Ep41: Sharan Burrow 'Just Transition or Just Talk?'

It's only a huge challenge if you think of short-term gain. The people who built the railways didn't expect a return in a year. That’s the way we must think”: Sharan Burrow on labor rights, the gig economy, and the renewable transition.


In this episode of Cleaning Up, Michael Liebreich spoke to Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation.

The conversation begins by interrogating the statistics which suggest a miraculous uplift in the living conditions of millions of people around the world. The World Bank statistics, Sharan says, are misleading. Millions of those people are still living in hunger and poverty. What workers need, she says, are fundamental labor rights as laid out in the International Trade Union Confederation’s Centenary Declaration.

Michael and Sharan then discuss the changing nature of work and the renewable transition.

This is an abridged version of the conversation, edited for clarity.


Michael Liebreich: Sharan, welcome to Cleaning Up. Hundreds of millions of people have been brought out of poverty over the last few decades and there's a very strong argument that it was through globalization, not through, what you would call, exploitation. Why do you focus on exploitation when so much good has been done in the world over the last few decades? Do you think technology has started to change this and the world of work?


Sharan Burrow: Let’s start with poverty, because if we wanted to end the scourge of inequality, then let's end poverty. I understand why you say what you say, because those are the World Bank statistics. But you show me someone who can live on $1.92 or $1.96 a day and I'll say it’s a miracle. More people go to bed hungry today than those statistics will tell you. It's that simple. Lifting people out of poverty was in large part propaganda.

Second, if the world is up to seven times richer in the last three or four decades, why are people living in poverty? Why do they need to use exploitative labor market mechanisms? That's the question. All work won’t be the same as it was five decades ago, we've never said that. We might have had people argue against technology in fear of their jobs. But as a labor movement, we've never argued against technology that was good for society. In fact, we used it as formal labor market advocates very well for workers, and we used it to upskill workers and to bargain for skilled wages.


ML: Some jobs in the renewable industries lend themselves very well to piecework. How do you ensure rights for all workers as new technologies and ways of working become more dominant?


SB: That's where understanding the International Labour Organization Centenary Declaration is important. Nobody can possibly oppose people making choices about when and how they work, provided they are of legal working age. But it's got to be a genuine choice. Frankly, when I'm trying to provide security and some measure of formalization for those informal agricultural women in India, our Self-Employed Women's Association looks to several areas of how you provide a minimum income.

For actors and entertainers, for example, the unions have done this for a long time. They don't have permanent employment. But what they do have is have a minimum contract price. We can set that for everybody, whether they're doing a piece of journalism across the internet, or whether they're engaged in Deliveroo. Then people can, of course, with their legislative rights bargain, collectively, for better skilled wages. That's the right of workers everywhere. So, it doesn't matter what the form of work is, these rights exist for everybody. What you're describing though, you’re right to challenge people, because the world is what the world is. But why is there a new group of businesses getting very wealthy, who simply decided they didn't have any responsibility for the people who make the wealth for them? That's the challenge for me.


ML: The changing nature of work means that we could find that people working in Ghent are actually in Estonia, for example. In terms of transport costs and the effects of commuting on society, if you look at London, it spends somewhere around £20 billion a year on fuel: gas, electricity, and transport fuel. If you could reduce that, it would be money that could stay in the economy. The problem is you're going to have to invest around £150 billion in transforming London in order to reduce that £20 billion of fuel spend. So, it's a vast financing challenge.


SB: It's only a huge challenge if you think of short-term gain. I think previous generations had a different view about this. The people who built the railways didn't expect a return in a year. The people who built the Sydney Harbour Bridge took about three generations to pay it off with tolls going across it. That's the way we must think.


ML: Okay, so I need to qualify when I said it's a huge challenge. That doesn't mean that it's an impossibility. It is a challenge because it is about structured finance, in the sense that the person who owns the house and the boiler, they want to see a payback in a two, three, or five-year payback. What we need is the patient capital, the pension money, and the debt finance. It's a structuring problem.


SB: For my sins, I love listening to people who have nimble business models. So, there are several, I won't name one, community businesses who will retrofit your house, at least in terms of energy, and you pay a service fee, and they can still make a profit. But the world, in terms of regulation, is stacked against them because while they're prepared to employ people in decent work, the regulation says, Oh, you can't operate on this basis or that basis.


ML: I said, I was going to challenge you about the conservatism of the union movement, or at least of certain unions in certain places. There are some real examples. South Africa, where the coal miners’ union actually challenged in court, the energy law that was going to promote renewable energy. We've got the German mining union, which I would say, in cahoots with the RWE, managed to push out the closure of German coal use in the energy system to 2038. The UK went from 40% coal in 2012, to basically none now. And, the lights are still on, so it's clearly not an engineering problem.


SB: RWE. It's been a terrific company for workers over the years, but who's the protagonist, and it's not just RWE, it's Shell, BP, to a lesser extent Equinor now moving and others, but pick a fossil fuel company, look at NRG, where the most visionary CEO, David Crane was dismissed, or go to Danone in a different set of architecture, where Emanuel Faber, another reformer of business for both rights and climate, you know, was ousted by basically shareholder groups, and people on the board who didn't want to lose their status or stipend or whatever. You know, we need to reform this model.

Those four conditions from the International Labour Organization Centenary Declaration, not just for formal workers, but all workers are very simple, fundamental rights. Occupational health and safety, a minimum living wage on which you can live with dignity, and control over your working hours, and universal social protection. Now, let me go to the minimum living wage, because Jeff Bezos is fighting that Amazon union and what's the claim of the American workforce? $15/h minimum wage, he could have paid every one of his employees $100,000 bonus during the Covid-19 and still be as rich as he was before the pandemic, there's something very wrong with a man like that. I think the system has created a lot of this when we could, in fact, have a much better model of work and shared prosperity.

Our world needs to turn on its axis. In South Africa, for example, there was nothing else on offer. You know, that's why we fight for just transition. It's why we help workers to the table with companies and governments, to ask, what's the plan? When people see a plan, they know that their fight is not just for them, but for their children and grandchildren. We’ve always wanted to help children out of poverty, to get them an education, and to see them have a better life. But if there's no plan, and your fear is you can't feed your family the next day or the next month, of course you’ll fight.

We argue that just transitions are very simple. It's key elements, like making sure that workers of retirement age have secure pensions and bridging the gap for older workers to pension age, if they would rather retire than take another job. It's providing income support with the skilling and reemployment support for younger workers. And it's investing in renewal of communities. Just as those coal mines or any other industry, manufacturing in particular built those communities, we can look at other areas, and there are some great successful transitions. The problem is people don't do it simultaneously.