Conference on Precarious Work: 15-17 December, 2014

Introduction

 

The phenomenal increase in non-permanent and precarious work across the globe in the last two decades is a product of the shift from Fordism to flexibilisation (Toyotaism) through progressive replacement of permanent jobs with flexible contracts characterised by multi-tasking. It is also marked by the obsession of employers across sectors across countries across employments to reduce cycle time of work processes thereby increasing work intensity manifold. This essentially requires unorganised workers in precarious work ‘contracts’ who can be intimidated to set standards which the others would have to compete with for survival.

Precarious workers serve permanent job needs but are, legally, denied permanent employee rights in the name of flexibility.  Globally, such workers are subject to unstable employment, lower wages and more dangerous working conditions. They rarely receive social benefits and in many instances denied the right to association and collective bargaining. Even with the legal right to association, it is difficult for precarious workers to self organise as well as to be organised by existing unions, as ‘flexibility’ and hence ‘hire and fire’ is the fundamental tenet that governs their employment condition. Another core aspect of precarious work is the effort of employers to blur the clarity on responsibility. Recent decades have seen the fragmentation of the vertically-integrated enterprise into more horizontal arrangements involving other entities such as subcontractors, franchisees and agencies. Legislation has failed to keep pace with these structural changes, refusing to differentiate between these complex multilateral relationships and the traditional simple bilateral relationship between a worker and an employer.

Globally, permanent employment across sectors has shifted to precarious jobs through outsourcing, use of employment agencies, and inappropriate classification of workers as “short-term” or “independent contractors” and in some instances, even as “management”. Globally, women, religious minorities, oppressed caste groups in India and racially discriminated in other part of the world and migrant workers, are more likely to fill these insecure jobs. There is also a locational shift of industry in search of such workers – between countries – from the global north to the global south – within countries – from industrial centres to the peripheries supported by government subsidy to capital. The horizontal disintegration of the production process today is not restricted to a plant or within national boundaries. The global supply chain today has become one of the greatest challenges before trade unions. In this context, the Centre for Workers’ Management facilitated a 3 day Conference in Mumbai, which was attended by 6 national trade union organisations, rooted in progressive traditions in their respective countries, to provide a open space to further their ongoing discussions, often bilateral, on their experiences of organising irregular and precarious workers in each of their countries, their organisational strategies and the possibility of coordinated action.  Representatives of the ZENROREN (Japan), NUMSA (S Africa), CGT (France), UE (USA), FAT (Mexico) and the NTUI (India) participated in the Conference. The programme of the Conference was deliberately kept as a loose plan as this was the first time that the 6 unions were coming together on the same platform to discuss critical organisational and strategic concerns and develop an understanding of each other and work towards a concrete plan to work together to address the nature of precarious work in their own country, focussing on the nature of the employment contract; inequalities in wages; and conditions of work, including safety at the workplace.

 

 

15 December 2014

 

Session1: Opening Session

 

  1. Vasudevan, President of NTUI welcomed all the participants to the conference and introduced the objectives of the Conference and the urgency of such a meeting in the face of the present onslaught of global capital and weakening trade union movement. Setting the background for this meeting, Gautam Mody, General Secretary of NTUI, laid out the context in which the unions have all come together with a common understanding that there is today a deep crisis in the capitalist system and capital, as always, has found the basis for restructuring and adjusting to this crisis through precarisation. There has also been a rightward political shift in countries across the world. This is represented in the regions represented across the table: India, Japan, Mexico, Europe, South Africa and the USA.

 

The participant unions expressed their unanimity in recognising precarious work as the major challenge faced by unions in all the countries. While there were regional and national variations, this was a common challenge of the present development model, and the need was to define common strategies of resistance. The fact that precarity leads to some workers having less rights than others is used by employers across the world today to pit one section of workers against another. The unions recognised that this cannot be resisted at a firm level. The possibilities of resistance at a sectoral level in view of the globalisation of production will be significantly enhanced through national and international coordination and cooperation. The struggle is also simultaneously to regain the strength and the relevance of the trade union movement. With the number and the bargaining power of organised workers dwindling, expanding membership to precarious workers is the way forward.

