Outten & Golden: Empowering Employees in the Workplace

Posts Tagged ‘collective bargaining rights’

New U.N. Report Shows Just How Awful Globalization and Informal Employment Are for Workers

Wednesday, November 2nd, 2016

elizabeth grossmanFreedom of peaceful assembly and association, says a new United Nations report, “are essential to human dignity, economic empowerment, sustainable development and democracy. They are the gateway to all other rights; without them, all other human and civil rights are in jeopardy.” But these rights, says the report, are being jeopardized by the recent dramatic rise in the power of large multinational corporations and their dependence on global supply chains and the growing informal and migrant workforce. While these rights are most imperiled in the world’s poorest countries, workers in the United States are also facing these problems.

Undertaken by the special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association, the U.N. report singles out the plight of migrant, women and domestic workers, many of whom lack formal employment. In fact, worldwide, most workers are now without formal employment arrangements. According to the report, an estimated 60.7 percent of the world’s workers “labor in the informal economy, where employment relationships are not legally regulated or socially protected.” In some countries this workforce rises to 90 percent. The report also notes that while such employment has always existed, the rise of global supply chains has “exponentially expanded its growth.” As a result, some 1.5 billion people or 46 percent of the world’s workers, now experience what the report calls “precarious employment.” More than 70 percent of people in Southern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa work this way.

This workforce includes self-employed, contract and part-time workers, and day laborers—and often those working in special economic zones where, as the report describes, “worker protections are sharply reduced or eliminated in order to attract foreign investment.” It encompasses professions of all skill levels, from teachers, to taxi drivers, call-center and agricultural workers. These arrangements often involve on-call schedules, short-term contracts and multi-layered subcontracts—all of which add to workers’ difficulties in asserting rights and difficulties in enforcing labor laws. Women, because they make up the majority of the world’s agricultural and domestic workers, are especially burdened by the lack of labor protections.

As anyone working in this world knows, such jobs do not have typical employment benefits like health and unemployment insurance, sick leave, overtime pay and other wage protections. Workers have little opportunity to organize, form unions or bargain for higher wages and better working conditions. This situation, says the U.N. report, is contributing to wealth inequality worldwide.

But it’s not just globalization that’s swelling the ranks of workers whose right to organize is in jeopardy. Conflict, war and climate change are also contributing to the world’s growing migrant population that’s now its largest since World War II, notes Roger-Mark De Souza, director of population, environmental security and resilience at the Wilson Center. These people “have become a major low-wage workforce that is excluded from opportunities to bargain collectively for improved wages and working conditions,” says De Souza. And, he explains, these workers are now woven into the fabric of world economics—sending to their home countries an estimated $580 billion in 2014.

The report singles out the plight of migrant, women and domestic workers, many of whom lack formal employment. (ILO in Asia and the Pacific/ Flickr)

The report singles out the plight of migrant, women and domestic workers, many of whom lack formal employment. (ILO in Asia and the Pacific/ Flickr)

The United States is no exception

While the impact of working without the freedom to organize is most dire in the world’s poorest countries, “the U.S. is no exception to the types of labor rights abuses the report lays out,” Oxfam America regional director Minor Sinclair tells In These Times. “The abuses of labor and the changes in the economy, and how that disadvantages labor and labor rights—the U.S. is as much caught up in that as any other country,” says Sinclair.

The economy’s structure is changing “in a way that disadvantages even more workers,” Sinclair explains. Whether through layers of subcontractors that ultimately employ factory workers in Bangladesh, U.S. meat processing workers or college graduates working the “gig economy,” the report reflects the fact that “increasingly, people don’t have employers that are responsible for workers’ rights,” says Sinclair. And this makes it “harder for workers to advocate for (these rights) and protections.”

The impacts of this situation are, of course, most acute at the low-wage end of the employment spectrum, a workforce that often includes immigrant workers. In the United States, as elsewhere, farmworkers and food processing workers are especially vulnerable and lacking in protected labor rights, as are domestic workers. The report says that in the United States, immigrant workers “who attempt to exercise their rights are often blacklisted by employers, who use the threat of denied future work opportunities to silence workers.”

Sinclair also notes the impact and rise of right-to-work laws across the United States, which are now in place in 26 states. “Basic labor rights, the right to unionize and right to strike, are severely compromised by right-to-work laws,” he says. The report describes what’s happened to workers in states in the U.S. South where these laws are in place—and how corporations have taken advantage of the lack of unionization.

Solutions

When it comes to solutions, the U.N. report sees little progress in support of workers’ freedom to assemble and organize coming from voluntary corporate social responsibility and auditing programs. Such programs, says the report, “are not a substitute for legally binding, robust enforcement of the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association.” It calls on businesses to refrain from anti-union policies and practices and to support labor rights throughout their supply chains, especially for workers in “vulnerable situations,” including migrant and minority group workers.

