The Need for Stronger Alliances Between Workers’ Movements and Development NGOs

Development non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are deepening their understanding of the causes inequality and poverty, and so building up a political agenda and movement to tackle it. There has been vital new thinking about the need to ensure fair and progressive taxation as one of the means to ensure the capacity of states to provide better services to citizens, and thus contribute to reducing inequality. Other measures such as redistribution of assets through land reform have also been highlighted as critical. It is wonderful to see development NGOs speak out with increasing boldness and clarity on these.

But there has been something of a gap around workers: NGOs have not put enough emphasis on the crucial role played by labour, particularly on the need to increase the generation of decent jobs and increases in minimum wages. 

In my country, Brazil, there has been a strong emphasis on creating new jobs - some 18 million were created between 2003 and 2012. The minimum salary increased, in real terms, by 72 percent during the same period. The combination of formal-sector jobs, which come with higher salaries and a degree of government-backed social security, has been the critical ingredient in Brazil’s recent landmark achievements in reducing poverty and inequality. The strength of the organised labour movements was crucial to facilitate such changes.

Unfortunately, in many other parts of the world, the trend is in the opposite direction, with large numbers of workers being pushed towards the informal sector and more precarious jobs. New forms of slavery and forced work continue to grow. The new wave of irrational austerity as a response to financial stagnation in Europe and other wealthy parts of the world is aggravating the situation. The Financial Times reported on 5th August that, “More than half of the Eurozone’s young workers are in temporary jobs.” Families without steady jobs are those that poverty particularly afflicts.

The labour movement agenda of protecting workers’ rights and ending forced labour is crucial. As in Brazil, the securing of more and better jobs is a result of the capacity of labour unions to organise and mobilise workers. Human rights based approaches to fighting poverty need to emphasise organising and mobilising people in poverty to secure their access to services and to decent employment and livelihoods. There should be, in the vision and in the achievement of it, a huge overlap between workers’ movements and development NGOs, particularly around resisting neo-liberal labour market reforms, increasing minimum wages and campaigning for policies focused on generating decent jobs.

NGOs sometimes talk of ‘unusual allies’ - a powerful idea around the need for common cause. But far too often that phrase has been mutated and warped to mean allying with plutocrats for crumbs off the table which do nothing to tackle brutal inequalities of power. And such collaborations have become far from unusual! The alliance we really need is one in which development NGOs shed their fears and embrace their mission by working with organisations building the power of ordinary people. Those include, crucially, trade unions. Across the Global South and Global North, among the poorest and the middle classes, growing precariousness, insecurity, and widening inequality is hurting the majority - and majorities can challenge the power of the few only when they are organised.

Now is the time for a greater strategic cooperation between workers’ organisations and development NGOs, towards the common goal of reducing inequality and eradicating poverty. ActionAid has been working with others to build a strong movement to reduce inequality. Earlier this year the International Trade Union Confederation reached out to NGOs and joined ActionAid, Oxfam, the Association for Women’s Rights in Development, Greenpeace and Civicus in a collective position on fighting inequality. I hope this is the first step towards a long, deep and strategic alliance. Development NGOs cannot achieve their mission to tackle poverty and inequality on their own. They cannot even achieve it by uniting in common cause with each other. They can only do so as part of a bold alliance with civil society in which workers’ organisations are central. Today’s extreme inequality only serves the elite minority of people and hurts everyone else. We can take it on, together. We are many.

  • Adriano Campolina is a chief executive at ActionAid International.

 Image: Cherisse Fredricks/Flickr

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