Monday, June 07, 2010

Spread of precarious work undermines human rights, especially for women

You’re an employer who finds a formula to cut wages, pay no benefits at all, and prevent your work force from trying to unionize. Under the formula, you change the status of a half of your workers from stable employment to a radically different arrangement, such as independent contractor.

The workers have no change in job content or in workplace. The only changes are in smaller paychecks and in the loss of sick leave, vacations, pensions, and paid overtime, among other benefits, including the basic one, job security. From stable employment they fall into the general category called precarious work.

Precarious work, in a frightening variety of exploitative forms, has become so prevalent in the global economy that two global unions last month submitted reports to John Ruggie, the UN Special Representative for Business and Human Rights, alerting him to the trend. Both global unions – the International Metalworkers Federation (IMF) and the Food, Agricultural, Hotel, and Restaurant Workers International (IUF) – emphasize that precarious work is systematically undermining human rights.

The IMF report singles out a country where precarious employment is rampant and victimizes women especially:

“In Korea, 70 per cent of women workers are precariously employed, earning only 43 per cent of the salaries of regular male workers. In one of the factories cited in the [ILO complaint] against the Korean government, only 5 per cent of the workers are permanent employees and they are all male. Nearly all the precarious workers are women, earning 47 per cent less than their male colleagues.”
The IUF report points out that, apart from the World Bank’s promotion of labor market “flexibility,” there are numerous misleading ways to package precarious work. In South Africa, it is called “black economic empowerment” by Coca-Cola’s bottler, which turned its delivery drivers into “independent owner-operators,“ whose earnings were reduced down to as much as a fifth of what they formerly were. In Pakistan it is called “fighting child labor” for an industrial giant that has a payroll dominated by workers in a precarious status.

Both the IMF and the IUF called upon Ruggie, as part of his program to integrate human rights into corporate practice, to study how the trend toward precarious work undermines human rights, particularly the human rights of workers.

In his June 3 remarks to the International Labor Conference in Geneva, Ruggie said that in carrying out his mandate, he looks to the ILO for guidance, with precarious work as one issue and citing the contribution made by the IMF and IUF submissions.
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