Labour standards at the multilateral development banks: leverage for workers’ power and accountability

Trade union action has led to binding labour safeguards at multilateral development banks. A new ITUC manual shows how to use these safeguards to fight for labour rights and a development model with decent work for all.

The World Bank and regional multilateral development banks provide billions in loans every year to fund projects and private companies in developing countries. A vast number of workers are linked with this funding, from construction workers paving roads on a project funded by the African Development Bank to workers at a private fertilizer manufacturing facility that expanded with funding from the International Finance Corporation. Thanks to years of dedicated trade union mobilisation, most loans from multilateral development banks now have safeguards requiring safe, decent working conditions and respect for the core labour standards of the ILO.

“Attacks on human and trade union rights are mounting around the world, and workers face an uphill battle in organising for decent work. The labour safeguards of the multilateral development banks are leverage in these fights. Trade unions have demanded and won such protections. Now it is time to use the labour safeguards to build power and hold the development banks to account when workers’ rights are violated,” said Sharan Burrow, ITUC General Secretary .

The manual provides useful information on how the banks operate, the contents of the labour safeguards, tracking proposed and ongoing loan projects, engaging with the banks and how to raise complaints when workers’ rights are violated. A quick guide provides the essential information to take action, followed by thorough information on successful use of the safeguards.

The guide describes trade union action from Iraq to Poland to force the development banks to fully implement the safeguards. Trade unions have used the safeguards to improve working conditions, organise and collectively bargain. When disputes arise, unions can find out if a development bank is connected to the worksite and use the safeguards. In other cases, unions can monitor proposed loans and ensure that labour rights are upheld by the bank and borrower from the start.

Although the safeguards are binding, violations by borrowers and subcontractors remain too common. Trade unions continue to demand that the multilateral development banks conduct adequate due diligence and monitoring to ensure respect for the safeguards. Some of the problems in implementation arise from gaps in the labour safeguards, such as restrictive language on national law and the freedom of association. The guide provides trade unions with the information to press for better safeguards when the banks conduct periodic policy reviews.

“We need a sustainable development model that fosters decent work and a new social contract between workers, government and business to fulfil Sustainable Development Goal 8. All multilateral development banks should adopt and implement labour safeguards consistent with the labour protection floor described in the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work. In that way they can contribute to realising the new social contract that is so urgently needed,” said Burrow.

Link to manuals: