"It’s your licence to operate that is gaining our opposition"

The International Trade Union Confederation's Sharan Burrow on the fight for a better business world

The International Trade Union Confederation is determined that no worker is left behind in the transition to a new economy. We spoke to its general secretary Sharan Burrow about human rights, fair supply chains and the fight for a better business world.


The ITUC launched its first international union programme on climate change policies in the year it was formed, so from the start it has put workers’ rights on a level with sustainability. Why is it important the two go hand-in-hand?

The global decisions in regard to both the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement chart a course, if the world is serious, to a zero-carbon, zero-poverty future. Both those things are essential for sustainability. The ITUC was formed in 2006 out of the merger of two international union bodies the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions and the World Confederation of Labour, and union advocacy for sustainability goes back to when decisions were taken that the threat of climate change was serious, that an increase in two degrees was the limit. We know workers need to be part of the advocacy in what is probably the biggest industrial transformation in our history.

We were determined it would be a just transition and leave no one behind. When you look at inequality, poverty, the attacks on labour rights, all of those things are barriers to a zero-carbon, zero-poverty world. Clearly we celebrate the decisions last year but now workers and their unions have a right to know the commitments and plans by governments around the world and indeed the broader business community to reach a zero carbon, zero poverty future.

The idea of a just transition describes the move towards a low‐carbon and climate‐resilient economy that maximises the benefits of climate action while minimising hardships for workers and their communities. To what extent are sustainable solutions a potential threat to workers?

All jobs have to be both sustainable and they must be decent work. But the imperative to create decent work is in the hands of governments, employers and ourselves. If we can stop the attacks on fundamental human and labour rights then we can build a sustainable future that has at its heart decent work.

But that’s not our greatest fear. Our greatest fear is on two fronts. One is that climate change is already destroying lives and livelihoods. We say “there are no jobs on a dead planet” and that’s much more than a slogan for us, because we’re witnessing working people’s lives being devastated. We know that will increase.

"We can build a sustainable future that has at its heart decent work."

We’re also seeing instability in the market driving threats to livelihoods and to vulnerable communities, particularly in coal but also increasingly in communities that depend on oil and gas. So we see the solutions as integrated.

If you’re going to build a greener economy that’s based on renewable energy, if there’s going to be industrial transformation that shifts the base of our production, and if we need to invest in circular economy measures to manage the resources of our planet, then an investment in those measures has to create jobs and it has to create decent work. So the solution is there. The question is, is there a political will?

You’re a member of The B Team, a global non-profit initiative co-founded by Richard Branson and Jochen Zeitz that brings together international CEOs and business leaders to “make business work better.” Can you describe your involvement in this?

Frankly there are too few businesses prepared to commit to a world where inequality can be reduced, where respect for working people and their rights is part of the business plan and part of the sustainability framework. The B Team members have made that commitment.

So I work with them because they are one team who’s committed to a similar set of principles to ours. Now, is any business perfect at this point? I don’t think any of them would say their businesses are. But they are, like us, searching for social dialogue, the regulation and investment that makes it possible for people, business and the environment to all benefit from a zero-carbon, zero-poverty world.

"There are too few businesses prepared to commit to a world where inequality can be reduced."

The point is that no one can do this alone. Labour can’t do it alone, governments can’t do it alone, businesses can’t do it alone.  All stakeholders have to act in concert around a future that will be very different. Governments make a huge mistake when they think that businesses alone can deliver the solution. The sheer nature of the infrastructure that we need, the capacity for providing an environment where wealth is coming equally from resource productivity as much as labour productivity, requires national and industrial plans for transformation. Social dialogue is at the helm of all of that.

Human rights are another focus for the ITUC – for example, ending modern-day slavery in Qatar and ending the cycle of poverty wages in supply chains of global corporations. As a global organisation, how do different standards of human rights hinder the effectiveness of your work?

Human rights are a standard in themselves. What we have is a supply chain model that’s just not sustainable. It’s dependent for profits on low-wage, insecure and often unsafe work. But it’s also about how those businesses can have optimism for expanding markets in a context where their very model is based on a cycle of poverty that reduces people’s capacity to participate in an economy and therefore be part of a demand base of consumption.

