The global crackdown on human rights, especially worker rights, coupled with rising inequality are disproportionately affecting marginalized populations around the world. At the same time, the rules are skewed to promote profit, deregulation and the expansion of corporate power over people. The answer, said Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau, is a global, social-justice labor movement that “stands up and fights back.”
“[T]he restoration of democracy and the building of more just societies needs to be the primary business of all our labor movements,” she said
Bader-Blau spoke to about 100 Cornell students, faculty and the general public in her role as ILR’s 2019 Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence—a multifaceted program that recognizes U.S. and global labor leaders and brings them into Cornell classrooms and the public stage to share their knowledge and expertise. During her time at Cornell—sponsored by the ILR Worker Institute as part of the university’s 2019 Union Days program—Bader-Blau met with students, student labor organizations, ILR and other university faculty, and visited the Tompkins County Workers’ Center (TCWC) in downtown Ithaca.
The challenges Bader-Blau described “are ones that our students will confront as they study and think about how to shape the future of work and labor,” said Alexander Colvin, ILR Interim Dean and Martin F. Scheinman Professor of Conflict Resolution.
Each year, Cornell’s ILR Worker Institute invites a union activist to visit as the Alice B. Grant Labor Leader in Residence to give ILR students the opportunity to learn from the knowledge and experience of labor leaders who reflect the diversity of the labor movement. The ILR School of Cornell University is focused on work, employment and labor policy issues through teaching, research and advocacy outreach.
Previous Alice B. Grant Labor Leaders in Residence include AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Tefere Gebre, American Federation of Teachers (AFT) President Randi Weingarten, former Pride at Work Co-President Nancy Wohlforth and former Congress of South Africa Trade Unions (COSATU) Regional Secretary Tony Ehrenreich.
Decent work, living wages, safe workplaces–these are some of the goals the Solidarity Center envisions for all workers around the world and for which it strives as the largest U.S.-based international worker rights organization, says Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau in a recent interview.
Speaking on “Human Rights Heroes,” a podcast sponsored by the U.S. State Department’s Office of International Labor Affairs, Bader-Blau pointed to broad-based human rights workers can achieve when they join together in unions or associations.
“Just in the past 50 years, we can see that every major transition to democracy has had trade unions front and center.”
In Morocco, the Solidarity Center supported more than 1,000 agricultural workers, many with limited literacy and the majority women, who came together to form their first union in export agriculture.
“They sat down with employers they had always been intimidated by and negotiated fair wages, decent work and dignity for the first time,” says Bader-Blau. The workers now have full-time employment, fair wages and safer jobs.
Speaking with podcast host Sarah Fox, outgoing special representative for international labor affairs, Bader-Blau also discussed the landmark freedom of association report produced in October by United Nations Special Rapporteur Maina Kiai; the scourge of human trafficking for labor and forced labor; and the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, especially Goal 8 on inclusive and sustainable economic growth, employment and decent work for all.
Despite economic growth and reduction of poverty in recent years, says Bader-Blau, “we’ve seen an expansion of inequality within states and between states.”
But with Goal 8, “we will be able to create through good employment the ability to have fair economies and more just societies, when workers every day can go to work and know they will get paid what they are owed and won’t face indignities at work and that they will make family supporting wages.”
On the eve of the tragic Tazreen Factory Ltd. fire that in 2012 killed 112 garment workers in Bangladesh, Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau discussed on the Working Life podcast published today how global inequities led to Tazreen and to the 2013 Rana Plaza building collapse in Bangladesh—and how unions can enable workers to help prevent such disasters.
Describing her visit to the burned-out Tazreen factory, Bader-Blau says workers who survived the collapse met with her.
“They told me that they had tried to form unions in that building … and their union organizing efforts were busted by the supervisors and the employers,” she says. “They told me that had they had trade unions, they really believe they would have had more power vis à vis the supervisors and the company to negotiate things like safety improvements for themselves and adequate wages for themselves and their families.
“When workers do have the ability to form and join trade unions, they can bargain to improve their wages, they can bargain with their employers to make their conditions better. Work should be about dignity.”
The global economy generally is unregulated and the system encourages multinational corporations to operate or source from countries where wages are low, laws to protect human rights are few or unenforced and workers are impoverished and vulnerable, Shawna Bader-Blau, Solidarity Center executive director, said before the Canadian Parliament Monday.
“Unfortunately, the horrifying working conditions that led to the Rana Plaza collapse and the deadly Tazreen Fashions fire just six months prior are not unique to Bangladesh. In developing countries around the world, we see building codes go unenforced, and health and safety standards ignored,” Bader-Blau told the Senate Standing Committee on Human Rights.
The Canadian Senate committee held the hearing, “Corporate Social Responsibility and Garment Workers,” to monitor human rights issues and to review how the Canadian government addresses its international and national human rights obligations.
Bader-Blau emphasized that improving workplace conditions above all requires involving working people in the process—and that means workers must be able to form unions and bargain over their wages and working conditions with employers.
She recommended several steps to address the growing global crisis in which low wages, few jobs and exploitative working conditions increasingly becomes the norm. Governments “have important tools to improve human rights conditions for workers, including trade arrangements and legal requirements for accountability in supply chains,” she said.
Further, global corporations must support the human rights of their workers. As a start, global corporations should “fully embrace the United Nations guiding principles on business and human rights as a floor and aggressively move their implementation across the supply chain,” Bader-Blau said.
“Treat human rights with a level of priority you treat pricing and quality control. Global corporations have figured out how quality control can be maintained across their supply chain. How about worker rights?”
The bottom line, she said, is that no amount of legally unenforceable, nicely worded social-responsibility promises is ever going to resolve the abuses perpetuated on a vulnerable workforce.
“Rather, workers’ ability to organize and collectively raise concerns to management because they have the strength of a union is the only realistic approach to ensuring that they know and can exercise their rights. Without a union, individuals who complain can be threatened, fired or even killed into silence. Together, they are a force for improvement.”
Others testifying before the committee included Shannon Brown, Fairtrade Canada Business Development and Commercial Relations director; Sofia Molina, Fairtrade Canada category specialist for coffee; and Bob Jeffcott, co-founder and policy analyst for the Maquila Solidarity Network.
Check out a video of the full testimony by Solidarity Center Executive Director Shawna Bader-Blau on the widespread use of labor trafficking. Bader-Blau and other expert witnesses testified on Capitol Hill last week at a U.S. Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing, “Ending Modern Slavery: What is the Best Way Forward?” where they discussed actions and policies to help end human trafficking, debt bondage and other forms of modern slavery in supply chains around the world. (Read her full testimony here.)
Privacy & Cookies Policy
Necessary cookies are absolutely essential for the website to function properly. This category only includes cookies that ensures basic functionalities and security features of the website. These cookies do not store any personal information.
Any cookies that may not be particularly necessary for the website to function and is used specifically to collect user personal data via analytics, ads, other embedded contents are termed as non-necessary cookies. It is mandatory to procure user consent prior to running these cookies on your website.