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DFID supporting unions to make a difference in the world, not corrupt backhanders

13 January 2010

Reading Carl Mortished’s article in the Times on Monday you’d think that they had discovered a corrupt and secret way for the Labour Party to pass money to the unions.  But then on closer inspection you realize that all the information is in fact clearly and transparently available on the TUC and DFID websites.

The Times article rightly acknowledges certain truths about the running of DFID, but its inferences are wrong. Its summary of the TUC and DFID websites, as well as the International Policy Network report, are largely accurate but do not tell the full story.

DFID most certainly does work closely with, and indeed does financially support, trade unions.  That support naturally includes the Trade Union Congress (TUC), which brings together nearly all Trade Unions in the UK and represents millions of workers. They do so for a number of reasons, none of them underhand and none of them related to any suggested links with the Labour party (with most of the TUC’s affiliates having no relationship with the Labour Party).

Trade unions form a highly important aspect of efforts on behalf of DFID, through education projects, to transform people’s approach to international development here in the UK. This goal has been clearly stated on the DFID website and funds have been channelled to achieve this by DFID, not only through trade unions but in many other ways as well: with £14 million being spent on this in total in 2008/9. Through their activities and its numerous members the TUC can play a central role in this, given the fact its members constitute a large part of the UK workforce.

On top of this the TUC and other UK trade unions have important and highly valuable links to trade unions around the world. These networks provide means to transform workers rights, combat corruption and inequality and to fight back against exploitation. For instance UNISON (a TUC affiliate) has supported trade unions in El Salvador and Malawi that have sought to stop water privatisation in those countries. UNISON is also highly active in supporting Southern African trade unions’ responses to HIV and Aids, this work being supported by DFID as well as UNISON’s own funds. As the Times suggests this relationship is two-way (as it is with many NGOs), with the trade unions themselves also seeking to shape policy and lobby Government on behalf of their member.  A good example being UNISON’s financial support of the running costs of the All Parties group on HIV/AIDS.

All of these actions are supported by DFID through the various elements of their Partnership Programme Agreement. As the International Policy Network paper readily concedes, numerous extremely useful projects have resulted from this interaction between DFID and the trade unions. While the paper, Closer Union, raises doubts about the transparency of this interaction and whether all the money is used effectively, one must not forget that DFID’s accounts are audited by the Independent Advisory Committee on Development.

In short, rights we consider as a matter of course here in the UK are often non-existent in the workplace around the world. From the right to work in a safe place, to the right to join together to form unions, and the right to decent pay and working hours, workers often need support in fighting for these basic rights.  Indeed trade unionists are still repressed and even killed in numerous countries like Columbia. In order to raise awareness of international development within our own domestic workforce, to work closely with networks of trade unions around the world to build the type of workers rights we enjoy here and to support important projects around the globe such as the fight against HIV and Aids, a close and mutually beneficial relationship between DFID and UK trade unions, particularly the TUC, is crucial. The sole reason DFID works with Trade Unions and the TUC is to help make life better for ordinary workers across the world.

By Daniel Sleat and James Anthony, LCID trade union officers.

Daniel is a Labour Party activist currently working for Andrew Judge, Labour PPC for Wimbledon.

James is a member of the UNISON National Executive Council representing the West Midlands and represents the affiliated Trade Unions on the Young Labour National Committee.

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