Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

#ILC2016: What happened? What’s next?

This year’s International Labour Conference could represent a turning point in the struggle to regulate global supply chains.

Neil Howard Cameron Thibos
10 June 2016

Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, speaks on the outcomes of the 2016 International Labour Conference and ponders what comes next for the global labour movement.

In his book, The Great Transformation, economic historian Karl Polanyi develops the concept of ‘the double movement’ to refer to the process by which any phase of market expansion or economic liberalisation will be followed, inevitably, by counter-demands for social protection and market re-regulation. This, he argues, is because the expansion of market relations will typically result in major social dislocation, with the consequence that people rebel and fight to once again subordinate commerce to social life.

Arguably, what we’ve seen in Geneva over the past two weeks has been a watershed moment in the history of precisely such a double movement. For three decades now, neoliberal globalisers (that is, business interests – assisted by states) have pushed the boundaries of market life ever further back. Privatisation has followed wave of privatisation, natural resources have been commodified, and labour protections have been dismantled.

A key feature of this advance has been the re-organisation of global production into global supply chains (GSCs). Companies like Apple and Walmart no longer make the products they sell, but rather co-ordinate their production across thousands of supplier firms located in countries all over the world. These sub-contractual arrangements allow lead firms to shop around in search of the cheapest, least protected labour forces, and ensure that they can avoid legal liability for any labour violations. The result, of course, has been an unparalleled boom in corporate profits – along with downward pressure on wages and working conditions.

Yet the 2016 International Labour Conference could – we hope – represent the very beginning of the end for that model of production, and in turn for this phase of market expansion. This week, we have witnessed first hand a powerful debate about GSCs, the type of economy that they embody, and who wins and loses from them at a major international political gathering – the International Labour Organisation’s annual general meeting.

Getting GSCs on the agenda at the ILO is, in itself, is a real achievement for global labour – it has taken years and deep alliances with civil society to get here, and all in the face of huge corporate opposition. As industry representatives have argued at the ILC this week, from their perspective, GSCs are good for development and any regulation should be left to individual national governments. Their position, therefore, is that new regulatory paradigms are not necessary. Workers, by contrast, have said otherwise, responding with mountains of evidence that supply chains give rise to serious labour exploitation. They have argued that a global economy should be regulated by global laws, including a convention on GSCs which establishes – among other things – corporate liability and accountability for labour conditions.


Cambodian garment factory workers. ILO/Flickr. (CC 2.0 by-nc-nd)

This year’s ILC debate has been important in that it has elevated labour’s voice, aggregated its claims, and in turn brought political attention to whether (and how) GSCs can and should be regulated in the service of worker protection. But as Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, says: “last night’s discussion was a very good step – it lays the groundwork and opens conversation”.

But workers’ successes this week go far beyond opening the conversation. Alliances have been made, lessons have been shared, and new tools of communication have been tried out. More significant than anything though has been the final conference text. For, as delegates have told us, the wording of that text opens the door to the ILO now initiating a process – however tortuous, slow, and political – that could, with enough mobilisation, eventually lead towards a binding international convention on decent work in global supply chains.

That convention has long been labour’s goal. It knows that neoliberalism un-moored capital from any of its national harbours, and it knows that only a global response will suffice to ever come close to subordinating it to the social good. This is why, for labour, being ‘on the convention track’, so to speak, is so important. It requires a tool that it could, in the best case scenario, use as leverage to re-balance the power scales – something global that could potentially establish and enforce transnational corporate accountability. It needs a framework that can translate moral responsibility into legal liability. And it needs a success of this scale to announce its push-back against decades of de-regulation.

When Karl Polanyi wrote The Great Transformation he knew that nothing could be taken for granted, and that the success – or failure – of any social counter-movement would be determined by the strength and effectiveness of its organisation in the struggle. The same is true for labour today. And the goal for the labour movement, as well as for social justice activists more broadly, is to organise well enough and loud enough over the next 12 months that the 2017 International Labour Conference will be discussing an actual convention and not just its possibility. This will not be easy. And it will require a major shift in ILO positioning away from ‘neutrality’ and towards workers’ rights. But it will begin almost at once – as we shall see throughout the summer with coverage on Beyond Trafficking and Slavery.

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