Category: Equal Times

Combatting human trafficking – without the unions?

A version of this article appears today on Equal Times, a global news, opinion and campaign website about work, politics, the economy, development and the environment which is supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).

Sherlock Holmes once pointed out “the curious incident of the dog in the night-time” to a police officer. The officer replied that “the dog did nothing in the night-time.” To which Holmes famously responded, “That was the curious incident.”

The “curious incident” at a major international conference on human trafficking held in Vienna earlier this month concerns the international trade union movement. Those attending the conference may reply, “but there were no unions in the room”. And that is curious.

The conference was sponsored by the “Alliance Against Trafficking in Persons” which was set up by the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe (OSCE) some years ago. While the OSCE is a group of 57 countries, mainly in Europe, the Alliance is described as a “broad voluntary platform of over 30 members including international and non-governmental organizations”. To the organizers of the event, unions are apparently not an important part of the fight to end human trafficking.

The conference opened in one of the grand halls of the Vienna Hofburg and began with speakers congratulating the OSCE on its decision to appoint a “special representative and co-ordinator for combating trafficking in human beings”. That co-ordinator is Madina Jarbussynova, a veteran diplomat from Kazakhstan who (according to the OSCE) is strong promoter of human rights. The same cannot be said of her government, which still has questions to answer about the December 2011 massacre of striking oil workers in Zhanaozen.

The opening session included other prominent speakers whose record, or the record of the governments they represented, were not ideal on the subject of human rights. Vladimir Garkun from Belarus spoke on the opening panel, representing a government widely described as the “last dictatorship in Europe” with a notorious record on human and workers’ rights.

And one of the first participants to intervene in debates was the representative of the government of Uzbekistan, who rattled off a list of laws his country has adopted to fight human trafficking. According to the OSCE’s own report (more on this later), the ratification in 2008 by Uzbekistan of ILO conventions banning trafficking had little effect. “A report in 2010,” the OSCE states, “estimated that forced child labour accounted for over half the country’s cotton harvest.”

The tone of many of the early speeches was self-congratulatory. One could not help but wonder why a conference was needed at all, as organizations like the OSCE had not only adopted an “Action Plan” in 2000 to combat human trafficking, but had even passed an “Addendum” in 2013. (Did anyone outside of the hall even know this?)

The fact that this was the 14th conference of the Alliance hints at the fact that combatting human trafficking has become a sort of cottage industry, with a wide range of players, many of them quite sincere, producing reports and holding conferences.

But was any of this helping put an end to modern slavery, to the scourge of human trafficking?

Not according to William Lacy Swing, the 80-year-old Director General of the International Organization for Migration. Swing, a veteran US diplomat, made a forceful speech that raised serious issues about the effectiveness of the international response to trafficking. “We have hardly made a dent in solving the problem,” he said.

Swing also raised the question of Europe becoming the most dangerous destination in the world for migrant workers, some of them trafficked, and criticized the recent European decision to reduce efforts to rescue migrants at sea. (This was another issue few participants were keen to discuss.)

It was not until the late afternoon on the first day that a panel was held which included speakers who were not diplomats, who did not represent states, and who could say interesting things about the subject of human trafficking.

Igor Kovalchuk from the Seafarers Trade Union of the Russian Federation was on the panel. Kovalchuk spoke about some successes his union had in Russian courts, and about their good relationship with government ministries being a key to their work. He spoke proudly about his union’s “interactive website” and print publication, and that was it. He was the only spokesperson for the international labour movement.

Fortunately, three of the other speakers on the panel did introduce unions into the equation — though none of them were there representing unions.

One was John Morrison of the London-based Institute for Human Rights and Businesses. Morrison mentioned unions as partners with business in the fight to bring an end to human trafficking, though inevitably his focus was on what business could do.

A second was Reverend Noelle Damico from the USA, who spoke about the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, which though not technically a trade union has had some success in putting an end to human slavery in Florida’s tomato farms.

