Let’s stop the downgrading of workers and jobs in supply chains


Improved transport and logistics is a key driver of global supply chains, yet transport workers – such as seafarers, fishers, lorry drivers – are often the hidden workforce in those chains, subject to exploitation and abuse.

They are on the sharp end of the changing structure of employment and the growth in aggressive business models based on outsourcing, casualisation and precarious work. More wealth is being created but the workers’ share is getting less.

This new business model is responsible for labour abuses and modern slavery in the seafood supply chain – such as in Thailand and even recently on vessels in Scotland and Ireland. It’s responsible for social dumping in road transport in Europe, where lorry drivers working under collective agreements are replaced by non-domiciled workers without agreements.

Our job as trade unionists is to expose these injustices and reverse the relentless driving down of standards. That’s why at the 105th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva this week we are backing the International Trade Union Confederation’s (ITUC) call for an international standard on decent work in global supply chains, to form the backbone of a new approach to labour regulation and international enforcement.

We believe this can be achieved by identifying governance gaps and building on existing instruments. In the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) we’ve successfully pursued a similar approach to standards in different transport sectors.

We were at the forefront of lobbying for the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) groundbreaking Maritime Labour Convention 2006 (MLC) – the bill of rights for seafarers – which includes global provisions for labour inspection, recruitment and the setting of minimum wages. The MLC has the potential to be applied across sectors – for example, ILO convention 188 on work in fishing mirrors the MLC but is not yet ratified.

We are promoting two concepts to drive accountability, responsibility and governance in global supply chains. The ‘economic employer’ – the lead firm in the chain, which applies pressure on transport workers through pricing, delivery times and intense competition. And the ‘chain of responsibility’, which will help to identify governance gaps along the chain and develop standards across jurisdictions.


Returning power to the workers

The global labour movement needs to respond in smart, new ways to shift power back towards workers. That’s why the ITF’s 2014 Congress set our ‘four levers’ vision to focus our priority projects on growing strength where it’s needed to bring real wins for transport workers – including consolidating strategic transport hubs such as ports and road corridors, organising along supply chains, and responding to geographical shifts to stop companies prowling the world to get away from organised labour so they can exploit workers.

Changes in the road industry are having a terrible impact on drivers in terms of long hours, fatigue and accidents. With our affiliates, we are organising along the supply chains to expose, for example, DHL’s practices in Latin America and India.

We draw lessons from the Safe Rates campaign in Australia, which demands that clients at the top of a supply chain be accountable for the safety outcomes and working conditions of workers in the chain, regardless of their employment relationship.

In the fisheries supply chain, fish have better protections than those harvesting them. The ILO Work in Fishing convention 188, adopted in 2007, is good as a minimum standard but it still needs to be ratified and implemented, and it does not cover all workers in the supply chain.

We’ve therefore joined with the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) to set up the ‘Catcher to Counter’ programme. We’re also exposing the link between slavery in the seafood supply chain and IUU (illegal, unreported and unregulated) fishing labour abuses and criminality.

Our airport organising project aims to unite all the workers in a specific airport, no matter what job they do. The ITF campaign to get Qatar Airways to respect workers’ rights won a historic ruling in June 2015 from the ILO that Qatar was guilty of allowing its airline to violate international and national agreements and institutionalise discrimination.

We’re also supporting the new Airports United network, which represents tens of thousands of airport workers in over 100 airports globally and aims to improve working conditions across the industry.

We’ve got to put a stop to the downgrading of workers and their jobs in the global supply chains. Strong union organising, intelligent union strategies and collaborative working underpinned by robust international standards, is the way to do it.