countries. By improving labour standards here through workplace collective bargaining, we may able to slow down and eventually reverse the race to the bottom.

RESPONSE SPOTLIGHT

Change incentives, change the outcomes: three ideas to stop the global race to the bottom

JAMES SINCLAIR

When I co-founded the fair labour company FSI Worldwide in 2006, my colleagues and I thought that we were in the vanguard of an ethical business revolution. The illegal and unethical practices of recruiters were well known by then, and we sensed that the tide was turning on the issue of workers’ rights in global supply chains. It seemed there was a growing willingness and ability on the part of governments, businesses, and consumers to properly invest in better protections for vulnerable workers.

We were wrong.

Global corporate demand for our services, which seek to provide migrant workers to employers willing to offer safe and protected employment, remains a tiny fraction of the overall market. Only a handful of multinational companies have been prepared to elevate ethical practice over rhetoric and invest in the services provided by companies like ours. Read on...

Lupe Gonzalo

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Lupe Gonzalo works with the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

From our perspective the main thing that we have to offer to that question is the broader model that we have developed. The Fair Food Program currently exists only within U.S. agriculture. But the model that it established is replicable, not only in agriculture but in other low wage industries. That's already proven to be true. There are workers in the Vermont dairy industry who have used the same essential elements to create the Milk With Dignity programme. They have their own enforcement, their own education, their own agreements. On the global scale there is the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, a worker-driven social responsibility model that combats health and safety threats to textile workers.

We're looking to bring this model to workers in other places. We know there are just horrific human rights abuses in other countries, that there's horrific poverty in other countries. There are migrant workers in other countries who are vulnerable in the same ways that we are here. They also have the possibility of creating a WSR-style programme that can harness the power of the market for good. We would like to see this model take root on an international basis as much as possible.

The other important piece is the continued education of allies and consumers. There are consumers in every country and for every product. They will play a critical role in demanding real social responsibility. It is our job to educate them on the power they have to work together to make change. Between expanding the model and continuing to mobilise consumers, there's a lot of work to do. But if you are willing to really do the necessary work to harness power and to build power, then it is possible to change.

Translated by Marley Moynahan at the Coalition of Immokalee Workers.

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Theresa Haas

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

I don't know that we've quite hit bottom yet. While Bangladesh which is extremely cheap, you also have Burma and Ethiopia where production has been moving. Can you get even cheaper than those two? I don't know. So I don't know that we've necessarily hit the bottom. I'd like to think we have.

To answer your question, you have to figure out ways to mitigate that competition between countries. There are a couple of different strategies to do that. One is to conduct campaigns on a global scale, to go after an entire industry or an entire sector. If you were to have a global effort around wages, the only way would be for it to apply to every country equally. That way no one country would lose out by becoming too expensive. That's obviously very difficult given the scope.

Worker organisations have increasingly been organising cross-border solidarity efforts because they recognise that pitting one country against another hurts workers across the world. They’re seeking to create agreements on a global scale, but we’re obviously not there yet.

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.

I think the first step is actually challenging the narrative around it. The prevailing narrative is something like a trickle-down theory of labour rights. The more that developed countries develop an ethical conscience and want to consume ethical products, the better rights people at the bottom will have. Research shows that that is not happening. Oxfam recently dug into the value chains of UK supermarkets and found that the share of value going to the supermarkets at the top has actually increased over time, whilst the workers at the bottom sometimes don’t even have access to drinking water. This is happening in an era of alleged corporate social responsibility and ethical consumerism. So we need to get rid of that story line, which I suspect a lot of people probably buy into if they're not directly working on this kind of thing.

There are also legal mechanisms that need to be used, or private versions of those legal mechanisms. We need to implement joint liability frameworks where the top is responsible for creating the conditions for exploitation lower down. They do exist in some sectors in some countries already, but we need to go bigger and to cross boundaries with them. That's a big ask, and we are far away from it.