Despite this trend, Oxfam’s Sinclair says he sees “some real signs of hope in the legislative work around the right to $15 per hour and the new federal overtime regulation.” He also notes that, albeit slowly, corporations are beginning to realize that “rights erosion is not a sustainable business model.” That said, he also fears that we’re moving towards “a bipolar work situation,” where “some people have workers’ rights and some people don’t.” But because this situation now affects everyone from university teachers to auto manufacturing and farm workers, he also holds out hope the issue of workers’ rights will finally get substantive attention.

“We welcome the U.N. report and the opportunity it provides to raise awareness and highlight the many challenges workers still face globally in exercising this fundamental right to freedom of association,” Carol Pier, deputy undersecretary for international labor affairs at the U.S. Department of Labor, said in a statement. “Working to protect and promote workers’ rights to organize and bargain collectively is a priority for the Department, at home and abroad.”

Currently on the U.N. agenda: a legally-binding human rights agreement for corporations and businesses.

This article originally appeared at Inthesetimes.com on October 26, 2016. Reprinted with permission.

Elizabeth Grossman is the author of Chasing Molecules: Poisonous Products, Human Health, and the Promise of Green Chemistry, High Tech Trash: Digital Devices, Hidden Toxics, and Human Health, and other books. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications including Scientific American, Yale e360, Environmental Health Perspectives, Mother Jones, Ensia, Time, Civil Eats, The Guardian, The Washington Post, Salon and The Nation.

U.N. Special Report: U.S. Workers Restricted in Exercising Basic Union Rights

Friday, October 21st, 2016

12189524_10154256555228098_5790056854214410429_nA new report finds that the United States fails to uphold the most basic rights of workers, particularly in the South, where some states “support or collude with employers to infringe upon workers’ rights to peaceful assembly and association.” The report cited examples such as Tennessee officials’ opposition to unionization at a Volkswagen plant and the “government of Mississippi [which] touts the lack of unionization as a great benefit when courting potential employers.”

Maina Kiai, the U.N. special rapporteur on the rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association and author of the report, stated that while governments are “obligated under international law to respect, protect and fulfill workers’ rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association,” many fail to enable, protect or enforce these fundamental rights, “disenfranchising millions of workers.”

u-n-special-report-u-s-workers-restricted-in-exercising-basic-union-rights_blog_post_fullwidthKiai, a Kenyan lawyer and human rights activist, spent more than two weeks in several U.S. cities researching workers’ rights. He met with Nissan workers in Canton, Mississippi; United Steelworkers (USW) members at Novelis in New York, and Asarco in Arizona; Retail, Wholesale and Department Store Union (RWDSU)-member carwash workers in New York City; UNITE HERE hotel workers in New York and Arizona; and AFT-member teachers in Louisiana.

Kiai experienced firsthand the many obstacles our nation’s workers need to overcome to organize and bargain for a better life. He made clear that the United States needs to do more, both domestically and in the global supply chains of our companies, “where some of the worst abuses of freedoms of association and peaceful assembly are found—and where migrant workers are often concentrated.”

As the report found: “The rights to freedom of peaceful assembly and of association are…key to the realization of both democracy and dignity, since they enable people to voice and represent their interests, to hold governments accountable and to empower human agency.” Unfortunately, the United States is a long way from meeting this standard.

This blog originally appeared in aflcio.org on October 21, 2016.  Reprinted with permission.

Aaron Chappell writes for AFL-CIO about the right to unionize and collective bargaining.

Ban Ki-Moon Accused of Union-Busting at UN

Tuesday, September 17th, 2013

Michelle ChenUnited Nations workers spend their time on the front lines of the global struggle for human rights, but now they are battling for rights in their own workplace. The UN has come under fire for union-busting, and the labor standoff could undermine its ability to uphold the rights of others around the globe.

All summer, the United Nations’ staff unions have been clashing with management over a new policy aimed at curtailing the staff’s collective bargaining rights. The Staff Coordinating Council, the union leading the opposition campaign, contends that the loss of this negotiating power, enacted by Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon, would deal an unprecedented blow to the union’s power to negotiate contracts and working conditions.

The dismantling of union power, in turn, may signal a gradual shift away from democracy and toward neoliberalism throughout the institution often hailed as the world’s watchdog.

The conflict began last spring, after the General Assembly issued a general order for the secretary general to revise rules for the Staff-Management Coordinating Committee, the current forum for collective bargaining talks. Ban then issued reforms that reduce the committee’s role in the negotiations to, essentially, an advisor—which the Council says is tantamount to “removing the right of staff unions to negotiate.”

