International Labor Solidarity in a Time of Pandemic

By Dr Manoj Dias-Abey, Lecturer in Law (University of Bristol Law School)

As governments have imposed physical distancing measures to slow the spread of the virus, the engines of global economic production have ground to a standstill. Almost half of humanity is under some form of lockdown. No one knows for certain the long-term impacts, but the IMF predicts that global output per head will shrink by 4.2 per cent this year, almost three times more than the amount logged in 2009 during the global financial crisis. In some cases, the once-creaking welfare systems of rich Global North countries have responded with remarkable speed, announcing a range of measures to keep businesses afloat, protect employment, and provide income support to those who have lost their jobs—although Alexandria Ocasio Cortez has pointed out that the American version, true to form, benefits corporations more than individuals. As Pankaj Mishra recently put it, “it has taken a disaster for the state to assume its original responsibility to protect citizens.” However, citizenship is the fulcrum upon which this newfound social solidarity turns. Workers in the Global South who have lost their jobs as a result of COVID-19 have been left destitute and homeless with almost no support forthcoming from their governments or the international community. Similarly, many migrant workers in the United States fall outside the purview of the state welfare aid.

The public health and economic crises caused by the COVID-19 pandemic have the potential to be a clarifying moment: labor keeps the global economy powered, if that was ever in doubt. While the professional managerial class sees out the lockdown in the comfort of their own homes, learning new hobbies and practicing forbearance towards their loved ones, others must continue to go out to work in broadly defined “essential jobs,” often wearing no protective gear. We have come to appreciate how broken the labor market has become for the many who work in poorly remunerated jobs under a range of precarious arrangements. But we need to extend this vision to include those to whom we are connected by the economy, planet, and fate.

We must start from a recognition that we live in a deeply interconnected world, and that this is in no small part due to the deliberate decisions taken by Global North countries since the late 1970s. As their leaders lowered barriers to the internationalization of production and finance, firms looking to maintain rates of profit in the face of stiff competition from a newly ascendant Germany and Japan began to offshore production to countries with lower unit labor costs. In the ensuing decades, complex global value chains to produce goods developed that crisscross the entire globe. Lead firms based in the Global North, while avoiding legal liability for the condition of workers employed by their suppliers, still control and coordinate the entire production process. Goods including food, electronics, apparel, and even surgical masks, are now produced in value chains. It is along these modern-day trade and logistics routes that the SARS-CoV-2 virus has spread with such speed and lethality.

The ILO estimates that over 450 million workers worldwide are employed in value chain-related jobs. Other estimates put the figure at twice as much. Value chains, and by extension those employed in them, have been impacted by two interrelated shocks arising out of the pandemic: first, the lockdown measures aimed at slowing down the spread of the infection, and second, the resulting lack of demand from consumers in the Global North. Already laboring under difficult and insecure conditions, the pandemic has hit workers in these value chains hard. Lead firms have moved swiftly to halt production, in some cases cancelling existing orders and refusing to pay for raw materials purchased and production costs incurred. Suppliers in turn have responded by furloughing their large workforces without any pay or severance; in the case of Bangladesh, the world’s second largest exporter of garments, over 1.2 million have already been affected out of a total of around 4.5 million workers. Although public pressure has forced some companies to pledge unspecified amounts to help workers, as the scholar Genevieve LeBaron recently pointed out on Twitter, the cancellation of orders while collecting government bailouts has once again exposed the hollowness of corporate social responsibility.

Just as our economies depend upon armies of low-wage workers in overseas factories, workers from the Global South also perform vital work inside our borders. Constituting 17.4 per cent of the U. S. labor force, migrant workers provide a critical segment in both low-wage industries—such as agriculture, care, and hospitality—and high-wage industries, such as information technology. Some of these workers are naturalized American citizens, others are “resident aliens” or have been brought into the country on a range of guestworker programs (e.g. H-1B, H-2A and H-2B visas), and yet others are undocumented (for example, it is estimated that 50 to 70 percent of farm workers in the United States do not have authorization to work). Since a significant portion of migrant workers are employed in essential jobs, they must continue to work despite the lockdown, often without the protective gear that would prevent infection. There is no greater evidence of the pathologies at the heart of America’s immigration system than the fact that undocumented workers face the threat of deportation on their journey to and from performing this essential work. Although desperately in need of assistance to see this crisis out, farmworkers are unlikely to derive much benefit from the $2 trillion aid package passed by Congress and signed into law by the President on March 27. Resident aliens and temporary migrant workers are similarly excluded from important aspects of the CARES Act.

The pandemic and the near-total shutdown of our economic life will undoubtedly shift our views about the work and lives that we value, and role of the state to provide aid to those who we see as a part of our community. After decades of neoliberal theory and practice, it is no mean feat to get to once again see the state as a protector of its citizens, rather than a mere facilitator of economic exchange. To seize the moment, prominent labor law scholars have been quick to argue that positive sentiment alone is not enough—we need the institutionalization of a new social contract underpinned by a range of vital employment and labor law reforms (here and here). Equally important is a new global settlement for work that values and provides for those who stitch our clothes, assemble our electronic goods, pick our fruits and vegetables, and look after our elderly and vulnerable.

