Putting workers’ rights at the heart of international development

Jim Murphy is putting the issue of workers' rights at the heart of international development.

Jim Murphy was in Qatar last week meeting migrant construction workers trapped in modern slavery by the ‘kefala’ system that allows their employer to decide whether or not to let them leave the country.

I made a similar visit last December, and it made a big impression on me, as it clearly did on him.

That’s no doubt why so much of his first major speech as shadow secretary of state for International Development, on Tuesday, was about workers’ rights – a missing element in development policy over the last four years of Conservative-controlled DFID.

His speech also rightly focussed on inequality and on rights, including his announcement that a Labour-run DFID would have a dedicated Human Rights Unit. He identified three key inequalities – economic, social and political – that were revealed in unequal incomes, gender inequality, and inadequate distribution of food, education and opportunity more widely. And he stressed that, at heart, these were all caused by inequality of power.

In terms of economic inequality, he talked about tax, and the need to start by doubling the £20m DFID currently spends on building the capacity of developing countries to increase their tax-raising. But he talked mostly about how workers’ rights could be the key solution, because tackling the inequality of power in the labour market is mostly about the right to join a union and set pay collectively.

There were key commitments to work with the International Trade Union Confederation which did so much to enable his trip to Qatar’s labour camps (as they had done for me), and the International Labour Organisation.

For the first time, he pledged to reverse Andrew Mitchell’s decision to cut the funding DFID had provided for the ILO, and he also pledged to bring migrant construction workers into the scope of the DFID-funded ILO Work in Freedom programme, which currently addresses the issue of migrant domestic workers’ rights in South Asia and the Middle East.

And he pledged that a Labour-run DFID would “make promoting workers’ rights a crucial component” of its agenda.

What is so refreshing about Jim’s speech is that, apart from treating unions and the ILO as part of the solution rather than part of the problem, it adopts a bottom-up approach to corporate social responsibility, based on the rights of the workers, rather than the charitable inclinations or even an appeal to the hard-nosed business interests of corporate shareholders.

It isn’t an anti-business agenda, but an attempt to restore some balance to growth and job creation, miles from the inequitable growth model that simply lines the pockets of the very rich without trickling down at all, or the ‘jobs at any price’ approach that has seen right-wingers argue that even the workers at Rana Plaza were lucky just to have work, even if it left them maimed or worse.

There is more to be done on this agenda. We need to look at how we can manage markets more effectively here in the UK, through public procurement and global supply chains. And we need to do more to look at how we can build the capacity of independent trade unions to ensure that the workers’ rights Jim advocated are actually realised.

But Jim Murphy’s first speech was an excellent start to the process of defining an agenda for DFID for the next five years, and unions want to work with him to restore the critical approach to private sector development that has so dominated the Conservative-led DFID  under Andrew Mitchell and Justine Greening.

Gail Cartmail is assistant general secretary of Unite, TUC General Council spokesperson on international development and chair of TUC Aid, as well as a vice president of the Labour Campaign for International Development (LCID)

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