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Expanding the map: how funders can ensure quality work for all

Philanthropy can have blind spots and red lines. We must resist the temptation to sidestep difficult issues when it comes to workers’ rights. 

Wood factory in Viet Nam. Aaron Santos for ILO/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.

As a funder working at the intersection of human trafficking and workers rights, I greatly value the landscape analysis and call for collaboration found the new report ‘Quality Work Worldwide’, recently released by the Ford Foundation and SAGE Fund. As another funder recently reflected, it is especially helpful as a directional map which identifies specific sites for improving the quality of work globally. Equally importantly, it also includes an analysis of specific barriers which can be anticipated, such as investors’ short horizon on profits and lack of global governance, when it comes to changing the direction of our global economy.

While both funders and NGOs can benefit greatly from this map, there are still some uncharted areas.  In this piece, I identify two additional themes that merit further consideration:

Recognise sex work in the analysis

When we talk about informal work, we too often leave out the sex industry. Like many within society, funders can turn away from sex workers. Because of criminalisation and stigma, even labour rights funders often forget about this large sector, or gravitate towards more palatable causes.

Sex workers have been in conditions of precarity long before recent shifts in the economy made headlines. Operating in a hostile environment and without any of the benefits attached to legal employment, sex workers have nevertheless found ways to better their conditions. They’ve done this through collectivisation, unionisation, law reform, self-regulation, peer protection, sharing resources, and early and constant innovation in their use of the internet. Many sex workers embrace the hustle and creativity that is possible in informal work, but also face exploitation and violence that comes from being so marginalised.

Foundations themselves only have money to give away because of corporate profits.

As the report states, “informality itself is not a challenge; rather, the lack of rights and protections for these workers – and the stigma surrounding informality – is impeding quality work for billions of workers around the world.”  Many of the strategies offered in the report for informal workers, from facilitating peer exchange to tailoring responses to specific sectors, would be valuable for sex workers. Promising work by sex workers to protect their rights should be brought to scale. Including these workers would push the boundaries of our analysis, help us think about who else we are leaving out because of our moral judgments, our undervaluing of feminised labour, or our inability to see all the ways that labour and capital circulate.

 We should not leave sex workers off the map when it comes to any exploration of the risks and opportunities in the future of work.

Challenging ourselves to challenge corporate power

The power of corporations permeates every aspect of our lives, our economy, and our democracy. The legal buffers separating corporations at the top from workers in their supply chains mean they can turn a blind eye to forced labour and other violations, even while benefitting from this race to the bottom. This report explicitly names the power of corporations, along with the need to build worker power to challenge it through leading models such as worker-driven social responsibility (WSR).

But corporate power reaches far beyond the workers whom they employ. Foundations themselves only have money to give away because of corporate profits, and their endowments (usually 95% of their assets) are invested in the world’s capital markets. Corporate foundations are even more tied to the interests of corporations. As Anand Giridharadas argues in his recent book Winner Takes All, philanthropic foundations may talk about “systemic change,” but most philanthropists benefit too much from the system as it stands to really want to change it.  

A funder strategy to promote workers’ power must acknowledge this tension. This report from the Ford Foundation and SAGE Fund will have even more impact if it compels funders to explore how philanthropy’s relationship with corporations could be used for good. More foundations could be screening for workers’ rights offenders in their investment portfolios, or using their position as shareholders to hold corporations to account.  Foundations must also be challenged to move outside our comfort zone: to fund more campaigns that directly challenge corporations and public policy change that puts limits on corporate power.  

Supporting the kind of transformation that will give everyone access to quality work will require funders to eliminate blinds spots such as sex work, and to confront corporate power, and our own relationship to it.

Round table on the future of work

About the author

Sienna Baskin is Director of the Anti-Trafficking Fund at NEO Philanthropy, a project of the Oak Foundation. She helps support a human rights response to human trafficking in the United States. 


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