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The IR Guru Interview:

Our series of profiles on prominent figures in Industrial and Labor Relations

Sharan Burrow, General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

“It’s our very serious view that democratic leadership has been co-opted by the corporate model and it’s failing working people.”

How did you end up on the career path you have?

The road to being an elected leader wasn’t so much planned as accidental, although I was always open to new opportunities. I started life as a teacher in New South Wales (NSW), Australia and it was a career that I loved. The teachers’ unions were part and parcel of our professional ambitions, in terms of delivering quality education, and industrial ambitions, in terms of fair wages and conditions. 

When my union, NSW Teachers Federation, asked me to take on a relief job as an organiser I accepted and it all started from there! 

I became a full-time organiser and eventually became Senior Vice-President. The NSW Teachers Federation is also an affiliate of the Australian Education Union, which I’m proud to say I became President of in 1992. Both these organisations had a very international outlook. Australia is basically a migrant country, so that adds to our knowledge, understanding and solidarity with people from other parts of the globe. 

I served as Vice-President of Education International from 1995 to 2000, which is an international organisation of education unions representing 32 million members worldwide.

Following that, I was elected President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) and in 2000 I was elected President of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions Asia Pacific Region Organisation.

I held the honorary position of ITUC President when it was founded in 2006 as a result of a merger between the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Confederation of Labour. It seemed a natural trajectory. I was re-elected General Secretary of the ITUC in 2014 and again in 2018.

Having a role in the global trade union movement is a real privilege. It’s extraordinary being able to stand with working people around the world. It also gives you a bird’s eye view of the global industrial environment and the increasing injustice for workers from our current model of economic activity.

But working for the unions at any level is a privilege. If people are passionate about the issues and shared values that unions stand for then it’s not about titles. It’s about being concerned about issues, building collective power of the people around you and standing up and demanding change. That is the basis of collective activism that is at the heart of the trade union movement.

What experiences prepared you most for a career in trade unions? 

The capacity to work with and manage students in my previous life gave me an appreciation for working with a number of people around shared ambitions. However, I was a young teacher and activist in 1970s Australia and there were three great movements that gave us a sense that if people acted together we could change things. 

The first was the opposition to the Vietnam war and taking a stand with the principles of young men who didn’t want conscription. The second was feminism. It was a time when laws were starting to be put in place around anti-discrimination, equal opportunities, and protection against sexual harassment. Many of these wins were part of a collective movement of women, of which unions were central. 

The third was solidarity with the anti-apartheid movement, which many of our unions were involved with. I was a young student then but was welcomed by all of these movements. It gave people a sense of responsibility but also a sense of possibility. People genuinely thought if you engaged in a change movement we could win.

What elements of the role most attracted you to the trade union sector?

It was never part of my life plan. When the union asked me to become a relief organiser I saw it as a new adventure but also part of a broader responsibility of working as a teacher. Standing with teachers and organising them on both local and state-based issues was an incredible experience, which led to other opportunities. 

For me, what was crucial was being supported and encouraged by others to take on other roles. That’s at the core of what it means to build the trade union movement, we are working people supporting others in whatever capacity.

What does your role entail?

It’s never boring. My diary can actually scare me some days.  My job spans working with our members and leaders to build campaigns on the ground through to representing them at UN agency level, with employers, employer organisations and in partnership with civil society. 

Coordinating a global push can leverage national or local demands. As such, I can find myself on any one day working with members, advocating on their behalf, negotiating solutions or representing our concerns on any single issue at a global level, and everything in between.

What are the priority issues/campaigns for the ITUC?

The ITUC has a coordination role and works with more than 207 million workers around the world. Really though, we represent all workers in terms of decent work. We have four pillars of core work: peace, democracy and rights; regulating economic power; global shifts and Just Transition in climate change and technology; and equality and inclusion. 

Our frontline campaigns are drawn from those areas. For example, less than 50 per cent of the world’s people now live in a democracy, so rebuilding trust in democracy is crucial. It’s our very serious view that democratic leadership has been co-opted by the corporate model and it’s failing working people. The reality is we have the greatest inequality we have ever seen in the world and we have a climate emergency, all of which have been created by a corporate model. We are fighting for much broader transparency and accountability in our democracy because that’s the foundation for achieving a new social contract that builds recovery and resilience. 

