In this in-depth interview, Oliver Balch speaks to the ITUC's general secretary about why we can’t protect the planet without also protecting workers with a new social contract for the post-Covid 19 era

Sharan Burrow admits to being worried. And with good reason. As general secretary of the International Trades Union Congress (ITUC), she represents around 200 million workers in 163 countries - people at the sharp end of one of the deepest and most severe economic recessions for a century.

Noone yet knows the precise magnitude of today’s global economic crisis, but none of the post-Covid-19 scenarios makes for pretty reading. The International Labour Organiszation (ILO) estimates that 400 million jobs were lost between April and June, with anywhere between 140 million and 340 million to follow. “I’m an optimist, but I don’t think the world has really thought about the true scale of the potential crisis,” says Burrow, who came up through the ranks for of Australia’s union movement before taking the top job at the ITUC in 2010. 

Pre-covid we already had sluggish demand, so jobs were becoming worrying and inequality was at historic levels

Two billion people work in the informal economy, she notes. So, no social protection, no wage guarantees, no contractual rights and, during the lockdown, no work. And no work, as Burrow says, means no income. Hundreds of millions face destitution as a result.

It was a point Burrows made during “Rethinking Human Rights Post Covid-19”, a panel session during Reuters Events’  Transform Europe 2020 , when she appeared with Brent Wilton, global workplace rights director, Coca-Cola, Marcela Manubens, global VP integrated social sustainability at Unilever and Salil Triapthi, senior advisor, Institute for Human Rights and Business. (You can watch it here)

ITUC has been quick to point the finger at unscrupulous employers who have taken advantage of the Covid crash to mistreat their workers or slash supply lines. Six in 10 respondents to a recent survey of trade unionists from around the world felt that "employers are responding badly to the needs of workers".

Burrow says workers’ rights have been under sustained attack for decades. She blames an expansionist form of shareholder capitalism that, since the onset of “hyper-globalisation” in the 1980s, has emerged as the de facto model of international business.

Workers an assembly factory in Mexico hand out job application forms to job seekers. Credit: Jose Luis Gonzalez/REUTERS

“We already had sluggish demand, so jobs [security was] … becoming worrying, inequality was at historic levels, and we were facing a climate crisis that was costing lives and livelihoods, and progress for women had stagnated at almost all levels,” she notes.

It is an assessment born out in the ITUC’s 2020 Global Rights Index. Published last month, the analysis concludes that violations of workers’ rights are at their worst level for seven years. Of the 144 nations assessed, 85% have violated the right to strike and 80% have prevented the right to collective bargaining over the last year.

Burrow described the document as a “stark picture” of the deficits that need to be addressed in the post-Covid era, and believes that now is the moment for a new social contract between governments, companies and labour movements.

 If companies have to engage in exploitation to make a profit, then frankly they shouldn’t exist

Her ire, and that of the ITUC, is mostly directed at anti-democratic governments, which, under the guise of measures to contain the coronavirus pandemic, are pursuing their “anti-workers’-rights agenda”.

Hard-line regimes such as Turkey and the Philippines top ITUC’s list of top offenders, but supposedly liberal governments like the US and the UK are also categorised as “systematic” and “regular” violators of workers’ rights.

"Maltreatment and underpayment of workers is not confined to less wealthy countries," says Burrow. "The scandal around BooHoo and supplier factories in Leicester is one example among many of violations of workers’ rights in industrial countries."

The index names 50 separate international firms against which substantive evidence of abuse exists. These include beverage giant Coca-Cola in the Philippines, low-cost airlines EasyJet and RyanAir in the Netherlands, and home-delivery enterprise Deliveroo in the UK. 

Credit Charles Platiau/REUTERS

So what does this “new” social contract that Burrow wants to see look like?

The answer is: not much different from the last one, which was set up with the creation of the ILO after the First World War, establishing basic labour rights of dignified pay, fair hours, safe working conditions, the right of association and collective bargaining.

Ultimately, it comes down to a respect for existing labour laws, says Burrow, who has zero truck for business models premised on worker abuse. “If companies can’t operate on the rule of law and if they have to engage in dehumanising exploitation in order to make a profit, then frankly they shouldn’t exist. It’s that simple.”

We don’t expect companies to be perfect. But we expect them to acknowledge where risks exist 

Where established laws fall short, then clearly changes are needed. ITUC’s general-secretary highlights the example of Qatar, which, after years of campaigning by labour campaigners, recently agreed to scrap a tranche of employment legislation that discriminated against migrant and domestic workers.

