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Brazilian workers’ rights and the international trade regime

What would Brazilian workers and trade unions gain from a social clause – a linkage between the World Trade Organization (WTO) and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) that would condition a country's trading rights on its compliance with core labour standards, including freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining?

Photo: Alexandre Severo / flickr

 

Benedicte Bull


 

This was one of the questions that motivated Simon Pahle’s recently submitted PhD thesis at the Norwegian University of Life Sciences. He found that the majority of Brazilian trade unions are not particularly supportive of the ILO-WTO linkage idea, and has spent much of his research understanding why that is and what kind of trade system reform Brazilian trade unions actually favour.


During the 1990s there was much international debate over whether to include a social clause in WTO negotiations. The proposal was eventually ousted of WTO's Doha negotiation mandate. But a labour-trade linkage is still on the agenda of some developed countries (including Norway and the US) and it remains a long-term objective of scores of Northern trade unions and some Southern unions. Drawing on extensive interviews with trade unionists and workers' rights activists in Brazil and South Africa, Pahle’s dissertation – entitled Bringing the workers rights back in? The discourses and politics of fortifying core labor standards through a labour-trade linkage – seeks to elucidate why ILO-WTO linkage is such a controversial topic and whether it is possible to craft a linkage in keeping with the interests of labour in the two case countries.

 

The resilience of Brazil's corporatist system


For Pahle, Brazil was a particularly interesting case. While the country has a strong and politically assertive trade union movement, Brazil has not ratified the preeminent ILO convention on trade union rights – convention 87 on freedom of association. The Brazilian labour relations system is still shaped by corporatist legislation enacted during the regime of Getulio Vargas (1930-1954): Within each state-determined occupational category, and at each territorial level, the Ministry of Labour vests a single trade union organisation with representational monopoly. The democratization process of the 1980s put an end to direct state interference in the unions, and ‘alternative’ unions are now allowed. But many corporatists features survived the transition to democracy and Brazil’s labour relations system remain in conflict with the ILO convention on freedom of association: Only officially recognized unions enjoy key rights such as the right to represent workers in courts, to bargain statutory collective agreements and take legally protected strike action; furthermore, a universal union tax is deducted from all workers and distributed to the official unions irrespective of active membership share of the workers in their occupational-territorial base.


As Pahle conducted extensive interviews with union leaders and an in-depth study of the agricultural sector, he found that the corporatist system favors the interests of certain groups of workers over others and that the system has proven itself to be extremely resilient to change – as even erstwhile enemies have embraced it.


– Many people think that the CUT (Central Única dos Trabalhadores), Brazil's foremost trade union central, is like LO (Landsorganisasjonen) in Norway, says Pahle. However, CUT certainly did not make nor is it the product of the official labour relations system – it was born and bred in opposition to it. Its main political demand was originally that Brazil should ratify ILO convention 87 and reform its labour relations system accordingly. However, during the latter stages of the fight against the dictatorship in the 1980s, CUT changed strategy from establishing itself as an alternative central of illegal unions operating outside the official system, to attempting to reform the system from within by having its activists “colonize” official unions. However, the parallel economic liberalization process severely reduced the number of blue-collar workers. In this situation, CUT leaders got weary: Could its unions sustain themselves financially in a pluralist system or would it be better to keep the corporatist system with its state-run and universal union tax collection?

 

Meanwhile, the Labor Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores, PT), a close ally of CUT in the struggle for democracy, remained loyal to the original agenda of reforming the corporatist system. In 2004, the PT led government of Lula commenced a national tripartite dialogue to propose legislative reform. However, by then the majority of CUT unions – along with the conservative unions in Forca Sindical, the communist unions and the employer associations – opposed any significant change, and the reform effort derailed. The foremost trade union argument against reform is not unknown in the international labour standards debate: ILO conventions may provide for free but not necessarily strong unions.

 

The challenges in the agricultural sector


However, the viewpoint of the more powerful groups within CUT does not necessarily reflect those of all Brazilian workers. Pahle's research focuses on the agricultural sector.
- Whereas the problem in the industrial sector has been that the corporatist occupational categories have been too narrow, making it difficult to coordinate actions within one industry – in Sao Paulo's automotive industries, for instance – the problem in the agricultural sector has been quite the opposite. Here there is just one occupational category – everyone involved in agriculture, barring those categorized as large landowners, are 'agricultural workers'. Consequently, so called 'smallholders' (not very small by any stretch of the Norwegian imagination), family farmers, wage workers, tenants and the landless must organise themselves together in monopoly unions.


