Shawna Bader-Blau, executive director of the Solidarity Center, the largest worker rights organisation based in the United States speaks to CIVICUS about challenges facing workers, Solidarity Center’s work and the response of professional NGOs to worker’s rights. Follow her on @Shawna_SolCntr
1. What do you see as the biggest challenges for workers in 2017? What are the key drivers behind these challenges?
Workers around the world are confronting serious challenges to whether they can exercise their rights and work with dignity. Among them are labour markets and systems that generate, rather than alleviate, poverty; and governments that fail to protect workers, either through omission or deliberate act. In addition, weak legal environments—national and international—tend to reward exploitative supply chains, permit human trafficking, allow discrimination to flourish and generally disenfranchise workers. Lastly, the toxic spread of xenophobia, racism, misogyny and fear marginalizes millions of migrant workers and refugees—further disenfranchising people whose jobs do not lift them from poverty, afford them safe workplaces or uphold their dignity.
I see four key drivers behind these challenges. One is downward pressure on wages along global supply chains combined with greater barriers to workers exercising their fundamental right to freedom of association—to organize and promote their issues, protect their wages from eroding and exercise their rights. Another driver is the increasing informalization of work and the gig economy, which limits wages, workplace protections and workers' ability to improve either, as well as strips workers of the benefits that come with full-time jobs. A third is the fact that governments around the world—to attract investment—are taking deliberate actions to weaken worker rights or simply not enforcing laws designed to protect workers. The last would be widening inequality coupled with resurgent authoritarianism, closing space for people to have a voice on the job and in their community, and curtailing worker and human rights.
2. How is the Solidarity Center and its network responding to these challenges?
The Solidarity Center stands with workers as they defend their right to freedom of association, supporting them as they organize, advocate and build worker voice. Our work is explicitly pro-equality, anti-racist, pro-migrant, class conscious and inclusive. We support freedom of association as a foundation of democracy and ensure the centrality of worker self-organizing and leadership across our efforts. In addition, we see justice and rule of law as an alternative to exploitation and arbitrariness—a leveler of inequality of power and wealth—and are putting greater emphasis on developing legal capacity among our partners and supporting innovative legal processes at the national, regional and international levels.
With our partners, we are building a grassroots movement for work with dignity and respect for workers’ human rights. We work with 400-plus labour unions, pro-worker nongovernmental organizations, legal-aid groups, human rights defenders, women’s associations, advocacy coalitions and others to support workers—in garment factories, home service, seafood processing, mining, agriculture, informal marketplaces, manufacturing, the public sector and beyond—as they exercise their rights, including organizing for safer work sites, demanding living wages and improving laws (and the enforcement of existing laws) that protect working people, and fighting exploitation and abuse. We are, quite deliberately, building broad alliances with other organizations fighting the forces of repression and all forms of discrimination and violence against people, communities and the environment.
Specifically, we provide training and technical expertise that can help workers take on societal ills such as child labour, human trafficking, unfair labour laws, infringement of women’s rights, dangerous workplaces and the exploitation of the vulnerable. We focus on supporting women as they challenge the systems and organizations that deny them voice. We also work to ensure that the rights of migrant workers and refugees of any category are respected, and help connect them to protective networks. In addition, we implement legal-assistance programs, including the training of paralegals, to help workers recover stolen wages or benefits illegally denied them, and we push to broaden legal norms, protections and cultural space for the freedom of association necessary to sustain a vibrant civil society
3. What are your thoughts on global protections for the rights to protest and strike?
The right to strike goes part and parcel with the rights to freedom of association and assembly. It also is established international law, supported by ILO core conventions and international human rights conventions, and specifically covered in the constitutions of at least 90 countries.
The right to strike is a collective mechanism through which workers speak truth to power, whether to rectify poor wages and working conditions at a factory, or to push back against government policies that perpetuate poverty, discrimination or persecution. In many cases, going on strike is one of the only ways workers can hold ruling or corporate elites accountable, protest injustice and serve as a check the concentration of power. It is a civil liberty that we all should strive to protect.
4. Are you satisfied with the response of professional NGOs (working on development and human rights matters) on workers’ rights issues? If not what could be done to improve the situation?
No. For a long time, worker rights and human rights have been seen as different issues, by both human rights NGOs and the global labour movement. Because of that, we are all far less effective in confronting the current global human rights crisis perpetuated by the resurgence of authoritarianism, the crackdown on the public sphere and the greatest expansion of multinational and investor rights in modern human history. These three trends have created a perfect storm for workers and citizens, greatly impeding their ability to stand up for their rights, improve their lives and livelihoods, and expand democracy.
An increasing number of human rights advocacy groups have begun to take on worker issues, looking to improve corporate respect for rights. Very often, however, NGOs fail to involve workers, the major stakeholder, in the process or leave worker rights, including freedom of association, off the table while focusing on a company’s “social responsibility.” At the same time, they fail to involve unions or labour advocates, who have 30 years of experience with corporate social responsibility efforts—including many mistakes—in campaigns. They could easily avoid some of the pitfalls the labour movement has already encountered.
Worker are up against powerful forces. And while they are the first line of defense against workplace exploitation, it will take a global network of worker rights defenders—NGOs, human right activists, trade unions—to oppose the stifling of civil society, staunch the erosion of workplace rights and protect human dignity and freedom.
5. Are there any particular mobilisation strategies that you are focusing on in light of current political trends when human rights and social justice concerns appear to be taking a back seat?
The Solidarity Center has joined with labour unions and women's rights activists to push for an end to gender-based violence at work. In addition, we are supporting safe migration policies and building networks to support migrant workers and refugees. We also are seeking out new ways to help informal-economy workers access and exercise their rights. And, of course, we will not rest until freedom of association for all workers is a given. That is our core challenge in this era of closing space for civil society.
6. What advice would you give to the CIVICUS alliance?
Worker rights activism and human rights activism must be linked if we are to push back the forces that drive inequality, poverty and injustice. There is no time like the present to begin.