Trade Unions in Action

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As globalisation throws up problems for workers that do not respond to purely national solutions, international co-operation and solidarity between trade unionists, unions, national centres (such as the TUC) and international trade union organisations play an increasingly crucial role in safeguarding workers' rights.

On this page, you'll find a few examples of how the trade union movement is tackling some of the key problems arising from, or intensified by globalisation.

Tackling trade union and human rights abuses

The global union federations

Balancing the power of multinationals

Eliminating child labour

Protecting public services

Addressing the HIV/AIDS crisis

The TUC is actively involved in supporting activities in all these areas. Find out more here.

Tackling trade union and human rights abuses

Several hundred trade unionists are killed each year. Several thousands more are imprisoned, beaten in demonstrations, tortured by security forces or others, and often sentenced to long prison terms.

Each year, hundreds of thousands of workers lose their jobs merely for attempting to organise a trade union. Throughout the world, millions of workers, often women and children, are forced to work against their will.

The ICFTU's campaign for trade union and human rights
Together with its affiliates, its regional organisations, the International Trade Secretariats, and non-governmental organisations from all over the world, the ICFTU wages a permanent campaign for the universal respect of trade union rights, as guaranteed by the Conventions of the International Labour Organisation.

Every year, it produces an Annual Survey of Violations of Trade Union Rights; makes appeals to its affiliates for urgent action on behalf of persecuted trade unionists; lodges complaints at the ILO against countries violating trade union rights, either alone or in association with national trade unions and International Trade Secretariats, and draws media attention to the abuses suffered by workers.

For more information, click here.

Global Union Federations

An Individual union will usually belong to a national union centre (e.g. the TUC) in its country. The national centre will then affiliate to a world body such as the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU). The same individual union will also usually affiliate to the Global Union Federation(s) relevant to the union's members. The Global Union Federations are therefore the International representatives of unions organising in specific industry sectors or occupational groups. They work closely with the ICFTU and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) in the Global Unions Family to promote trade union rights globally.

The Global Union Federations are:

Educational International

International Federationof Chemical, Energy, Mine and General Workers' Unions (ICEM)

International Federation of building and Woodworkers

International Federation of Journalists (IFJ)

International Metalworkers Federation (IMF)

International Textile, Garmet and Leather Workers' Federation

International Transport Workers Federation (ITF)

International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Associations (IUF)

Union Network International (UNI)

Public Services International

For more information on the work of the Global Unions, see

Balancing the power of multinationals

The role of multinational enterprises in the world economy has increased steadily in the decades following the Second World War.

The conduct of multinational enterprises is not necessarily better or worse than that found in purely national or local companies. They are, at times, better placed to carry improvements in working conditions and development. However, they can also help drive a race to the bottom.

One aspect of globalisation is the increasing power of multinationals to disrupt collective bargaining agreements or bargaining structures.

Multinational enterprises also operate in countries where external control of their practices is difficult if not impossible (China, for example). Add to this a very complex structure of subcontractors, sub-subcontractors (often with steps further down the line), suppliers, outsourcing, networks, etc., and the need for strong international trade union structures becomes apparent.

The growing role of multinational enterprises in the world economy has also affected the behaviour of national and local governments.

Sometimes it seems as if there is as much or more competition among governments for investment from multinationals than there is among companies for market share. Incentives to attract investment can range from tax holidays and infrastructure construction to special laws and the denial of workers' rights.

A key trade union tool for addressing the growth of corporate power is the framework agreement.

Framework agreements are signed by Global Union Federations and multinational companies. As the global-level representatives of workers in a particular company or industry, the Global Union Federations have the mandate to negotiate agreemets with multinational companies. Such agreements establish frameworks of principles. They are not detailed collective bargaining agreements and are not intended to compete with agreements at the national level. Framework agreements are intended to help create the space for workers to organise and bargain at the local level. These agreements cover trade union and other workers' rights. In some cases, they cover other issues as well, including those concerned with suppliers. They establish a relationship with a company that makes it possible to resolve problems, often before conflicts become serious.

Further information on framework agreements is available from the website of the Global Union Federation.

The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises

There is no shortage of codes of conduct or guidelines covering the operations of multinational companies. If anything, there has been a proliferation of voluntary instruments in recent years.

Many companies now have codes - often unilateral ones which have not been developed with trade union participation and which don't have effective monitoring and verification systems. NGOs have also been developing codes of conduct.

What makes the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises ('the Guidelines') significant is the fact that they have been adopted by all 30 OECD governments as well as some non-OECD countries, including Argentina, Brazil and Chile.

They are endorsed by these governments and represent their shared expectation as to how multinationals should behave.

The Guidelines go beyond employment and industrial relations to cover broader issues like human rights, disclosure of information, environmental protection, corruption, and taxation. They also benefit from having an implementation process in which governments, through a National Contact Point, play a central role.

Each government which has adopted the OECD Guidelines is obliged to set up a National Contact Point (NCP) who is responsible for promoting, implementing and overseeing the application of the Guidelines in that country. This includes dealing with complaints brought against multinational companies under the provisions of the Guidelines.

The NCP is required to report and feed back to the OECD on at least an annual basis. In some OECD countries, the NCP is a tripartite body. In the UK, he is a DTI civil servant.

The Guidelines are not just limited to the OECD countries- they have a global reach. They can be used as a tool both to promote responsible corporate behaviour and to address negative behaviour through the complaints procedure.