What might a new global settlement for work look like? It might be tempting to articulate an ideal theory of international solidarity and then develop a series of prescriptions flowing from that principle. However, we have to start with the world we find ourselves in, not the world of which we might dream. Perry Anderson once suggested that to understand the dominant modes of articulating internationalism, we must first take account of prevailing conceptions of nationalism. A vision of American primacy underpinned by the pathos of white grievance lies at the heart of American nationalism today. In the international sphere, this translates in a move towards what some have called a “geoeconomic order,” in which the dominant players (U.S., China, European Union) compete for influence and gain at each other’s expense. The pandemic is likely to only hasten this seismic shift in international politics and economics. Trump’s announcement that the United States would be halting funding to the World Health Organization is the latest step in a slow retreat away from international organizations and multilateralism. The embarrassing failure to produce sufficient quantities of ventilators and masks to deal with the health emergency is likely to lead in the medium term to the reconfiguration of value chains—they are likely to become shorter—and the expansion of productive capacity within the state. To some extent, this process was already underway prior to the crisis due to the trade war between the United States and China, but we are likely to see an acceleration. Finally, the trajectory of rising labor unrest in both the Global North and Global South is expected to continue as the imminent economic depression begins to affect profit margins.

This challenging environment presents several opportunities for more international cooperation between labor movements—with “bottom up” and “top down” dimmensions. We should be responding with legal reforms that facilitate this labor movement-driven international solidarity. Some promising cases suggest that shorter and more regionally integrated value chains have more potential for worker organizing. For example, a new farmworker union in Washington state, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, managed to win a labor contract in 2016 by organizing alongside Mexican workers producing for the same distributor. There have also been some tentative efforts by workers employed by suppliers to force lead firms to sign legally binding agreements regulating labor conditions in both domestic suppliers (e.g. Coalition of Immokalee Workers and Migrant Justice) and overseas suppliers (Bangladesh Accord and a gender justice agreement in Lesotho). Another hopeful development is organizing in the logistics sector given how central “just-in-time” production has become to the corporate strategy of lead firms. These efforts have resulted in a better deal for workers employed by suppliers, even if they only represent, at this stage, green shoots. Legal changes to promote these forms of international solidarity must be part of the conversation when we talk about a new labor law settlement. The Clean Slate for Worker Power agenda contains some of the central reforms that would be necessary, such as enabling workers to exercise the right to strike and picket strategically, but as I have argued elsewhere, we could go further.

In addition, there needs to be a strengthening of the mechanisms of international and transnational labor governance and migration governance. At the international level, the International Labor Organization, which celebrated its 100-year anniversary in 2019, struggles for relevance in a vastly changed global environment. The International Organization for Migration seems unable to resolve the tension between competing aspects of its mandate—protecting the human rights of migrants and promoting “orderly and regular” migration. While continuing to advocate for the United States to work constructively with and within these organizations, we need to acknowledge that their prospects seem dim in the new geoeconomic order. It might be more fruitful to shift focus to other arenas of transnational governance and treat them as important terrains of struggle. This includes plurilateral trade agreements such as the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), which the Obama Administration championed, but Trump abandoned as soon as he assumed office. Scholars generally view some of the innovations for labor governance within the CPTPP positively, although more could be done to shift all aspects of trade (IP, investment, rules of origin) towards a pro-worker agenda. Of course, to repurpose trade agreements for fair trade would require a major rethinking of our current institutions, methods, and objectives. In the migration field, the United States could negotiate bilateral migration agreements with sending states that regulate the labor migration cycle comprehensively rather than relying on unscrupulous labor recruiters. Labor organizations in both sending and receiving states would need to participate in the negotiations. Rich states can play an important role in ensuring that these forms of governance balance the interests of capital and labor more evenly in the global economy, but this will require us to demand that United States rejects imperialism.

Many of these reforms are unlikely to offer any immediate succor to those living in the Global South. Although rates of infection are relatively low at the moment, the consequences of COVID-19 spreading more widely are likely to be terrifying. We know that the impact of the virus are likely to be exacerbated in the Global South due to factors such as cramped living conditions and poor sanitation, as well as various existing comorbidities in the population, such as malnutrition, TB, and HIV. Mike Davis reminds us that 60 per cent of the Spanish flu deaths occurred in western India due to factors such as malnutrition. Already burdened public health systems will be overwhelmed. While more than 80 per cent of the world’s population lives in low or middle-income countries, they only account for 20 per cent of global health spending. Faced with this onslaught and contemplating the loss of remittance income from their migrant workers due to increasing border restrictions, massive capital flight, and onerous debt obligations, Global South countries will have very limited room to maneuver. Global action must consist of a range of measures including the cancellation of debt, additional IMF lending free from Washington Consensus conditions, and extensive assistance in the field of health, including providing vaccines at an affordable cost to those living in poorer countries. Financial assistance provided to companies based in the United States should be made conditional on responsible behavior towards overseas suppliers.

Pandemics show us that the local can very quickly become the global. In January and February, we watched as those in Wuhan contended with the spread of the coronavirus through their city; we told ourselves that we were safe. However, viruses do not respect national borders, and our interconnected economy means that they can travel along the circuits of capital at lightning speed. The global reach of the pandemic means that we have suffered a set of shared experiences, which allows us to imagine the lives of others in ways that might have been difficult before. This creates radical possibilities for solidarity.

Writing about the meaning that we make out of disaster, Rebecca Solnit observed that “disaster is sometimes a door back into paradise, the paradise at least in which we are who we hope to be, do the work we desire, and are each our sister’s and brother’s keeper.” Although not inevitable, the pandemic might help us see that it is possible to realize a country where we are responsible for those around us, and this should give us some hope. If we start to see ourselves as each other’s keepers, we can demand that our governments also take a more expansive view of their responsibilities in an interdependent world.

*This blog was originally posted on Boston Review. You can view the original post, here.*

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