We will never stop fighting for workers' rights

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 | News and analysis
Garment workers from JKSS on May Day march
May Day, also known as International Workers' Day, is a day for us to celebrate the rights workers have won – around the world and over generations – through collective organising and trade unions. It is a day to recommit ourselves to internationalism and the fight for better workers’ rights everywhere.

At War on Want, we campaign and support partners, allies, and workers across the world to build corporate accountability, fight for human rights, workers’ rights, food sovereignty, trade justice, climate justice, and an end to militarism and occupation. These are not separate issues. Poverty, inequality, war and injustice don’t just happen. They are the result of decisions made by those who hold power – governments and corporations – and a rigged global economic system. This system generates increasing wealth and power for the already wealthy, at the expense of  the majority of people on this earth. 

We can change the system 

All around the world workers face exploitation and discrimination, but by organising and building power through trade unions, workers are winning increased rights and decent work for millions of people.  

In the UK, trade unions have given us the weekend, the eight-hour day, paid holidays, paid sick leave, paid paternal leave, and pretty much every other working right we now enjoy. Globally trade unions are fighting for the rights of those working in some of the most exploitative conditions, such as in garment industry supply chains.

The Covid-19 pandemic has further exposed and aggravated the injustices that already existed in the world of work. Big businesses, such as McDonald’s, made huge profits – cashing-in on government support programmes, and continuing to dodge taxes – whilst passing the cost of the pandemic on to their workers.

Corporations are all too keen to point to the thousands of jobs they create. However, unless they ensure that the essential rights of workers in their supply chains are protected, and that the wages they pay them are enough to live on, these jobs benefit no-one but the companies themselves. 

In-work poverty – where wages are so low, working people live below the poverty line –precarious and zero-hours contract work are now commonplace, especially among migrant, female, and ethnic minority workers. Too many people are forced to work for wages that do not even provide for their basic needs, let alone for those of their families. 

In 2022, more than 22% of the UK population live in poverty – that’s 14.5 million people – and of these, 8.1 million are working age adults (JRF, 2022). That’s why we need trade unions, workers’ representation and workers’ rights enshrined in law – to protect every worker.  

The P&O ferry scandal in March is a stark example of why we cannot trust big corporates to do the ‘right thing’. P&O cast aside long-term workers in good, unionised jobs, to bring in cheaper, under-skilled labour it could exploit further.  

Collective power  

Across the past year, we have seen workers and trade unions win huge victories for workers, using the strength of their collective power: 

  • Millions of Indian farmers and agricultural workers – and over 40 unions – mobilised, demonstrated and faced down tear gas and water cannons. They won, forcing the Indian government to U-turn and repeal three proposed laws to loosen market regulations of the agricultural industry. The laws would have undermined the rights of Indian smallholder farmers, and imperilled food sovereignty across the subcontinent.  

  • After months of resistance, War on Want’s Sri Lankan trade union partners, the FTZ-GSEU, were formally recognised by high-street clothing brand Next as representative of garment workers in its Katunayake factory. This means the garment workers can now enter negotiations on pay and working conditions with the power of collective bargaining.  

  • Workers in Bangladesh, with the solidarity of War on Want members and UK trade unions, secured an extension of the crucial Accord for Health and Safety in the Textile and Garment Industry. This historic agreement with high-street retailers, including Marks and Spencer’s, Matalan and Next, will guarantee legally-binding safety standards for tens of thousands of garment sector workers. 

  • Amazon, the notoriously anti-union American behemoth, was forced to recognise a workers’ union for the first time in its history, when workers at its New York warehouse came together to fight for safer conditions and fairer pay. 

A new way forward...

As we emerge from the grasp of the pandemic, and grapple with the climate crisis, there is a real opportunity to build a new economic system. But we cannot allow green recovery programmes in the Global North to continue to push the costs of development on to the Global South, perpetuating the inequalities built by colonialism and neoliberalism.  

We must shift power back to ordinary people, by placing workers at the centre of a green economic recovery, with jobs that offer good pay, safe workplaces, union recognition and social protections.  We must demand a truly Global Green New Deal – one that is conceived with workers and their communities at its core rather than imposed upon them. 

War on Want is proud to stand with every worker throughout the world. We support all those fighting against exploitation and discrimination, and for their right to decent working conditions. 

Garment workers protesting following Rana Plaza

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