 

It was also recognised that linked to the struggle for workers’ rights is also the struggle for social protection. The rightward shift of governments across the world has meant sharp cuts in social spending. The unions discussed the need to challenge the role of the state as is being envisaged today and the need to emphasize the relevance of the public sector. Precarious work is the cornerstone of the present capitalist model. The unions challenging this will have to be prepared to face the full onslaught of capital and a collusive state – including the threat of capital to relocate.

 

Session 2:  Synthesis of Country Reports

 

The second session began with a presentation by Mariannik Lebris, CGT of a synthesis of the 6 country reports prepared by each of the unions providing common trends, types of precarious employment in each country and of trade union actions. The commonalities identified were as follows:

  • Workers in all six countries, despite differences in stages of development of the industry and economy and varying degrees of economic recession, faced increasing casualisation and insecure working conditions. Women, youth and migrants were more affected than others.
  • Labour flexibility was being intensified in the name of fighting recession. Neo-liberal policies and privatisation of the public sector were contributing to growth in precarious work.
  • The incidence and growth of precarious work was creating divisions within the working class – between secure and insecure workers. There was also a resultant fall in trade union membership and divisions within the trade union movement in countries. These divisions were intensified by the use of vulnerable sections of the working class – migrants/ undocumented workers/ women – in increasing numbers in precarious employment.
  • Different forms of employment relations are being used for extending precarity including piece-rated work, self-employed work.
  • With real wages declining, workers are being forced to agree to longer hours and to increasing intensity of work. Work intensity and job insecurity are together affecting the physical and mental health of workers.
  • Precarious workers with often less training and greater work pressure and job insecurity are forced to accept hazardous conditions of work thereby compromising the workplace safety of all workers.
  • Workers – both casual and tenured – are increasingly moving out of the coverage of collective bargaining and the threat to the right to freedom of association is at the core of all trade union struggles.
  • The institutional framework of trade unions, in particular in terms of workers’ representation and recognition of unions, is very different in the different countries. This makes both exchange of information, and discussion of common strategies between trade unions in different countries much more difficult.

 

The country presentations clearly recognised the importance and need of organising casual workers and bringing them into the fold of the union movement. However precarious workers are not always ready to join unions, because of their vulnerability and fear of victimisation. In this context, two aspects were raised as crucial for discussion at this meeting:

 

  1. How can unions support each other in efforts to organise precarious workers?
  2. How can workers be convinced to join trade unions, and union strength built in various sectors?

 

The discussions in this session focussed on the role of the state as the agency for legislation and regulation in addressing the question of precarity of work and on the role of trade unions in organising precarious workers. Instances were provided of state collusion with capital to increase flexibilisation of work but counter instances of yellow unionism was also provided despite positive legislation.

 

The rightward shift in politics was evident. Since 2012, France’s “so-called” Socialist government continued with the austerity measures of the previous right wing government. In South Africa, the ANC government too has promoted the interest of capital and brutally suppressed workers’ struggles. In Japan, over the past two years, even Rengo (JTUC), the union close to the government and interests of capital, has been excluded from discussions of the tripartite labour board. Since 1995, the first target of deregulation has been women workers and now the target has shifted to young men who are new entrants in the work force. In the garment industry in India, first generation young migrant women workers are employed in near bonded labour conditions. Access to these workers is next to impossible. In the USA, there has been an explosion of agency work. In cities like Chicago and Los Angeles, 60% of the workforce in logistics are employed through multiple staffing agencies. The precarity of these workers and the resultant desperation has however resulted in greater militancy in their organisations. It was also pointed out that the government was not just responsible for regulation but it is one of the largest employers itself and today being one of the single largest employers of precarious workers. Therefore we even have a case of the regulator of law being itself the biggest violator. Hence this is a situation where resistance cannot be limited to legal struggles. The present struggle has to take a political dimension.