For more information, see the Guide for trade unions produced by the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC), and the UK National Contact Point Information Booklet below.

Note: TUAC is an international trade union organisation which has consultative status with the OECD. It represents organised labour's views to that organisation. As the OECD is taking in new members and becoming the forum for intergovernmental discussions on globalisation, TUAC's role is now one of ensuring that global markets are balanced by an effective social dimension.

Eliminating child labour

Today, 250 million children are working. 125 million of them have never seen the inside of a classroom.

More than two-thirds of all working children are found in the agricultural sector followed by manufacturing, the wholesale and retail trade, restaurants and hotels, domestic and other 'personal services'. While at work, a large number of children are affected by numerous hazards.

The ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC)

IPEC's aim is to work towards the progressive elimination of child labour by strengthening national capacities to address child labour problems, and by creating a worldwide movement to combat it.

IPEC's priority target groups are bonded child labourers, children in hazardous working conditions and occupations and children who are particularly vulnerable, i.e. very young working children (below 12 years of age), and working girls.

The political will and commitment of individual governments to address child labour in cooperation with employers' and workers' organizations, other NGOs and relevant parties in society - such as universities and the media - is the starting point for all IPEC action.

Trade unions, large and small, throughout the world are working with IPEC. Find out more here.

Protecting public services

The form of globalisation we have seen in recent decades has been characterised by the relentless drive to liberalise trade i.e. to remove trade barriers, promote privatisation, and reduce regulation.

Many developing countries have been forced to adopt harsh structural adjustment programmes in return for loans from the World Bank and IMF. As a result of these programmes, they have had to orientate their economies towards producing exports and to reduce already inadequate spending on public services such as health and education.

The liberalisation of trade in services has also been on the agenda at the WTO, giving rise to public concern in both developing and industrialised countries over the privatisation of public services.

Public Services International

Public Services International, or PSI, is an international trade union federation for public sector unions.

More than 500 public service trade unions in more than 140 countries make up PSI. Together these unions represent more than 20 million public sector workers.

Since 1907, PSI has organised public sector workers in many different occupations. Today, health workers, fire-fighters, workers in public utilities, child minders, civil servants, judges, food inspectors, social workers and a large number of other professional groups make up PSI's membership.

PSI has been part of the international struggle to bring to account the World Bank, the IMF, the WTO, multinational enterprises and governments which make decisions about global trade, production, investment and structural adjustment. Find out more about PSI's work on international trade, economy and finance here.

PSI has worked on the WTO's General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS) treaty for a number of years. It has engaged in discussions with the WTO and governments and has raised awareness of the issue both within and beyond the trade union movement.

PSI has produced a number of briefings on the impact of the trade in services on the public sector. Click here for more information.

PSI collaborates with Education International (see below) on the GATS issue.

Education International - Global Campaign for Education

Education International is a world-wide trade union organisation of education personnel, whose 24 million members in 304 national trade unions and associations in 155 countries and territories represent all sectors of education from pre-school to university.

Education has in recent years become an important issue for many NGOs, like teachers' unions, in their advocacy work at the national and international level.

There is a growing conviction that basic education is one of the key factors in the eradication of poverty and that it is the cornerstone of freedom, democracy and sustainable human development. Also, in eliminating the worst forms of child labour, education plays a vital role.

The Global Campaign for Education (GCE) brings together organisations working in 180 countries, and aims to hold governments accountable for the fact that 125 million children are denied an education.

The GCE was launched by three international organisations - Education International, Action Aid and Oxfam International - in partnership with civil society networks throughout the developing world and the Global March Against Child Labour.

Read more about the Global Campaign for Education.

Unions Unite Against HIV/AIDS

HIV/AIDS is one of the most serious social and economic challenges of our time and trade unions are alarmed at the devastating effects of the disease on workers, their families and the community at large. At the ICFTU’s 17th World Congress in Durban, South Africa in 2000, the international trade union movement made a commitment to raise general awareness of the epidemic and to seek immediate, strong and effective action to control and eradicate this terrible disease.

Three priorities for action were identified: to adopt preventive measures; to mobilise against any form of discrimination against people living with HIV/AIDS; and to campaign to make HIV/AIDS treatment affordable, particularly for those in developing countries.

The spread of HIV/AIDS in developing countries has been exacerbated by poverty; structural adjustment programmes, which starve key sectors such as health and education of vital resources; and limited access to treatment. 95% of people living with HIV/AIDS are to be found in this part of the world. However, it would be wrong to see HIV/AIDS as a problem primarily for developing countries. It is a global problem, undermining economic progress and development and requiring an integrated, co-ordinated and sustained international response.

Trade unions play a key role in the fight against HIV/AIDS. The workplace is an important point of focus for initiatives to tackle the disastrous effects of the pandemic as it provides access to a large, yet captive audience. Consequently, the TUC, ICFTU and other trade union organisations are promoting the ILO’s Code of Practice on HIV/AIDS and the World of Work as a practical guide for formulating appropriate workplace policies, prevention and care programmes.

Trade unions also form national and international networks which have been effective in promoting campaigns for social rights. These are being mobilised in the struggle against HIV/AIDS.

Further information:

Action for Southern Africa on HIV/AIDS TUC Written Submission to the UK Parliament Select Committee on International Development’s inquiry on HIV/AIDS in developing countries
Congress of South African Trade Unions
PSI Campaign to combat AIDS
Education International on AIDS

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