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OPINION: We need a new social contract that nurtures people, planet and peace

by Sharan Burrow | @SharanBurrow | International Trade Union Confederation
Saturday, 30 April 2022 17:50 GMT

Workers use their helmets to pour water to cool themselves off near a construction site on a hot summer day on the outskirts of Ahmedabad, India, April 30, 2022. REUTERS/Amit Dave

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* Any views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author and not of Thomson Reuters Foundation.

Faced with the horrors of conflict and the global pandemic, peace, social justice and climate-friendly jobs are at the heart of demands for International Workers' Day

Sharan Burrow is general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. 

The abhorrent Russian invasion of Ukraine adds to the tragedy of almost 60 conflicts worldwide and puts the importance of a common security back on the global agenda. As we call for the bombs and the bullets to stop, we are reminded that the International Labour Organization (ILO) was born out of the ashes of World War I. 

Its constitution states that "there can be no lasting peace without social justice”.  These words are not lost on the world in 2022. Social justice requires a social contract with jobs, rights, just wages, social protection and equality. This is the social floor of our common security - and it must be re-established.

Workers are on the frontlines as they face the impact of multiple areas of crisis: historic levels of inequality, the climate emergency, the loss of lives and livelihoods from the pandemic, and now the devastating fallout from the Russian invasion of Ukraine.

With unaffordable energy and commodity prices, made worse by conflict, people are losing trust in governments. The despair of the struggle to survive for too many people is creating social tension that can only be addressed with what we are calling for: a New Social Contract.

The world has quadrupled its wealth in the last 40 years, yet labour income share continues to decline. Inequality is at historic levels and is creating despair and anger as the majority of the world’s workers struggle to live with dignity on the wages they earn. When you add to that the reality of the climate crisis and the impact of the pandemic, workers want the security of a new economic model that puts people and planet at the centre. 

“A litany of broken climate promises” is how UN Secretary-General António Guterres described the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. But equally we could describe in the same words the betrayal of the economic model for the world’s people, as well as our environment. 

The International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) will organise to win a New Social Contract that creates a common security for working people and stabilizes our planet. 

We have six key demands for this contract: 

  1. Jobs, jobs and jobs: climate-friendly jobs with just transition.
  2. Fundamental labour rights: decent work with mandated due diligence regarding human and labour rights, and environmental standards to hold corporations to account.
  3. Universal Social Protection with minimum income and vital public services of health and education as foundations for resilience.
  4. Just wages with evidence-based minimum living wages and strong collective bargaining systems.
  5. Equality of gender and race.
  6. The promise of inclusion with the Sustainable Development Goals, the Paris Agreement on climate change and a new global architecture for peace.

Workers and their unions are on the front lines in a struggle to win a New Social Contract for rights, recovery and the resilience of shared prosperity. Where there are challenges to monopoly power or human and labour rights violations, unions are there.

Without unions, there will be no just transition in the face of climate change and technological change. And where there is a struggle for peace and democracy, union men and women will be making their voices heard for rights and representation.

Governments and employers have to face reality and recognise the state of the labour market when 60% of people are in informal work with no rights, no rule of law and little or no social protection. This exclusion now goes beyond developing countries, to include workers in the platform business, big tech and tech spinoffs.

Even for the 40% of people with some form of employment contract, more than a third have precarious or insecure jobs including those subjected to de-humanising exploitation in too many of our global supply chains, on which the massive profits of corporations depend.

The social contract has been torn apart. But together we can write a new one.

People see that governments have lost the desire to protect all of us and have betrayed our trust. Companies are not being held to account and have, in too many cases, lost a moral compass. Our economic model has promulgated a race to the bottom, disregarding human rights and environmental standards.

A New Social Contract can help reconstruct an alternative economic model where both people and Planet Earth matter.