Burrow points to various examples where progressive governments have actively moved to protect the social contract with workers. In Sweden unionised companies agree to pay 0.3% of their total payroll into job security councils, which help those who have lost their jobs back into work. This "transition system" includes upskilling or retraining if required. “We need to see this happening everywhere,” the ITUC chief states.

While much of her vision for a new social contract involves reaffirming long-standing (but gravely undercut) principles, Burrow does not believe legislators should be sitting on their hands.

Whitney Maddox and DeShaun Bradford among hundreds in a line outside a career center in Kentucky in June. Credit Bryan Woolston/REUTERS

First up, the ITUC is calling for a system of “mandatory social due diligence”. The idea is to take the risk-identification process that companies are beholden to in the environmental sphere and apply it to workers and communities affected by business decisions.

“We don’t expect companies to be perfect. But we expect them to acknowledge where risks exist and to have grievance procedures in place to effect remedy,” says Burrow.

Again, moves are already under way in some jurisdictions. France’s Duty of Vigilance law is one example. A similar recommendation appears in the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises.

Some companies, for example Unileverand Danone, have jumped the gun, agreeing voluntarily to work with their unions to identify labour-related risks in their direct operations and supply chains and effect remedies where required.

We have to shift to patient debt, otherwise the capacity to rebuild and to solidify economies will be shattered

Second on the ITUC’s wish-list is an internationally agreed treaty to set in legislative stone the protect, respect and remedy framework of the United Nations’ Business and Human Rights Principles. Making the principles legally binding would give them more teeth, as well as provide impetus for the ITUC’s hoped-for due diligence measure.

Another important element to a new-look social contract is what Burrow refers to as “patient debt”. Here, her thinking is focused on the economic recovery packages currently under discussion.

“We have to shift not just to patient, long-term investment, but to patient debt, too, with investors and government . . . Otherwise the capacity to rebuild and to solidify economies with security for workers will be shattered,” she states. 

There is a palpable sense of urgency when Burrows discusses her proposal for a new social contract. The new coronavirus has made the existing crises of global inequality, democratic fragility and worker marginalisation starkly evident in a way not seen before.

The tectonic plates of global capitalism are beginning to slip and – just possibly – to slide. For the world’s workers, it’s now or never for a systems’ “reset”. 

Credit: Hannah McKay/REUTERS

And if it is the latter? Expect the world to become a whole lot more divided and unstable, she retorts: “Inequality was already driving an age of anger and despair. We’re seeing civil unrest emerge again. With no reset, there’s very little hope.”

The word "social" peppers Burrow’s discourse, but the notion that any economic recovery must be green is taken as read. Decarbonisation and labour rights are the same side of the coin, she reasons: protect one and you protect the other. (Note, the converse is also true: a climate-ravaged planet holds little prospect of stable, dignified work).

So, there’s an obligation on governments and employers alike to redeploy, upskill and, if necessary, retrain workers for the new, green economy. The same goes for the onset of artificial technology and the robot-led fourth industrial revolution. 

“We want to see workers engaged in the design of the future with governments, employers and ourselves in tripartite negotiations around how you guarantee that, basically, you won’t have stranded people or stranded communities,” she states.

We always want to get to the table to settle disputes, otherwise you’re in a constant state of opposition

But tripartitism is often painted as a kick-boxing fest, with three antagonistic parties slugging it out until there’s only one left standing.

That’s a fallacy, says Burrow.  “As trade unions, we always want to get to the table to settle disputes, because otherwise you’re in a constant state of opposition and you don’t see progress for working people.”

From the Enlightenment onwards, the assumption has existed that the world will keep gradually improving. A hiccup or two along the way perhaps, but human endeavour and ingenuity would always win out. 

Now, we can’t be so sure. As Covid-19 has so manifestly demonstrated, today’s interconnected, global system is far more fragile and susceptible to shocks than previously thought. It is dawning on many that backward regression is equally as feasible as onward progression. 

This is not news to millions in the world’s workforce, whose rights have been chipped away at for decades. Building the pillars of a sustainable future requires understanding the cracks in our unsustainable past. Workers not only deserve a seat at the table; common sense demands that they have one.

Garment workers in Dhaka, Bangladesh block a road demanding due wages. Credit Mohammad Ponir Hossain/REUTERS

Oliver Balch is an independent journalist and writer, specialising on business’s role in society. He has been a regular contributor to Ethical Corporation since 2004. He also writes for The Guardian among other UK and international media.

Main photograph of Sharan Burrow and Paul Polman at the World Economic Forum in 2016. Credit: Ruben Sprich

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