Let’s Get it Right this Time! Labour and the Post-2015 Development Agenda

By Brendan Pastor.

As 2015 approaches, the United Nations’ Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) will soon reach their final milestone. A new development framework will need to take shape to build on the successes of the previous one while understanding and adapting the failures.

The current consensus among experts and monitors is that the MDGs have been uneven in their measures of success. On the one hand, various UN reports, such as the United Nations Development Programme’s annual report, show a surprisingly strong growth in human development and economic gains for the most vulnerable nations. For instance, over the past fifteen years, an estimated 600 million people moved from below the poverty line to more equitable wealth. Millions more now have access to essential health and primary education services. And over 2.4 billion people are now connected to the rest of the globe through expanded internet access, mostly in Asia, Europe, and Latin America. Although most of this success can be attributed largely to the BRICS and Eastern European states, it is worth noting that LDCs saw significant gains in many development indices. In sub-Saharan Africa, the growth of an economically-engaged middle class has blown away expectations. Roughly 313 million people - or 34% of the continent – now belong to this new economically-engaged class of citizens. That’s more than in India. And by some measures, South-South trade – or trade between the developing world countries – is set to exceed the entire trade value of the OECD countries.

But the extent to which the world’s poorest nations are still severely underdeveloped cannot be understated, and nor can the extreme levels of poverty, disease, starvation, and lack of access to basic health essentials, which dominate the lives of an estimated 1.3 billion people, be discounted. When over 20% of the population lives on less than $1.25 a day, it is difficult to say with confidence that the MDGs were an overall success.

Hence the 2015 consultations are held on an almost daily basis at the UN and other development organisations examining the factors that will constitute the new development framework.

recent consultation of experts, diplomats, and development professionals came to the insightful conclusion that the new development framework must build on the successes of the MDGs while fixing the failures. A not-so groundbreaking conclusion, readers might remark, but as this is the UN, and not a corporate board meeting, such admission of failure is a significant step forward towards creating a new framework that explicitly acknowledges the limitations of the old model.

And as these experts have noted, limitations abound.  Everything from civil society’s [lack of] engagement, to the ineffectiveness of government aid, to the inability of OECD countries to follow up on promised charitable donations, are being scrutinised under the microscope of post-2015 policy formulation. Despite these limitations, the overall talks are a positive step forward in the perpetual effort to normalise the development agenda into one that reflects genuine human development and remove it from an ideologically-focused or economistic approach that may exclude social or cultural factors. In other words, gone are the days in which the ‘Washington Consensus’ was king.

This essay focuses on one of the presumptive key pillars of a new agenda: labour – or, more specifically, the recognition that labour issues and workers’ rights must constitute a significant part of any poverty-reduction growth model. While the inclusion of labour issues is without a doubt an excellent step in the right direction, this essay urges caution in any premature applause for the world’s organised labour movements – history shows us that the idea of global solidarity is given lip-service only. Previous attempts to integrate developing world workers into the global trade union strategy have been uneven, and sometimes entirely detrimental to the world’s poorest. Thus, this essay will explain why labour is making a big bang about worker-centric development goals and how it may only offer a whimper.

Labour Emerges

It is worth noting that labour has been implicitly recognised in past development frameworks, including the Millennium Development Goals. The MDGs made provisional arrangements for work and employment to be part of the broader poverty-reduction strategy. Goal number 1.B aimed to “achieve full and productive employment and decent work for all, including women and young people”. The thematic document supporting this finding acknowledged the critical relationship between poverty-reduction and employment. However, there was no mention of the role that organised labour must play in helping meet this goal. Moreover, it neglected to understand the complexity of engaging in a global employment agenda without the input from workers organisations. The International Labour Organization (ILO) released a guideline for how regional trade unions can intensify their efforts to help the developing world meet each of the eight goals using a pro-labour growth strategy. Among the conclusions, the report acknowledged that:

“Whether the present MDG targets are simply kept after 2015, or whether additional targets are added to the current MDG targets, or even a brand new framework is developed after 2015, unions must be ready to engage in the debate to define the future global compact on development.”

Tellingly, it then listed key areas where unions could have a notable impact, such as linking human rights to broader workers’ rights; developing new models to measure poverty reduction away from economic growth; creating a universal social protection floor; and promoting quality public services. That these very basic and very important measures were not included in the original MDGs shows how labour unions and their expansive organisational power were marginalised in the development of the poverty-reduction agenda.

Furthermore, the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) has described in various documents the changing nature of global solidarity vis-a-vis globalisation. They now explicitly acknowledge that social protections and economic progress for American workers is predicated on a stronger working class around the world. In a report titled Democratizing the Global Economy: Empowering Workers, Building Democracy, Achieving Shared Prosperity, the federal union authority’s Executive Council stated their intention to help the UN realise its MDG agenda:

“We will, in coordination with the global trade union movement, support the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). We believe decent work is fundamental to alleviating poverty and must be included in all action to achieve these goals. We join the global labour movement in supporting the Global Call to Action Against Poverty that works to achieve major progress on the MDGs.”

