Strong trade unions needed now more than ever to ensure decent work for all

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the workforce that has suffered the most. The pandemic has laid bare many dimensions of decent work deficits already extant in the world of work

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Gyan Pathak

The world of work has been in transition for one and half years. So is the case with trade unionism. There are multiple reasons for it, which began with the outbreak of COVID-19, followed by lockdowns and containment measures which forced shutdowns of establishments barring emergency services, leading to huge job losses.

Despite warnings from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), recovery plans across the countries are not putting the workforce at the centre of planning. Automation has become new favourite of the employing establishments, while the governments are trying to enforce ‘labour reforms’ which the trade unions call anti-labour and pro-corporate. Protecting the workforce from exploitation and securing their livelihood has become more challenging, because trade unionism has been shrinking with the change in the world of work.

Just as the future of work has become uncertain, so is the future of trade unions, says a report of ILO. Globally, membership has been decreasing, as well as their ability to organize and service workers. With the COVID-19 pandemic aggravating pre-existing labour market challenges, how can trade unions be revitalized? And when the trade unions themselves are in transition, what will be their role in the future of work? The answers to these questions are being sought by all stakeholders.

The ILO info story says that globalization and demographic, environmental and technological changes had already been changing the labour markets when COVID-19 struck. The pandemic induced health and economic crisis has further exposed and aggravated the existing challenges.

Among all the possible scenarios for trade unions, which one is most likely? Experts at ILO believe for sure, the most favourable scenario may be the revitalization of the trade unions wherein they will find innovative tactics and form coalitions to represent all workers.

During the COVID-19 pandemic, it is the workforce that has suffered the most. The pandemic has laid bare many dimensions of decent work deficits already extant in the world of work. Workers have been relying more on trade unions to enhance job and income security, and also for access to social protection, but millions of them have been lost this illusion, though despite all the restrictions during the pandemic, trade unions assisted workers and their families in different ways, ranging from legal advice, setting up of emergency funds, awareness-raising campaigns, modified training programmes and advocacy on recognition of COVID-19 as employment injury, to the use of social media.


Around 80 per cent of the countries used social dialogue, tripartite, and bipartite as part of the response to COVID-19 crisis, ILO has said. The most frequent topics of negotiation have been social protection and employment measures, industrial relations, occupational safety and health, and fiscal measures.

In the meantime, trade unions have also found innovative ways to reach out to new members and contribute to crisis responses through social dialogue. However, it does not seem successful in enrolling more members, for almost all the regions of the world barring only a few bright spots such as in certain African or Latin American countries where membership has increased. What is the reason behind the loss of membership?

The ILO suggests a number of reasons including shift from manufacturing to service jobs, the outsourcing of unionized jobs, the informalization of the economy and the changing employment relationship, and automation.

It’s a matter of great concern that trade union membership is lower for people in non-standard or precarious employments, such as temporary and own-account workers or workers in the informal and gig economy, in which they are generally not even recognised as employees or workers which prevent them from getting covered under any type of social security schemes.

Furthermore, legal restrictions and violations of trade union rights, such as the right to organize and to bargain collectively, are widespread. This is affecting trade unionism and workers are becoming without representation in the economy. No wonder, trade union memberships are lower where there are violations of trade union rights.

In this backdrop, ILO sees four possibilities for trade unions: marginalization, dualization, replacement, and revitalization. If the decreasing rate of unionization continues in combination with aging unions, trade unions around the world may gradually be marginalized.

Dualization is the second possibility, if the trade unions successfully defend their current positions, i.e. servicing workers closest to them and in sectors where they are strong, for instance workers in a formal employment relationship and in big industries or the public sector.

However, it would come at the cost of other, more precarious workers or less represented sectors. Replacement of trade unions is the third possibility with other organizations, such as non-governmental organizations, other intermediary agencies, labour lawyers or employers, for instance through alternative forms of worker participation, led by management and without trade union involvement.

Revitalization of trade unions is the fourth, which is the most probable, but may come only through innovative tactics and coalitions to organize and defend all workers and to strengthen inclusive and effective social dialogue.

ILO sees the path for revitalization in several examples that typically involve:

  • Organizing and servicing new members, such as young workers or workers in the informal or gig economy.

  • Speaking and acting as one, namely the ability to act collectively across sectors, at national, regional, and global levels.

  • Ensuring sound internal governance, through a transparent set of rules that governs the mandate, management, elections, and activities of trade unions.

  • Strengthening effective and inclusive social dialogue on the issues of today and tomorrow.


Trade unions can meet the need of under-represented workers. They have already been organizing and serving emerging or traditionally under-represented groups of workers. They have addressed the needs of workers in the informal economy, for instance by organizing informal economy workers and integrating them into the formal structures of the trade union movement. The same is true for young workers.

Although there are many obstacles to organizing and serving workers in the platform economy, gig workers are organizing, through both traditional and innovative means, through existing unions, or by establishing new organizations.

In the given scenario, trade unions must engage in inclusive and effective social dialogue to enhance decent work, ILO says, but also on broader socio-economic and sustainable development (SDG) issues that affect workers globally.

All the four future scenarios – marginalization, dualization, replacement, and reviatalization – are possible, and in fact all are happening now. Various tools, such as foresight or scenario thinking, can be useful for trade unions in dealing with this uncertainty – to anticipate change, to explore possible futures, and enable transformative action, ILO says.

Yet in this context of multiple transitions, with trade unions facing so many serious challenges, they have shown great resilience and a remarkable capacity to revitalize themselves in innovative ways. This bodes well for the future.

Strong trade unions are needed now more than ever to build a world of work founded on sustainable development that ensures decent work for all.

(IPA Service)

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