Guest Post on World Day for Decent Work: a trade union view on the UN Guiding Principles

Since 2008 the International Trade Union Confederation has been organising the World Day for Decent Work (WDDW) on 7 October. On WDDW 7 October 2014, David Joyce from the Irish Congress of Trade Unions reflects on what contribution the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights can make towards the attainment of the decent work agenda.

The world is on an unsustainable path. Vast numbers of working people face insecurity in their jobs and the highest levels of inequality in living memory. One half of working families have experienced unemployment or reduced working hours in the past two years, while 1.2 billion people still live in extreme poverty. Basic human rights to union representation and collective bargaining are under threat in many countries and under direct attack in others. Employers are even trying to undermine the right to strike, by challenging decades of legal recognition for this most fundamental right at the ILO. Too many governments are failing to protect working people today, and failing to build a sustainable future for the generations to come. The Decent Work Agenda seems a distant dream for many.

The DFAT Forum on Human Rights on 7 November 2014, Dublin Castle is being organised around the theme of “Implementing the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights” and is a very welcome focus as we embark upon the formulation of a national action plan on same. What contribution could their implementation make to achieving decent work for all?

The responsibility of business to respect human rights is a global standard of expected conduct for all business enterprises wherever they operate, here in Ireland or as far away as Myanmar. It exists independently of States’ abilities and/or willingness to fulfil their own human rights obligations, and does not diminish those obligations. And it exists over and above compliance with national laws and regulations protecting human rights.

The Guiding Principles define a basket of interrelated rights, including the right to join or form a trade union and the right to bargain collectively. What is entailed in the exercise of these human rights is well understood and established in legitimate and authoritative legal processes.

The Guiding Principles are important in that they clarify the different roles and responsibilities of states and businesses. Clearly it is the duty of the state to enact and implement laws and policies to protect against human rights abuses. And businesses should not decide what their responsibilities to society are – as many CSR policies do – but instead should meet their “responsibility to respect” the human rights of all people affected by their operations.

One of the useful contributions of a national action plan could be to shine a light on the revised OECD Guidelines on Multinational enterprises, which now incorporate this basket of rights to compliment the UN Guiding Principles. The OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises comprise a set of recommendations from Governments to MNEs on responsible business conduct. They apply to MNEs with headquarters in countries that have signed the Guidelines, wherever those MNEs operate and their business relationships, subsidiaries as well as suppliers, investors and other business partners.

A unique feature of the guidelines is a Government-backed complaints mechanism where potentially big business can be held to account for its impacts on workers and the environment. Under the Guidelines, each signatory government is required to set up a National Contact Point (NCP) – a government body hearing complaints and generally promoting the Guidelines. Out of the 40 or so signatory governments, barely a handful have functioning NCPs (the UK NCP is generally regarded as one of the best). The Irish NCP appears to be little more than a bullet point in the job description of an overworked civil servant in the Department of Jobs Enterprise and Innovation. Up to now, it has received 4 cases – hardly surprising given the lack of promotion and knowledge of the guidelines. You can read more about trade union cases brought to NCP’s and an evaluation of NCP performance on the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) website.

One of the most significant additions to the revised guidelines was the inclusion of the concept of “due diligence” in the text. Developed by the UN Special Representative on Business and Human Rights, John Ruggie, this concept requires an enterprise to identify and address the negative impacts it’s causing, wherever they occur. The process entails assessing actual and potential human rights impacts, integrating and acting upon the findings, tracking responses as well as communicating how impacts are addressed, as illustrated below:

Elsewhere the new Guidelines have a new chapter on Human Rights. A comprehensive section on Employment and Industrial Relations also states that:

  • “In the context of bona fide negotiations with workers’ representatives on conditions of employment, or while workers are exercising a right to organise, not threaten to transfer the whole or part of an operating unit from the country concerned nor transfer workers from the enterprises’ component entities in other countries in order to influence unfairly those negotiations or to hinder the exercise of a right to organise”

That kind of behaviour may sound familiar to trade union colleagues negotiating with MNEs here in Ireland.

