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Precarious Work Affects Us All - Report on October 3 meeting

“Every day, more and more workers find themselves in precarious jobs where they have no right even to join a union, let alone to bargain collectively with their employer.” With those words, Marcello Malentacchi, General Secretary of the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), sounded the alarm about the devastating effect of precarious work on even the most fundamental of workers’ rights at a forum held at the headquarters of the International Labour Office on 3 October 2008. The meeting with the members of the ILO secretariat, “Towards Social Justice: applying labour standards to precarious workers” was held with the co-sponsorship of the ILO Bureau of Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV). Representatives of Global Unions outlined the impact of precarious work in sectors and on rights and called on the ILO to address a growing problem that undermines the very basis of international labour standards, the employment relationship.

The meeting was chaired by Manfred Warda, General Secretary of the International Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers’ Union (ICEM) and chair of the Work Relationships Group of the Council of Global Unions. In his introductory remarks, Warda compared the policy failures that allowed precarious work to skyrocket with the current financial crisis, where the sacrifices are also make largely by workers, stating that, “in both cases, many of the same people will pay the price for policy failures and greed but, for workers; there will be no golden parachutes to brake their fall”.

Both Warda and Malentacchi said that, in addition to the formal legal barriers that often exist to the right to organise and bargain for those in precarious work, the fear generated by precariousness can destroy the will and the capacity of workers to form and join unions and bargain even though it is those who are without unions who need the protection of collective action the most.

Panelists as well as members of the ILO secretariat stressed that the impact of precarious work is greatest on women, migrants, and young people. Citing a recent decision of the ILO Committee on Freedom of Association on Korea, Malentacchi highlighted the fact that at one company, the handful of workers who had not had their rights to organise and bargain subcontracted away were all men.

Anita Normark, General Secretary of the Building and Wood Workers International (BWI), focused mainly on the construction sector, where precarious work had long been typical. She cited construction that was taking place in the Gulf region, where migration, trafficking and exploitation, including the denial of all rights is taking place in the midst of luxury. She also spoke of the terrible health and safety conditions to which such workers are subjected. She called on governments to enforce their laws with effective labour inspection and on the industry to become more responsible. Normark pointed out that many young people no longer want to go into the industry and that precariousness is creating quality problems. She also described efforts in India to create a limited social safety net for construction workers.

Peter Rossman of the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers’ Association (IUF), explained the role of transnational companies in the conversion of regular employment to precarious work so that solidarity among workers is rendered impossible or unthinkable. He spoke of “dissolving the ‘collective’ in collective bargaining.” In order to make clear that precarious work is deliberately being created, he showed an actual presentation by Nestlé in which shows that, while constantly affirming and reaffirming the company’s commitment to trade union rights and the principles of ILO conventions, the company is re-organising its work, often spinning branded production to others for the purpose of denying workers those very rights. Rossman provided a number of examples from several continents at Neslé, Unilever, and other companies of the number of workers having the right to organise or to be covered by collective bargaining agreements being severely diminished or, in some cases, where entire work forces had been robbed of their basic rights.

Alke Boessiger and Claire Parfitt of Union Network Intenational (UNI) outlined the rapid growth of precarious work in a whole range of sectors they represent. These include telecommunications (for example service for fixed lines), but particularly in mobile telephone divisions or new mobile companies, retail commerce, post and logistics, and property services, and call centres used my many companies in a large number of industries. They also spoke of self-employed who are often not really self-employed but have lost the right to organise and bargain. They also spoke of shifts of workers into “management” positions to remove them from bargaining even if they have no, real management responsibilities. With the exception of the media industry where in many countries traditions have developed which allow for protection in spite of high levels of “flexibility”, problems are seen in virtually all of the many sectors in which UNI is active. UNI also spoke of efforts that are being made to reach agreement with large temporary work agencies on a global level as has already been done in Europe in order to agree on rights and protections for workers dispatched and employed by such agencies.

Jorgen Juul Rasmussen, General Secretary of the Danish Union of Electricians, representing the ICEM, emphasized that precarious work was a problem in developed countries as well as in developing countries, even in those with good labour laws and practices. He described a survey conducted by his union showing that large numbers of agency workers are deprived of benefits and are not treated equitably even though important legal cases have been won on equal treatment in Denmark. Often agency workers are reluctant to join unions and, in some cases, are discouraged from doing so by employers. According to Rasmussen, even in the land of “flexisecurity”, many have problems in the area of effective rights and fall victim to poor and unfair treatment. ( PDF of Mr. Rasmussen’s speech )

Raquel Gonzalez from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the secretariat of the ILO Workers’ Group, spoke of the potential of the new “ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization” to be used to address the multi-standard impact of precarious work. She pointed out that the declaration recalls the relevance of the employment relationship as a means to provide legal protection to workers, the importance of labour inspection and the need to effectively recognize freedom of association and collective bargaining in order to realize decent work. As women are over-represented in precarious forms of employment the forthcoming ILC general discussion on gender should allow to come up with policy responses to address this problem.

Dan Cunniah, Director of ACTRAV, in opening and closing the meeting also spoke of the importance of using effectively the available ILO instruments and clearly committed ACTRAV to following up the meeting through contacts and discussion with other parts of the ILO. He underlined the fundamental importance of precarious work to the future of the ILO.

In his keynote address launching the discussion with the ILO secretariat, Marcello Malentacchi cited reports from IMF affiliates as part of a survey of all affiliates showing that 90 per cent had seen an increase in precarious work in the last five years. He quoted from the observations of affiliates in Tunisia, Brazil, Bangladesh and South Korea to show the nature of the problem and how governments have allowed employers to violate rights and avoid providing even minimal protections for workers. He said that, as with other Global Union Federations, the IMF was finding that, “Stable employment and good jobs are being eroded at a frightening rate. In fact, what we used to call atypical work is fast becoming typical”. Malentacchi provided figures that clearly demonstrated the gender impact of precarious work and its contribution to the gender gap. He asked the ILO to, “strongly reaffirm its own mandate, based on an understanding of the growing threat to labour standards that precarious work represents” and to integrate the threat of precarious work in its analysis and activities. The 3 October meeting was part of an IMF campaign supported by all Global Unions, “Precarious work affects us all”, a series of events that have already included a demonstration in Indonesia with 10,000 workers and will culminate on the 7th of October to coincide with the ITUC’s World Day for Decent Work.

In the discussion with members of the ILO secretariat, much information was provided on ILO standards relevant to precarious work. Information was also given on ongoing activities, including by the Gender Bureau and the branches on Sectoral Activities as well as Migration. Participants stressed the importance of campaigning to increase the ratification of ILO conventions and of increased involvement of the international trade union movement in ILO meetings and discussions.

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