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CAMPAIGNS: Shifting the balance – campaigns to defend workers against corporate abuses of power

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21 May, 2014More than ever, IndustriALL Global Union is helping workers level the playing field. Through building capacity of local unions, organizing them into global union networks, and working with these networks to implement campaign strategies and tactics, IndustriALL is campaigning to help shift the balance of power back in the unions’ direction.


Text: Adam Lee

December 2013 was a banner month for social dialogue at IndustriALL Global Union. Global Framework Agreements (GFAs) were signed with three companies; SCA in Sweden, Norske Skog in Norway and Solway in Belgium. A milestone was reached; there are now more than 100 global agreements between companies and Global Union Federations (GUFs).

GFAs are written agreements negotiated at a global level between GUFs like IndustriALL and multinational corporations. When worded and implemented correctly, these agreements can serve to protect the rights of workers at a company’s operations across the globe.

However, this milestone also begs a question: what does it mean for the tens of millions of workers employed by the thousands of multinational companies that haven’t signed a global agreement? In comparison, December was not a good month for members of IndustriALL affiliate Free Trade Zones and General Services Employees Union (FTZGSEU) employed by Ansell in the Biyagama free trade zone in Sri Lanka. By December, they had been on strike for two months and many families were becoming desperate.

The strike was precipitated by Ansell management’s vicious abuse of workers and unions. This included refusal to bargain in good faith, victimization of union leadership, paying poverty wages, and even forcing workers to urinate at their work stations to maintain fast production.

Fighting back

Although in some ways an extreme case, companies like Ansell are all too common. If unions were to ignore the Ansells of the world and focus all their attention on companies that take the high road, most workers’ livelihoods would be under threat.

Unions historically did not spring into existence through harmonious dialogue with employers. They came into being when workers organized themselves and demanded redress for employer injustices. Workers and their unions organizing themselves and building unity and solidarity remains a vital component of any fight back against employer injustice.

However, in the face of giant multinational corporations and powerful industry associations, organization on the shop floor by itself is often not enough. Unions at an individual worksite are often on the losing end of an imbalance of power.

IndustriALL is taking an increasing role in industrial campaigns. These campaigns can be against a single abusive employer, as in the case of recent or ongoing campaigns against Ansell, Crown and Rio Tinto. They can also be against multiple companies or even industry associations, as in Bangladesh and Cambodia.

The Ansell campaign

Ansell is an Australian-based manufacturer of medical gloves and condoms. Well before the FTZGSEU called a strike at Ansell, IndustriALL responded to Ansell’s atrocious health and safety practices by providing an expert critique of these practices. This helped FTZGSEU pressure regulatory authorities to step up scrutiny of health and safety practices at the plant.

In October last year, 294 Ansell workers were fired when striking in support of eleven sacked colleagues and trade union representatives. With lower courts ruling in favour of reinstating the dismissed workers, the Supreme Court ordered Ansell to negotiate a settlement with FTZGSEU. When management refused to do so, IndustriALL escalated the campaign, sending a high level delegation to speak at a rally of striking workers as part of an attempt to build support throughout Sri Lanka for the union.

Building international support is one of the main priorities of the campaign. To this end, there is a LabourStart campaign, which has generated nearly ten thousand letters of protest to Ansell management. IndustriALL’s executive committee has responded with a strong resolution and a firm commitment of support from all regions of the globe.

IndustriALL has filed a complaint to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) concerning Ansell’s violation of OECD guidelines. The OECD guidelines set international standards for multinational enterprises in areas including employment, human rights, health and safety, and corruption, and include a complaint mechanism.

Since Ansell has refused IndustriALL offers of dialogue over the dispute in Sri Lanka, the OECD complaint enables IndustriALL to pressure Ansell to either reconsider the offer or face potentially damaging public exposure of its inhumane practices.

Ansell’s business depends upon having a reputation for high quality sanitary gloves. The campaign is branded with the slogan “No to Dirty Ansell Gloves” and IndustriALL has done extensive outreach, both directly and through supportive affiliates, to Ansell customers raising concerns about the company’s ability to meet their needs while the strike continues.

In February, IndustriALL escalated the campaign further. IndustriALL general secretary Jyrki Raina travelled to Sri Lanka and participated in a rally in support of the strikers. He also met with the President of Sri Lanka to raise concerns about the dispute. Receiving extensive media coverage, Jyrki Raina’s visit helped shine a light on Ansell’s callous corporate behaviour.

The road to victory

The strike and campaign have had a huge impact. Around the time of Raina’s visit, it was disclosed that many of Ansell’s gloves produced during the dispute are returned due to defects. It was also announced that Sri Lanka’s Board of Investment had rejected Ansell Lanka’s application for tax concessions in light of the dispute.

Ansell management has not yet made a fair offer to resolve the dispute. When Sri Lanka’s Supreme Court again took up the case on 3 March it was clear that Ansell had no intention of trying to find a viable solution. The Supreme Court had proposed the reinstatement of the 294 workers, but Ansell claims to have filled the vacancies. The Chief Justice ordered that the Sri Lankan labour tribunal should hear all the cases, except for 35 workers who have received severance payment. If still unresolved, the Supreme Court will hear the case again.

With no end of the conflict in sight, IndustriALL will continue with the campaign and mount increasing pressure on Ansell to do the right thing.

The landscape for unions is more treacherous than ever. Corporate management is breaking new barriers in its ruthless pursuit of profits. European companies that practice social dialogue at home are unleashing anti-union attacks in North America and elsewhere.

The road to victory in the face of abusive employers will not be short. IndustriALL will continue to move down that road through building campaign capacity and running effective campaigns. It is working with its affiliates and with other global union federations to leverage campaign resources and experience.