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ROUND TABLE: the future of work

Current labour systems are leaving huge numbers of workers in vulnerable and precarious conditions. How can workers and their allies shape a better future for work? Twelve leading experts in the field weigh in.

Artwork by Carys Boughton. All rights reserved.

The Ford Foundation recently conducted an exploration of the changing nature of work globally. Some of the main findings which emerged from this two year project were captured via the publication of a recent report – Quality Work Worldwide – which advanced a number of overlapping strategies for improving protections against labour exploitation and vulnerability, and for enabling workers to more effectively participate in shaping their terms of employment. The report also identified a number of foundational challenges which were undermining the quality of work globally: 1) lack of accountability from companies, 2) global governance gaps, 3) limited action from national governments, and 4) insufficient power and voice for workers.

About the authors

Joel Quirk is Professor in Political Studies at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Cameron Thibos is the managing editor of Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.

The round table that starts today expands upon the main findings of this report. While the report provides an important starting point, many additional conversations need to take place in order to advance our understanding of both underlying challenges and potential alternatives. Working together with the Future of Work team at the Ford Foundation, we have invited 12 leading experts to share their thoughts regarding how and why work has changed, and what types of strategies and approaches need to be introduced or expanded in order to effectively promote quality work globally. Some of the participants in the round table are representatives of organisations who participated in the original project. Others are new voices who expand the conversation further. Their responses are explicitly their own, and the support of the Ford Foundation for this project does not represent tacit endorsement for what is being said.

Each of the participants in the round table has provided answers to five key questions regarding the changing nature of work. These questions have been designed to be open ended, since we wanted to give round table participants an opportunity to take the conversation in different directions. We did not want to point towards specific conclusions. The answers given were recorded via individual interviews, which were then transcribed and edited for clarity. Over the course of this week we will publish each of the answers given to individual questions, starting with question one today and ending with the last question on Friday. Once this phase of the round table has concluded, we will circulate a call for additional submissions. We will also be going back to our contributors to get their thoughts on the responses given by other participants.

The following remarks help to introduce the core issues at stake in the round table. We begin with a brief overview of some of the ways in which global patterns of work and employment have changed, and what types of effects these changes have had for workers and their allies. We then offer some reflections on the politics of quality work. These reflections are in turn used to help introduce some of the main strategies which have been highlighted by round table participants.

The new world of work

In December 2010, the government of Qatar was awarded the right to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Bringing such a high profile sporting event to the Middle East was undoubtedly a major coup for a small country such as Qatar. However, their position as host has also attracted a great deal of international scrutiny. Persistent concerns about corruption behind the scenes have been increasingly overshadowed by numerous reports regarding the exploitative and abusive treatment of migrant workers, who are building facilities for the event. Campaigns by organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have identified all kinds of problems, including expensive and deceptive recruitment, atrocious living conditions, segregation, low salaries worn away by delays, deductions, and long hours, exceptional levels of workplace death and inquiry, and threats of violence. The government of Qatar has repeatedly declared that it is taking action to prevent abuses, and recently announced that the vast majority of migrant workers no longer have to secure an exit permit from their employer to leave the country. While this reform has been cautiously welcomed, it also speaks to a larger series of issues regarding the role of governments in both creating and sustaining migrant labour systems.

Migrant labour in Qatar is designed to be exploitative. Workers migrate from many different countries, including Nepal, India, and the Philippines, and their labours are regulated by contracts which give employers huge amounts of discretionary power. These contracts can last up to five years. Workers cannot change jobs without securing permission from their employer, there is very limited scope to effectively resolve grievances, and their work takes place under the shadow of deportation. The government has the power to change how the system is designed, but its interests are closely aligned with employers, rather than workers. Amnesty has reported that there are around 1.7 million migrant workers in Qatar – at least 90% of the overall population – but their precarious status as non-citizens effectively leaves them on the outside looking in. As foreigners, they reside in Qatar on a temporary basis, they can rarely speak Arabic (and sometimes also English), and they can be easily and effectively sanctioned for all kinds of reasons. It is easy to diminish or dismiss the interests and experiences of workers, because the system has been designed to make it extraordinarily difficult for workers to collectively organise. Political strategies familiar to workers attempting to improve their pay and conditions – such as strikes, pickets, litigation, unionisation, collective bargaining – are almost entirely absent.

