“Inside and Outside the Tent”: A New Social Contract for Working People

Politicians, business, and civil society leaders alike are asking for new social contracts. But what are they and what should they include? Can they actually contribute something valuable to our post-pandemic world? The Pathfinders for Peaceful, Just and Inclusive Societies at NYU-CIC is shedding light on these questions through a series of interviews with leading thinkers and doers.


Sharan Burrow was elected General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) in 2010. Prior to this, she held the position of ITUC President (from 2006) and ICFTU President (2004–06). She is the first woman to have held any of these positions. Sharan is from New South Wales (NSW), Australia and has a long family history of union activism. She has been involved in both national and global unions, first as organizer for the NSW Teachers’ Federation, to leading national unions, to serving as vice-president of the Education International (1995 to 2000) and President of the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU) from 2000 on. She has also served as a member of the Governing Body of the International Labour Organisation and is a member of or ambassador to a number of international commissions on climate action, industrial transition, and economic reform. She, and the ITUC, have been consistent in the call for a new social contract, the need to fight against the crushing of democratic rights worldwide, and for trade unions to have seat at the table. Liv Tørres talked to her about social contracts.

[This interview has been edited for length.]

Why do we need a new social contract?

In 2020, the ITUC built the narrative for a new social contract. That same year, António Guterres, UN Secretary-General, made the same call on “Mandela Day” in memory of anti-apartheid icon and South African president, Nelson Mandela. The ITUC is now pushing for a concerted effort to revive and strengthen social contracts, based on demands articulated by workers and unions.

Today’s vulnerabilities must serve as a call to action. In the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, cracks in social stability and environmental exposure all around the world have been exposed and deepened. We have now all seen how much we as societies rely on functions that are performed by some of the poorest workers. This should serve as a wake-up call. The ITUC has compiled five key demands for social contracts:

  • Creation of climate-friendly jobs, with a just transition. All Governments must have a jobs plan.
  • Rights for all workers, regardless of their employment arrangements with a labor protection floor, including fundamental rights, OHS, minimum living wages and maximum hours of work.
  • Universal social protection, with the establishment of a Social Protection Fund for the least wealthy countries.
  • Equality of income, gender and race
  • Inclusion. We need a peaceful, inclusive world, and just, rights-based sustainable development in alignment with SDGs for all.

The ITUC is adamant that the pandemic recovery needs to be funded with increased taxation for top income and wealthy groups, rather than through austerity measures. The world will need to implement debt relief and targeted support for developing countries, while establishing a corporate tax floor, wealth taxes, and financial transaction taxes to fight tax evasion and illicit financial flows.

So, are social contracts relevant everywhere? Who should be at the table?

Issues of competition versus the ties that bind us together were focal points in the founding of the International Labor Organization (ILO). The ILO was born out of labor and social conflicts in the 19th and 20th centuries. Its founders, a number of government leaders of the time, exclusively from the Global North, set a social floor with international regulation. Over the years, the concept of social justice enshrined by the ILO has been reinstated in many declarations and conventions, and it is possible to track the dividends that have come from this. By the 1980s, however, hyper-globalization resulted in a world growing exponentially richer, while simultaneously seeing an astounding increase in inequalities. “Hyper globalization was a recipe for the world resulting in messy, historical levels of inequality.” The climate emergency adds to this, with loss of lives and livelihoods that further aggravate these inequalities. “Today’s economic model has stripped wages and economic security, prioritizing dehumanizing supply chains. When 94% of our supply chains constitute hidden workflows, it’s easy for CEOs to reap the benefits of work.”

Less than half of today’s global population lives in democracies. This means that, “millions of young people around the world have never seen a democracy dividend.” Millions of young people have never had access to secure work, affordable access to education, and so many of the rights and benefits that come with democratic systems. Any effort to devise a new social contract must include young people. Intergenerational dialogue is crucial for leveraging talent that is otherwise underutilized or sidelined due to a lack of proper frameworks. By involving people of all ages, it is possible to put complementing pieces of knowledge, commitments, and passions together in support of a core set of values. Recognizing the importance of inclusion will address threats to our democracies and contribute towards repairing trust in institutions. The way forward is a democratically articulated social contract, implemented at the grassroots and at the institutional level, by the very people who negotiate it.

And yes, some people say that civil society is weaker and people are poorly represented, but I don’t buy this notion that there is weak representation. If it’s a trade union, they have [the ITUC] to back them. If it’s a community, then there are community leaders to lead, represent and assist — many of them women, and many of them without titles. They will tell you exactly what they want in a social contract.

Where do we go from here?

One thing I was not aware of in the 1990s is that we need to continuously defend the victories that we have achieved. There is a degree of cyclical movement to progressive governance that needs to be understood historically. We need to learn from this in order to effectively defend our victories and stay alert to the threat of injustices. We need to also now make sure we build on constructive forces in civil society in a well-managed and coordinated manner, so as to avoid polarization and competition among potential allies.

“Pick a country and I can show you where the activism is.”

Contrary to expectations, organizing efforts around the world have increased, even if there is a divergence in how individuals and communities today define organizational membership compared to the 1980s, for example. There are plenty of cases to prove that civil society is mobilized or can mobilize itself when prompted. In Nigeria, workers who were recently dismissed by the government forced dialogue to resolve issues on their own terms. In Brazil, informal and poor workers demanded a COVID-19 financial handout that the government implemented. It was credited to have taken record numbers of people out of poverty and to have prevented an economic slump amid the pandemic. In India, farmer protests have persisted for months, with farmers declaring a country-wide “black day” in a statement against the government and the destruction of farmers’ and workers’ rights. In Belarus, the democratic struggles against President Lukashenka were aided by trade unions, additionally sustained by the ITUC. In Honduras, a crossover from union to indigenous rights has formed bonds across communities, leveraging constructive forces in civil society. In Myanmar, unions have been playing an important political role in the fight for democracy. Activism and organizing in these countries is vulnerable, but resilient spirits at the local level have led to unlikely allies in the fight for common values, strategic uses of constructive forces in society, and timely progressive governance. You can find activism everywhere,

So where do we take it from here? Part of the work of a just transition and redrawing of social contracts includes being on the design team when an agreement is being made. We cannot afford to negotiate deals after deals, walking out of the door with nothing changing. Genuine and just reset and recovery after this pandemic requires workers and unions at the table. Working with unions on the ground to articulate our demands for a new social contract is step one. We then need to take these demands to all the levels at which they can be implemented. Agreements with sanctions are essential, but being on the frontlines of implementation with the negotiators is equally crucial. Once people have a clear view of what their demands are, community initiative and leadership need to coalesce with allies across civil society, including trade unions.

We have to be on the outside of the tent at the same time as we are inside the tent making the deal happen.”