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Education International
Education International

Stop precarious work!

published 8 October 2012 updated 3 October 2012
written by:

Mr. Dyokwe worked as an employee of a factory in Cape Town, South Africa beginning in 2000. In 2003, he was asked by his supervisor to go and “sign a form”. When he went to the office at the address provided, he was told that he would have to go to work for a “labour broker” if he wanted to keep his job. He returned to his position, but with a lower salary.  And, in 2009, he found himself on a termination list. He went to see his “employer”, the labour broker, and was told that he was too old.

A court ruled that the employer conduct was not considered to be in conformity with the law because Dyokwe’s employment had never been legally transferred to the agency. The decision has been appealed.

There are many other cases where workers with direct contracts are being replaced by workers who “work” for other agencies, but, this case was especially outrageous as the agency worker had no choice but to replace himself.

The fate of Mr. Dyokwe is but one of the reasons that IndustriALL has launched its campaign, “Stop Precarious Work”. Its predecessor organisations [1] and their members had all experienced precarious work in its many forms. It is no surprise that it became the first thematic priority of the new organisation.

The campaign focuses on private employment agencies that continue to “employ” workers they supply to user enterprises. This creates a triangular employment relationship where the enterprise that fixes hours and working conditions and assigns and supervises work on a daily basis is not the “employer” that directly pays wages. Such a relationship effectively isolates the worker from the enterprise that is, in fact, the real employer. The negotiations that count take place between the user enterprise and the agency when they agree the “price” of the “service” of supplying workers, leaving little or no role for the affected workers in determining the wages and conditions under which they work. This puts in place conditions that commonly result in the violation of the fundamental human rights of workers; in particular, their rights to organise and bargain collectively.

The problems of workers’ rights and conditions related to the triangular employment relationship are outlined in a concise IndustriALL publication entitled, “The triangular trap: Unions take action against precarious work”. As the title indicates, it goes beyond describing the situation of workers in this form of triangular employment relationship to show how trade unions are fighting back through legislation, regulation, organising and bargaining.

Intergovernmental bodies such as the World Bank and the OECD as well as European institutions are placing pressure on governments to make their labour markets more “flexible”. So-called flexibility seems to be a universal prescription for economies that are in good shape as well as those that are having problems, although it can only be imposed on those in difficulty.

Many employers also see agencies as a way of avoiding their responsibilities to respect workers’ rights or to transfer or “outsource” their obligations. And, the private employment agency industry, though their association, Ciett, is carrying out a major offensive to open up and expand markets for their services (“ The Triangular Trap” exposes some of their distortions in a section called, “ The Global Agency Lobby”).

So, why write about private employment agencies in a posting on a blog about “Education in Crisis”? Agency work is not common among teachers or others who work in education; at least not yet.  As far as we know, private agencies are not providing substitute teachers or supplying categories of teachers or furnishing the workforces of entire schools. This seems to be one bad habit of the private sector that education “innovators” have not yet decided to copy.

Among the reasons for teachers and other education personnel to be concerned about the triangular trap are:

  • Solidarity with other workers and trade unions being confronted with the often devastating impact of agency work. The best way to ensure that this threat does not, some day, come to education is to help contain it now;
  • The impact on students. Young people are disproportionately hit by precarious work, including by agency labour. No matter how good a teacher is and how passionate she or he is about the mission of education, the hopes instilled for progress and a future can be cruelly deceived by revolving doors of employment;
  • The effect on society. Turning workers into commodities to be bought and sold in the market is contrary to our values; those precious ideals that are to be passed on through education to each new generation. Treating workers as disposable factors of production and services strips them, and all of us, of some of our humanity;
  • There is a bigger fight against precarious work of which agency work is only a part. Many teachers and other education workers are affected by it and, as in the private sector, it is growing. It is often part of the impact of privatisation of education services, sometimes an effect of budget cuts, and often the result of conscious policies to create new substandard or fixed term rather than regular and permanent contracts.

One of the most active working groups of the Council of Global Unions (CGU) is the Work Relationships Group. Prior to the creation of the Group, Global Union Federations (GUFs) were doing much of their work separately. When it was created and the predominantly public service GUFs, Education International (EI) and Public Services International (PSI) became involved, many participants were shocked to learn that, although the forms were sometimes different, precarious work was also a serious and growing problem for workers in the public sector.

This growing awareness of similar problems has led to a common determination to act together and we have done so in fights at the national level in several countries, at the International Labour Organisation and other international bodies and have taken joint positions, including  adopting the Global Unions’ Principles on Temporary Work Agencies. IndustriALL welcomes all trade unionists to join together with them in this vital campaign. To learn of activities planned in your country or city and to obtain campaign materials, go to their web site’s “ Stop Precarious Work” page.

[1] IndustriALL was formed in June 2012 by the International Metalworkers’ Federation (IMF), the International Chemical, Energy, Mining and General Workers’ Unions (ICEM), and the International Textile, Leather and Garment Workers Federation (ITGLWF). All three organisations had considerable experience with precarious work. For the ITGLWF, it had become a way of life for many decades due, in large part to the delocalisation of their sectors, whereas for many IMF and ICEM members and sectors, the deterioration of the employment relationship was rapid and relatively recent.

The opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect any official policies or positions of Education International.