Unions at turning point, says UN

Click to follow
Union membership has dropped sharply over the past decade in most countries, but the spread of democracy presents historic opportunities, according to the International Labour Office, an arm of the United Nations.

And despite an estimated 10 per cent drop in the number of trade unionists over the past decade, there has been no corresponding reduction in union influence, says the ILO's latest annual World Labour Report.

Duncan Campbell, a senior author of the report and adviser on industrial relations to 10 east Asian countries, argues that the "globalisation" of trade and the increasing independence of individual enterprises, does not necessarily mean the destruction of trade unionism.

Mr Campbell says that while it is likely that some countries will continue to "bid down" the wages and conditions of workers and unions would lose influence, most economies even in the Third World are realising there is a limit to economic expansion fuelled by low costs and unsophisticated products.

There is also evidence that the so-called tiger economies in the Pacific Basin are contemplating some form of labour market regulation in order to cope with growing industrial unrest. That presented unions with a role, he believes.

Part of the explanation for a decline in unions - there are now 337 million members out of a non-agricultural workforce of 1.3 billion - was the removal of Communist governments in central and Eastern Europe where membership of "unions" was compulsory.

Presenting the study in Geneva yesterday, Michel Hansenne, director- general of the ILO, said the results pointed to a "turning point" in global industrial relations and that a decline in union membership told only part of the story.

He said: "Where many observers ... see only decline, I see increased democracy, greater pragmatism and freedom for millions of workers to form representative organisations to engage in collective bargaining with their employers."