Despite all these improvements, the biggest criticism of the guidelines is the fact that they are effectively unenforceable. However, they are a big step up from most CSR initiatives who tend address these issues by redefining freedom of association and do not focus on the responsibility of business enterprises or their adverse impacts on these human rights. They describe how business enterprises should:

  • Respect the rights of workers to form or join a trade union by not doing anything that would have the effect of discouraging workers from exercising this right.
  • Respect the right of workers to collective bargaining by not refusing any genuine opportunity to bargain collectively.
  • Implement due diligence for the right to form or join a trade union by identifying and preventing anti-union policies and practices as well as mitigating the adverse impacts on the exercise of this right by other business activities and decisions;
  • Implement Due diligence for the right to bargain collectively by recognising that business enterprises must be prepared to bargain under a wider range of structures in countries where the law and practice does not provide a well-defined framework for bargaining.

And they set out how industrial relations, a system which requires both trade unions and collective bargaining, can play important roles in both due diligence and in the remediation of adverse human rights impacts. So while not legally binding, they can be a strong advocacy tool to improve existing rules and policies. The TUC have outlined policy priorities under each of the 31 Guiding Principles which could usefully inform the development of our own national action plan. Such an approach could bring Decent Work for All a small step closer.

6 responses to “Guest Post on World Day for Decent Work: a trade union view on the UN Guiding Principles

  1. And yet, next month David Joyce will be speaking at an international conference to advocate against sex workers having the right to organise and demand their rights as workers – a stance that is itself inconsistent with UN principles. I guess this column should have a disclaimer, “only applies to work the author approves of”.

    • Wendy,

      Thanks for your ongoing interest in my work. As you well know, the debate on sex as work has caused some division between and within feminism and trade unionism.

      We are not against the rights of any group of workers to organise. However, the TUC Women’s Congress and the ICTU Women’s Conference have taken the view that commercial sex is a form of violence against women and have voted in favour of the criminalisation of the purchase of sex (See motion 16 here ).


      • Yes, that was my point. ICTU, based on no consultation with sex workers, have taken a stance that they are not workers at all but victims who need to be rescued, not organised. The ILO and various other UN agencies (UNAIDS, UNFPA, UNDP, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health, etc) have taken the opposite position. (See, for example, paragraph 60 here, and this ILO report – especially the part where it talks about the need to involve key populations, as no one understands their needs better than they do.)

  2. The fact that people who do not do sex work, like the TUC Women’s Congress and the ICTU Women’s Conference, have already decided how to treat a form of labour that they don’t do and probably even despise on moral grounds, is really no satisfactory answer.

    It also does not solve any problem. Denying the status of work what is de facto seen to be labour by those doing it, actually contributes to the creation of a law-free zone of exploitation. Bare in mind that I do not define the rape of children or women, who never wanted to engage in prostitution, “sex work”. Their situation should be treated as sexual exploitation, and rape. But that is not what we are talking about here and you need not criminalize sex work in order to prosecute rape and sexual exploitation, especially not, if they are children – I hope that is already prohibited everywhere. If that is not the case: Solve THAT problem.

    Criminalizing “sex work” by criminalizing either the sex worker or the client involved makes it legally impossible to create any kind of safe working environment. It prevents sex workers from unionizing and organizing – one of the most basic labour rights. It legally forces sex workers to work in a legal limbo without rights. Criminalizing sex work creates the pre-conditions for what is a neo-liberal market: If there are no labour standards, because it is illegal to create labour standards, then those who are stronger will eventually take over and control sex workers. Anti-prostitution activism will achieve precisely what it wanted to avoid.

    You may think you are helping sex workers by advocating the prohibition of labour standards in the sex industry, but you are de facto handing them over to pure capitalist forces.

    Of course, you may say, if they “exit” prostitution and do another “real” job, they won’t have that problem. But unfortunately, the moral condemnation of sex work as labour will not prevent anyone from engaging in sexual labour. And it certainly won’t encourage them to work in other labour sectors, which – at least as far as migrants are concerned – are quite exploitative.

    I find it quite telling that you advocate for labor rights but advocate the prohibition of labour standards for a group that is still fighting for recognition and respect. Why is it so hard to recognize sex workers as humans, citizens and workers? And why are unions at the forefront of this war against sex workers? I just don’t get it.

  3. UNAIDS Secretariat and co-sponsors, including ILO and UNWomen, oppose the criminalisation of clients recognising that it puts sex workers of all genders – female, male and transgender – at greater risk of violence and increases discrimination, stigma and vulnerability to HIV. Sex workers across the world reject the definition of their labour as violence against women – sex work is work. Sex workers rights are human rights.

  4. Pingback: “Tackling Corporate Power in the Global Economy”, ICTU Summer School, Ireland, 28-29 August | Business & Human Rights in Ireland·

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