It’s a vicious cycle and the model that the multinational companies of today have created is not sustainable, neither on the basis of exploitation nor equally on the capacity of working people to buy their products. Henry Ford got that bit right at least. Of the 50 companies that we looked at late last year, 94 per cent of the workforce on whom these companies depend is actually hidden. It’s invisible. I don’t doubt that the CEOs know that the current model is in large part based on low-wage, insecure and unsafe work. And that’s got to stop.

"I don’t doubt that the CEOs know that the current model is in large part based on low-wage, insecure and unsafe work. And that’s got to stop."

We must see minimum living wages everywhere based on the fundamentals people need to live with dignity. We must see a capacity for people to both know their rights and have remedy where they are being exploited.

These things are fundamental to the dignity of any community, but that has to be married to social policy where communities can have the security of unemployment benefits, pensions, health education and social protection that makes for both dignified communities but also secure economies, because they’re a safety net. If these things don’t go hand in hand with the environmental dimension, which is part of the industrial transformation we promote, then you don’t have sustainability, it’s as simple as that.

What can corporate communicators concerned about hidden workers do to help address this problem?

They first of all have to look at their own supply chain. There were three reports this year that paint the model of what I call Inequality by Design. One was the Oxfam report that showed that one per cent of the population now holds equivalent wealth to 99 per cent of the rest.

The second was our own report about a hidden workforce of about 94 per cent in supply chains of multinationals. The third report was by Amnesty that showed the depravity of extractive supply chains in the Congo and in particular in regards to child labour. Those rare earth minerals end up in all of our technological devices. And so the first thing communications professionals can do is look to their own supply chains.

The second is to look at the fact that half of the world’s people still don’t have access to the internet and, essentially, existing technologies, and so they can assist with that dilemma. And the third piece is that, and I’ve said this very publically at the World Economic Forum to the head of Über, it’s not the technology but your licence to operate that is gaining our opposition. If companies don’t keep up with technology, if it’s not integrated and their workers aren’t skilled to maximise the use of technology, they will fail.

But when companies want simply to operate with no responsibility for paying tax in the country where they earn their profits, or take no responsibility for having an employment relationship with their workers, or take no responsibility for paying social protection where that’s a model, then this is not acceptable as a sustainable business practice. Every other business has to have a licence to operate, and indeed so should these companies.

We’ve commended European governments for standing up and retaining the regulatory environment that makes for sustainable and responsible business. Companies have to look at their own model in order to make sure they’re part of a framework of both decent work and sustainability first and foremost. And of course communications professionals can communicate about these issues that drive the culture of thinking, of planning and ultimately of industrial change that is vital for the future.

Internationally, are their examples of dialogue about a just transition?

Germany has a dialogue with its workforce around energy, it is in the process of determining what the outcome looks like for a just transition. Some other countries have regulations. France has a legislative framework, the US Environmental Protection Agency has regulations although they’re being challenged. You see dialogue in Sweden and Denmark in particular and of course their renewable energy base is between 80 and 100 per cent.

There should be much more dialogue in countries like Norway but at least they have the framework for it. But this is very, very slim. In the developing world the only multilateral committee on climate that I know of at the government level is in Senegal, and you’ve still got governments that are in denial about the need for the energy shift let alone its impact on the broader economy.

It’s a very, very preliminary start to what has to be a very rapid shift. We say to governments and to businesses that dialogue with your unions and other stakeholders is critical and it has to happen now because we need national plans and likewise in enterprises and industry environments. The work for the next year or two is very, very serious and no government can escape the challenge.•

Sharan Burrow

Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, a position she has held since June 2010. Prior to this, she was president of ITUC from November 2006 and president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions from November 2004. She is the first woman to have held any of these positions. Sharan began her career as a high school teacher in New South Wales. She became an organiser for the NSW Teachers’ Federation and was president of the Bathurst Trades and Labour Council during the 1980s. Sharan was elected senior vice-president of the NSW Teachers’ Federation and became president of the Australian Education Union in 1992. From 1995 to 2000, Sharan was vice-president of Education International, the international organisation of education unions representing 24 million members worldwide. In May 2000, she became the second woman to be elected president of the ACTU. In October 2000, Sharan also became the first woman to be elected president of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions Asia Pacific Region Organisation. She has also served as a member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and a member of the Stakeholder Council of the Global Reporting Initiative. Sharan also serves as an honorary co-chair for the World Justice Project, which works to lead a global, multidisciplinary effort to strengthen the Rule of Law for the development of communities of opportunity and equity.