Spotlight interview with Vicky Cann (TUC- UK)

“International trade union cooperation has an important role to play in helping migrants in both countries of origin and of destination”

Within the framework of the defence for the most vulnerable workers, the Trade Union Congress of United Kingdom (TUC) affiliated to the ITUC, supports the ITUC special action program for migrant workers, especially in Asia and the Gulf region. For Vicky Cann, TUC International Programmes officer, development cooperation projects for helping migrant workers in both countries of origin and of destination are essentials. Vicky Cann analyses also the Trade union development cooperation network (TUDCN)’s impact.

For International Migrants’ Day on December 18th, the ITUC will release a new report containing testimonies exposing the trade unions’ role in defending and organising migrants in the Gulf region and Asia.The TUC is funding some of the activities on the migrant workers’ special action plan of the ITUC. How do you experience this?

At the TUC we have worked on migrant workers’ issues for a very long time, particularly at the UK and European policy and advocacy levels. We are now supporting part of the ITUC’s special action plan on migrant workers, especially in Asia, and we are certainly learning a lot about the issues facing migrant workers who find themselves in a vulnerable or precarious position. These include the potential abuses that poor workers face from employers and middle-men, the difficulties and challenges to reach and organise migrant workers, but also the benefits that result when unions are able to reach out to, support and organise migrant workers in both origin and destination countries. As the TUC, we are also supporting a project with the ITUC Africa to promote the rights of forced and trafficked labourers in seven West African countries (Cote d’Ivoire, Gambia, Guinea Bissau, Nigeria, Niger, Liberia and Togo).

You are fairly new to the TUC and have a background in non-governmental organisations. What is your assessment so far of trade unions as development actors?

My impression is that the trade unions can reach parts of the development and justice debates that other organisations cannot! Our emphasis on the world of work and on labour rights gives us a unique role that few NGOs can match. Meanwhile, our ways of working such as building individual and organisational capacity, and negotiating with governments and employers, can lead to sustainable and far-reaching improvements in the lives of trade unionists and their families. Trade unions have huge access, influence and voice that few NGOs can equal, and of course, while NGOs sometimes come and go, unions are there in the long-run. Indeed, the TUC is approaching its 150th year, and the principles that we use at home of organising and worker solidarity are exactly the same as those which our global south partners use too. Of course, there is a major role for NGOs, but as trade unions we must not be shy about promoting our own development achievements too.

What for you, working in the British TUC, is the added value of this specific project on migrant workers?

For the TUC, in this project, I think the learning is all on our side. We have just launched our new international development strategy which will determine our work for the coming five years. In it, one of our four themed areas of work is a focus on ‘vulnerable workers’. Of course, not all migrant workers are vulnerable, but clearly many migrant workers do find themselves in vulnerable situations, and this project is very helpful for us to build up our knowledge in a very practical way.

How do you see the role of the ITUC as coordinator of the project? Has the coordination improved the quality of the project outcomes so far?

I think that there are lots of benefits stemming from the fact that the ITUC coordination for this project comes from a policy officer with a huge amount of experience in the areas of migrant work, forced labour and trafficking. The ITUC commitment to the project is long-term, and with this policy knowledge, the opportunity to share good practice and lesson-learning and to promote the outcomes of the project to decision-makers at national, regional and international levels, will be greatly enhanced.

Do you think it is important to contribute as a national organisation to trade union internationalism rather than bilaterally?

Of course there is always a role for bilateral development work. For example, as the TUC we have strong historical links with many Commonwealth countries, as well as a longstanding relationship with the Iraqi and Palestinian trade union movements. But coordination and collaboration at the multilateral level brings opportunities to scale up and replicate projects, helps us all to avoid duplication, and provides us with greater opportunities to share good practice and learning too. Also, the ITUC can bring political clout, especially at the international level. At the moment, the TUC’s development work contains a balance of bilateral and multilateral funding, and we are supporting a number of projects through the ITUC, including via the ITUC Africa’s Togo office.

Do you think that development cooperation through projects can structurally advance the trade union movement?

Definitely, and perhaps particularly when we are talking about migrant workers or other ‘vulnerable workers’. For unions in the global south, which might have many, many calls on their time and may well be cash-strapped, it might be difficult to financially sustain work with migrant workers when it is not clear that this group will join the union and provide it with an income stream. Also, migrant workers can be itinerant and move on regularly, and so even if they have joined a union in either an origin or a destination country, again they may not provide a long-term membership income. Therefore, I think there is a particularly important role for development cooperation projects to help both origin and destination countries to reach migrant workers. Such projects can help unions to set up processes, services and structures to meet the needs of migrant workers which can hopefully outlast the project itself and continue into the long-term.

Are you involved in the trade union development cooperation network? What is your experience within this network and is this new ITUC initiative going in the right direction?

The effectiveness of the new TUDCN has brought about a significant and very welcome increase in collaborative working between unions active on development cooperation. The TUC is fully behind the goals of the TUDCN, and with so many different actors and so much money – at least one billion Euros each year being managed to development objectives by unions – the ITUC has a vital job ahead to boost coordination and effectiveness. Most important to the TUC will be to see how the TUDCN can improve the effectiveness of us all as development actors – including in design, monitoring and evaluating our development cooperation work.

(1) See the Union View on migrant workers “From Bahrain to Malaysia: Mobilising to defend migrants’ Rights”, with testimonies and on the ground reports from Bahrain and Malaysia (16 pages)

- See also the interview with Fadhel Abbas Ali, the young trade union leader heading the committee for the formation of a sectoral union for the construction industry : “"We promised migrant workers we would always be on their side"