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Organized labour wins results at ILO technical meeting on the auto sector

11 March, 2021A team of trade unionists achieved an impressive outcome at an ILO technical meeting by making sure Just Transition and Decent Work are the underlying concepts for the transformation of the industry.

The Technical Meeting on the Future of Work in the Automotive Industry was held from 15 to 19 February 2021. As with all ILO meetings, a tripartite committee was tasked with developing a plan for the sector, with representatives of governments, employers and workers coming together, both physically and virtually, for a week of negotiations.

The auto industry is going through a huge transformation, driven by the need to shift to a carbon neutral economy, the development of electrified vehicles, new forms of transportation and a number of other factors. The consequence for workers is that many auto plants are closing, companies are downsizing and there is a shift from blue- to white collar work. Component suppliers are also heavily affected, because electric cars use a fraction of the components of petrol and diesel cars.

The meeting developed a map to guide the industry through this transformation with as little disruption as possible, while retaining complex manufacturing capacity and workers’ skills. The workers’ delegation fought hard to make sure that key concepts such as Just Transition, decent work, gender equality and lifelong learning are reflected in the final document. They also made sure that global supply chains and related due diligence procedures are mentioned in the conclusions. The dedication of the colleagues culminated in the strong focus on the social dimension of the transformation and the related core demand that nobody shall be left behind.

Reflecting the new working practices brought on by the Covid-19 pandemic, government and workers’ representatives were physically present at the ILO building in Geneva – but in separate rooms. Workers’ group spokesperson, Ben Norman of Unite, described it as a “surreal experience in an almost abandoned building.”

Other participants joined the meeting virtually. Workers’ representatives included trade union activists from the Argentina, Brazil, Canada, France, Germany, Korea, the Philippines, Spain, Turkey, the UK and the USA. IndustriALL was represented by assistant general secretary Atle Høie, and auto director Georg Leutert.

The workers' group joined the negotiations via Zoom

“The worker’s group came well prepared,” said Norman.

“We managed to convince the employers and governments of the importance of due diligence, the need to counter concerns about working conditions in the supply chains, and the central role of collective bargaining and social dialogue. We agreed all along on the importance of lifelong learning, which is central to the final document.”

 “We were well organized because this is our daily job as trade unionists,” said Angelo DiCaro from Unifor.

Global Labour University alumni Isabelle Gagel recorded a series of videos to help participants prepare: one on the core issues to be discussed, one on the gender dimension of the changing world of work, and one on ILO meeting procedures and technical details.

The meeting was at times confrontational, with one participant describing the employers as “fighting hard to keep reality out of the room,” and “treating workers as disposable tools, and not as human beings.” The fact that there was no opportunity for a quiet word during coffee breaks also contributed to the confrontational atmosphere.

Høie reflected on the balance between the amount of work that went into the meeting, and the final product:

“Weeks of work to achieve a six-page document can seem strange. Often it was a fight to find the right ILO language to express our point of view, but we ended up in a good place. We were well-prepared and managed to negotiate good conclusions.”

The final document gives the ILO a mandate and a budget to carry out activities to promote social dialogue. The document recognizes the value of the auto sector to the global economy and decent work. While creating jobs, the industry needs to address its environmental footprint and working conditions in its supply chains.

Transformation in the auto sector is uneven, and participants felt that the countries in the global south needed to benefit the most from this process. Several of the most important conclusions make special reference to these countries. Affiliates already have plans for a follow up: in Turkey, for instance, auto union Turk Metal will approach the employers’ federation MESS to develop an approach to managing the transition. In Korea, the metalworkers’ union KMWU will demand social dialogue on transformation through collective bargaining, using the framework developed in the meeting. The Philippine Metalworkers’ Alliance will make it a subject of upcoming collective bargaining.

For unions, the meeting had a double outcome: a good working document that will strongly influence policy on transformation in the auto sector, and a team of trade unionists who are informed on the issues and committed to working together.

Leutert summed up the work by saying:

“I admire the passion and spirit of everyone who volunteered to take part in the negotiations in these circumstances, alone at your computer screen early in the morning or late at night. We organized to defend jobs, because every job counts."