How refreshing it was to read Keiran Goddard’s piece in Alliance last month, encouraging philanthropies to work with, and provide financial support to, democratically elected unions. I couldn’t agree more.
Laudes Foundation has a long history of supporting labour rights and unions, and shockingly, the sky is not falling. In fact, quite the opposite is true: supporting unions has proven transformative for workers’ lives and for sectors of the global economy. Despite the risks associated with funding unions, we believe it makes perfect sense for philanthropies to be doing so; and it can be particularly effective in contributing to efforts to climate-proof jobs and reduce inequality.
While philanthropic funding should not replace the importance of union membership dues that fund core union costs, it can provide a critical injection of capital at a time when union membership is growing and contributing to a civil society that is vibrant, participatory, inclusive, and that enhances business accountability.
So why are philanthropies championing the work of unions and what value does this bring?
Incentives through voluntary initiatives don’t cut ice by themselves
When Laudes Foundation embarked on its journey to address inequality through the support of labour rights, we didn’t start out looking to support unions. Rather, our thinking was to support initiatives that would provide incentives for business to improve workplace conditions and eliminate labour rights violations.
However, we now know that incentives presented through voluntary schemes, for example, multistakeholder initiatives with companies or business associations, are not strong enough on their own. We need to support accountability for commitments, and unions help do that.
Those most proximate to the problem are best placed to solve them
As MEP Laura Wolters (Socialists & Democrats) said, ‘A system of voluntary standards is good only for the good guys, we now need a system that is bad for the bad guys.’
This is also true for workers across global supply chains. We have seen first-hand how efforts supporting their agency, including through union organising and advocacy, can impact change. For example, workers don’t often have access to the data employers and governments have and are therefore unable to negotiate on an equal footing.
Many of our grants therefore support worker representatives to use data in evidence-based collective bargaining. For instance, a labour rights NGO and trade union in Indonesia are working together to build the capacity of workers and their representatives to collect, analyse, and disclose data to the public in order to provide incentives to employers to improve working conditions.
A trade union representative in Indonesia put it well, ‘We used to negotiate with muscles, we now negotiate with data.’
The democratisation of information rebalances power
Ultimately, the goal is to strengthen workers’ capacities to bargain more effectively with employers. What is important is supporting worker representatives to hold information providers accountable for the disclosed data – ensuring it is credible, easily accessible and most importantly, inclusive.
Worker representatives we support in Indonesia and Cambodia are advocating to ensure data from the International Labour Organization’s Better Work programme on factory conditions is disclosed in the workers’ languages, is mobile-optimised so that workers can access it, and includes the issues most critical and important to workers’ lives.
In a nutshell, when done responsibly, supporting unions is an effective and critical lever to accelerate the movement towards a climate-positive and inclusive economy. And with the small pockets of success, we have seen that change has been nothing short of transformational.
Jill Tucker is Head of the Labour Rights programme at Laudes Foundation.