In the meantime there are private versions of that, such as the Bangladesh Accord. There you have businesses at the top binding themselves into improving the factories supplying them from halfway around the world.

FOLLOWUP

What are the building blocks of an effective transnational alliance?

SHAWNA BADER-BLAU

The Solidarity Center doesn’t have a unique template, and there are many good models across different social movements of successful and lasting transnational solidarity. We have, however, learned a thing or two over two decades as an organisation.

First, transnational solidarity means to be grounded in the idea that we are all equal. Fundamental is that we all have equal rights to dignity, to cultural freedom and sovereignty, and to decent lives as we define them. Equally fundamental is recognising that the forces preventing people from achieving equality and justice are global and affect all of us. The world has not treated us all as equals. The world has treated people very differently based on historic discrimination. People in the Global South have been occupied and exploited by the Global North, and within the Global North we have massive gender discrimination and racial disenfranchisement, among other things. Both points need to be recognised at the same time to have transnational solidarity. You build trust by grappling with all that at once.

Read on...

The Fair Food Program is similar. It’s clever because it understands the power dynamics in the supply chain by commercially incentivising tomato farm owners to stay in the program. That gives it teeth. We need many more mechanisms like that, which create joint transnational responsibility even in the absence of a law.

In terms of organising, I think we need to see really clever disruptions of capital across supply chains. Really looking at specific supply and logistics chains to identify the nodes and intervention points within them and periodically stop them functioning. This would build worker power to the point where it becomes impossible to ignore. The reason to use those strategies is because they will hit money, at the end of the day, which is the only way to succeed given the legal and cultural structures we’re operating under and the absence of things like capital controls.

It isn't enough to have siloed worker action – we need solidarity links between workers across the world. And we need it at every layer – we have to be wary of prioritising the international and forgetting the need for organised power at national and local levels. If you look at global framework agreements, the most successful ones are those which have strong worker organisation at national and local levels to make sure they were implemented and monitored properly.

Reema Nanavaty

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

In order to attract foreign direct investment the Indian government has embarked upon economic reforms as well as labour reforms. We are advocating quite strongly around what kind of wage code and labour reforms ought to be there to safeguard the workers at the base of the pyramid. It's important, because in our experience these workers are not the base of the pyramid but its wheels. They keep the pyramid moving.

We're asking for a floor living minimum wage for informal sector workers. We are also working on what kind of skills development, social development, and social protection programmes need to be put in place, as well as on what kinds of enabling policies are needed so that the enterprises of the informal sector can also grow to scale.

Sometimes we must work in the opposite way, and try to prevent unwanted change from taking place. For example, it used to be that companies with 20 workers or more were required to pay certain entitlements. The governments is trying to raise that number to help more companies evade those requirements, so we are trying to make sure that the government doesn't change it. We have been listened to, and we are doing our best to work on the policies, so we are hopeful. After all, we're not talking about a few thousand workers. We're talking about 95% of the workforce of the country.

I'm not an economist, so I may not be able to say it precisely, but in the long term I think India needs to develop its own economic growth model. We cannot really copy one model or the other. We might be one country but in reality we are many countries within a country. India is so huge, there is so much diversity, and each geographic area has its own particular skillset.

India thus needs a highly decentralised growth model that works with local procurement, local processing, local manufacturing, and local distribution. A few formal sector corporations are not going to give jobs to the millions and millions of youth in our country. If you really want the youth to feel that they have productive, meaningful work that is dignified, you have to look at a decentralised and localised model of growth – what we at SEWA call the 100-miles approach.

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Elizabeth Tang

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

There are many well known strategies for this: organising across regions, organising across sectors along a single supply chain, worker cooperatives, etc. We had already identified them back in the 1970s, and I still think there are no other ways. We have to believe in them and work toward them.

The problem I see is something else. It's not that these solutions are not solutions. The problem is that we are doing less and less in terms of building international linkages, of building regional or international strategies.