The third — the one who most explicitly spoke about the key role trade unions can play in the fight against modern slavery — was Cindy Berman, from the Ethical Trading Initiative in the UK. ETI is a coalition representing business, NGOs and trade unions — where unions are not simply part of the NGO component. Her message could not have been clearer:

“Unionised workers are unlikely to be trafficked workers. . . . Governments can play a vital role through laws and policies that enable workers to have the right to organize and that they can claim these rights in practice. . . . Nothing is as effective as having organized workers that are democratically represented to negotiate their own terms and conditions of work.”

That panel was chaired by Beate Andrees, from the ILO’s Special Action Programme to Combat Forced Labour, and she emphasized the importance of the ILO conventions as a legal basis for the fight against slavery.

One tangible thing that did come out of the conference was a 100 page report entitled “Ending exploitation” published by the OSCE. Though the report’s subtitle references the role of businesses and states, it does include two pages on “initiatives by trade unions or workers’ organizations” including the Italian national trade union center CGIL and the International Transport Workers Federation. It is worth reading (http://www.osce.org/secretariat/126305).

The conference ended with Madina Jarbussynova saying that “we can and must move from policy to practice in combating human trafficking.” This is an odd observation fourteen years after the OSCE adopted its “Action Plan” and during the course of its 14th conference on the subject.

Maybe next time they might consider bringing unions to the table. We may have something to add to the conversation.

In Georgia, a newly-emboldened labour movement emerges

This article appeared today in Equal Times, which is the online magazine supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).  It also appeared on the website of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC).


Over the course of two days in mid-November, a drama played on the Georgian railways that showed the world a newly-emboldened labour movement in this small country wedged between the Black Sea and the Caucasus mountains.

Over 6,000 railway workers went on strike when management at the Georgian railways refused to negotiate on overtime pay, bonuses and other entitlements.

Vitali Giorgadze, Chairman of the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union (GRWNTU), told Equal Times: “We had been trying to start collective bargaining negotiations with the administration for about a year. It was due to these struggles that we decided to use every legal action we were granted by the labour code to speed up the process.”

Desperate to reach a compromise, union leaders not only gave the railway management the legally-required 21-day-notice for the strike, but they also gave the administration an additional 10 days.

But to no avail. At 10am on 14 November, 2013, the GRWNTU called a strike. Just six hours later, however, following a flurry of national and international solidarity, Georgian Railyways management called the unions to the table to start negotiations. By 3am that morning, an agreement had been reached.

It was a moment to savour for the Georgian trade unions which has been battling a repressive labour code and some of the most difficult working conditions in Europe.

But Georgia has a long tradition of working-class struggle.

Georgian labour and social democratic leaders punched far above their weight in the Russian Social Democratic Party and the Second International in the years up to 1917.

Until the Russian Revolution of that year, Georgia was a province of the tsar’s empire.

But for three short years starting in 1918, Georgia’s democratic socialists had the chance to show the world the possibility of a new, fairer and more democratic society in stark contrast to the dictatorial regime then being established by Lenin in Russia.

Among the features of their independent state were a multi-party democracy, a free press, a powerful cooperative movement, and strong and independent trade unions.

But Georgia’s experiment with democratic socialism ended abruptly in early 1921 when the Red Army invaded and for 70 long years, the Georgian people knew nothing of independent and democratic trade unions.

The collapse of the Soviet Union and Georgia’s independence in 1991 was meant to bring about a new era of freedom – but for the Georgians, it brought on an era of instability and dictatorship that lasted for more than a decade.

During this period, unions were first crushed by President Zviad Gamsakhurdia, who they had dared to oppose.

But his overthrow by former Soviet foreign minister Eduard Shevardnadze a year later did not make things much better.

It was only following the ‘Rose Revolution’ in November 2003 and the assumption of power by Mikhail Saakashvili, that things began to change.

However, change did not come immediately.

In fact, the Saakashvili years were marked by some major struggles as unions faced increasingly intransigent employers and one of the most restrictive labour codes around.

As Gocha Aleksandria of the Georgian Trade Union Confederation (GTUC) put it, Georgian workers have had to endure: “Policies that focused on exploitation of the labour force, lack of governmental labour market institutions and a legal code that fought against the practice of social dialogue.”