 

Session3: Sectors

 

The bilateral and multi-country cooperation between the trade unions present has been around specific struggles in global firms, efforts to unionise along the supply chain and a limited amount of sectoral coordination.

 

The unions present identified the following sectors as those of strategic interest given the membership and reach of the unions:

  • Metal and Engineering;
  • Commerce and Service sector;
  • Construction; and
  • Public services, Municipal workers.

 

The discussion revolved around the issue of finding mechanisms for collaboration between unions in these sectors/ industries. Some mechanisms discussed are as follows:

  • Making MNCs compliant to ILO Conventions, OECD guidelines and other Codes of Conduct in the global south.
  •  Trade unions develop an international benchmark of standards that employers, especially MNCs, comply with globally
  • Expand the ambit of collaboration to include social movements
  • Sustained relation between collaborating unions beyond a particular struggle
  • Coordinated action programme around specific issues to both educate membership and keep the momentum of the collaboration.

 

16 December 2014

 

Session 4:  Security of Employment, Employment Contracts and Implications for Unionisation

 

This session focussed on case studies of organising contract workers of each of the participating unions. Milind Ranade, Secretary NTUI and of the Kachra Vahatuk Shramik Sangh, unionising contract municipal workers in the city of Mumbai, narrated their long struggle since 1997 of breaking social barriers, tedious legal struggle and their engagement with the local self government authorities in their attempt to unionise the contract workers who are primarily dalits, migrants. These workers were employed as ‘volunteers’ at an honorarium less than the minimum wage. The union challenged this employment contract and in a recent Industrial Tribunal has won regularisation for 6000 such workers with back wages. Similarly, for the Accredited Social Health Activist (ASHA), all women, across the country who are paid an “honorarium” at a piece rate for each task. These workers are not even recognised as ‘workers’. In the manufacturing industry, contract workers in most cases outnumber tenured workers, and organising these highly precarious workers is extremely tenuous. The focus of bargaining for contract workers has been with the principal employer but some efforts are on to negotiate under a joint employer framework which included the principal employer and the contractors.

CGT narrated their experience at Airbus, in which permanent workers were offered voluntary retirement schemes and the positions filled with young agency workers at lower wages and social protection. In Japan, the local government outsources its jobs through “working poor” contracts. The “working poor” contracts either remain under the jurisdiction of the local government or are outsourced to private contractors. There were around 800,000 contract public sector employees, constituting around a third of all public sector employees. The union density among these employees is extremely low (less than 5%). Zenoren has the largest trade union in the sector, with more than 18,000 members.

 

The session discussed a framework for building a network of contract workers in municipal work and public services.

 

Session 5: Inequality of pay and social security for precarious work

 

The large part of the value to employers in employing precarious workers is in the wage differential and difference in social security benefits. This differential gets further accentuated when we take into account the productivity differential through enhanced work intensity that can be extracted from precarious workers.

 

Mark Meinster of UE shared their experience of the warehouse employees in the region around Chicago. There are nearly 300 large warehouses serving the large retailers, including Walmart. The workers for the warehouses are supplied by around 80 agencies. The agencies are given annual contracts by the warehouses. The payment system in this arrangement is: the retailer pays the warehouse a fixed rate (of say $50 per container); the warehouse pays the agency worker a fixed rate (of say $ 12.50 per container). The rate at which workers are paid depends on the size of a container and consignment. This was legally challenged by UE and won a judgment that required warehouses to ensure a reasonable rate of payment for different types of consignments. The difficulty was that the employer in the case was the staffing agency, and this was a non-permanent entity. When a legal injunction was brought against an agency it declared bankruptcy, and often resurrected itself under another name and legal entity. UE therefore changed its strategy to target the retailer and was able to establish that the retailers are the principal employers. Simultaneously it was able to campaign along the supply chain and coordinate industrial action among workers across the supply chain. It organised a strike during peak sales period in November, forcing closing down of the warehouses supplying to Walmart.

