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Reflections on the role of philanthropy in the world of work

If philanthropic foundations want to positively affect the lives of workers, then they should use their money to hold the powerful to account and to help workers be heard. 

Overview shot of the 2017 Salzburg Global Seminar 'Driving the Change: Global Talent Management for Effective Philanthropy'. Salzburg Global Seminar/Flickr. (cc by-nc-nd)

On 8 October 2018 we published the BTS Round Table on the Future of Work, in which 12 experts explain recent changes to the nature of work and offer new ideas in labour policy, organising, and activism. This piece has been written in response.

Three funders – the Ford Foundation, the Sage Fund, and Open Society Foundations – recently wrote about their strategic priorities when funding interventions in the world of work. The Ford Foundation was the most detailed, identifying their five areas for strategic interventions as follows:

  1. Changing company practices and behaviour; 
  2. Influencing investment; 
  3. Establishing international standards and norms; 
  4. Strengthening and enforcing labour laws; 
  5. Organising workers to build voice and power.

My assessment is that the conventional human rights framework – the third strategy on this list – requires reinforcing. Despite all of the talk of new and different approaches, there remains considerable value to actually holding governments accountable for existing standards which they  have agreed to uphold, yet frequently fail to do so. The final strategy – organising workers – also deserves special emphasis and needs further funding to amplify and transmit workers’ voices.

Despite all of the talk of new and different approaches, there remains considerable value to actually holding governments accountable for existing standards.

We still need more accountability!

Reinforcing the human rights framework means holding governments to account for:

  1. Their failure to implement the positive measures required to protect certain human rights. There is much more to this than criminalising human trafficking, forced labour, and other workplace abuses;
  2. The measures they have implemented that effectively prevent certain categories of workers from exercising their rights, such as migrant workers and domestic workers. 

Like all strategies, this approach needs some fine-tuning. It should avoid supporting initiatives at the United Nations that go around in circles or do not result in binding agreements. Instead, it should explicitly identify what all governments must do in order to stop gross exploitation and discrimination. Some judgments by regional human rights courts are already doing this.

Furthermore, as labour inspectors around the world are routinely under-resourced, this is a sector that requires monitoring, as well as technical innovation. Monitoring both the resources provided to labour inspectors (and other enforcement agencies operating in the world of work) and the way they perform is crucial, but they can only begin to function properly with adequate funding. We shouldn’t assume that only rich businesses or philanthropists can take on the job of enforcing laws against extreme exploitation and labour abuse.

Interventions are already underway on all five strategic areas. There is a danger that the first four of the five result too easily in ‘top down’ approaches and ‘one size fits all’ solutions, when the world’s cultural diversity requires more heterogeneous solutions. This diversity tends to be glossed over, especially when global capital as a whole is held responsible for most ills. Priority should be given to ‘horizontal’ rather than ‘vertical’ approaches, whereas today it’s too often the other way around.

We have learned from experience that ‘one size fits all’ solutions tend to be deformed once they are implemented at local level. A small business supplying a global brand might, for example, satisfy the brand’s requirement of “no child labour” by discriminating against young workers (banning anyone under 18 from its workplace). Similarly, we hear of migrants who spend fortunes to move from one part of the world to another, only to be sent home again in the name of ‘saving’ them from the clutches of traffickers or other criminals. Such stories demonstrate how some programmes or policies do tremendous damage to the individuals involved. Yet it remains surprisingly difficult to secure funding to document these negative effects. There needs to be an open acknowledgment when interventions do not work, yet funders and civil society organisations tend to close ranks in ways which make it hard to change course when mistakes have been made.

Workers need a greater voice!

The fifth strategy listed by the Ford Foundation – amplifying the voice and influence of young and old workers, migrant workers, and returnee migrants – is vital. Conventionally this was done by promoting freedom of association and collective bargaining, and trusting that trade unions would transmit the workers’ voices. However, experience has shown that this is not enough: many workers go unrepresented and the trade union structures at the international level are sometimes part of the top-down problem.

It is relatively easy to be accurate about the abusive experiences reported by workers. It is more dangerous when intermediaries impose their own bias on the proposed remedies.

Paying attention to “workers’ voice” implies an openness to alternatives outside of conventional trade unions. Such methods include, for example, consulting workers confidentially (i.e. without their employers or supervisors being aware of the consultations) and summarising their messages in different ways for different audiences. This should prevent packaging their words only for people who have influence (i.e. vertical communication), and help make relevant messages available to other workers (the horizontal audience). Improving access to accurate information empowers workers. We saw this in the way farmers in parts of Africa were empowered when they first obtained mobile telephones. Once they were able to check on prices in different markets, they were able to reduce their dependence on the buyers who came to their farms.  

Transmitting workers’ voice raises numerous ethical issues, especially if support for alternatives has the side effect of undermining the influence of unions. Is it possible for either workers’ leaders or non-workers (such as activists and researchers) to interpret workers’ voice correctly and honestly? It is relatively easy to be accurate about the abusive experiences reported by workers. It is more dangerous when intermediaries impose their own bias on the proposed remedies. Further finance is needed to develop innovative methods to transmit and amplify workers’ voices, focusing on methods that do not leave workers or migrants dependent on yet another broker who manipulates the message. The popular refrain of ‘giving voice to the voiceless’ misses the point entirely. People who are exploited are not voiceless, so we need to be cautious when we claim to speak on their behalf.

Round table on the future of work

About the author

Mike Dottridge spent 25 years working in human rights organisations, Amnesty International and Anti-Slavery International, and has worked independently since 2002. He is currently a member of the board of the Issara Institute.


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