Beyond Trafficking and Slavery

Organising precarious workers: a view from the south

A global labour movement is possible if traditional trade unions learn to see informal workers for the enormous asset that they are. A new series looks at how they might do that.

Ronaldo Munck
15 October 2019, 2.43pm
The Justice for Janitors campaign takes to the streets.
SEIU/Flickr. Creative Commons (by-nc-sa)

The workers of the world face numerous challenges. Many debates around the future of labour, such as the rise of the so called ‘gig economy’, tend to focus on experiences and trends within the Global North. The shortcomings of the present are often contrasted to a nostalgic view of the past, with an idealised ‘golden era’ defined by ‘standard employment contracts’ serving as the primary benchmark against which practices today are measured. Once work is defined in these terms, the primary focus becomes the ‘restoration’ of labour rights and protections that have been lost or eroded. The re-invention of a vibrant global labour movement will not occur through a vain attempt to put the clock back to a mythical ‘standard employment contract’. It is only through organising – recruiting, educating and mobilising – new members that labour can reinvent itself as a social movement.

We need to start from the experiences of the Global South, where no such standard employment contracts or labour rights have ever prevailed. There precarious and informal work has always been the norm rather than the exception, ranging today from two thirds to three quarters of the total labour force. As the contributions to this special feature demonstrate, there is now a move towards closer collaboration between the organised labour movement and informal and precarious workers. To ‘organise the unorganised’ has always been a challenge for the trade union movement, since these workers are less accessible and fall outside the industrial relations bargaining structures.

Yet trade unions across the South, even ones with strong corporatist traditions, now recognise that the working class reaches well beyond the factory and that their own future depends on engaging with these ‘non-traditional’ layers. Efforts to organise workers have increasingly brought together informal workers, street traders, the newly unemployed and, sometimes, migrant workers. When different kinds of workers are brought into the fold, trade unions may rediscover more militant approaches to collective organising and political impact. For example, the mobilisation of unemployed workers in Argentina after the 2001 crisis, the piquetero movement, helped revitalise a once strongly corporatist labour movement. It is now playing a big role in preventing the re-election of the neoliberal Mauricio Macri government that came to office in 2015.

Trade unions across the South recognise that the working class reaches well beyond the factory and that their own future depends on engaging with these ‘non-traditional’ layers.

These efforts reflect the central importance of informal and precarious labour in terms of shaping the The Social Question in the 21st Century. Due to the emergence and consolidation of neoliberal capitalism from the 1970 onwards, informality/precarity, a condition once thought to be concentrated in the post–colonial world, has become globalised. Whereas the Northern experience is related to the erosion of the welfare state, in the South it is a more long-standing condition related to the super-exploitation of labour by different forms of neo-colonialism and unequal exchange on a global scale.

It is imperative that new forms of organising for change are developed if the trade union movement is not to become irrelevant. The mass trade unions and welfare states of social democratic Europe clearly cannot be replicated in China, India or Brazil. Once seen as the vanguard of a new social order, the contemporary labour movement is now often written off by activists as much as analysts (see the Great Transition Initiative debate on the future of the labour movement). The impact of informalisation/precarity is one key challenge it needs to face or be swamped by. What the regional perspectives this week show us, however, is how rich the experience of Southern unions is in tackling informality. Much can be learned from their efforts.

Unions now seem more cognisant that the workers’ movement is broader than its organised trade union component. They have worked with informal and migrant workers networks as well as with engaged NGOs to influence government policy and improve social security. The international trade union movement has also played an important role in energising this organising drive, not least through the activities of the global union federations (now covering 20 million workers across 163 countries). These have helped create links across borders and across sectors, such as when Brazilian union networks brought national and international trade unions together in successful collaboration.

