By Brendan Pastor
Published May 4, 2013
With less than 1,000 days to go until the end of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs), experts are keen to identify the priorities for the United Nations’ post-2015 development agenda and the next round of key players. This time, the UN is tapping an unlikely source: trade unions.
Largely absent from the consultation process that established the MDGs in the late 1990s—which some argued may have contributed to the agenda’s weak language on workers’ rights, the 2012’s Rio +20 conference finally paved the way for trade unions to play a larger role in the agenda.
The move is seen by many in the development field as a step in the right direction, and has not gone unnoticed by the trade union community. Trade unions, which have long been advocates for job creation, improved working conditions, and ending worker exploitation, are now throwing their organizational and institutional weight behind a robust global poverty-reduction agenda.
“Trade unions are committed to the post-2015 process,” Claude Akpokavie, a senior adviser for the International Labour Organisation (ILO)’s Bureau for Workers’ activities, says.
Workers’ organisations have already engaged in national and international talks, he says, in anticipation of a larger role for unions in the new agenda.
It’s a role that’s needed, according to Anabella Rosemberg, a policy officer for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) who has been deeply involved in the post-2015 consultations. The MDGs, she says, failed to address the deeper causes of poverty in the developing world, chiefly, access to decent work.
“The absence of access to jobs has undermined progress of the MDGs in contributing to a truly sustainable development agenda,” Rosemberg explains.
For instance, the MDGs agenda lacked concrete protections for the rights of migrants, although UN studies have found that migrant workers numbered more than 215 million in 2010 . Experts have argued that migration is a primary driver of development , but the working conditions that migrants face are often exploitative and inhumane.
Rosemberg suggests that the involvement of working people and unions should help prevent repeating these mistakes in the new development framework. Her comments echo those of ITUC’s General-Secretary, Sharan Burrow. Three years ago, at a 10-year review of the MDGs, Burrow called for a fundamentally new policy approach to meeting the poverty-reduction goals, namely moving away from policies favoured by international financial institutions and embracing employment goals and worker rights.
As the largest global representation of organized labour, including many trade unions from the developing world and some from the UN’s Least Developed Countries, the ITUC has called for decent work standards and social protections floors, which are similar to social security policies, to be included in the agenda.
In addition, the ILO has also requested provisions for jobs and social protection floors to be included in the development agenda. Decent work standards and minimum social protection floors would therefore represent the most pro-employment additions to the post-2015 consultation process.
Even American labour groups, such as the AFL-CIO, the country’s largest trade union confederation, desire similar provisions. Cathy Feingold, the AFL-CIO’s International Director, says her organisation “is hoping that the post-2015 process includes a focus on decent work and a social protection floor.”
The involvement of unions creates the potential for a more transformative agenda and an opportunity to reduce economic inequality through practical means, such as protecting the rights of workers. However, it also presents the challenge of competing—and sometimes contradictory—interests between actors in the global North and South.
Indrajit Roy, a professor of international development at Oxford University who has worked with the UN Development Programme, explains that economic differences between organised labour in the North and South might inhibit the development of a substantial universal social protection floor. According to Roy, workers in the developing world have benefited from the loss of jobs in the North as corporations seek to lower their labour costs by moving to countries with fewer labour protection laws.
“If Southern workers demand social protection floors, they are then threatened with much more accelerated loss of jobs,” Roy says. “Southern trade unions are therefore wary of joining hands with their northern counterparts to make demands that their governments will reject outright.”
But Laura Martín Murillo, President of SustainLabour, a key organisation representing interests of trade unions from the global South in the post-2015 agenda, believes that economic and geographic divides between unions in the North and South should not be a major issue of concern.
“I do not believe that the trade union cooperation and development agenda is exclusively dominated by organisations of the North,” Murillo argues. She says organised labour unions in the developing world, such as those in Latin America and southern Asia, have become increasingly involved in their own societies as well as in international poverty-reduction agendas.
Regardless, the scope of global inequality and unemployment present a challenge for sustainable development. Many experts now acknowledge that a global inequality crisis exists, and is not only a problem exclusive to the North. Unions from all parts of the world are united in their concern for what they consider an inequitable response by governments and the MDGs to global inequality.
Rosemberg refers to “a huge interest in affiliates from both developed and developing countries, as there is a realisation that inequalities have been growing everywhere, and the economic model that is at the roots of social regression and environmental destruction is one.”
Development priorities and trade union attitudes are changing, says Rosemberg, and the post-2015 agenda is a way for labour’s fight against economic inequality to shine in a global setting.
A MediaGlobal News article.