According to the unions, when they declared the reforms unacceptable, management broke off talks. In July, the UN went ahead and enacted the rules. According to the Staff Coordinating Council , Ban had made far more drastic policy revisions than what the General Assembly had mandated. They say the order simply serves as a pretext for Ban to undermine the union’s influence, and that he has operated outside of the UN legal framework, which would require him to “seek mediation before consolidating this mandate.”

Now, UN employees—from office staff to peacekeepers to humanitarian aid workers—are waiting anxiously to see how the reforms will affect their power to determine the conditions of their work in a massive global governing structure.

Prior to the new policy, UN staff’s contract negotiations were similar to that of civil service unions in many member states, though the negotiations were not completely binding since the General Assembly could technically override the labor agreements. The loss of these collective bargaining rights has provoked international outcry from labor advocates, including the International Trades Union Congress.

Collective bargaining: A human right?

Union advocates say cutting collective bargaining will impact workers’ ability to respond effectively to crises, especially in war and disaster zones, where the UN is often the most dependable source of relief:

In order to continue this work, staff must feel valued and treated with the same dignity the UN encourages other organisations to treat their staff. Without a fully motivated and engaged staff, the results on the ground will change dramatically. The workforce of the UN is dedicated to its mission…. Everyone has the same goal.

Many labor issues are effectively on hold due to the breakdown of the talks. The staff union had wanted to address concerns over the UN’s the growing reliance on private security contractors in its military missions. Unions were also demanding “better protection for whistleblowers” and stronger oversight mechanisms, and “a workable screening system” to prevent agencies from employing people convicted of war crimes and other human rights violations.

Critics have stressed the irony that the UN’s own humanitarian campaigns often cite labor rights and collective bargaining as part of its founding human rights principles. (By contrast, the staff of the International Labour Organization, the global labor-rights monitoring body, is unionized with collective bargaining.)

The anti-union shift at the UN seems to run counter to its outspoken stance on labor rights in the private sector, such as its recent criticism of Bangladesh’s weak worker protections following the Rana Plaza factory disaster. The UN Global Compact, an initiative that advises businesses on human rights issues, proclaims that “Businesses should uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.”

The Staff Coordinating Council cites longstanding decrees on the right to union representation that enshrine collective bargaining as a universal right for all workers. Speaking by phone from Geneva, Staff Management Committee Vice President Ian Richards tells Working In These Times, “We think it’s clear that whether you’re bound by national laws or not, you should have the right to collective bargaining.”

Neoliberal humanitarianism?

This is, of course, not the first time the UN has come under fire for political hypocrisy—in recent years, agencies, both staff and leadership, have been scandalized by various cases of human rights violations, including misconduct by peacekeeping forces.

But the new labor policy is more than just the UN’s failure to walk the talk on labor rights. The reforms seem to reflect a global neoliberal trend among some member states. The undermining of collective bargaining at the UN follows labor crises in public sector unions in Europe and echoes Wisconsin’s pivotal anti-union law.

Unions argue that it reflects a general pattern of eroding job quality and security at critical agencies, and ultimately, will damage the staff’s effectiveness. In Richards’s view, UN workers’ rights have been quietly deteriorating amid a trend toward privatization: While agency budgets are threatened by deep cuts, the UN’s military missions increasingly rely on controversial private contractors like UK-based security firm G4S. Many staff have chafed at the administration’s restrictive “mobility policy,” which governs staff members’ freedom to change positions within the organization.

The situation is especially precarious for local field office workers. In conflict or disaster-stricken areas, Richards says: “For those who are locally employed… those [UN jobs] are about the only reliable kind of jobs you can get, especially if you have some kind of education.” But they are vulnerable to violence and the volatility of geopolitics. In Iraq, for example, if the UN withdraws foreign personnel and local workers are left behind, Richards warns, “Who looks after them? Are they going to be retaliated against?… There’s no current way of negotiating with [the management] on that.”

Ironically, the labor dispute has emerged just as the UN revisits a historical moment of crisis facing its workers: Last month the UN marked the tenth anniversary of the bombing in Baghdad that killed 22 staff members. Ban’s commemoration speech, quoted in the New York Times, specifically referenced the need to address security threats to field staff : “We have learned from our losses… We are changing the way we operate around the world.”

But the UN staff’s advocates see the loss of collective bargaining rights as a change in exactly the opposite direction—a measure that will make staff physically, as well as economically, less secure, in working conditions that are by definition fraught with instability.

Given its symbolism on the global stage, Richards says, “The UN is supposed to set an example to the world. Right now on labor rights, it isn’t.”

This article was originally printed in Working In These Times on September 16, 2013.  Reprinted with permission.

About the Authory: Michelle Chen is a contributing editor at In These Times, a contributor to Working In These Times, and an editor at CultureStrike. She is also a co-producer of Asia Pacific Forum on Pacifica’s WBAI.

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