This absence is important. While the FIFA World Cup has concentrated attention on stadiums in Qatar, similar migrant labour systems can be found in many other parts of the world. While some employers may treat workers better than others, that is frequently an individual choice. The system itself assigns them a huge amount of discretion in how to behave. In 2017, it was estimated that there were 11 million migrant workers in Saudi Arabia, with perhaps 23 million migrant workers based in the Middle East more generally. Many of these migrant workers can be found in private homes, creating an additional set of challenges. While these estimates are only rough guides, they nonetheless help to illustrate a fundamental point: radical changes in global labour markets have created a huge population of workers who labour under systems designed to severely limit their capacity to mobilise for better pay and conditions.

The growth of migrant labour is only one of a number of changes in global patterns of work and employment. Another key example concerns the growth of global supply chains. The last three decades have seen international corporations engage in a ‘race to the bottom’, with most aspects of production processes and supply chains being relocated to countries in the Global South with lower wages, less regulation, and fewer workplace protections. Global supply chains have been designed by corporate executives to maximise their profits while minimising their political and legal liability.

Leading corporations exercise their market power to drive down costs per unit, since their numerous suppliers in the Global South have limited capacity to effectively bargain for better returns or less demanding production cycles. Companies further down the chain are therefore compelled to minimise wages and working conditions. Contracts get subcontracted and then subcontracted again, creating many layers between the corporation and supply chain worker. It can sometimes be very difficult to work out who is producing what for whom. Regulations governing labour relations have struggled to keep up with these new business models. Supply chains spans numerous countries and companies, which once again creates barriers for workers who might want to organise to improve pay and conditions. Most work within supply chains is offered on a ‘take it or leave it’ basis, and the terms on offer invariably favour corporations.

Several observations can be drawn from these examples. While not everyone has been affected by recent changes in the same way, there are some general themes which are worth highlighting:

  1. Many governments throughout the globe have reduced their commitments to protecting workers, and have frequently embraced neo-liberal models of de-regulation and non-binding self-regulation, which have shifted the balance of power between workers and employers.

  2. Corporations have leveraged the globalisation of finance, production and migration to create business models that maximise corporate power while minimising corporate accountability.

  3. The production of good and services has been globalised to an unprecedented degree, creating all kinds of opportunities for corporations to move – or threaten to move – between countries and/or suppliers in order to further reduce their production costs. 

  4. Employers have used various strategies to reduce labour costs and externalise risks, including subcontracting and outsourcing, piecework and penalty pay, zero-hours contracts, forced overtime and wage theft. These often overlap with patterns of race and gender discrimination.

  5. Existing regulations, both domestic and international, have struggled to keep up with ongoing changes, contributing to governance gaps where regulations either apply weakly or not at all. Even in cases where regulations do apply they are not always consistently or effectively enforced.

  6. Workers and their allies have been forced to confront challenging questions regarding these recent changes, resulting in ongoing conversations about how to organise, and what to push for.

What should we make of this new world of work? What kinds of strategies and approaches have the best chance of elevating the voices and interests of exploited and precarious workers? To help answer these and other questions, we have turned to some of the world’s leading experts.

Working towards quality work

Labour is frequently divided into two distinct categories: free and unfree. The former is said to involve workers negotiating a deal with an employer regarding their service. If the employer uses direct coercion to compel them to start work, or to continue to work, then their labour is said to become forced, and is therefore regarded as immoral and unfree. This comparison portrays free labour as a desirable condition, and it is often suggested that workers should be thankful to be ‘free’.

However, there are many occasions where desperate workers have few if any alternatives, and therefore ‘freely’ consent to highly exploitative conditions. There are currently hundreds of millions of free labourers across the globe who routinely endure terrible and irregular wages, unsafe and unhealthy workspaces and homes, sexual harassment and assault, and bullying and abuse. They may well be formally free to leave, in the sense that they retain the capacity to seek out other forms of work, but their capacity to exercise any kind of individual ‘choice’ nonetheless remains severely constrained by their precarious status and a shortage of viable alternatives. The work involved is not work which would be freely chosen if there were other alternatives on offer.

Maintaining a sharp distinction between free and unfree is not always helpful. If we narrowly focus on unfree labour, then everything which ends up falling on the other side of the dividing line gets removed from the equation. We need to focus upon all vulnerable workers, rather than only workers subject to unfree labour. This means incorporating forms of precarious labour which may be nominally ‘free’, yet still have many highly objectionable features. This is part of the rationale behind the framework of quality work, which is defined in the Ford Foundation's report (p. 2) in terms of “opportunities that provide safe working conditions, a fair income, social protection, and freedom of association and expression”.

