International trade unions need to be less combative, encourage more interaction with workers

Trade unions around the world are playing a leading role in the protracted global debate on various issues in the Gulf region. They continually dominate media headlines with allegations of wrong doing taking place against workers in places like Abu Dhabi, Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia, to name a few.

For example, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) has urged the United Nations to look into the plight of thousands of migrant workers in the United Arab Emirates, including those building a new Louvre Museum and the world’s largest Guggenheim, reportedly and allegedly being treated as slave labour.

Elsewhere, this trade union body has severely criticized Qatar for its failure to give more rights to the work force and appears relentless in its pursuit to help strip Qatar of its right to host the FIFA 2022 World Cup. They have ensured that the campaign is not only relentless, but also aggressive, and at times, questionable.

It was recently pointed out in a news report that bodies like the ITUC have employed dubious means during their alleged investigation of workers’ condition.

The report released by ITUC has branded the Middle East as being ‘slave masters’, tarnishing its image and the damage done to its reputation is expected to put the region in a spin and will have long term impact, including stalling of construction projects leading to unemployment of labourers, including Indian expatriates.

ITUC’s relationship with the Gulf appears to have assumed an adversarial one.

A series of interactions with various stakeholders revealed a different perspective regarding their lifestyle, administration, agenda and financial angle.

A personnel stationed at the Swiss-based office of ITUC located in the ILO building in Geneva revealed on the condition of anonymity that, “in 2013/14, the ILO fired more than 600 employees in an effort to save costs. ITUC agreed not to lobby the ILO on this issue in return for maintaining its funding!”

He also informed that “junior employees are paid minimally and the trade union uses ineffective retired people to save costs, whereas the management leads a lavish lifestyle. Racquel Gozalez, the head of Geneva office, for instance, arrives at work in her BMW 5 series car valued at Euro 70000 and lives in a Euro 500,000 apartment.”

“I understand that leaders of trade unions across the world live a lavish lifestyle… The top brass has been known to help their close relatives enter into top level positions in the organization, cutting competition. There are some good things happening, but there are also a lot of malpractices,” said Rajendra, who has been working as an administrative manager with Indian National Trade Union Congress for 18 years. INTUC is the Indian affiliate of ITUC.

Manoj Kumar, who was with International Labour Organisation as senior secretary, said trade unions are not doing enough to enable large-scale interaction with labourers.

Kumar said, “Workers are not aware of the process. Who should they meet for redressal? ITUC has not installed a process which is easy for the work force. They are even scared to reach out to trade union leaders. In the end, labourers continue to toil while the general secretaries and presidents enjoy high life.”

Mr. Krishnamoorthy, a former official with the ILO, who is now based in Bangalore, in a telephonic conversation, said trade unions needed to focus more on the unorganized rather than the organized sectors. He said he would like to see institutions like ITUC train their attention on what he called “the real deprived persons”, and added that it was his view that such bodies currently represent just about seven to eight per cent of the work force.

He said it would be nice for trade representative bodies to represent, for instance, Beedi workers, bonded labourers and child labour, organize them and work for their development.

Krishnamoorthy candidly admitted that progress on this front has been slow and more needs to be done. He felt that a change in approach is taking place, which was a good thing.

The ITUC’s accounts show that in 2012, it paid its 75 staff at its Brussels office almost 6 million Euros in salary, which equates to 80,000 Euros per person, almost 2.5 times the average salary in Belgium. Furthermore, staff wages increased by 600,000 Euros between 2011 and 2012, a rate of eight percent or approximately three times inflation. It is even harder to understand the justification for this pay rise when you consider that their affiliation fees – paid by real workers- only rose by 1.1 per cent to 11.9 million.

There are tendencies of some labor unions to become bureaucratic and for the union leaders and staff to become detached from the needs and interests of the rank and file union members. Interestingly, one of the ways ITUC is funded is through contribution by global affiliates. Spending money every year to have an organization like ITUC fighting for your piece of the pie needs to be justified.

INTUC’s Rajendra revealed: “We pay huge amounts of money as annual fees to ITUC. Sometimes, we even pay half-yearly. We hope we get much more in turn, in terms of training programmes and skill development.”

Rajesh Upadhyay, a senior employee of a trade union body in Nashik, said, “They act as guardians of labour, but in reality, there are certain personal stakes. They have political links and there have been incidents that smelled dirty.”

The onus lies on the leadership. Sharan Burrow, General Secretary ITUC, recently responded to some tweets that questioned the modus operandi of trade unions.

The tweet appeared to carry a touch of sarcasm. She tweeted: “nice that four workers get a good deal”.

It was in response to a recent article that showed many workers deriving benefits in the Gulf and leading better lives.

As president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions some years ago, Burrow reportedly claimed credit for the introduction of the Paid Parental Leave (PPL) program in Australia, which she said would give dignity and respect to woman workers.

But what was not highlighted, according to media reports, was the Government’s Productivity Commission report which stated that the program would lead to a reduction in long-run wages as more people would be hired to cover leave periods on low wages and casual contracts.

On what should be the way forward as far as the Gulf-UAE and trade unions are concerned, Rajendra said: “I believe that instead of taking a hard line stand, promoting and publishing story after story against the Gulf, they should sit together and find a resolution. In absence of same, it looks like a western-driven agenda to stall development.”

Unless and until the relationship between trade unions and employer countries improve and they join hands in a constructive manner, reform may be hard to come by.


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