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INTERVIEW: Sharan Burrow - The world needs a pay rise

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2 December, 2014180 million workers in the world are members of trade unions, making the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) the largest democratic organization in the world. But this is only seven per cent of all workers, which is not enough, says ITUC general secretary, Sharan Burrow. The target is set at 200 million by 2018.


TEXT: Petra Bränmark

How will the ITUC achieve this?

There is an alarming increase of precarious work, with zero-hour contracts for example. Out of around 2.9 billion workers in the world, only 60 per cent have a formal contract. So the need to organize workers is ever increasing.

The informal sector is a sector of desperation, largely made up of women and young people. And we are seeing brilliant union work in organizing in the informal sector, like domestic workers, street vendors and home workers.

A worker is a worker is a worker. We need to organize workers, in order to ensure their livelihood is protected and advanced. To do that, we have to build capacity. In many parts of the developing world there is little or no capacity for organizing.

Earlier this year the ITUC decided to promote organizing and launched an organizing academy. Union organizers will learn more on strategic targeting, campaign strategy, and organizing skills including workplace strategies. If the ITUC can train 100 organizers we can start to build a global team working in their own context. The ITUC will gain strength and depth and we will enjoy more wins.

What power does a global trade union have?

The ITUC Congress in Berlin in May this year gave the organization the mandate to build workers’ power. And we’ll do that through old principles and new energy – the collective voice of workers is our power. We need to organize to use our mandate.

There is a common understanding that the corporate governance of today is not working. According to the ITUC global poll of the general public in 14 countries, 78 per cent of the respondents believe the current economic system favours the wealthy rather than being fair to most people.

So there is a solid foundation in terms of people’s understanding of what we do, and the way to achieve this is through the power of workers. We can continue with academic arguments, but to succeed we need to combine intellectual research with organizing on the ground and mobilizing. Voices need to be heard!

How can this power bring change to global supply chains?

Regardless of how far in the world a supply chain stretches, the company in question should be held responsible for every step of it. The world needs to know about the lack of responsibility and exploitation. A legal framework to hold companies to account needs to be developed; like the Bangladesh Accord which came into being after the tragedy at Rana Plaza. It covers garment factories and is signed by companies who source from them in Bangladesh.

We, the global unions, have the tools to do this together. As IndustriALL Global Union, you represent workers in electronics, garment and textiles, as well as mining, and through the sheer number of members you are critical for your sectors. Together with the International Transport Federation (ITF) whose members work in transport and logistics and UNI Global Union organizing retail employees, entire supply chains are often covered.

Major companies are making enormous profits while workers at the production base are earning wages on which they can’t live. This deepening inequality is not only a macroeconomic issue; it is a human tragedy. And it is not acceptable.

In this year’s global poll by ITUC, an overwhelming majority, 79 per cent, stated that they do not believe the minimum wage in their country is sufficient for leading a decent life. More than one in two working families in fourteen countries that constitute half the world’s population cannot keep up with the rising cost of living.

The world needs a pay rise! Workers in Cambodia have been shot, workers in Indonesia put in jail, and workers in Bangladesh had their lives threatened for striking for a living wage. They are fighting for their dignity and are attacked by their own governments.

As global unions we have to act. Organizing workers and collective bargaining are key to delivering living wages.

How long before we see any change in the global agenda?

We are already seeing a shift. Distributional tools are now being talked about and as global unions we have managed to get supply chains on the agenda. It is about safe work, but also about informal and formal work. This means that the informal economy is now being discussed, while three years ago governments didn’t acknowledge the existence of the informal economy.

But we are running out of time. The number of enslaved and impoverished workers is increasing; we see the democratic space closing as rights are attacked; and we need to fight climate change to secure jobs for the future.

The only thing that is going to change this is to reinvest in workers. The ITUC is here as part of the collective voice of workers and we need to organize workers everywhere.

In May this year you were re-elected as general secretary for another four years. What is the symbolic value of a woman at the helm?

Yes it matters that I am a woman leader, but the important part is to ensure more women have power in the workplace. It is time for women to be louder and women need to be counted in – into the workforce, unions, bargaining units and leadership.

I am a feminist warrior, and I can’t accept to live in a racist world with a gender unbalance. It is the union movement’s responsibility to put this right, so I am well placed to challenge the structures.