This definition of quality work in turn draws upon the concept of decent work, which is broadly defined by the International Labour Organisation (ILO) in terms of “work that is productive, delivers a fair income with security and social protection, safeguards basic rights, offers equality of opportunity and treatment, prospects for personal development and the chance for recognition and to have your voice heard”. Behind both definitions is a emphasis upon what work should be, and what types of practical steps and employment conditions would help improve the overall quality of work. This is very different to the minimum threshold associated with free labour, which is frequently understood to mean that ‘the market should decide’, so long as workers are not subject to direct coercion. There are similar differences between accepting a minimum wage and advocating for a living wage.

Quality work is clearly not a goal which can be advanced using a single strategy or approach. This is one of the main reasons why this round table has been organised, since it is crucial to have a wide range of perspectives and experiences represented when thinking about ways forward. This therefore makes this an excellent time to introduce our contributors to our quality work round table, who all have a number of valuable insights and proposals to share on this topic.

What would it take to reach quality work for all?

Our first contributor, Alejandra Ancheita, is the founder of the Economic, Social and Cultural Rights Project (ProDESC) in Mexico City. She observes that, “Precarity has become the general rule for workers in Mexico and Latin America more generally. Most workers are not able to collectively organise as an independent union. They are not able to create contracts through collective bargaining. Their instability affects their other rights, and many no longer have access to the right to housing, health, or education for themselves or their families”. When it comes to thinking about potential solutions, she observes that, “Companies use social responsibility mechanisms because they are cheap and make corporations appear as the good guys”. She therefore discusses a series of alternatives, including an ongoing programme designed to “defend the rights of Mexicans temporarily migrating to the United States” on both sides of the border. She also makes the important point that, “Worker organisation doesn't necessarily have to go through traditional unions. What is important is that they are organised”.

Our second contributor, Anannya Bhattacharjee, draws upon her experience in the Indian subcontinent, where she works as the International Coordinator of the Asia Floor Wage Alliance. Bhattacharjee observes that, “In India job creation is really the creation of miserable jobs”. At the same time, “It really wouldn't take much to make these jobs more decent”. She suggests that a good way to start is by recognising that, “Business is not one monolithic thing. There is big capital and there is small capital. If we approach all businesses as capital, and have the same approach to all of them, then we won't make the most strategic alliances”. Yet at the end of the day, working conditions will only improve “when workers' organisations are at the table to discuss, implement, and monitor the solutions”. However, this rarely happens due to “antipathy towards trade unions or any kind of representative organisations”.

We also have an important contribution from Shawna Bader-Blau, the executive director of Solidarity Center, a US-based international worker rights organisation. She observes that things have now got to the point where, “It's hard to do very simple things like form unions or come together as workers to achieve collective bargaining”. This situation has been further complicated by the growth of free trade agreements, which “enormously privilege the rights of investors over the rights of humans and the rights of workers”. Improving the lives of workers requires action on multiple fronts, including building bridges between labour movements and other social and political movements, exposing the fundamental lawlessness behind wage theft, and effective global regulation based upon human rights frameworks. Much of the focus of her contribution is the model provided by the recent Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which is “a negotiated agreement between workers and employers … akin to collective bargaining”.

Building upon his decades of experience within the US State Department, Luis C.deBaca identifies a number of promising strategies for reducing vulnerability and exploitation. He observes that “developed countries have allowed their labour inspectorates to be weakened over time”. This has important effects: “If you're not dealing with wage theft, if you're not dealing with hours worked, if you're not dealing with the ability to act through unions, then don't be surprised when the most horrendous violations of enslavement and abuse end up happening”. This has resulted in a situation where criminal justice mechanisms have stepped in to provide partial cover, but this also comes with complications: “if we’re forced into saying that something is slavery or trafficking in order to go after somebody, it exempts companies from having to create better workplaces by making only the most egregious important”. Improving the lives of workers requires action on multiple fronts, including investing in worker-driven social responsibility, which “doesn't depend on the largesse of the company”. And while prosecution is only one tool amongst many, for C.deBaca one of the things “that makes it possible to have worker-led social responsibility is the prospect of a boss going to jail”. When thinking about future steps, C.deBaca also suggests that, “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”.

This is followed by some reflections from Han Dongfang, the Executive Director of China Labour Bulletin in Hong Kong. Dongfang observers that global supply chains set “workers further and further away from each other even as the goods they produce become ever more closely related”. This in turn creates major difficulties when it comes to “organising, both locally and internationally”, and contributes to a “loss of local and global bargaining power”. He therefore maintains that corporate social responsibility “will never become an effective tool for protecting workers’ rights unless it involves the workers producing these goods as a bargaining partner”. The decades of experience of the China Labour Bulletin in helping to develop collective bargaining and organising in both China and, more recently, India provides a valuable model here: “Even in China, one of the worst countries for workers’ rights violations, we have seen numerous examples of workers with a common grievance coming together and taking strategic and well-thought-out collective action to force their employer to the bargaining table”.

