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Workplace Rights Can Alleviate Poverty
The Sydney Morning Herald
Piergiorgio Moro

October 15, 2010
View the Original Article

Marsinah was a 23-year-old Indonesian woman who had dreams for a better life. On the evening of May 8, 1993, on her way home from work, she was set upon by unknown assailants and drowned in a canal. No one was ever tried for her murder, but it is accepted wisdom that Marsinah was killed due to her efforts in trying to increase the poor wages at her factory.

Seventeen years later and nothing much has changed — Marsinah's story is still not an isolated one. According to the International Trade Union Confederation, 101 trade unionists were killed because of their workplace activities in 2009 alone. Most of these organisers were simply seeking better workplace conditions, so that they, and their families, could escape from poverty.

There have been many attempts over past decades to tackle world poverty. The Millennium Development Goals are but one of a long list of undertakings — yet up to 2 billion people still live in poverty.

While poverty is often framed as a "situation", it is actually the result of a complex interaction of factors such as history, economics, politics and social conditions. Contrary to popular belief, poor people are not helpless, inactive subjects, but are individuals who, on a daily basis, attempt to overcome their economic condition by working in any job that they can get. This desperation gives rise to the so-called informal economy where people work as labourers, recyclers, scavengers and so on.

The term "informal economy", as with the term poverty, is one that hides more than explains. It comes across as a neutral word implying flexibility and casualness for the people engaged in it. The reality could not be more different.

The extent of the informal economy in the world is huge. Workers engaged in it have minimal, if any, bargaining power with their employer, and are often employed at the end of a long chain of sub-contractors. Individuals have to work in unsafe environments, for low pay, with no job contract, no security and no benefits. It is a brutalising experience, which forces people into a day-to-day scramble for survival. Sometimes, this is not enough.

The statistics, just on the issue of occupational health and safety (OH&S), are horrendous. The International Labour Organisation estimates that about 2.3 million workers die every year due to workplace accidents and illnesses. More often then not, these workers represent a significant contributor to their family and community income. Their loss and/or incapacitation is a serious loss, and can mean the difference between people going to bed hungry or not.

Given the central role that employment plays in the life of poor people, it is surprising that the issue of workers rights and the role that trade unions can play in lifting people out of poverty is often only mentioned in passing.

One of the most effective actions that could be taken to alleviate poverty for hundreds of millions of people would be the introduction of a living wage in each country, with an associated increase in OH&S standards. This would almost overnight transform the lives of millions of people, their families, and their communities.

For example, just in the past few months, in one of the poorest countries in the world, we have witnessed one of the greatest poverty alleviating achievements of the past decade. In Bangladesh, garment workers, predominantly female, were being paid $US25 a month. Even in that country, this wage kept workers and their families in abject poverty. Since July, a wave of work stoppages and strikes throughout the garment sector, involving millions of workers, has managed to lift the minimum wage to $US43 a month. While this is only the first step (workers seeking a living wage of $US73 a month), this improvement will be enough to lift millions of Bangladeshi immediately out of poverty.

Given the context where poverty often seems so hard to eradicate, it is surprising to see how little publicity this issue has been given. Without overstating the significance of this event, even this partial wage increase represents a historical achievement in improving the quality of life for millions for people in one of the poorest countries in the world.

It is for this reason that in every country you will find people who are organising workers in order to win a living wage for them and their families. Unfortunately, instead of being hailed as anti-poverty campaigners, these organisers face constant harassment and intimidation. Many end up beaten up, jailed and in some cases killed.

How many have heard of Diosdado Fortuna, a Filipino organiser shot dead in September 2005 while organising workers at a manufacturing plant? Or much more recently, this July, the Rindhawa brothers, gunned down in their union office in Faisalabad, Pakistan for organising garment workers?

While poverty is a dynamic and complex issue, it is also important not to frame poverty as the "problem", but to see it more as a symptom of another issue. The actual problem is the accumulation of wealth into the hands of a minority of people. According to a study by the United Nations University, the top 10 per cent of people own about 85 per cent of the world's wealth, leaving the majority of people literally scrambling for the crumbs.

Any serious attempt at overcoming the grinding poverty that affects millions of people, needs to look at workplace issues. Campaigns need to target the right of workers to organise freely, to be paid a living wage and to have safe working conditions.

We owe this not only to the millions currently living a hand to mouth existence, but also to people such as Marsinah, who have died in the attempt to improve the lives of their fellow workers and their families. In the end, it is simply a question of justice.