'Historical achievement'

Unite and global unions affiliated to IUF reach landmark agreement with employers and governments on new guidelines for decent work in the global agri-food sector

Reading time: 5 min

Unite, together with trade unions across the world, achieved unprecedented new policy guidelines for promoting the UN’s Decent Work Agenda for the agri-food sector, after intense negotiations in May.

The International Labour Organization (ILO) convened the meeting in early May, which brought together representatives from unions under the International Union of Food Workers (IUF) umbrella, as well as global employers and governments.  

Unite national officer for Food Drink and Agriculture Bev Clarkson served as chair representing trade unions in the tri-partite negotiations, which she called ‘an honour’. The meeting also involved worker representatives from Costa Rica, Grenada, Holland, India, Uganda, the United Kingdom, the United States, Zimbabwe and Canada.

For the first time ever, the new policy guidelines will provide UN member states and ILO constituents, such multinational corporations, with guidance on promoting decent work in the agri-food sector.

This achievement is especially significant because both in 2016 and 2018, similar negotiations ended without agreement after pushback from employers’ representatives.

The new guidelines include protecting fundamental labour rights, such as the freedom of association and recognition of the right to collective bargaining, as well as creating and promoting decent jobs, with decent wages, terms and conditions.

A ‘just transition’ to an environmentally sustainable global agri-food sector also forms a key part of the guidelines, as does ‘social dialogue and tripartism’, with employers, unions and governments expected to negotiate in good faith to achieve consensus on issues related to the global agri-food workforce.  

Bev said that the negotiations which culminated in agreement in May were especially intense, with the week-long meeting lasting 10 hours or more each and every day, until Friday at midnight, when negotiators finally reached consensus in the eleventh hour.

“We reached agreement despite employers’ representatives pushing back fiercely on certain issues such as freedom of association and living wages – issues that are especially relevant to workers in developing nations in Africa,” Bev said.

But the unions were just as determined in the negotiations, Bev added.

“We were very committed to our red lines —  as chair I assured them that these lines would not be crossed, such as a commitment to living wages,” she said. “A key part of our argument for living wages was the affect better wages would have on child poverty, which is a blight on countries across the world. “

Bev went on to highlight the dramatic conclusion of the negotiations, with no agreement yet reached by the time talks were scheduled to end at 9.30pm on the last day.

“We all agreed that we had to keep going, despite protests from the employers’ representatives,” she noted. “Government representatives actually backed our side, and agreed that we needed to continue discussions to reach consensus. It was our determination that helped pave the way for this historical achievement.”

Already the new guidelines agreed in May are having a positive impact, Bev reports. In many African nations, workers’ organisations are taking the document to employers, and employers have agreed to implement the guidelines.

And although the guidelines may not always be applicable in the UK, where many of the provisions are already enshrined rights, they will have an impact on the wider supply chains of UK-based companies.

Unite and other unions affiliated to the IUF are now celebrating their unprecedented win during the IUF’s annual Congress, which is being held in Geneva this week.

“The potential of these new guidelines cannot be understated,” Bev said. “While for Western nations, many of the provisions in the document are taken for granted, in developing nations, basic trade union rights and a liveable minimum wage are still an uphill battle.

“I am proud to have played a role in this victory and to be part of Unite and the IUF, which are committed to working with unions around the world. The agri-food sector is now inextricably global – that means we have to fight for workers’ rights globally too.”

By Hajera Blagg