The round table also greatly benefits from the experience of Lupe Gonzalo, from the Coalition of Immokalee Workers. When thinking about potential solutions, Gonzalo observes that “Corporate social responsibility programmes exist to satisfy consumer demand for ethical products. Their primary purpose is to protect the brand by preventing consumers from taking their business somewhere else. They are not meant to and do not succeed in protecting the human rights of workers, or in reducing poverty for workers”. She instead makes the case for an alternative based upon the  Fair Food Program, whose essential features “can and have been replicated in many contexts”. She also endorses a model provided by a recent campaign targeting the fast food company Wendy's:  “We spent years working on a public campaign to educate consumers about the conditions in their supply chain in Mexico. We pushed really hard to convey the reality despite what Wendy's was saying. We combined that with action steps. We were not only telling consumers what was happening, but we gave them ways to help”.

The value of worker-driven social responsibility (WSR) is mentioned by a number of contributors to the round table. It should come as no surprise that it features in the contribution by Theresa Haas and Penelope Kyritsis from the Worker-driven Social Responsibility Network. Reflecting on the power now exercised by leading corporations within supply chains, Kyritsis observes that, “It has become very difficult for suppliers to maintain successful commercial relationships and comply with labour standards, including minimum wage laws, at the same time”. Haas similarly observes that “responsibility lies almost exclusively with the brands at the top of supply chains”. She therefore advances a case for WSR as an effective way of “shifting power, resources, and control from the entities at the top to the workers at the bottom in ways that legally obligate companies to prioritise the needs and rights of workers”. When it comes to thinking about the future of work, Kyritsis makes the further point that, “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 … Computers aren't the problem”.

We also greatly benefit from having a contribution from Emily Kenway, from Focus on Labour Exploitation. Building upon her extensive experience both inside and outside government, Kenway observes that global supply chains “fragment responsibility and create a vacuum of accountability in relation to labour rights”, resulting in a situation where workers sometimes “do not know what company they are working for”. Echoing other contributors, Kenway is reluctant to endorse ethical investment models and ethical consumerism, and instead recommends specifically targeting the exposure of governments to abuses within their own supply chains. She also specifically endorses the Fair Food Program, as “one of the best examples of worker-led labour rights change out there today”.  When summarising the current state of play, she observes that, “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”.

We also have a second contribution from the Indian subcontinent featuring Reema Nanavaty, the Director of the Self-Employed Women's Association (SEWA). She observes that the “the majority of the workforce in India and in the Global South are informally employed”, what has meant that “their work remains invisible”. Emphasising a point which comes up time and time again within the round table, Nanavaty argues that, “The primary and most effective route is to organise informal sector workers. This gives them a collective strength. Their voice is heard. Their work gets visibility”. She also points to SEWA’s efforts to provide alternative employment, including the establishment of a company run by garment and textile workers that employs 15,000 people. As part of their ongoing lobby efforts, SEWA is mobilising in support of “a floor living minimum wage for informal sector workers …  skills development, social development, and social protection programmes”. In the case of 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”.

The round table also features Elizabeth Tang, the executive director of the International Domestic Workers Federation. Emphasising the ways in which different problems intersect, Tang observes that, “Lots of domestic workers are also migrants, and as migrants they also face another layer of discrimination … It is very hard to ask for legal protections when the people around you do not think you deserve them”. Given the scale of these challenges, it is essential to specifically prioritise investment “in organisation building and movement building”. She observes that “lots of people only want to invest in the last step: fix this problem, change that policy. But they don't realise that the first half, the work that enables us to have the capacity to take that last step, hasn't been done yet. Investing only in the last step can consume large amounts of resources, but it will be less likely to succeed”.  When faced with corporate power, it is also crucial not to submit to fear: “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”.

Our final contribution comes from Alison Tate, who builds upon her experience at the International Trade Union Confederation. As part of her contribution, Tate identifies the emergence of a “model of business that undermines the capacity for job security and income security” as one of the main obstacles to promoting workers’ rights. She argues that, “No job should be without a floor of universal social protection, which includes certain benefits for when a worker is not able to access sufficient income. No worker should be without a minimum living wage, or the capacity to bargain for a fair contract price floor. Yet that's what we're seeing more and more in the digitalised and platform economy”. Improving the lives of precarious workers therefore requires action on multiple fronts, including building workers power, organising the informal economy in innovative ways, leveraging the power of pension funds, strengthening labour courts, rewriting the rules of the global economy, and campaigning for a convention on the elimination of violence against women and men in the world of work.

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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