What do we do when work doesn’t work?

Factory worker in Viet Nam. Pic courtesy of the ILO

Dangerous and exploitative working conditions are a global problem. And there’s a growing consensus that regulation is the only way to combat them. But what form should this regulation take, and who’s got the answers?

Sara Mojtehedzadeh has a paying job. But it’s crushing her.

“I feel overwhelming relief when it’s finally my turn for lunch”, she writes. “A co-worker watches me collapse onto a bench.
“‘It gets harder,’ she calls out.”

This isn’t Sara’s real job. She’s actually the Work and Wealth reporter for the Toronto Star. She went undercover on the production line of an industrial bakery for a month, exposing low pay, little training and frequently dangerous working conditions. Her investigative report appeared in the Star in September, exposing the issues that face some temp workers across Canada.

For the most part, we know the reasons why people tolerate dangerous work environments. Rising costs of living. Widespread unemployment. The disappearance of the ‘job for life’, and the rise of ‘precarious work’. But stories like Sara’s highlight an important point that can’t be stressed enough. This isn’t just an issue for deprived and developing countries, and it hasn’t been for a while. Every country faces its own demons when it comes to unacceptable working conditions.

The solutions aren’t easy, and the only way out is to work together.


It’s Rethabile Ratsiu’s first trip to North East England. As a representative of the Lesotho Clothing and Allied Workers Union, she’s been invited to Durham Law School to speak about the issues facing workers in South Africa as a member of the Unacceptable Forms of Work (UFW) project.

Rethabile Ratsiu talks about South Africa’s unions at a conference in Durham, UK (pic: TyneSight Photography)

Recently, Rethabile’s union members were visited by an NGO called Better Work. The programme helped develop training programmes for workers, and encouraged the unions to work together to strengthen leverage. However, when it left, the unions split over political issues, and employers were less enthusiastic about complying.

“We are learning how other countries are treating their problems”, she said.
“When we go back home, we’re hoping to tell them that we learned something, and that it’s going to be helpful to our unions.”

This is the second meeting of the UFW strategic network, an international collaboration of researchers, activists and policy-makers who are looking to fine-tune regulations strong enough to battle entrenched labour issues.

The first meeting took place a couple of months previously in Bangkok, sparking discussion about issues ranging from care home violence to discrimination in the construction industry.

The UFW project recognises that innovative and robust regulation is required to combat unfair and dangerous labour practices worldwide. But — crucially, and uniquely — it also recognises that the solutions could come from anywhere.

“It’s crucial to this project that we adopt a comparative approach”, said Durham Law School’s Professor Deirdre McCann, principal investigator on the UFW project.
“It’s absolutely vital, because insights into different forms of regulation are scattered and not necessarily shared. We want to take the insights we do have, and bring them together at an international level.”

Deirdre is a former official of the International Labour Office in Geneva. Working with co-investigator, Professor Judy Fudge, in 2015, she helped to define the various elements that made work ‘unacceptable’. Her multi-dimensional model — published in full in a paper for the ILO — includes 12 categories of unacceptable work, including: excessive working hour, lack of access to benefits, denial of the right to organise and wages too low to satisfy basic needs.

The team has reached out to researchers and policy-makers all over the world to provide insights into the challenges facing different regions, and to discover some of the innovative solutions used to address them.

“We’re looking for a strategic approach to the regulation of Unacceptable Forms of Work, that would allow policy-makers to look for systemic and enduring solutions”, said Professor McCann.

But what needs to happen for this to work?

Professor Deirdre McCann is leading the UFW project, which will investigate ways to regulate better working conditions (pic: TyneSight Photography)


Broadly speaking, the problem is clear. Work is changing. And not always for the better. The United Nations recently earmarked the protection of labour rights as one of its major priorities for the next 15 years. Facilitating ‘decent work’ is one of the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The International
Labour Organisation says eliminating UFW is now a crucial part of its mission. Even bodies such as the World Bank — which has previously been luke-warm on market regulation — has accepted it may be necessary in some form to promote prosperity and equality.

However, if you drill down, it’s not always as simple to agree on how to tackle the issue. For example, the World Bank estimates that only around half of the world’s three billion employed people have regular work and salaries. Some of the 1.5 billion in casual or freelance work may be in precarious employment, working with no labour rights, in dangerous conditions or for low pay.

In some places, legislation has focused on the type of contract that might give rise to poor conditions. New Zealand — for one — introduced regulation last year addressing ‘zero hours contracts’ by requiring employers to specify the number of hours a job would involved.

However, delegates in Durham heard from researchers in South Africa, who argued that day labour was the only option for many in a country where half of young people were unemployed, and the employment rate was higher than the official estimate of 27%. Many day labourers stand waiting for work for as long as a week at a time, and still often have to walk back home empty handed.

“We need this, and it is here to stay”, said Catherina Schenck of the University of Western Cape. “We cannot prevent people from trying to make a living in this way, because there isn’t another way to make a living. So we should focus on changing the conditions of work instead.”

Working practices are often characterised differently in different countries. For instance, in India, 51% of the working population is self-employed. And Seoul National University’s Aelim Yun told delegates in Bangkok that many factory workers were hired through sub- contractors, circumventing the need to comply with labour regulations for employees.

“In certain countries, precarious work is the norm, not the exception”, she said. “And it’s the result of the specific policies and choices of governments and employers.”

Regulation that is mis-targeted or too broad can alienate industry, complicate
implementation and stymie results. So collaborating and discussing local and national issues at this stage helps researchers and policymakers to be more surgical when they’re proposing regulations.

However, while applying a broad solution to nuanced problems is generally a bad move, there may already be ideas out there that can turn the tide. For example, Shelley Marshall of the Royal Melbourne Institute talked about how the introduction of boards representing India’s headload workers helped to increase work security and provide benefits such as sickness pay. And Do Quynh Chi of the Research Center for Employment Relations in Hanoi
discussed the game-changing introduction of a minimum wage in Vietnam, which helped workers improve their stake in the collective bargaining process.

Manuela Tomei of the ILO says the future of work needs to be shaped by “powerful ideas” (pic: TyneSight Photography)

The aim of the UFW project is to develop a global network in which these stories can be heard and shared more widely. In this way, innovative approaches can be examined, and possibly even adapted to countries facing similar issues.

“We want smart regulations”, said Manuela Tomei, director of the ILO’s Conditions of Work and Employment Programme. “Since nobody knows what’s going to happen in 10 years’ time and the impact of changes, the future of work is what we want the future to be. This requires an ability to have very powerful ideas that can act as a catalyst for change, but are also grounded in real-life practice.”

To find out more about the UFW project, go to http://www.unacceptablework.com/

John Hill is the UFW’s journalist-in-residence