The Voice of the Working People: An Interview With Sharan Burrow

Sharan Burrow happily announces she has the most privileged job in the world: “I get to work with and for workers all around the world and, where it is necessary, I have a license to make trouble with a collective voice of workers. We have a responsibility then to effect change through agreement and implementation or advocacy for legislation for a range of policy settings.”

Today Burrow is the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), an organisation with 207.8 million members through 331 organisations across 163 countries and territories. Undoubtedly the largest organization of its kind in the world. Its mission, its goal, its aim and purpose are all centered on the world’s working people — on giving them a voice and defending and promoting their rights and interests “through international cooperation between trade unions, global campaigning and advocacy within the major global institutions.”

I had the privilege of talking to Sharan and inquiring both about her life — her admirable life, rich in experiences, titles and achievements — as well as about ITUC, the confederation’s past, current and future work, their challenges and their policies.

In the Photo: Sharan Burrow at the 4th ITUC World Congress “Building Workers’ Power” at Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 03, 2018. Photo Credit: International Trade Union Confederation ITUC

You graduated with a teacher’s diploma from the University of South Wales and started your life as a teacher, then in 2000 you were elected to be the President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. This is a major shift in career. Can you share with us what brought you from teaching to organized labor?

SB: Well, to be honest, I never expected not to be a teacher. I loved being a teacher and indeed, I was fortunate to be a member of a union where you could actually play on both sides of your heart. On the one hand, I had the joys of teaching young minds. And on the other hand, the justice of being able to argue with a collective voice for better conditions for teachers or for the students. One day I stepped out to be a full time organiser for my union and the rest is history.

Then another shift occurred in your life and you were elected to be the General Secretary of the ITUC in 2010. What brought you to the ILO and more generally the international community?

SB: When I was President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions, I was also a representative on the governing body of the ILO. I worked internationally for around three months of the year. I was elected to the position of President of the International Trade Union Confederation in 2006 at the inauguration of the global union. In 2010 I was elected to be the General Secretary of the ITUC. I then stopped being a member of the ILO governing body, although I continue to support the workers group as General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation and work closely with what is the unique tripartite governance structure of the ILO.

I have the most privileged job in the world. I get work with and for workers all around the world and where it’s necessary, I have a license to make trouble with a collective voice of workers. But we also have a responsibility to effect change through agreement, implementation or advocacy for legislation for a range of policy settings.

In the Photo: Sharan Burrow at the 3rd ITUC World Congress “Building Workers’ Power” in Berlin, Germany, May 19, 2014. Photo Credit: International Trade Union Confederation ITUC

I visited the ITUC website and saw that your organization is deeply involved in three areas and I would like to take them in turn, asking your opinion and what you see as happening next. First, raising awareness that globalization is failing — as was revealed by a global poll commissioned by ITUC in 2017.

SB: 85 percent of the world’s people tell us they can’t live on the minimum wage and when you consider that the same number of people say it’s time to change the rules of the global economy, that tells you people know globalization is not working.

When you walk the supply chains of multinational companies, like I do in my job, and you speak with workers in their homes or visit their workplaces, you see that the model of global trade is actually built on a low wage, often unsafe, almost always insecure form of employment.

Something has to change. The world is three times richer today than thirty years ago. Even if you’re in a formal employment role, you’re most likely to be in an insecure, low wage job. 40 percent of the global economy are workers in the informal economy. They have no rights, no minimum wage, no secure employment.

The global workforce is in trouble. If the working people of the world don’t stand for each other, who will. And that’s been the topic of conversations about CEO responsibility in partnership today here at Concordia. We want to tame corporate power, tame corporate greed and make sure we do affect a different model of globalization.

“New Capitalism” is what Paul Polman calls it, but we need a new social contract. We need new rules of the game and we need mandated due diligence so that every company is responsible for the risk analysis of abuse, of labor rights or abusive or exploitative treatment or indeed modern slavery.

Sharan Burrow at the 4th ITUC World Congress “Building Workers’ Power” at Bella Center in Copenhagen, Denmark, December 03, 2018. Photo Credit: International Trade Union Confederation ITUC

Second, assisting migrant workers to find jobs through your online recruitment advisor.

SB: This began out of our campaign to eliminate slavery beginning with abolishing the Kafala system for migrant workers in the Gulf States. It seemed to us that one of the things we needed to do was not to have to wait for a visit from a trade union official to document cases or wait for a time when somebody had the capacity to contact us — but to actually give migrant workers a platform where they could raise concerns and complaints, and they could also talk to each other. They could get information even before they chose to work in another country about the nature of the laws in that country. They could know their rights.