Donald Trump and trade unions are now saying many of the same things. They have lots of problems at home, those problems are growing, so they can no longer have large budgets for international activities. There is less time for international solidarity because building their organisation at home is the priority. They are becoming narrower in perspective and more inward looking. Twenty years ago in Asia, there were many regional platforms and networks, and now they have all died.

FOLLOWUP

What is the role of solidarity in an age of protectionism?

SHAWNA BADER-BLAU

This is a moment when a lot of countries are turning inward. Xenophobic, nationalist perspectives are on the rise, which say that ‘there are real citizens and then there's everybody else’. Real citizens are defined along exclusionary nationalistic lines, often based on race, country of origin and, sometimes, religion. That is a trend north to south around the world, including in the United States.

In moments like this the labour movement becomes a target for people who don't share our view of equality and justice. They view us as antithetical to nationalism and as a threat. Some parts of the labour movement in different countries around the world have decided that the best way to survive this kind of moment is to look inwards as well. Stay strong, keep your head down, and live through the moment.

That is, in my view, how civil societies die. We won’t survive these moments by replicating the behaviour of the xenophobic and nationalist groups around us, i.e., by looking inward solely. Instead, the democracy, human rights and labour movements should be doubling down on our belief that the world is interconnected. That we are all people, and that there's no economy on earth that stands and lives on its own. We’re not going to retrench, we’re going to double down on global solidarity.

I got my start organising Coca-Cola workers in 1982 because I was connected with the International Union of Food Workers (IUF). At that time the IUF was campaigning for a boycott of Coca-Cola, because one of their factories in Guatemala was on strike and many trade union leaders were being killed in the country. We used that story to mobilise Coca-Cola workers in Hong Kong. We also mobilised workers to go to the South African consulate to protest against Apartheid. We actually collected donations from workers to send to South Africa to support trade unions. Nowadays all such initiatives have disappeared.

It's not just a question of resources. It's always not enough, they are always scarce. I think our enemies have succeeded in creating fear among us, and instead of confronting that fear we submit to it. One of employers' most common tactics is to threaten to leave when we demand better conditions. But often it's just a bluff. Some smaller operations can close and open easily, but when we talk about the bigger ones it's not so easy. I can't remember how many times Coca-Cola has threatened to leave Hong Kong, but they are still here.

So before we conclude that globalisation just hasn't worked, that that's the only problem, we need to look at ourselves and how inward-looking we have become.

Alison Tate

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

I think the UN’s sustainable development goals and the Agenda 2030 framework has raised awareness of the interconnectedness between labour rights and labour standards, on the one hand, and the long-term economic and environmental sustainability of companies on the other.

From the ITUC’s perspective, our message is very often that we need to change the rules. We've done global polling of the general public in 14 countries and around 85% of people surveyed say it's time to rewrite the rules of the global economy. That's the kind of crisis that we're facing. The future of our society feels like it's being determined by an economic model that takes no consideration of the needs and the aspirations of people.

For us an underpinning of fundamental human rights is essential to changing that. That's not an old idea in a modern world. That's a really fundamental idea that remains relevant. The United Nations institutions have a human rights mandate. The same is true for the ILO. Decent work is the key pillar of the work of the ILO, and improving access to universal social protection and the formalisation of all forms of work is key to living that mandate.

Where we see these institutions not taking that on, we need to push them to come back to the fundamentals and the foundations of what works. Crucially, we need to ensure that pervasive global inequality in terms of women's access to work and discrimination issues in the workplace are addressed. That means addressing maternity rights and parental leave, as well as ensuring minimum living wages, social protection and collective bargaining is available to all women. It means taking specific and targeted action to make sure that what comes about will change the nature of the global economy. Women are at the front lines of many of these industries where fundamental labour rights are eroded, so tackling discrimination is fundamental. All those global institutions have made commitments to that. They've all made very good communiques or proclamations or declarations, but it's now important that those are realised.

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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