A global labour movement

Globalised capitalism may thus have created the conditions for the emergence of a global working class not only in terms of material conditions but also in terms of consciousness. Transnationally oriented unions have used globalisation to their benefit by organising transnational labour actions, forming new transnational structures, and fostering solidarity with migrant workers at home. The spread of precarity worldwide has provided a new unifying focus for diverse labour movements. Their own revitalisation – and continued relevance – depends on how successful they are in creating global resistance and offering global alternatives. The stakes are high and the outcome is not a given.

Informal/precarious workers and migrant workers present two challenges to this transformation, however on both fronts we have seen some positive movement. In Brazil, the powerful Central Worker’s Union (CUT) sponsored the formation of the Informal Economy Workers’ Syndicate (SINTEIN) which took up issues around micro-credit and entrepreneurship supported by the Ministry of Labor’s Solidarity Economy Board. In South Africa, as a result of a decision of the 2012 Cosatu (Congress of South African Trade Unions) congress, a ‘vulnerable workers task team’ was established to highlight the conditions of vulnerable workers and to organise them into the ranks of trade unions and allied worker organisations in large numbers. Neither of these initiatives were totally successful but they represent a move away from the traditional focus on existing members.

Through positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives.

With regard to migration, there are many historical examples of trade unions opposing the entry of foreign workers into the national labour market or seeking exclusion of those already there. In recent times though there has been a recognition from within trade unions themselves that “solidarity with migrant workers is helping trade unions to get back to the basic principles of the labour movement”. To ‘democratise globalisation’, workers’ freedom of movement at the national level should also prevail internationally. Latin American trade unions, for example, have committed to promoting, increasing, strengthening, and guaranteeing the freedom of movement for all workers to stay in their own land, emigrate, immigrate, and return.

A new global labour movement should recognise that migrant workers are an integral part of the working class and that they have often played a pivotal role in the making of labour movements. The smartest unions today are treating migrant workers not as a threat but as an opportunity. By making common cause with migrant workers, trade unions have deepened their democratic role by integrating migrant workers into unions and combatting divisive and racist political forces. We’ve seen this in Singapore and Hong Kong, where state-sponsored unions have recruited migrant workers to mutual benefit. In Malaysia, the Building and Woodworkers International (a global union federation) recruits temporary migrant workers to work alongside ‘regular’ members of the union. Through such positive, proactive outreach, unions can counter the divide-and-conquer strategy on which anti-union management thrives.

The stories this week

In this special feature we develop these themes through a series of regional snapshots to add texture and ground this opening statement. Mark Anner reviews the organising efforts of local, migrant and informal workers in global supply chains, for example apparel companies operating in Central America, and calls for greater respect for union rights. He makes clear the intertwining of different forms of labour exploitation and the crucial importance of global solidarity.

Michelle Ford examines the way in which trade unions and others have sought to organise informal workers (especially migrants) across Asia with varying degrees of success. She shows clearly that organising these workers can be a win-win for the unions and the migrants. Precarious workers need unions not least for their access to national industrial relations machinery but also the international bodies setting labour standards.

Edward Webster turns to informal worker organising in an African context. He shows that while it is a huge challenge, given the high proportion of informal workers, gains can be made when unions focus on the realisation of common interests with workers outside the formal ambit. Emphasis is placed on the ubiquity of labour resistance and the hybrid forms of organising now emerging.

Sally Roever of WIEGO (Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing) turns to the pivotal role played by women workers in organising across the Global South in ways that have often been innovative and inspirational. Emphasis is placed on the diversity of organisational forms emerging, where the union form is just one option, and the need for social protection mechanisms.

Sanjay Pinto turns to the broader question of how unions North and South can collaborate better and in particular the importance of organising migrant workers in the North. Some exemplary struggles and forms of solidarity have emerged, as in the SIEU work with migrant workers on the west coast of the US that was a landmark struggle we can all learn from.

These articles are based on earlier discussion papers produced as part of the Open Society Foundations’ Just Future for Workers initiative, which advances strategies to build strong and inclusive labor movements.

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