The pandemic has exposed tragic fault lines and new levels of inequality, said Sharan Burrow, general secretary, International Trade Union Confederation, speaking at FIS Maastricht on the eve of her departure from the organisation where she has been general secretary since 2012.
Fault lines visible in the number of informal workers and the loss of women from the workplace. While inflation in food and energy following in its wake has made life much more challenging for families, causing more inequality and poverty, and pushing back the transition, she said.
Burrow linked companies’ struggle for talent to a “broken” labour market. Over half of the global economy works in the informal sector, with another large proportion of the world’s workforce in insecure work.
“The world of work is not serving anyone well,” she said. In a new Social Contract, she outlined key demands for workers spanning jobs, rights, social protection, equality and inclusion.
Returning to full employment is key for people to trust economies and governments again. She stressed the importance of creating more jobs in sectors spanning care to green infrastructure and technology. Without this kind of investment, the divisions between nations will grow, and with it discontent. “Trust in democratic institutions is so low,” she warned.
Companies need to be prepared to pay minimum living wages to build confidence in the economy and to ensure people can afford to support themselves through increasing shocks, whether climate or health-related. She said that more than half the world’s population has no social protection.
Burrow also sounded the alarm on progress around diversity. Women have lost out during the pandemic and involuntarily left the labour force in a damaging development for women and the global economy. Elsewhere, she noted a rise in racism, made worse by the lack of policy around refugees and inclusion.
Burrow said the world will only deliver on the SDGs with global cooperation. But she noted “low ambition” at COP27, particularly around developed countries paying for damages inflicted on the economies of poorer countries. “Countries are not serious about the notion of a Just Transition,” she said.
The SDGs represent solutions but require countries to put people and planet first. “We are creating the seeds of our own destruction,” she said, highlighting how some US investors now “rage” against integrating ESG.
“What is it they value?” she asked, urging delegates to value people, homes and an economy wrapped in democracy that gives everyone a fair go in the world. She said leaders have made a promise to achieve net zero, but are now forgetting the commitments they made.
She highlighted the role of the union movement in supporting the SDGs, particularly around equality and inclusion. Creating a shared future of common security and prosperity involves including people, and the unions that represent them, in that vision.
She noted how union uptake in the US is at record lows; workers are bullied to not join unions and employers close down operations to avoid unionized workers.
“Companies will do anything to oppress workers and keep them poor; to not sit at the table and not work with them,” she said. She concluded that many CEOs are not aware of the conditions for workers making their products further down their supply chain in a “hidden workforce.”