The result is that many wage workers are represented by the same organisation as their employers, or by organisations devoted to constituents whose struggles need not have much in common with that of the wage workers. For instance, an increasing number of rural unions strive to improve the plight of family farmers who are exploited through contract farming arrangements with large agribusiness companies. The main focus, then, is not about labour market and the organisation of and bargaining for wage labour but about product market reforms and increasing state credit and subsidies to family farms. Meanwhile, unions dominated by so-called smallholders often deliberately avoid organising and bargaining for workers employed by smallholders.


However, while the problems associated with mixed representation are widely acknowledged, agricultural unions are generally opposed to wholesale reform.


– They are not keen on pluralist labour relations system such as in Europe. Many trade union leaders and powerful constituent groups have a sizeable vested interest in the status quo, of course. But even militant wage worker unionists – who are severely disadvantaged by the status quo – are not against the corporatist model as such. They just want to see its spoils distributed differently, by having wage workers recognised as an occupational category in its own right, says Pahle.


Mixed constituencies are also reflected in agricultural unions' positions on WTO trade negotiations. While many concede that further liberalisation of world agricultural trade may bolster rural employment, they would like to see that the Brazilian government take a more differentiated approach – more along the lines of India that is a member both of the G20 and G33 and pursues considerable liberalization of agricultural trade as the general rule but with substantial developing-countries-only exemptions, says Pahle.

 

A trade regime serving Brazilian workers


- What then would a trade regime that takes the workers’ interests into account look like? Should we abandon the idea of a social clause in the international trade regime?


- My research does not suggest an outright shelving of the linkage idea. But proponents must certainly commit to a fundamental rethink. First and foremost, Brazilian trade unionists are concerned that social clause proponents take too narrow a perspective on the relationship between trade and labour by focusing on core labour standards only – failing to consider how trade agreements affect employment at large. Millions of jobs may be lost if WTO agreements take away too much of developing countries’ policy space, and a multilateral mechanism for protecting decent working conditions will have little meaning if there isn't work. One implication of this concern is to seek a gradual, piecemeal alignment between international trade and labour law – instead of making it a single bargaining feat in yet another WTO negotiations round that may aggravate employment problems in developing countries, says Pahle.


Secondly, future linkage proposals should be premised on granting additional tariff rebates to countries complying with ILO’s core conventions – rather than suspending market access to non-compliant countries. This dramatically reduces the scope for protectionist abuse of a labour-trade linkage, and this is of particular importance to the question of labour-trade linkage since protectionist use may push the workers in whose very name the linkage would be instituted into unemployment.


- If proponents pursue such perspectives, they will find that the main challenge is more about political will in the developed country than the developing ones, and more about the workings of the ILO regime than the WTO regime, says Pahle.


- ILO was not set up to make rulings with any hard power implications. Furthermore, the rulings of ILO’s supervisory organs determine whether a specific law or practice of a member country is in keeping with the relevant core labour standard or not; its supervisory organs have never been asked to, and do not have any procedure for making unambiguous distinctions between compliant and non-compliant countries. Linkage proponents will also run into the deep tensions between the principles of universalism and tripartism within the ILO architecture: While its labour law experts will insist that the Brazilian system violates trade union rights, the Brazilian trade union representatives at ILO – who cannot, with any fairness, be labelled as mere state pawns - will surely disagree. In other words, a great lot of work needs to be done at ILO before any labour-trade linkage with legitimacy in the eyes of developing country labour can come about. And without its support there will never be any linkage, concludes Pahle.


For Simon Pahle the PhD seems to be just a beginning. He will soon continue research within the same thematic area, as he has been awarded funding from the Latin America programme of the Research Council of Norway for a personal post doc fellowship. The title of his new peoject is “And the Last Shall Be First? Global Decent Work Efforts and the Trade Union Rights of Brazil's Farm Workers”.
 

 

Tags: Brazil
Published Feb. 28, 2011 5:01 PM - Last modified Oct. 25, 2013 4:39 PM