That was the reason we developed Recruitment Adviser, but increasingly while that’s been in the Asian corridor through the Gulf states and Africa, we now want to work out with other partners to make it global. We are starting to see the elimination of the exploitation in the recruitment phase, but not fast enough. We are proud of the changing nature of migrant worker labour laws in Qatar, but now we need to see them right through the Gulf states and we need to see every country ratify the ILO Forced Labour Convention.

Third, addressing the issue of social protection. A September 2018 ITUC meeting of experts reported that less than 30 percent of workers in the world enjoy comprehensive coverage. Yet, they pointed out that social protection for all is affordable.

SB: Social protection is definitely affordable. It’s appalling that, not withstanding the social contract that emerged out of the Great Depression, we saw only 30 percent of the world’s people enjoy universal social protection. If you want to put a floor of security under people, there are two things that actually make the decent work that give women a chance of more equal pay, that give people hope in times of need, and that is indeed, first and foremost, universal social protection. That means unemployment, income support, pensions, including disability pensions, child protection, maternity protection, basic education and indeed health. These things are in fact the vital services and income support. It’s absolutely affordable in the social protection floors as the UN system is committed to, and indeed the ILO has a standard on. In many countries, it is less than 6 percent of GDP. Now we know that is affordable.

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Secondly, it is an evidence based minimum living wage on which people can live — which is affordable. In Asia it would take just $50 dollars a month in the poorest countries to give them a minimum living wage. You do the math, $600 a year per worker. Because working people spend every cent, it would actually be returned to the economy in terms of products and consumption.

It’s a no brainer that unless we are actually prepared to pay people a minimum living wage, unless we actually share our prosperity our economies will not grow sustainably. If tax evasion is eliminated, you can provide social protection and quality public services in a way that gives people hope. So we need to change the rules of the game. It’s that simple.

Last question, how does the future look for the ITUC and the world of workers? What do you see as the greatest dangers and challenges? Climate Change, Trumpian politics, continuing gender inequality, rising income inequality and/or corporate or transnational power or all of them? What can we do? What policies and plans do you have to counter those dangers?

SB: So all of them of them is the answer. Despite the deficit of moral courage from the vast majority of political leaders of our day, we do have fantastic political leaders. We have Stefan Löfven from Sweden who is fighting for his political life as we speak. He runs a miracle economy. You won’t find people starving in Sweden, there is full employment, and more integrated refugees in their population than most other countries.

Despite those successes and smart people like Löfven being incredible moral leaders, they’re few and far between. Canada’s Justin Trudeau is trying to change not just Canada, but some parts of the world with his leadership on oceans and through the G7, and also on women. We’ve seen Canada take an enormous lead on the elimination of violence against women. We’ve seen companies come up to the bargaining table, which started in Australia, with domestic violence leave — but it is such a small number. Even on the refugee front, go beyond a few countries in Europe, such as Germany led by Angela Merkel, where do you find courageous political leadership?  When that’s not there, when democracy itself is undermined so that young people are increasingly questioning democracy — and yet it’s the best tool we have for delivering more equality and justice through legislation — when that’s absent, then we have to look to other partnerships.

In the Photo: Sharan Burrow at the 3rd ITUC World Congress “Building Workers’ Power” in Berlin, Germany, May 19, 2014. Photo Credit: International Trade Union Confederation ITUC

And I do think there is courage amongst global leaders in business who think the world has to change. But we’ll only do that if we can find a critical mass across government, business, civil society, and trade unions with the moral courage and the determination to say that we need to change the rules. We need to reshape our global economies. And we need to make sure that people and our environment are at the heart of our decisions, not corporate greed.

Editors Note: The opinions expressed here by columnists are their own, not those of — Featured Photo Credit: International Trade Union Confederation ITUC

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About the Author /

Kimberly Mantia is CEO of The Mantia Company, which is focused on International Finance, Economic Development, Innovative Finance, Sustainable Finance, Strategy, Risk Management, Transformation, Collective Impact and Governance. Kimberly is a former Wall Street Banking executive of Global Markets and Trading, also owning Energy and Healthcare experience. In 2008, she became a United Nations Strategic Advisor focused on Economic Development. Kimberly was educated at Harvard Business School, Harvard Kennedy School, University of Pennsylvania Wharton School, New York University and Saint Mary's College of Notre Dame.

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