It’s also about regulating economic power by addressing shared distribution and reregulating the labour market, which is imploding. We have 60% of the world’s workforce working informally with no minimum wage, fundamental rights or social protection. That’s exploitation. Of those workers, 40% are in insecure or precarious work.  New and expanding areas of digital work or platform businesses are also informal businesses that aren’t accepting responsibility for their employees. Simply put, if we don’t put a floor of rights in place based on International Labour Organization (ILO) principles and that include occupational health and safety or implement a minimum living wage and see more control over working hours, we will see a further breakdown of the labour market. 

Alongside all that, we also have to build universal social protection (55% of workers have none) as well as promote inclusion. And, of course, there’s the urgent action required to address climate change with Just Transition so we can climate- and employment-proof our future. None of us can walk away from the climate emergency.   

How are unions around the world innovating in response to these and other critical issues?

Where unions are growing it’s where they are responding to the issues of the day for working people. Take the explosion in working from home and telework. There are already two pieces of legislation, one in Argentina and one in Spain, that give guaranteed protections for digital workers including job security and the right to disconnect outside of working hours. 

In respect of climate change, because of the move away from a reliance on coal, fossil fuels and heavy industry to achieve net zero emissions, there are Just Transition agreements negotiated by unions with employers and governments in an increasing number of countries including in Spain, Canada, and Germany. There is also a Just Transition Commission in Scotland and government commitments in the EU, New Zealand and South Africa.

There is even work by unions on this at company level.  Unions are representing members in negotiating Just Transition agreements. One of the latest is a US agreement facilitated by the American Federation of Labor and Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) between North America’s Building Trades Unions and a Danish company Ørsted, which specialises in offshore wind development. The is designed to transition US union construction workers into the offshore wind industry and sets a framework for fair wages and conditions, good jobs, workforce development and so forth. 

There are unions all around the world operating in very different spheres of our economy but finding solutions that help support the aspirations of their members.

Another example of that is in the informal economies. The Self Employed Women’s Association is a union in India that builds cooperatives, financial services and provides other support, such as childcare provision, to help women be entrepreneurial so they can obtain income security and be self-reliant.

Addressing a major injustice or trying to achieve change requires building a strategic approach and global campaigning and advocacy. It requires patience –no one wins anything in a day. As many union members will tell you: no employer just offered them a pay rise, they have to make the case for it.

How do you think unions have to adapt given the changes in technology, working practices and communication?

Each union has a different approach: they each represent different kinds of workforces from informal agricultural workers to professionals working in digital sectors. However, at their core, their values will be the same: organising workers around a central issue, formulating demands of workers, advocacy, negotiating solutions with employers or government and making sure that implementation is genuine and rights are respected. So, unions bring a relatively common approach that won’t change.

Having said that, we have seen many unions everywhere in the world pivot to digitalisation where they can. Covid 19 accelerated this and in the last three months alone, our own team has initiated more than 1,000 events, seminars and training sessions online.  Unions have been using digital tools to organise, campaign and communicate. They are still experimenting and developing but there have been some amazing examples of people achieving wins, such as increasing membership, in a context where they can’t meet on the ground.

Digitalisation is an extraordinary opportunity on one level but we are also very conscious that 40% of the world’s people have no access to the internet. That’s got to be part of our planning and thinking and inclusion principles in terms of how we provide support. So, we will deploy a hybrid approach. Also, I wouldn’t want to lose the opportunity to be able to build campaigns face-to-face with union leaders and activists around the world where that is most effective. 

What achievements are you most proud of?

Highlights this year include ending the kafala system [that has seen widespread abuse and exploitation of migrant workers] in Qatar. The country now has a set of laws that means these workers have rights and are no longer used as forced labour. Now, we are targeting the UAE and other Gulf States to do similar. 

We have also seen big breakthroughs with regards to our campaign to mandate the UN’s Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, which require due diligence, a risk analysis of where rights are likely to be or are being violated; grievance procedures; and remedy to end exploitation. Our aim was to get five countries to mandate due diligence in 2020 and we now have the EU committing to this. So, we are making real progress in holding companies to account for human and labour rights violations.

It’s also been heartening to see minimum wages established and increased in some of our poorest countries, thanks to union activity. For example, Ethiopia now has a minimum wage system in place that will be evidence based and will increase justice. If that can be achieved in a country as impoverished as Ethiopia, we can do it anywhere.


Interview by Rima Evans

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