The most famous example was the Hercules Steel struggle in 2011, when the local governor and police in Kutaisi, one of the country’s largest cities, broke a strike with a campaign of repression.

The railways were also the scene of attempts at union-busting.

An attempt by the railway workers’ union to convene a congress in early 2011 were disrupted in several places by employers and their agents trying to prevent delegates from attending.

“The employing companies were motivated into thinking that they were exempt from punishment if they practiced bad employment policies,” said Aleksandria.

“However, the union has been fighting against these circumstances and the sense of solidarity is high with the members.”

Though Saakashvili was anything but a friend of the unions, and was widely seen as a promoter of neo-liberal reforms that made it harder than ever to build trade unions in the country, it was under his rule that unions and government negotiated changes in the country’s labour laws that finally produced positive results.

The new labour law, announced in the summer of 2013, was far from what the unions wanted.

It was a watered-down version of the one the unions had earlier agreed to, and it was weakened in part due to pressure put on by the American Chamber of Commerce in the country.

But as the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) conceded, the new legislation “provides some protection against anti-union discrimination, increases paid leave for people in hazardous occupations, prohibits dismissal of pregnant women and increases the duration of temporary disability provisions.”

There are now signs – such as the recent railway strike – of a new vigour among the Georgian trade unionists.

The GRWNTU’S concerns – overtime pay, increased wages and bonus system based on experience, as well as a return of the 13th month pay system – will be familiar to workers in many countries.

The union called for a nationwide strike to begin on Thursday, 14 November, 2013 but the railway company did all it could to disrupt the strike and prevent its spread.

While in the capital Tbilisi the strike was solid, in western Georgia, it ran into strong resistance from the employer.

Some key union leaders were uncontactable, and in reports that are reminiscent of the attempts to block the railway workers’ congress in 2011, they said that threats were made against them.

The GTUC put out an appeal for help, and got a quick response from the ITUC.

In a strongly worded statement to the Georgian authorities, ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow expressed her grave concern “regarding the on-going pressure and defamation exerted by the management before and during the strike.

“Instead of negotiating, the management interfered in the union internal affairs and in particular its right of assembly. When the notice of the strike went public, the management started to threaten workers of reprisals in case they joined the strike. To mislead public attention, GR management also tried to slander the railway union and GTUC by speaking of blackmail and sabotage as well as by accusing the GTUC leadership of masterminding the process.”

But the employer’s efforts to break the strike only made it stronger.

Within a few short hours, the GTUC issued a statement saying that: “Following six-hour talks, a consensus has been reached regarding all three issues raised by the Georgian Railway Workers New Trade Union.

“The just fight of the railway workers has been successful and the outcome meets the interests of the railway workers. The Georgian Railway has now resumed its operation in a usual mode.”

For the workers’ movement in Georgia, this victory – sweet though it is – is only the beginning.

Unions will need to make the most of the new labour law to organize many thousands more workers and reverse years of declining membership.

And they’ll need an improved labour law, one that really does fully comply with International Labour Organization (ILO) core conventions.

To get that, the occasional organisation of a successful strike will not be enough.

The Georgian unions of the 21st century, like their predecessors a century ago, will need to become much more engaged politically to challenge the neo-liberal agenda in their country.

Clicktivism and the Unions

This article appears in Equal Times, the global news, opinion and campaign website about work, politics, the economy, development and the environment. Equal Times is supported by the 175 million-member International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC).


In the last half-decade a number of new online campaigning platforms have emerged, inspired in large part by MoveOn – the progressive American online campaigning group launched back in the Clinton era.

MoveOn, which now claims seven million supporters, has spun-off a number of similar platforms including Avaaz (a global version of MoveOn), SumOfUs (like Avaaz, but completely focussed on corporate misbehavior), 38 Degrees (a UK version of MoveOn), and GetUp (the Australian version).

In addition, there are commercial organizations like Change.org, which charge fees to campaigners who wish to keep the email addresses of their supporters.

