The purpose of this blog is to provide analytical commentary on formal and informal labour organisations and their attempts to resist ever more brutal forms of exploitation in today’s neo-liberal, global capitalism.

Sunday, 24 June 2012

Trouble in the international labour movement: is the ITUC ready for the challenges ahead?

The establishment of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in November 2006, resulting from a merger of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU) and the World Confederation of Labour (WCL), was greeted with enthusiasm by labour movements from around the world. A united, stronger international trade union promised greater input on global politics towards more equality. Since then, many trade unions especially in the Global South have become disillusioned with the ITUC. In this post, I will assess to what extent the ITUC is prepared for the key challenges of the global economy in the 21st century. 

Two key challenges for the ITUC can be identified in the global economy, the increasing inequality between developed and developing countries, between the rich and the poor, and the expanding informal sector of the economy. In relation to the former, the ITUC’s role has been challenged by trade unions from the Global South and here in particular the South African Cosatu. Reflecting on the ITUC’s World Congress in 2010 in Vancouver/Canada, Bongni Masuku, the International Secretary of Cosatu, made a stinging attack on the Northern dominance within the ITUC. Dominated by the big four Northern unions AFL-CIO (USA), DGB (Germany), TUC (Britain) and RENGO (Japan), the ITUC would defend the current system and safeguard the interests of capital, it is alleged. ‘Despite much talk about trade union independence, the dominant affiliates of the ITUC are not independent of their ruling classes, even if they organisationally seem to be, but they are politically tied to the ruling establishment, hence their vociferous defence of the system’ (Masuku, 2010: 64). Ultimately, it would be the working classes of the Global South, who are the victims of this situation, as they are considered to be affected worst by ‘the viciousness of the global system’. In other words, the ITUC dominated by big Northern trade unions, is accused of co-operating with capital in the continuing exploitation of the South. Unsurprisingly, Southern labour movements increasingly question the use of the ITUC in the representation of their concerns. Transforming the ITUC would take too long. The main emphasis should be placed on organising the Global South instead and developing a South-South strategy in the interest of Southern workers through new institutions such as the Southern Initiative on Globalisation and Trade Union Rights (SIGTUR;, 31/05/2011) (Masuku, 2010: 65). This criticism has led to an institutional challenge of the ITUC more recently. Cosatu’s affiliates – Nehawu, Numsa, Ceppwawu and Popcru, who are already members of the rival World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU) – are currently ‘lobbying other Cosatu affiliates to support a resolution in September [2012], when Cosatu holds its congress, for the federation to cancel its membership of ITUC and join the WFTU’ (Sowetan, 10 February 2012). Whether this will actually happen remains to be seen. What is clear, however, is that labour movements in the Global South are increasingly sceptical of the role played by the ITUC and here in particular by the big national trade unions in industrialised countries.

The second big challenge is the increasing informalisation of the global economy. This re-organisation of the production process around transnational outsourcing and centralisation of decision-making as part of globalisation, together with a huge influx into urban areas particularly in the Global South, has led to an increasing casualisation and informalisation of the global economy, in which permanent, full-time employment contracts have to a large extent become a feature of the past. In a way, ‘it is no longer accurate today’, Dan Gallin argued already in 2001, ‘to describe the informal sector as “atypical”’ (Gallin, 2001: 228). It has increasingly become the norm. This is especially the case in developing countries, which had never been in a position to establish a large industrial sector with permanent and secure employment (Bieler, Lindberg and Pillay, 2008: 266). Nevertheless, informalisation more and more also affects developed countries in the North, where employers are on the offensive and demand a flexibilisation of the labour market with the argument that this would be necessary in order to retain competitiveness. Peter Waterman (2012: 3) estimates that the traditional working class makes up only 15 per cent of the global workforce, with the remaining 85 per cent being part of the informal economy. As the traditional relationship between employer and employee ‘is being replaced by a variety of more diffuse and indirect but nonetheless dependent relationships in the process of production, trade union organising can no longer focus primarily on the employment relationship’ (Gallin, 2001: 233). The fact that the Indian Self Employed Women’s Association (SEWA;; 14/06/2012) was accepted as affiliate by the ITUC in 2006 indicates positive developments in this respect. Nevertheless, as Gallin points out, this ‘was largely a symbolic achievement. The new International had neither a “department” nor a “desk” for informal workers, nor was the informal workers’ agenda any part of the priorities of the new organization’ (Gallin, 2012: 11). More change in the attitude of established labour organisations is clearly necessary. Considering that the struggle against neo-liberal resistance and for workers’ rights is a struggle for the formalisation of the economy in the first place, the question of the informal economy and how to organise informal workers will be at the heart of future struggles.

Can the WFTU provide an alternative to the ITUC in this respect? Peter Waterman dismisses this idea. WFTU itself is full of internal contradictions. It ‘has always spoken two distinct languages, depending on the purpose or audience. In so far as South African motives for joining WFTU are primarily ideological, the question arises of which part of WFTU’s contradictory ideology is here being identified with’ (Waterman 2012: 4). Instead of the WFTU and ITUC, he proposes a new type of ‘networked organisations’ in line with the small-scale farmers’ movement La Via Campesina without fixed international office. I am sceptical of such a straight-forward dismissal of the ITUC. The organisation has clearly the potential of transforming itself into a more flexible organisation, able to represent better the interests of the increasingly marginalised working classes in the formal as well as informal economies. Significant changes, however, have to happen, before this potential can be realised. 


Bieler, Andreas, Ingemar Lindberg and Devan Pillay (2008) ‘What future strategy for the global working class? The need for a new historical subject’, in Andreas Bieler, Ingemar Lindberg and Devan Pillay (eds) Labour and the Challenges of Globalization: What prospects for Transnational Solidarity? London: Pluto Press. PP.264-85.

Gallin, D. (2001) Propositions on Trade Unions and Informal Employment in Times of Globalisation, in P. Waterman & J. Wills (eds) Place, Space and the New Labour Internationalisms (Oxford: Blackwell), pp.227-45.

Gallin, Dan (2012) ‘Informal economy workers and the international trade union movement: an overview’, paper presented at the Critical Labour Studies 8th Symposium, University of Salford/UK; 18 – 19 February 2012.

Masuku, B. (2010) ITUC World Congress and ILO Conference outcomes: Spaces for real change or illusions of a dream permanently deferred, The Shopsteward, 19(4). Available at:; accessed 03/06/2011.

Waterman, Peter (2012) ‘The Second Coming of the World Federation of Trade Unions: Slouching Towards Bethlehem?’, RC44 – Short Article No.4/2012. Available at:; accessed 23 June 2012.  

Prof. Andreas Bieler
Professor of Political Economy
University of Nottingham/UK
Personal website:
24 June 2012

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments welcome!