From the TUC

The missing link? How trade unions are tackling poverty in the global south

24 Jan 2014, By

Workers at the worker-occupied FaSinPat factory in Argentina. Photo © Guglielmo Celata, Flickr.

Workers at the worker-occupied FaSinPat factory in Argentina. Photo © Guglielmo Celata, Flickr.

Last night I attended a debate about the role trade unions can play in tackling poverty in the global south. The discussion was well-timed given that political leaders from across the globe are this week making decisions in Davos which will undoubtedly impact on the development of global south nations. One Davos attendee, billionaire and philanthropist Bill Gates, has even made the headlines with his statement that there will be almost no poor countries left in the world by 2035. But can and should global development really be led by the minority elite?

Ben Selwyn, author and guest panellist, argues that development needs to come from below. In his new book, The Global Development Crisis, Ben argues that the traditional approach to development only serves to generate economic and state power for the minority whilst exploiting the majority or, to be more specific, the working classes.  In a nutshell, a few bureaucrats and business people ‘do development’ for the masses, forcing the poor to take part in an economic system that exploits them – whether through low wages, long hours and trade union repression – whilst selling it to them as a pathway to ‘freedom’. Such logic was famously illustrated when American economist Jeffrey Sachs stated: “…sweatshops are the first rung on the ladder out of extreme poverty”. However, Ben argues, such ideology is nonsensical as it’s basically ‘a few doing for the many, through the exploitation of the many’.

But what is the alternative? Ben believes that labour-centred development is the answer. The idea is that through their own collective struggles and actions, such as trade union activism, people can improve their social and economic wellbeing. In his book, Ben argues the case for such an approach, citing examples of where labour-centred development has led to real change and gains for the working classes. One such example is FaSinPat, the worker-occupied and democratically run ceramics factory in Argentina. Facing massive redundancies, workers took over the failing factory in 2001 and FASINPAT has since created new jobs and provided support to numerous community projects. Brazil’s Landless Workers Movement is another example of successful action ‘led from below’. Formed by rural workers, the movement fights for fair distribution of underutilised land which can then be brought into productive use. Over the last two decades the movement has aided the settlement of over 370,000 families. And whilst industrial action in China, such as the Foxconn strikes, is a more tentative example, it illustrates how collective activism at the bottom can slowly influence change from the top.

Fellow panellist Kwasi Adu-Amankwah, General Secretary of ITUC-Africa, also highlighted that trade unions have and still continue to play an active role in political and economic governance across Africa. From a former trade unionist leading the democracy movement in Zimbabwe, to protecting workers’ fuel subsidies in Nigeria, unions remain a genuine force in Africa. Unfortunately, there is still a long way to go because, as Kwasi stated, “Africa is an employers’ market” and with informal work and high unemployment being the norm, workers are often put off protesting as it is notoriously difficult to secure employment again after losing work. As a result, many people remain trapped in insecure, low-income jobs with exploitative working conditions.

It was therefore encouraging to hear Alison McGovern, Labour MP and Shadow Minister for International Development, comment on the importance of supporting unions as part of the British government’s international development work.

So, if we are to make Bill Gates’ prediction come true we will need more support for unions so that billions of people will be able to lift themselves out of poverty over the next two decades.