Claude Akpokavie, Senior ILO Adviser:“Engaging in policy debates and organizing workers, are two key challenges faced by unions in Export processing zones”

This article is brought to you through the meticulous study of International Labour Organization as a source.

The Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ILO-ACTRAV) has just published a Trade Union Manual on Export Processing Zones (EPZ). In this interview, Claude Akpokavie, ACTRAV’s focal point on EPZ explains the main lessons highlighted in the manual and the role of trade unions in EPZ.

ACTRAV INFO:  ACTRAV has launched a new publication for Trade Unions on Export Processing Zones  (EPZs). Why did you decide to publish a manual on EPZs?

For several years now, ACTRAV has been supporting trade union organisations that are active in EPZs. In 2011, we organised an international seminar on EPZs with the participation of unions from countries with a high density of EPZs. One of the recommendations of this meeting was on the need for country case studies and a publication for trade unions on EPZs. Since the international seminar, ACTRAV has published case studies on EPZs in Nicaragua, Nigeria, Madagascar, Togo, Morocco, India and China. This manual is therefore a culmination of this process.ACTRAV INFO: What is the typical profile of Workers in export processing zones?

Typically, EPZ workers are made up of young women workers, who are generally poor, often migrants to the city, and employed on a precarious basis. In some countries, women workers make up to 90% of the EPZ workforce. All these characteristics of EPZ workers, pose many challenges for unions seeking to organise them. For instance, poor, young, women workers in EPZs often do not know their rights. Since they work in precarious conditions, often behind heavily-guarded industrial areas in which the union is prohibited to enter, they have little contact with unions on the shop floor. The only possible contact they may have with the trade union is outside the work place or at home in their communities. All this makes educating the workers and organising them very difficult. This means that unions seeking to organise EPZ workers have to be very creative in their organisation strategies. This manual stresses the importance of taking into consideration the identities of EPZ workers in developing these organisation strategies. It also gives examples of what different unions are doing to reach out to EPZ workers.

ACTRAV INFO: What lessons can we learn from this Manual?

A first lesson is that the engagement of trade unions in policy debates matters. EPZs are for the most part a response of governments to employment, industrial and investment challenges. Trade unions must engage in these policy debates in order to shape these policies.

A second lesson is that there is no silver bullet in organising. Based on the experiences of different unions, one can say that organising is context-specific. Organisation strategies therefore have to be based on a wide range of situations like the working environment, prevailing obstacles and opportunities, and so on. The manual draws a number of lessons based on the experience of the unions worldwide. These include, the need for unions to develop their own strategies for the particular challenges they are faced with; the importance of combining traditional strategies of trade union activism with the provision of services to attract young workers; and the importance of complementing organising at the workplace with organising in the community where the young workers live.

A third lesson is that violations of the rights of EPZ workers are essentially violations against young women workers. Hence the critical importance in any trade union strategy on EPZs to have a strong gender orientation and be focused on the reality of young workers. Concretely, this means among other things, that unions must better include women at the highest levels of their structures and give priority to the concerns of young workers in their operations.

ACTRAV INFO: Finally, what are the main roles of trade unions in EPZ?

The message of the manual is clear on the role trade unions are called to play. The first, and often neglected role, is for unions to engage in the policy debates around employment, industrial and investment policies in their countries. EPZs tend to emerge from these policies. So it is essential that trade unions engage with governments and international agencies to promote a high road toward the creation of more decent jobs.

The second role unions are called to play is to organise the young workers in the EPZs. Considering the fact that the law and practice in most EPZs constitute a major obstacle to organising, trade unions are nonetheless called to engage actively in this endeavour. Experience has shown that organising in EPZs is difficult. However, the experiences described in the manual show that it is possible. Furthermore, where there is sufficient good will, some countries have even shown that it is possible to have normal industrial relations, including collective bargaining agreements, in the EPZs.

The last role of trade unions is to anchor their work in the zones solidly on the ILO’s international labour standards. According to the ILO’s estimates, in 1997 there were 845 EPZs worldwide employing 22 million workers in 93 countries. By 2008, conservative ILO estimates show that there were 3500 EPZs worldwide, employing at least 66 million workers in 130 countries. This expansion of EPZs is a reflection of the increasing globalisation of the world economy and along with this, the decline with regard to respect of labour rights. It is therefore essential for unions to advocate for minimum ground rules in the global economy based on the ILO’s international labour standards. This advocacy on rights must not be limited to the fundamental conventions but include all relevant ILO instruments that are discussed in the manual. ACTRAV will continue to support trade unions as they play these roles to ensure decent work for all EPZ workers.

The Bureau for Employers’ Activities of the International Labour Organization (ILO-ACT/EMP)  is to launch the new study “Women in Business and Management: Gaining Momentum” on Monday, 12 January.

This report brings together available data and ILO statistics to provide a comprehensive, up to-date and global picture of women in the business world and in management positions.

It highlights the business case for gender diversity and the obstacles women still face as well as ways to move ahead. It also underlines the fact that women’s presence in the labour market is increasingly significant for economic growth and development at both enterprise and national levels.

The report and all associated material are under embargo until Monday 12 January 2015 at 11:00 GMT. 

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