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Organizing out of poverty: the role of trade unions

International Day for Poverty Eradication on 17 October also marked the opening, in Geneva, of an International Workers' Symposium on Trade Unions' Role in a Globalized Economy and the Fight Against Poverty. The week-long event, organized by the ILO's Bureau for Workers Activities (ACTRAV), brought together trade unionists from all over the world to assess their action against poverty and discuss how to strengthen it.

Article | 28 October 2005

MOSCOW (ILO Online) - According to a recent ILO report, the Russian Federation is the destination for 85 per cent of Tajikistan's migrant workers. A quarter of the 600,000 Tajik migrants head for Moscow, where they mainly work in the construction industry.

Tajikistan is the poorest of the former Soviet republics, with 80 per cent of its population below the poverty threshold. The monthly average wage in Tajikistan is US$12, while a construction worker in Russia can earn US$300.

About 90 per cent of the migrants are working illegally. "Russia needs a new labour migration policy concept. It is necessary to work out comprehensive programmes in the field of labour migration," says Sten Petersen, ILO Moscow Senior Specialist on Workers' Activities. "It needs to be a policy of legalizing the migrant workers in a way that is fair both for them and the national workforce. We are happy that we are able to contribute to the development of such a political concept and we notice good progress and constructive involvement of all social partners".

Based on an agreement between construction workers' unions in the two countries, the ILO project also encourages employers to abandon illegal recruitment practices.

The project assists the Russian unions efforts to organize the Tajik workers, and in a few months more than a thousand new members have signed up. The unions are helping the workers to secure payment wages and are providing legal assistance.

Meanwhile, the most urgent needs have priority. For instance, the project's leaders have reached an agreement with the Tajik national airline, which will repatriate free of charge the coffins of Tajik workers who have died in Russia.

A representative voice

The international symposium held in Geneva last week discussed this and similar programmes in other regions in the world. They are all based on the conviction that collective action is the only way for the poor to have a voice, to develop their own strategies and to improve their living and working conditions.

"More important than its role as part of industry or as part of civil society, the mission of trade unions is to be the instrument of working people to liberate themselves and transform their societies. It is not a question of what trade unions do for workers or to fight poverty. It is rather how workers use trade unions as their representative voice to demand their rights, improve their conditions, and express their views", said Jim Baker, Director of the ILO's Bureau for Workers' Activities, addressing the trade union representatives from 60 countries present in Geneva.

Participants painted a grim picture of the present state of economic globalization. Every day more than a trillion US dollars change hands. Economic liberalization has dramatically boosted world trade. But only a few benefit from this globalization. Poverty, unemployment, underemployment and precariousness are the order of the day for millions. Inequality is rampant between and within countries.

The meeting assessed the progress made on the Millennium Development Goals, and more particularly the challenges that still have to be met in order to achieve them. In September 2000, during the UN-sponsored Millennium Summit, the world's political leaders agreed to a set of measurable, time-bound objectives to combat poverty, hunger, disease, illiteracy, environmental degradation and discrimination against women. These goals were reaffirmed at the UN's 60th anniversary Summit in mid-September 2005.

According to labour leaders attending the meeting, much, however, remains to be done. They particularly referred to incoherencies in the programmes of international agencies.

The background report prepared for the discussions questions the present course of economic globalization: "the vast majority of people are not sharing in the benefits of globalization and in shaping it". It emphasizes that "by making decent work central in the economic and social policies of governments and international organizations, the missing links between growth, joblessness and poverty will be bridged and globalization made fairer".

"Collective action and organizing in trade unions are the workers' and the people's only tools to guarantee employment, decent wage and conditions, safety and health, social protection to promote international solidarity instead of selfishness" participants stressed, reminding that fighting poverty was the labour movement's raison d'être.

Participants stressed that freedom of association and collective bargaining, enshrined in two of the most ratified ILO Conventions, are key elements in making sure that benefits from growth are fairly shared among people. There was also recognition that trade unions not only represented their members, but also spoke for society as a whole.

However, organizing workers and defending their rights remains a dangerous business. Trade union leaders referred to the annual report of the Brussels-based International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, released on the opening of the meeting, which says that a total of 145 people worldwide were killed in 2004 due to their trade union activities, 16 more than the previous year. The report, which covers 136 countries from all five continents, also documents over 700 violent attacks on trade unionists, and nearly 500 death threats.

According to the report, "trade unionists in many countries continue to face imprisonment, dismissal and discrimination, while legal obstacles to trade union organizing and collective bargaining are being used to deny millions of workers their rights".

As far as poverty is concerned, trade unions and other actors face a daunting task. According to ILO estimates, 1.39 billion workers - almost half of the world's total workforce and nearly 60 per cent of the workers in the developing countries - do not earn enough to put themselves and their families above the poverty threshold of US$2 a day. Reaching out to the poor, organizing them and campaigning for a fairer world is the task that trade unionists set themselves in Geneva.