(Photo: Flickr / ILO)

(Photo: Flickr / ILO)

In 2015, two years after the horrific Rana Plaza collapse, I visited Bangladesh on a labour rights exchange. The workers I met were still reeling from the accident. Despite international media attention, they were also still facing enormous barriers in their attempts to exercise their right to form unions, which they saw as key to their survival and the prevention of future tragedies.

I have no doubt that the conversation at the International Labour Organisation (ILO) this month will revisit the Rana Plaza story in depth, and I trust that the worker groups attending the International Labour Conference (ILC) will bring many more examples of what happens when a profit-driven ‘race to the bottom’ leads to widespread failure to protect the health and safety of working people.

Beyond essential labour rights, I am hoping these ILC discussions will provoke rich, critical public dialogue about the myriad social, legal, and environmental consequences of globalisation. The ILO will look at it through the lens of decent work; in other civil society spaces, activists can also use the ILC topic to promote a lens of equity and democracy in trade deals, along with climate and environmental protection.

In the ILO report from the International Workers’ Symposium on Decent Work in Global Supply Chains held last December in preparation for the discussions, one panel’s key takeaways included a call for bigger picture review: “as a way forward, it is imperative that there is a ‘new paradigm’ that will invoke macro-economic, finance, and investment policy frameworks for sustainable and inclusive development.”

Here’s a prime example of why a comprehensive paradigm is needed.

In 2013, the NGO group Verite published a report exploring forced labour in gold supply chains originating in Peruvian mines. Researchers noted dozens of indicators of the potential for forced labour. They recommended action on the part of Peru and the United States to prevent abuse in the gold supply chain, and for the corporations involved to take action to prevent gold produced under exploitative conditions from making it into supply chains.

Vulnerabilities persist even when the mines are abandoned, since sulfides that are exposed in the mining tailings continue to leach heavy minerals into the soil and rivers for years to come. But it’s not happening only in illegal and abandoned gold mines. Legitimate transnational corporations are facing allegations of forced labour and environmental nightmares in their supply chains in Latin America, Asia, and Africa.

Extractive industries in the global supply chain are exemplary for ILC discussion because the impacts are three-pronged: their potential for forced labour and violation of ILO decent work standards; the ruthless exploitation of trade and investment rules that allow corporations to sue governments; and the catastrophic physical effects of extraction on water, air, and health.

Rich countries, poor states

The most infamous recent case is still ongoing: Pacific Rim (now owned by OceanaGold) vs. the country of El Salvador. When El Salvador opted to suspend mining permits a decade ago because of health and safety concerns related to toxic cyanide used in the mining process, the corporation brought an investor-state dispute to the World Bank, challenging a sovereign government’s ability to protect its people and water supply.

Almost one third of the people in El Salvador are living in poverty, and the World Bank itself notes that only investments in social protection have helped make a difference. Yet El Salvador is being sued for hundreds of millions of precious dollars under investment rules that are enshrined in thousands of bilateral and regional trade and investment agreements, simply for trying to ensure the safety and health of its people.

Manuel Perez Rocha, my colleague at the Institute for Policy Studies who has been researching the Pacific Rim since 2009, frequently writes about the deeply troubling problems with global trade deals. He recently co-published a report with allies in Canada and El Salvador uncovering the questionable operations of the El Dorado Foundation, which was set up by the mining corporation in an attempt to win over local people in the area where Pacific Rim wants to mine. His report reminds us that, under the guise of corporate social responsibility, mining and oil companies attempt to diminish the resistance of people in poor rural areas, despite the harsh labour and environmental costs.

These biased investment rules are also in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which 12 governments are considering right now. Activists are already digging into the labour and human rights implications of the TPP, and the controversial decisions that the trade deal has influenced. A well-documented weakness of the TPP indicates that workers and their organisations cannot take action in disputes, only countries can. And, so far this has been exceptionally rare.

What people might not know, however, is that sometimes even when countries want to take action to protect their people and land, they are thwarted by corporate power built into trade agreements, as in the case of El Salvador.

Although the workers symposium report notes that global supply chains are “not solely a north/south issue nor an issue related only to developing or developed countries,” citizens of the Global South are disproportionately harmed when it comes to trade and development rules, and voluntary corporate programmes will never be sufficient to protect people and the planet.

This is why the ILC discussions, and all discussions about globalisation, need to be comprehensive. The ILO is a good place to initiate an intersectional view of supply chains because, as Sharan Burrow, secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation, recently remarked at a symposium here in Washington DC, “there are no jobs on a dead planet.”

Tiffany Williams is the associate director at the Institute for Policy Studies.

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