Again, we see how the trade unions are seen supporting the existing framework, without having contributed in any meaningful way to its initial development. It is conceivable – though not certain – to argue that were Northern trade unions compelled to contribute to the pre-MDG dialogues, there may have been significant additions to workers’ rights, social protections, and democratisation of economic activity in the development agenda.

Ironically, while there may have been subtle trepidation over the MDGs and their shortcomings among trade union activists, it took a global financial crisis to finally compel global union organisations to pursue “fundamental shifts” in the policy approach. The Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD announced in late 2010 that the financial crisis was undermining the ability for unions to protect global workers’ rights even more than before. Thus, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) General Secretary Sharan Burrow led the call to have all participating nations support the ILO Global Jobs Pact, and to redefine the approaches to understanding what constitutes “development”. Once again, we see how this task, while admirable, was undertaken over halfway through the MDG timeframe, and would realistically have very little chance of galvanising support among leaders for a fundamental change in the development framework.

Thus we can consider the post-2015 development agenda as a potential renewal of interest into labour unions, their concern for workers’ rights, and the link between poverty reduction and economic equity. Most significant are the articles in the Outcome Document of the Rio+20 Conference held last June, titled “The Future We Want”. Specifically, Article 51 of the document mentions:

“We stress the importance of the participation of workers and trade unions in the promotion of sustainable development. As the representatives of working people, trade unions are important partners in facilitating the achievement of sustainable development, in particular the social dimension. Information, education and training on sustainability at all levels, including in the workplace, are key to strengthening the capacity of workers and trade unions to support sustainable development.”

The Rio+20 Outcome established nine major groups who would have a critical input into the post-2015 development agenda. Workers and trade unions constitute one of those nine.

Similarly, in a series of high-level thematic consultations with civil society organisations and marginalised groups, growth and employment factors have taken focus, and it is here that labour activism inevitably manifests itself (among the other consultation topics, such as inequality, governance, health, and education, labour certainly has a significant role to play, though not nearly as explicitly as in employment policies). More importantly, the growth and employment report contains a significant addition to the language that will likely be proposed to the future development framework. It notes on page 7 that:

“Major efforts need to be made for genuine participation of people – civil society, social movements, trade unions, workers and private sector – in the formulation, implementation and monitoring of the new agenda so that it is informed by reality.”

In both cases we see explicit mention of the inclusion of workers’ groups – including trade unions – into the development framework. If this latter report becomes a guideline for the post-2015 framework, as the authors surely hope for it to be, then it necessarily means that the various groups associated with trade unions will have an enhanced ability to affect transformational change to global development through the prism of labour.

Building on this concept, we already see nominal attention to the post-2015 development framework within the many labour-related groups associated with the UN. For instance, the ILO has taken a more proactive role in representing workers’ rights in the consultations. Their call for the inclusion of a Global Jobs Pact and a minimum Social Protection Floor represent important avenues for poverty reduction policies vis-a-vis globally accepted labour rights.

Concurrently the ITUC has also engaged in additional panel discussions both inside and outside the UN’s framework as a way to broaden the labour union involvement in development policies. Briefing papers on social protection and decent work in the post-2015 agenda indicate proactive engagement between OECD unions and the workers in the developing world, both organised and non-organised.

When added together, one can see a clear motivation and movement-wide advocacy for stronger representation of labour issues in the new development framework. And while the onset of this advocacy is somewhat new, the coordination of interests remains fragmented. Several sources have privately indicated that there is an absence of work to unite these groups to create a solid bloc of interests when lobbying the UN consultation process. This lack of cohesive coordination is lamentable, however, it is unclear if such a strategy would create additional successes anyway – arguably, fragmentation creates more voices with common goals, instead of one voice representing many.

Limitations to Full Engagement

A global concern centered on workers’ rights and driven by organised labour is a welcome addition to the development agenda. If it pans out as currently witnessed, the opportunities for transformative economic change and changes to the relationship between workers and the global market are enormous. However, I suspect that, much like most UN development frameworks, it will be all bark and very little bite.

There is the classic argument about the limitations of the labour market. In any economics textbook there is surely to be a pithy argument that labour is static: territorially-bound, inflexible, and subject to generational changes. Capital, meanwhile, is highly fluid, flexible, and transnational. For this reason alone, organised labour has had difficulty uniting across national borders fast enough to meet the speed at which capital flees. Similarly, political barriers prevent cohesive unification of labour groups. Labour unions in most of the developed world are so intrinsically tied to state institutions that it is nearly impossible for them to transnationalise their operations without creating domestic disturbances that alienate a majority of their workforce. Finally, the historical relationship between organised labour in the global North and workers in the global South has been murky. For decades, the AFL-CIO worked in partnership with the State Department, the CIA, and other institutions of American foreign policy to deter – and in some cases even lethally – popular worker uprisings, due to a fear of communism spreading globally.