 

In South Africa, as narrated by Hlokoza Motau, the government is under pressure from trade unions to ban labour brokers. But the government claims that it can not do so, as its action would be held unconstitutional. The government of Namibia initially banned labour brokers but the court struck this down. The government has now legislated afresh in which workers through labour brokers should be paid wages and social security benefits at par with permanent workers. If any worker has been employed with the same principal employer for 18 months or more, they would be eligible for permanent employment. In South Africa, in the metal industry, there was an industry agreement that ensured same wage and social security for the temporary worker as for the permanent worker, and permanency after 18 months of employment. The agreement also specified that labour brokers would not be used in core activities, and labour brokers would anyway be progressively reduced.

 

In Japan, the consumer cooperative services (retail and services sector) employs around 70% contract workers. Equal wage for equal work is a central campaign of the Zenroren. The Zenroren has also worked on job classification, to be able to identify similarity in work situations and standards for work. This is useful in collective bargaining, to present from workers’ perspective work standards and norms. Today in addition to consumer cooperatives, Zenoren is also trying to organise among workers in companies dealing with the cooperatives, as providers of goods and services. The organising focuses on union and social perspectives according to Keisuke Fuse, International Secretary, Zenroren.

 

In the case of India, the Contract Labour Act has two unique provisions:

  1. Licensing condition requires equal pay for equal work;
  2. If the contractor has not paid/underpaid the principal employer is liable.

 

While in reality it is difficult to get full wage parity between permanent and contract workers, the provision is good to use in litigation, and in the process forcing the management to negotiate. In the coal sector in the public sector there are around 1.2 million workers who are 70% of the workforce. The principle of equal pay for equal work was used to force the management to negotiate, and resulted in a doubling of wages from Rs.6000 to Rs.12000 per month. However the “equal wage for equal work” model can only be used where permanent and contract workers co-exist in a factory. In new units where there are only contract workers, the provision is more difficult to take forward.

 

In France, the national minimum wage is a low wage but the government and the employers would still like to get rid of it. Employers have been using subcontracting to avoid paying this minimum wage. For instance, in a shipyard in France, Polish workers were being employed through a Polish company. The workers were paid wages as per Polish rates, which are lower than the French minimum wage. CGT managed to re-qualify the contract according to French norms, so that both French and Polish contract workers were paid the same wage for doing the same work. The result was doubling of wages for the Polish workers. French workers were also able to maintain their bargaining strength. This was possible as CGT was able to work together with the Polish trade union Solidaridos to jointly take up the cause of the Polish contract workers. CGT also works with undocumented workers in France. It helps these workers to access documents, and change their legal status, making them eligible for their contractual rights.

 

Pushing struggles of equal wage for equal work is a slow process. The social contract of the 20th century was broken with liberalisation and falling wage shares. The present system of capital is unfair not only to workers, but also to other large sections of society. It ensures huge transfer of surplus to the promoter class, in the guise of royalties, patents and various forms of management transfers. Opposition to the new system has to take on the form of a concerted struggle, which can bring in new allies to the labour movement. It cannot be solely on the terrain of employment contracts and rights.

 

 

Session 6: Health and safety

 

The experience across the world teaches us that:

  • Precarious workers are forced to work under hazardous conditions; and because of greater work intensity contributes to more long-term health issues.
  • Precarious workers have less access to social security, and are thus less able to deal with health issues.
  • The economic situation of precarious workers leaves them with less work choices – they are therefore forced into work situations that are oppressive.
  • Lack of knowledge of hazardous impacts of certain chemicals, kinds of work leading to long term occupational health problems, especially in the construction and chemical industries and even in the nuclear plants.
  • Outsourcing leads to declining safety standards along the supply chain.
  • Health and safety low on the priority of unions. Collective bargaining agreements weak on health and safety of workers.

The discussions moved on to the possibility of concrete actions. A timetable was suggested for 2015, to build the broad strategy framework for joint action. Need for education and training of union activists on the basics of health regulation was suggested as an important agenda.

