Almost 1000 delegates representing more than two hundred workers’ organisations in more than 120 countries gathered in Melbourne from November 17-22 for the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) 5th Congress to discuss key issues for workers.
This congress also brought together unions from Palestine and Israel, Western Sahara and Morocco — both sides of the line of occupation.
Exiled trade unionists from Myanmar, Hong Kong, Afghanistan and Belarus presented at the Union Aid Abroad (APHEDA) session, some via zoom. Unions from Pacific nations enduring the effects of climate change were represented. The violence, jailing and killings of unionists around the globe was discussed.
The congress debated and passed a resolution — the New Social Contract — and emergency resolutions on Iran, combatting the far right and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Debate over the New Social Contract resulted in the congress adopting amendments to the draft, referencing West Sahara, energy justice and union support for young environmentalists.
The 50-page document noted that “the inequalities and injustices that are at the heart of the failed economic system with huge deficits in corporate and financial regulation have been brutally exposed and massively deepened by the COVID-19 pandemic … a New Social Contract is more urgent than ever before, to put the economy in the service of humankind and save people and the planet from the threat of destruction.”
Delegates heard about the two billion workers trapped in the informal economy and the millions of job losses suffered through the pandemic. Unionists spoke to climate disasters and the lack of support and technology reaching the poorest of the poor.
Justice for women was a key theme of the ITUC congress and women unionists addressed the issue of workplace violence. The International Labor Organization's Violence and Harassment Convention, 2019 No. 190 (C190) demands signature nations provide safe workplaces free of violence towards women workers firstly, and all workers generally. C190 has so far been ratified by only 23 countries, including Britain. Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the US are amongst the countries that have not ratified it.
Super exploitation of global South workers
Unionists representing the Swedish Confederation of Trade Unions (LO) discussed the systemic inequalities between workers in the global North and South in production and supply chains. While workers in the global North can enjoy good pay and working conditions, corporations engaged in the supply chains of goods from the global South countries are guilty of underpayment and slave like conditions for workers and harmful environmental practices. Additionally, multinational companies and governments operating in the global South are extracting resources without the permission of and to the detriment of Indigenous communities. These injustices must be addressed.
In the lead up to the ITUC congress, on November 10, some participants took action against Australian-based transnational company, Ansell, at its Annual General Meeting in Melbourne. Ansell, which makes rubber gloves and other personal protective equipment, has sacked unionists in its Sri Lankan factory and refuses to recognise their union. A workshop was held at the congress about the campaign.
Additionally, the World Cup in Qatar brought attention to migrant workers rights.
The call for green jobs and a just transition were discussed passionately. Of note was the contribution from Dutch union, CNV. Their campaign for a just energy transition has a multilevel approach, and its worker and company contract is a worldwide model.
Companies operating in the Netherlands have to put a small percentage of their budgets towards retraining workers in environmentally sustainable work practices. They have to show how they are retraining employees into new green jobs or how the company is shifting outright into new sustainable practices. The “making a just transition” approach is legislated and included in enterprise agreements and is framing the shift from coal production to renewable energy. The legislation’s limitation, however, is its lack of coverage of casual workers.
Italian unions addressed the key topic of the far right in Europe and how to educate workers against its narrative.
The Brazilian delegates spoke of the jubilation around the recent election of Workers’ Party candidate “Lula” da Silva as president. They spoke of the hope that the threat to the Amazon — the lungs of the earth — has abated with Lula’s election.
A woman unionist attending from Cambodia had just been released from jail for organising a strike of 2000 workers. Her visa upon release from jail was finally granted and her fighting spirit was a highlight of the congress.
War and repression
Delegates addressed the horror of workers and unionists caught up in war, and undemocratic dictatorships and absolute monarchies. For some unions, the ITUC is one of the rare places where their voices can be heard. Indeed, if the Australian Trades Halls are the people’s parliaments, then the ITUC congress is the people's United Nations.
The Belarus union delegation spoke of harsh repression meted out by the regime against unionists. They implored unions to support the campaign to free jailed unionist Alexander Yaroshuk, president of the Belarusian Congress of Democratic Trade Unions.
Unionists from the US expressed concerns about the dominance of the gig economy and its impact on workers’ rights. Their explanation of organising within Amazon and similar companies was met with loud applause.
A delegation of international unionists took solidarity action at Melbourne’s ports with the Maritime Union of Australia against the attempt by tugboat company Svitzer to lock out workers in 17 ports.
Australia and New Zealand Prime Ministers Anthony Albanese and Jacinda Ardern also addressed the congress. The Botswana Federation of Trade Unions organised a workshop in solidarity with Western Sahara.
Outgoing ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow retired from her position at the congress. Burrow was the Australian Council Trades Union secretary from 2000–10. Burrow told the congress “the global wealth of workers has been going down and corporate profits are going up. We have Elon Musk and billionaires joy riding in space while the working poor are scratching to make a meal”.
Luca Visentini, a published poet and General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation was elected by a healthy majority of affiliates to replace Burrows as General Secretary.
The 6th World ITUC Congress will take place in South America, in 2026.
[Ron Guy attended the ITUC congress with the support of the Australian Workers Union and the Australian Unions for Western Sahara. For more information about West Sahara contact Australia Western Sahara Association.]