Published: 25/10/2011

Over 100 representatives from trade unions around the world took part in a symposium on precarious work organized by the ILO’s Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV) held in Geneva from October 4-7. Over 3 days, unions described the role of precarious employment relationships in undermining worker rights, the scope and coverage of collective bargaining and wages and working conditions around the world.

As one of the keynote speakers opening the symposium, IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald identified the key issues facing the ILO with respect to precarious work. “For many millions of people, life and work have always been precarious, and continue to be so”, said Oswald. “Why, then, are we talking about precarious work, as if it were a new phenomenon?

“It is because labour today is under assault nearly everywhere, including in what were once assumed to be some of its most secure bastions. At the core of this assault is an attack on our fundamental rights to organize and to bargain collectively.

“One the one hand, the general offensive against employment rights is being promoted by the international financial institutions. Whatever we hear about a new look at the World Bank or an IMF with a human face, the old conditionalities are still with us. They are no longer confined to the developing world, but are penetrating the core countries which once held the purse strings, and they are promoted with a new vigor as capital’s response to crisis. Employment contracts are individualized and collective rights abolished at a stroke, with points awarded to countries who go furthest in generalizing insecurity.

“The second line of attack proceeds through the destruction of direct, open-ended employment contracts. Permanent, direct employment is on the way out. It is increasingly replaced with “temporary” contracts which in fact can last for decades or whole lifetimes; by outsourced, agency contracts which conceal the real employment relationship and hence the balance of power in the workplace and in society; with “seasonal” contracts which are year round, bringing all seasons together in a single workplace; with bogus “self employment” schemes which turn wage earners into “contractors”; with stand-by and on-call work; and with phony “apprenticeships” often dressed up in the language of “life-long learning.”

“In countries rich and poor, in a growing number of workplaces, be they plantations, factories, hotels, offices or laboratories, we find a shrinking number of workers who can negotiate through their unions with their employer, and a growing number of workers who are denied that right, because a legal dodge ensures that someone other than the real employer issues their paychecks. And we find a growing number of companies who have no employees, and therefore no responsibilities as employers, because those who perform the work which generates their profits are outsourced, or “leased” in US terminology, to a staffing agency.

“This massive violation of rights is sometimes described as a “challenge”, the “challenge of flexibility” and similar formulations whose function is to conceal the truth. The denial of rights and degradation of work is accompanied by a purposeful degradation of language. But precarious work is not a challenge; it is a meticulously constructed assault.”

Oswald called on the ILO to work “to restore to Conventions 87 and 98 their real meaning, meaning which has been progressively drained of content through the spread of precarious work relationships.”

The first three days gave union representatives the opportunity in group and plenary discussions to identify the motors behind the spread of precarious work and compare experiences and strategies for combating it. Presentations from the ITUC and global union federations IMF, IUF, ICEM and BWI described ongoing programs and campaigns centered on winning organizing and bargaining rights for casual workers. Peter Rossman of the IUF secretariat emphasized the financial dynamic driving the process and the need for unions to press for complete disclosure of both agency and casual labour and contract manufacturers/service providers in the context of collective bargaining. The right to this information was in principle fully protected under ILO core conventions.

Excellent presentations from ILO experts on standards and the evolving ILO jurisprudence on casual employment relationships highlighted both areas to build on and the current gaps in protection, as existing Conventions had in many cases been insufficiently elaborated in practice and in jurisprudence to account for the impact of triangular employment relationships. To defend workers and their right to organize and bargain, existing Conventions had to be defended from employer and government attack, but their application under new conditions required further elaboration, e.g. through complaints to the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association. This process required organizing and struggle.

The final day of the symposium – the World Day for Decent Work – allowed participants to rally at the United Nations at a demonstration organized by the Swiss union Unia to highlight the ongoing lack of adequate legal protection for Swiss trade unionists.

Participants then marched to the ILO, where the symposium conclusions were presented to ILO representatives. The meeting delivered a clear message to the ILO to put precarious employment at the center of their work on worker rights. The conclusions make it clear that “Workers in precarious employment suffer from inferior working conditions in all aspects of work: security, predictability, health and safety, pay and benefits, and access to social security. The spread of precarious employment is part of what it is fair to call a worldwide corporate attack on the right to organize and bargain collectively, by shifting to subcontracting and individual contracts, attacking sectoral and national bargaining, and evading employer responsibilities by complicating what should in fact be a direct employment relationship with their workers.”

Among the specific measures called for in the conclusions were the request for the ILO to organize a comprehensive Law and Practice Report and to convene an ILO expert meeting on obstacles to organizing and collective bargaining for precarious workers, and to examine the development of suitable instruments to limit, restrict and reduce the resort to precarious forms of employment.