These are all highly significant reasons for why labour unions are not as globally organised as, say, bankers or financiers. It also explains why labour must be incorporated into an international development agenda headed by the UN in order to effect change instead of organising outside the confines of public organisations.

But an overlooked concern for labour in the post-2015 development agenda is the implications for its manifestation into a political institution of global governance.  Unsurprisingly, there is a degree of scepticism among activists towards any attempt to turn labour unions and their public institutions of power into mechanisms for enforcing global governance norms. Some criticism stems from a fear that the ILO or ITUC are susceptible to capture by pro-market, pro-capital experts – the same who are associated with the World Bank and IMF. Given the negative reputation of the latter two organisations among union activists, it is understandable that the ILO’s elevation to a development institution on par with the IMF should be met with opposition. After all, if the ILO and ITUC’s message of advancing workers’ rights must be subject to review by other development organisations, there is a possibility that their aims for transformative change in the workplace environment will be subverted to the global agenda of transnational capitalism without regard for substantial labour protections.

There is also criticism by developing world workers who view the “globalisation of solidarity” through a prism of neocolonialism. It would not be the first time that Northern trade unions used foreign policy and development as a way to protect their own parochial national interests, or the interests of the state to which they belong. The AFL-CIO is most notorious for this behavior, given their record of interference in pro-communist forces in Latin America during the Cold War. Or, as is probably more recent, the guise of global solidarity may be used to build barriers to international trade – trade that would create jobs and conditions of employment for workers in the developing world, but likely result in job losses in the developed world. Again we see restrictions placed by the AFL-CIO in free trade agreements with East Asia and Latin America, due largely to the risk of US jobs moving abroad.

And perhaps the most simplistic limitation of all is, once again, the economy (stupid). A sluggish US labour market; ominous projections of economic malaise in the EU; slower-than-expected growth in China and India; and a general fear of commodity price volitility in sub-Saharan Africa all contribute to a scenario where long-term social transformations are seen as too risky, and quick-easy political fixes are seen as sufficient to address poverty-related issues. Labour, like environmental work, may be confined to the backseat as institutions like the IMF and World Bank utilise the post-2015 development agenda as a way to create political reforms that support markets. “The rising tide lifting all boats” is a moniker that probably best characterises the Millennium Development Goals because, in many ways, increases in economic wealth have led to improvements in development indices. But correlation does not imply causation. The risk for organised labour is falling behind in its effort to transform worker-market relations through strong and robust treaties that provide minimum global social protections, or legalise a standard of decent work to accompany any international trade deals.

What Would Labour as an Institution of Governance Ideally Look Like?

Limitations aside, it’s worth maintaining an optimistic view of labour in the post-2015 development agenda. After all, optimism is what drives UN policy, really.

While it’s unlikely that the ILO will become an elevated institution on par with Wall Street, the World Bank, or IMF in its ability to determine global economic policy, it is certainly possible for it to steer conversations towards the acceptance of minimum conditions of fairness and decency in agreements between states. It also has the institutional capacity to lobby for legal changes in governments that are unnecessarily restrictive of the workers’ right to organise peacefully. The ITUC already documents and supports prosecution of violations of human rights pertaining to workers around the world. It is therefore not inconceivable that the ILO, as an international institution with government support, can take such cases to a court of some kind.

There may also be increased potential for cross-border organising. A company like Ikea may find itself in an uncomfortable position when, upon moving a factory away from the higher-cost organised labour states, workers in the new location decide to fight against low-wage pay or exploitative work conditions by joining an international trade union. Or more radically, when Wal-Mart struggles to get product on its shelves due to sympathy strikes organised by their logistics teams around the world on behalf of the underpaid and overworked retail staff. These scenarios are not so unbelievable or utopian; the slow progress in the past is partially due to a failure to create global conditions for workers to organise. Under the umbrella of a post-2015 agenda that holds labour rights and workers’ equity at its heart, organised labour has the legal and political framework to incorporate its key goals into the global economy. It also has an effective tool to foster solidarity between Northern and Southern workers.

In any case, most of this is speculation. The negotiations are ongoing. It is also obligatory to mention that the UN has a tendency to water down agreements in order to please all parties – in global development, this includes governments; civil society; corporations; financial markets; international institutions; and the most stubborn party of all: reality. But the foundation for historical changes began with robust attempts to bring all these elements of development policy to the same table; to draft changes; to seek consensus; and to build a future that pleases as many as possible.


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