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Globalisation is putting the South’s trade union struggle to the test

May Day 2015 was a day like any other for the 400,000 or so Nepalese workers in Qatar. They went to work as usual, after many of them were refused permission to leave the country to go home and help their families following the earthquake that had struck Nepal a few days earlier.

Under the kafala (sponsorship) system, “employers enjoy near total control over the movement of workers in their employ”.

Likewise, 31 May 2015 was a day like any other in Colombia. On that day, Alex Fabián Espinosa Carvajalinowas the third trade unionist to have been killed in the city of Cúcuta since the start of the year - a sorry illustration of the fact that the anti-union violence in the country is neither a thing of the past nor a passing phase.

These are not two remote, exotic cases, but an extreme manifestation of the anti-union trends at work around the world, and especially in the South.

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), with its 176 million members in 161 countries, is the largest global trade union platform and the biggest democratic force in the world.

Yet it only represents seven per cent of all workers – and trade union membership rates are even lower than this in many countries. Moreover, this international union often superposes fragmented and divided national trade union movements (there are some 500 trade unions registered in the Democratic Republic of Congo), that are lacking in resources, capacities and training.

Neoliberal globalisation has reconfigured social relations as a whole, giving priority to the market – a supposedly neutral and autonomous power – to which actors (states, economic agents, social organisations) and policies must be subordinated.

It has reconfigured the role of the state (by reorienting its scope for intervention with a view to converting it into the guarantor of a favourable business climate), the relations between employers, workers and governments (by disengaging from any logic of balance, commitment and regulation), and employment relationships (by widely undermining working conditions and, with them, the weight of trade unions).

Neoliberalism has thus been coupled with growth in precarious and informal employment, the sharp rise in unemployment and inequalities, and the fragmentation and shattering of salaried and stable work.

This brutal change in the nature of employment is neither accidental nor accessory : it is at the heart of the neoliberal programme, which seeks to weaken, to avoid or destroy all forms of worker organisation and to reconfigure the relations between them, their employers and the state, for the benefit of market forces.

Challenges old and new

Worldwide, 60 per cent of workers (mainly women and young people) – the percentage is higher in Sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia – are now active in the informal economy.

Added to this are all those in so-called atypical employment : migrant workers (over 50 per cent of the labour in Gulf countries), domestic workers, etc. These workers have no access to, or difficulty accessing, social protection and their rights.

What can be done to organise and defend workers who, for the most part, do not (or no longer) correspond to the ideal type of worker (the male worker, regularly employed in industry as a full-time salaried employee) on which basis trade union organisations were built ?

What can be done to ensure trade unions’ independence from states, but also from the market, a much more powerful captor, particularly with the setting of growth and full employment objectives, supposed to discipline the actors and set their horizon of expectation ? And without this autonomy going hand in hand with depoliticisation.

These questions cannot be seen in terms of a “simple” shift of workers from the informal to the formal economy, from unemployment to full employment.

They are questions to be addressed in terms of the concrete situations workers find themselves in here and now.

In Guinea, for instance, where over half of the labour force works in the informal economy, the trade unions and civil society organisations as a whole, with a view to ensuring the democratic transition, have put forward a “pact” that is not so much aimed at formalising the informal economy but supporting it “with appropriate measures for its development”. The challenge is to make the actors themselves the starting point, exploring the various forms that formalisation can take.

In Cambodia, the demonstrations and strikes staged in the textile industry in winter 2013 saw the trade union organisations of workers from the formal and the informal economy converge. At international level, the ITUC and the international networks of street vendors (StreetNet) and domestic workers (WIEGO) are trying to link up within the ILO to discuss the transition from the informal to the formal economy.

Neoliberalism subordinates respect for workers’ rights and freedom of association to the macroeconomic framework. Accordingly, it is impossible to isolate the responsibility for the slave-like exploitation of migrant workers and the criminalisation of social protest to two countries, such as Qatar and Colombia. The building of stadiums for the 2022 FIFA World Cup and the free trade agreement between Colombia and the European Union are part of this dynamic that is anti-union and hostile to workers, this situation wherein, as the Ugandan intellectual Yash Tandon says, “trade is war”.

Whilst unions find themselves hard hit by neoliberalism, a number of key social struggles in the South have emerged outside or on the fringes of the trade union movement.

The links and alliances – or their absence – between these different forms of mobilisation and protest largely determine the chances of an overthrow of the neoliberal model ; an overthrow without which workers’ rights will always be compromised.

In light of this, the key challenge for trade unions promises to be less about accumulating - new workers, new members - and more about reinventing alliances and struggles.

Les opinions exprimées et les arguments avancés dans cet article demeurent l'entière responsabilité de l'auteur-e et ne reflètent pas nécessairement ceux du CETRI.