This week we’re talking to Sharan Burrrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (“ITUC”). She’s been described as “the union boss of union bosses’ union bosses”. She’s the “individual with the possibly the largest democratic mandate in the world”, representing over 200 million workers in 163 countries and territories. We (well, it’s Max and Nabil but I’m there in spirit) talk to Sharan about why trade unions and collective action is as important as anything in fighting for a fairer and more equal world.

What motivates Sharan? She says she has the most privileged job in the world. In her own words, “I get to work for and with workers…when workers tell me that there is a problem, I have the luxury of making trouble anywhere in the world provided we are determined to win and make change.”

We ask her about the relationship between the gap between the rich and poor; and the extent to which workers are unionized. She says people are desperate and, “then personal despair, family despair and we’re living through an age of anger that is about people being so fearful of their capacity to make ends meet that they are losing trust in any kind of institution including our democracies. So, you see people in the continents on the streets and it’s against a rising tide of authoritarianism, dictatorship, fascism…but most of all it’s about their fear for themselves and their families.”

What does she pin the “failed economy” on? According to Sharan, “…we have a failed global model of economy…a failed model of development where you see the wealthy countries protecting themselves through trade agreements and so on, and stripping developing economies of their rights to industry policy to development…Sadly, we’ve got policy makers still living on the belief that the trickle-down theory will work. In other words, if some people get wealthier, if economies get wealthier, then people will rise with it. We know that’s failed…You can’t have minimum wages that are so low, that people can’t live on them at a very basic level with dignity. If you attack that or social protection, and if you indeed don’t implement social protection, then we have a fundamental problem that the basic security of employment, income and social protection is simply not available to people and that creates civil disruption.

We talk Robot (of course we had to) and how unions are responding to this age. Sharan shares her thoughts, “The technology is great. Why shouldn’t people be able to get a car service if that’s what they want, in 2-5 minutes? The problem is the exploitation of the worker based on the business model. But you can regulate that. Governments can regulate that and they’re doing it across Europe. When you get to…artificial intelligence, the real question is…are people in control? Artificial intelligence depends on two things: data sets and algorithms. And it’s people who actually decide the scope of the data sets and who develop the algorithms including the algorithms which are now developing their own algorithms. That’s pretty scary, …Now the real question is: are we going to legislate responsibility for those people or corporations with consequences when they’re liable for the oppression, the unsafe products, the lack of regulatory frame, or indeed the abuse of human and labour rights? …These problems are as solvable today, with technology, as they’ve always been but we have to come back to the will of Governments to regulate.

Sharan believes we need to actually look at rebuilding democracies, “because that’s the real institutional risk here…even within democratic countries we’re seeing the rise of authoritarianism. And unless Governments are responsible for improving and monitoring and ensuring compliance against rights, plus and unless they engage people in a process that goes way beyond the ballot box, we’re not going to rebuild trust in democracy.” Sharan breaks down the myth that young people don’t care. She strongly says, “I’m optimistic about young people…there is no less passion, there is no less concern but we have to be conscious of making sure young people feel like they are being listened to and that requires a solidarity across the generations. It’s the young women in Myanmar who for me are the hope of the side…they know what they want. They want to have a decent work life. They want to be able to help their families and they want to be able to build a future…”

What is Sharan’s reaction to neoliberal criticism that unions are bad news for the economy? She usually chuckles! Her response? “We don’t want to see a company go belly up, we want decent work. The reason they say things like that is, it’s code for, We want to exploit workers so that we can make more profit. And so that’s the countervailing power argument. If you don’t have unions or collective action, then you don’t have a balance of power. Corporate America thinks that freedom of speech means the freedom to attack the rights of people to join a union. So, it’s extraordinary really. There are some people who don’t understand the role of unions and that’s a challenge for us. We have to be able to give people confidence t… (that although we have evolved) the fight for fundamental rights, for decent work, for secure jobs, remains the same.”
She then speaks on the women and men on the frontline of the struggle, whom she’s very proud. She explains sadly, “you can’t believe the courage and the denial of security that they face every day…Trade union incarcerations (and) deaths are on the rise again…”
Sharan goes on to tell us that the (ITUC) Rights Index has shown for the last five years that Governments are being cowered by the global economic forces including our institutions the IMF and the World Bank. She states, “The Bretton Woods institutions need to be reformed. The WTO is not fit-for-purpose anymore. We need a global set of institutions that manage a model of economy, advise and funding support that is again centred on people for which economies serve.” She says that the closing of civil space is the tragedy of the commons.

We (well, mostly Nabil) are excited about the World Cup, which will be held in Qatar. So we’re keen to find out how it was for Sharan, negotiating for workers’ rights in Qatar. She agrees that the system in Qatar was modern slavery, but sounds optimistic of expected change… “We now have a three year campaign with the ILO that I negotiated with the Government…That agreement committed the Qatari Government to change the laws, change their practice and the time frames in which it would happen, with an annual report back to the ILO’s governing body which is tri-partite: workers, governments and employers. And I have to say that all the laws to end Kafala (system of slave labour) are now in place, minus the actual law although the practice has changed …and when we get that final law – within the month we hope – the Kafala system will be dead forever… This is a country where we also had to simultaneously build the rule of law in implementation. So, we built labour courts and it would make you cry to see those workers having finally the chance to take their complaints to a court.”

What do the expected changes in Qatar mean for the rest of the world? She says, “If we get this right, that’s ultimately going to be the guide for countries where we’re going to increasingly face temperatures of 40-50⁰… With climate change, it isn’t just the devastation of extreme weather events, it’s the adaptation and the rule of law that’s required for safe work as well as many, many other areas.”

And finally, we ask her what gives her hope. Very quickly she answers, “People. You can not work with people and not feel, despite the despair, the hope of their commitment to the struggle that is about a secure future…My worst fear is the declining trust in democracy and the rise of authoritarianism or dictatorship or the extreme right as a result, but it’s the hope of people and their power to effect change that I think is the motivation for everybody, to continue to fight for our own future.” There’s lots more you could listen to. Head on to When Workers Win and listen! Enjoy!