As head of the world’s largest trade union federation, former ACTU president Sharan Burrow is waging war on international youth unemployment and ‘modern slavery’ in the Gulf states ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. By Mary Delahunty.

Workers’ warrior and ITUC head Sharan Burrow tackles injustice

International Trade Union Confederation chief Sharan Burrow.
International Trade Union Confederation chief Sharan Burrow.

Australian Sharan Burrow is punching above her weight on the world stage, yet few in this country know much about her work. As head of the International Trade Union Confederation, Burrow is tackling modern slavery in Qatar as it prepares to host the 2022 FIFA World Cup, and challenging the G20 on dangerous levels of youth unemployment. Representing 176 million members in 162 countries, the ITUC is a long way from the Australian royal commission into trade unions, where lurid allegations and criminal charges have tarnished parts of the movement Burrow once led as president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. She spoke to Mary Delahunty in Europe.

Mary Delahunty You’re in Turkey trying to persuade the G20 to set a target to lift youth employment; you’re also gathering workers’ testimonies to complement your independent polling on living standards. 

Sharan Burrow The G20, the world’s biggest economies, recently adopted the “25 per cent by 2025” target for women’s employment and we, business and labour, ask now why not a target for youth? Get the young into work. We have stats in each country – 50 per cent of young people in Greece, for example, idle or in the black economy. This is where the structural decline starts. There are about 2.9 billion people in the global workforce. Only 60 per cent of workers have a job in the formal economy and even then the majority are in precarious work. Forty per cent are struggling in the informal economy with no minimum wage or income, no social protection and excluded from legislated labour rights, and these numbers are increasing. We want a worldwide minimum living wage, evidenced based. What does it cost to live on a minimum wage in each country? ITUC polling reveals falling or stagnating wages in 14 countries surveyed with 80 per cent of respondents in Australia, for example, saying they can’t save any money on declining incomes. With half the families in the 14 countries that constitute half the world’s population not keeping up with the cost of living, there’s a problem.

MD In this workers’ focus group are you charting one of the deep structural downsides of globalisation?

SB A hospital cleaner [in Turkey] has just told me she can work up to 11 hours a day for a monthly pay of $A525, and can be asked to do everything in that hospital, anything except surgery! Down the road at a dairy-processing plant locals serve international brands working up to 60 hours a week and are forced to use leave in lieu of overtime. This is the hidden workforce of some international supply chains, for global companies such as Siemens, Apple and Samsung. Siemens has 343,000 direct employees but another 4.6 million hidden workers, contractors around the world for which they have no responsibility. Many of these workers are women and they are part of the “desperation” economy.

MD You go much further than fairness when you, and others, accuse the Arab states of slavery. Isn’t this mediaeval language in the 21st century?

SB This is modern slavery. These workers are not in chains but they are owned lock, stock and barrel, and in the Gulf they’re building football stadiums and art museums. Armies of migrant workers from India, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Nepal. Twenty-two million of them, 90 per cent of the population of the UAE and Qatar. Bound to an employer by the kafala sponsorship system, these labourers arrive, heavily indebted from recruitment and transit fees, often to find their Gulf dream a mirage. Typically the employer takes their passport, pays them much less than promised despite punishing hours in the desert heat, and crams them into substandard housing. The campaign to end slavery in the Gulf states began in 2011. We had undertaken a global scan to identify where labour rights were absent and where the threats to progress were. While we have many countries at risk, on our global rights index the Gulf states stood out. They are the richest bloc of countries pursuing rapid development but on the back of enslaved workers. The 2022 FIFA World Cup had been awarded to Qatar despite being a slave state and so that’s where we started. Indeed it’s a long story but we started with two bloggers four years ago and now it is a global storm. 

MD As general secretary of the ITUC you have taken personal risks to take journalists and TV cameras into the workers’ sheds of Doha [Qatar’s capital]. The pressure of this soft power has seen FIFA sponsors such as Visa, McDonald’s and Coca-Cola join the call for an independent inquiry and the toppling of [FIFA president] Sepp Blatter. 

SB And kids in Pakistan have been saved from the factories making footballs with FIFA labels.

MD Now you are being asked to take on the Guggenheim.

SB International art brands New York’s Guggenheim and the Paris Louvre are building museums in the Gulf and they’re also doing it on the back of exploited migrant workers. For five years artists and activists have been pushing the museums to recognise this. On international Labour Day on May 1 last year, when the artists’ protest shut down the Guggenheim for the first time in its history, the shocked trustees asked for a meeting. The artists called me.

MD What did you recommend?

SB The FIFA strategy. Build public waves of pressure. Insist on the moral responsibility of the Guggenheim and the Louvre for the conditions of the workers building their museums, but also look to the sensitivity of their sponsors. Say to these international companies, “Don’t do business in these slave states or you’re at risk, your brand reputation is at risk.” So a social media campaign broke out: “Dior, the Essence of Slavery.” Sponsors are risking their global reputation here but their brand and presence can force change. It’s the sons and daughters test. Would you want your kids to be in this situation. And that’s not to absolve the Arab states from responsibility. Why are the richest countries in the world deciding to build their modern nations on modern slavery?

MD When the UAE unveiled its “Island of Happiness” concept on Saadiyat, off the coast of Abu Dhabi, part of the pitch to sell its super villas was access to branches of the world’s most iconic art museums.

SB Apparently it’s a necessary cultural amenity demanded by the global investor class, but it’s got a hidden cost. ITUC’s goal is to eliminate the kafala system by 2018. We’ve lodged a case with the ILO [International Labour Organisation] against forced labour in the UAE and we say that the World Cup should not go ahead in Qatar without workers’ rights, nor should the Guggenheim and the Louvre be built in the Gulf without basic workers’ rights.

MD You have met with Barack Obama in the White House, Germany’s Angela Merkel and leaders in Africa and Latin America. You have been asked by the sheikhs of Qatar to meet their prime minister. What will you say to him?

SB There are more than 1400 workers dead already among the million building the World Cup stadiums. The Gulf states don’t recognise ILO standards but we are asking for a living wage, safe working conditions and a debt settlement fund for the recruitment fees. All we want is for governments and companies to follow the rules.

MD You’ve worked with UN climate envoy Mary Robinson and now Nicholas Stern on the Global Commission on the Economy and Climate. Does this mean big industrial job losses?

SB I think citizens are ahead of governments on this. There are no jobs on a dead planet, so we are working on a transition plan, a bargain for industrial transformation into a low-carbon economy that gives workers and companies fair adjustment.

MD The Productivity Commission’s draft workplace relations review concluded that: “Contrary to perceptions, Australia’s labour market performance and flexibility is relatively good by global standards … Strike activity is low, wages are responsive to economic downturns and there are multiple forms of employment arrangements that offer employees and employers flexible options for working.” Though Labor fears the further fragmentation of bargaining with employer-driven “collective contracts” and, as predicted, the Productivity Commission is going after Sunday penalties particularly in the hospitality industries, does Australia need unions?

SB Show me an employer who voluntarily offers a raise. Are we prepared to have corporations driving our social norms? Unions are still the biggest institution, bigger than our political parties, bigger than the churches and I see it all the time here in Europe, they’re the bulwark of democracy, the basis of social Europe and the grand bargain that built it. Unions are the biggest cross-border movement on the planet with global research and campaigning capacity at the moment focused on reducing the deficits of globalisation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 6, 2016 as "Workers’ warrior".

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Mary Delahunty is a journalist, author and former Labor state government minister. Her latest book is Gravity.

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