These organizations have become the subject of a vigorous debate in campaigning circles around the notion of “clicktivism”. Some seasoned campaigners have argued that people taking a few seconds to click on a link in an email message hardly constitutes “activism” and is no substitute for more traditional forms of engagement.

Malcolm Gladwell, the acclaimed author of “The Tipping Point” took on the clicktivists in a long article for “The New Yorker” in October 2010.

Online campaigning, he wrote, is “a form of organizing which favors the weak-tie connections that give us access to information over the strong-tie connections that help us persevere in the face of danger. It shifts our energies from organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity and toward those which promote resilience and adaptability. It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact. The instruments of social media are well suited to making the existing social order more efficient. They are not a natural enemy of the status quo.”

Gladwell’s words – especially regarding “organizations that promote strategic and disciplined activity” – should resonate inside trade unions. Unions are in it for the long haul and aspire to big changes – unlike the short-term, superficial approach of some of the clicktivists.

Recently, Change.org has been the subject of some unwelcome publicity as an internal memo from the company was leaked online which seemed to indicate that the group was moving away from its roots in progressive politics. It appeared as if Change.org might well host campaigns, or advertisements, by groups which campaign against abortion rights, for gun ownership and against unions.

As Canadian trade unionist Derek Blackadder wrote, “Unions don’t know shit. Sometimes you just have to say it. We never learn. Last year Change.org, a petition site many unions have used, announced it was going to start accepting money from corporate sponsors and running pretty much any campaigns that came its way. … What this means is that all the effort unions put into campaigns using Change.org served to increase the size of mailing lists that will now be used against us. Own your own or go home. Or at least go to LabourStart or some other solid political friend. Don`t use an online tool you can’t rely on. Like Change.org, it’ll just come back to bite you in the arse.”

Change.org is not the only group whose actions have proven to be controversial.

38 Degrees is a very successful British clone of MoveOn (its name comes from the angle at which an avalanche happens) and it claims over a million members. But it has come under fire for sometimes seeming to claim victories when in fact its online campaign was only a small part of a wider effort.

More troubling, I think, is the notion of “membership” itself. Union members are people who, in most places, pay dues and get to participate in a democratic decision making process. In many cases their identification with their unions in quite strong, and not something “virtual”.

38 Degrees and other campaigning networks sometimes claim to have a democratic decision-making process too, but it doesn’t resemble the kind of democracy we’d expect in a union.

Some time ago 38 Degrees sponsored a campaign to stop a Conservative government’s attack on Britain’s National Health Service [NHS]. When the legislation passed anyway, they sent out a mailing to all supporters asking what to do next. Should we continue fighting to preserve the NHS, they asked, or move on to other things? One cannot imagine a union asking a question like that of its members.

This is the worst kind of short-termism.

One of the newest clicktivist networks which also claims a “membership” of hundreds of thousands is SumOfUs, and unlike Avaaz or 38 Degrees, it limits its campaigns to challenging corporate misbehavior.

This is good, and on many occasions SumOfUs have found common ground with unions.

But not always, and campaigns have been launched, apparently in defense of workers’ rights, without any consultation with the unions involved.

And SumOfUs has also been criticized – by myself among others – for having, like 38 Degrees, claimed credit for victories which did not belong to it.

These various campaigning and protest platforms can be powerful allies for trade unions – but unions should also be wary of becoming over-reliant on them and should, where possible, use their own tools to do the same thing.

I’m not trying to bash these networks and say they are all worthless – the opposite is the case. Online campaigning is an important part of what we do in the trade union movement and we need allies where we can find them.

The Trades Union Congress in Britain has gone out of its way to build bridges with the new campaigners, including hosting large “NetRoots” conferences modelled on those held in the USA.

But I also think Malcolm Gladwell, Derek Blackadder and other critics of the clicktivists have a point, and unions should be cautious before rushing out to embrace this model of campaigning.

Where we can, we should develop our own tools to mobilize our members and supporters. Unions have the ability like anyone else to create an online petition, but we can also shut down a factory or even an entire country if need be, which is why our ideas about membership and activism will be quite different from those of the clicktivists.