 

17 December 2014

 

Session 7: Experiences of metal and manufacturing sector

 

Hkloza Motau of the NUMSA kicked off the session with the NUMSA experience of organising the 5 week strike in the metal industry in South Africa beginning July 2014 in which over 10,000 workers participated demanding a 15% annual wage increase and an end to the exploitative system of labour brokers. The strike was called off when the employers agreed to a 10% annual wage increase for the next three years. While the system of labour brokers has not been removed, there will be licensing and regulation of brokers, and temporary workers will be paid equal wages as permanent workers, and made permanent after 18 months of employment.

 

During the strike, the government and the media did everything possible to discredit the strike. Employers threatened to relocate. The police accused the union of being anarchist. The strike decision was taken on the ground by local councils, and finally coordinated by the NUMSA leadership.

 

The situation in Japan is similar to that in South Africa. There is increasing employment of precarious workers in the manufacturing sector. Zenoren is organising agency workers and demanding changes in legislation governing rights of agency workers. This is difficult given the close relationship between the state and capital. Struggles to confirm the liability of the principal employer to dismissed precarious workers were difficult, as the law was unfavourable. For instance, the large cosmetic company Sisedo dismissed women agency workers. While the legal struggle was going on, the management closed down the plant and moved production to Vietnam. Though the workers won the legal case, it was a pyrrhic victory.

 

What is clear is that the old organisation of metal industry is being destroyed and reorganised, through subcontracting, weakening workers’ ability to organise and take industrial action, and allowing free movement of capital. There is concentration of attack by capital. The union movement in the sector also had to reorganise to be able to respond to this new challenge. The problem with struggles of equal wage for equal work is that these often do not have the support of the tenured workers.

 

Session 8: Conclusions and Way Forward

 

The conclusions of the three-day conference was summarised and presented by Marrianik Lebris of CGT. The Conference:

  • Centred around precarious workers and that some sections of the workers are more vulnerable than others, eg. Migrant, young workers. There, today, exists two levels of discrimination: between regular and irregular and along social divisions. This fragmentation affects unionisation efforts. There is a need to learn from each other’s experience and innovate on new unionising methods
  • Focussed on the fact that joint trade union actions through bilateral or multilateral relations is not enough and required a clear understanding of reasons for inability to build and sustain cross border solidarity over time.
  • Centred around discussions on
  • inequality among workers on wages, social protection, health and safety and freedom of association.
  • declining health and safety standards for all workers
  • need for government as model employer

Summing up the key discussion issues, Ms. Lebris laid out the reason for the 6 trade unions for being in this 3 day conference. The idea was to be able to collectively work towards trade union actions that are sustainable and concrete.

 

In taking the discussions forward and concluding the Conference, Gautam Mody of NTUI reflected on the rich experiences shared at the Conference of the different capacities and incapacities of the unions present. What was clearly evident from the exchange was the need to build consciousness among our membership on international solidarity. This could be effected through real time exchange of information on the ground on specific issues. The starting point for discussions of wages and conditions of work could begin with the idea of developing a global trade union framework for standards of workplace safety and work practices. For this the unions would require to lay stress on building the capacity of both their membership and leadership.

 

The key sectors identified for focus are:

  1. Municipal work – to focus on health and safety standards; outsourcing in the sector, including privatisation; falling standards in public services.
  2. Metal work – to focus on shop floor practices, work intensity and outsourcing; critique of industrial policy that leads to falling wage shares; decline in purchasing power and real wages.

 

The immediate steps were

  1. Coordination in standards for safety and workplace practices in municipal work and metal/engineering;
  2. Mapping of union strength and companies/ employers of union interest in metal/engineering;
  • Understanding techniques of control in segments of the metal industry.

 

N Vasudevan, President of NTUI concluded with a note of thanks to the facilitators, the Centre for Workers’ Management, of the Conference, the three interpreters, who tirelessly interpreted the proceedings for the three days and ensured the smooth functioning of the Conference, the Rosa Luxemburg Stiftung, for supporting the Conference and of course all the representatives of the unions present who spent union resources to be at the Conference and participated actively in the proceedings to make it a successful beginning to a journey together.