Trade Unions are vital partners abroad as well as at home

There can’t be many Labour blogs today that aren’t discussing the relationship between trade unions and the Labour Party.

Much of this espouses the vital role that unions play in this country, supporting members at work. However the role of trade unions is not something that springs to mind when you think of international development. But ,when you look at the key policy themes that the Labour Campaign for International Development work around, e.g. responsible capitalism, decent working conditions and quality public services, you can see that trade unions are central to all of these issues.

Decent jobs, with fair pay and safe and healthy working conditions are key to supporting individuals and their families out of poverty. When Tories and others on the right decry aid dependency, you would think they would support that vital work.  Our experience through industrialisation here in the UK and around the world is that the best way to improve working conditions and pay is through collective bargaining through independent trade unions.  But all too often trade unions are restricted rather than supported, to the extreme in places like Columbia or the Philippines where union leaders are murdered for standing up for their members.

Trade unions are also vital in the provision of quality public services.  A poignant example is in health services, which often rely on too few staff who are under-paid and over-worked. Often,  nurses will go straight from the day shift to the night shift in order to earn enough money to be able to feed their families.  The development of trade unions in countries like Malawi has helped health workers come together and both improve their conditions and the services they can provide to their patients. UK union UNISON has funded work to develop the capacity of the National Organisation of Nurses and Midwives in Malawi, allowing them to support their members particularly in the context of such a high prevalence of HIV. Trade unions are also a vital ally in tackling issues of corruption and transparency in public services and in Government.

UNISON’s International Development Fund has funded projects to develop public service unions in places such as India and the Philippines, as well as Malawi.  Unions often partner up to engage in this work, there is a particularly strong position within the teaching unions.

To support decent work and quality public services, the UK and DFID has the potential to make a huge difference by working with trade unions in developing countries and to promote their role as a key part of civil society. LCID has received a lot of support from trade unions and union members since our inception, whatever happens with the discussions in the wider party, we will be proud to continue that.


James Anthony is Co-Chair of LCID

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