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Transport workers uniting along the Belt & Road

Series: Labour Perspectives on China #6

– Sean Sayer

Transport workers move the world. Trade and travel cannot function without us. This means that transport workers are some of the first to be impacted when governments or companies invest in and change the way the world moves and trades.

Waves of international investment in transport have created millions of good jobs throughout recent history. But we have also seen how this overseas investment has been used to undermine our rights, pay and conditions. The Belt & Road Initiative (BRI) – China’s US$1 trillion overseas infrastructure development project – is one of the latest attempts to change how the world trades. What does this mean for transport workers?

In 2022, trade unions affiliated with the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) from thirty-eight countries and from every continent met in Manila to try to answer this question.

In context

First, it is important to put the BRI in context. The American Enterprise Institute’s China Global Investment Tracker estimates that between 2013 and 2020, the BRI invested US$400 billion in overseas transport infrastructure, the World Bank Group invested UD$178 billion, and the Asian Development Bank invested US$83 billion. In 2021, Chinese outward foreign-direct investment represented less than 7% of the global total. The US (23%), Germany (8%) and Japan (8%) all spent more. So, the first decision by our affiliates was to understand the opportunities and challenges posed by all types of international investment, not just BRI.

Transport workers around the world have seen how all types of international investment pose risks to recipient economies, societies, communities and workplaces. For example, International Monetary Fund and World Bank loans to countries including Cameroon, Ghana, Nicaragua and Pakistan required ‘structural adjustment’ programmes which demanded that governments privatise or dramatically cut spending on public services, often including transport. When the World Bank disperses aid to a low-income country, the amount of cash in offshore accounts controlled by the country’s elites tends to increase on average by about 7.5%.

The World Bank (2018) estimates that, if completed, BRI transport projects could reduce travel times along economic corridors by 12%, increase trade between 2.7% and 9.7%, increase income by up to 3.4% and lift 7.6 million people from extreme poverty. BRI is also estimated to create thousands of transport and supply chain jobs in most recipient countries, including Kazakhstan (200,000 jobs), Kenya (more than 60,000), Mongolia (50,000), and Pakistan (more than 60,000).

In 2019, China signed a series of agreements relating to the BRI with the ILO and three Chinese ministries. These agreements (1) promote decent work, social justice and a ‘human-centred future of work’; (2) support occupational safety; and (3) promote the effective implementation of the ILO’s Maritime Labour Convention along the BRI. This could signal that the Chinese ministries acknowledge that international labour rights and laws apply to workers in the countries they are investing in and building transport infrastructure in, as well as to the cross-border workers who are working between them.

However, Chinese project-based, migrant workers tend to make up a significant proportion of those working in BRI investments. Often, local labour laws are not applied to these non-resident workforces. Many of these workers are reported to suffer from egregious human rights violations. For example, in Serbia, the local labour laws were suspended for Chinese nationals working there. In the Serbian Zijin Mining Group Co. copper mine, Chinese employees worked 12-hour days, were forced to hand passports over to employers, and had little to no health and safety protection, including during the COVID-19 pandemic. In the Linglong Tyre Co. factory in Serbia, Chinese workers experienced poor housing conditions, no access to medical services, issues with or absences of wages, and were again forced to give their passports to employers, leading to allegations of human trafficking and modern slavery.

Labour rights abuses and divisions

Furthermore, local workers are often subjected to human rights and labour rights abuses. For example, working conditions in the construction of the new Phnom Penh International Airport show systemic human rights abuses. Imported Chinese workers are paid US$50 to US$70 a day, while local Cambodians are paid US$7.5 to US$15 a day, and women are paid less than men. Accommodation is in local temporary settlements, where workers’ children live on site, with no food, education, healthcare, water or electricity provided. There is minimal provision of sanitation facilities and personal protective equipment, and uneven and inconsistent provision of compensation for health and safety failures.

In Mongolia, truck drivers reported that BRI investment into infrastructure built for the extraction and transport of coal had put truck drivers and railway workers in direct competition with new groups of informal, cross-border workers and employment models. Furthermore, the development of rail and logistics infrastructure continues to threaten a shift away from unionised labour in trucking.

In Pakistan, BRI projects avoid collective bargaining by avoiding railways, instead focusing on trucking. Where collective bargaining cannot be avoided, alliances between Chinese interests and local elites are challenging the industrial models and labour movement.

In Kenya, the flagship US$3.6 billion Mombasa-Nairobi Standard Gauge Railway, and the special economic zones (SEZs) around the connected ports and logistics centres, are estimated to employ around 60 000 workers. However, rail exclusively moves the freight coming in and out of the SEZs, bypassing the better-unionised truck drivers and collective bargaining.

Transport needs nearly US$50 trillion of investment by 2040. Transport workers around the world recognise that to create decent work, resilient supply chains, a fair economy, gender equity, climate justice, and a more sustainable transport and development model, we must welcome spending on transport infrastructure. However, this financial commitment must be conditional on the guarantee of fundamental human rights, including freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, the right to strike, and all our fundamental labour rights.

What international investment should guarantee

Therefore, transport workers’ representatives in Manila agreed that international investment must be:

Safe – occupational health and safety is a fundamental right at work. Applicable laws and regulations must be respected and enforced to protect to all workers, regardless of their gender, occupation, terms of employment and contractual status.

Democratic – local and international laws, regulations and democratic processes must be respected. Trade unions must be treated as equal partners by governments and employers in collective bargaining. Critical infrastructure must be owned by, and operated for the people it serves.

Fair – secure, permanent, and formal employment must be offered to all workers equally, regardless of their ethnicity, nationality, religion, gender or background, and respected by employers. Governments and employers must ensure that informal work and other non-standard forms of employment are not used to deny workers their rights.

Open – workers must be included in the negotiation and agreement of investment. No governments should sign deals in secret. Full transparency and accountability of negotiations of contracts and trade deals must be a minimum standard for international investment. Trade unions must be recognised as effective and critical partners for ensuring transparency and accountability at all levels.

Skills-based – local workers must be trained and skilled to construct, operate and maintain transport infrastructure built using international investment. The ITF and its affiliates oppose any exploitation of non-resident workers and unfair labour competition.

Fundamentally, BRI and other forms of international investment are connecting workers in new, exciting ways. In Manila, we witnessed the birth of a new family of transport workers connected by patterns of international investment, born of solidarity, unity and understanding.

Trade unions representing transport workers in Central and Southeastern Asia are cooperating with those in Africa and Europe to develop organising models for third-country nationals. Transport workers are connecting with construction workers, learning from their experiences working under Chinese and overseas employers or investment. Governments seeking to ensure transparency and accountability of projects stemming from international investment are looking to trade unions for assistance. New human rights due diligence laws that require government and companies to check and fix their domestic and overseas supply chains are giving trade unions a legally recognised role in upholding labour rights in the BRI and global trade. To do this, we must work across borders and organise some of the most exploited and vulnerable workers in supply chains that are adjusting to international investment.

By focusing on workplace rights, experiences and solidarity, trade unions are building a new future amid profound change. Supply chains may ebb and flow – becoming more local, regional or again global – but the solidarity among transport workers has always been, and will always be, global. This is where real workers’ power is built today, tomorrow and forever.


Sean Sayer is a policy advisor at the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), based in London, UK. He coordinates the ITF’s supply chain programme, working with transport workers and their trade unions across the world.

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Global Unions call for unified action following ICJ ruling on Gaza Genocide case

GLI Manchester supports the statement from Global Unions.

The Global Unions signatory below note the International Court of Justice (ICJ) Order issued in the case filed by South Africa against Israel regarding the application of the Genocide Convention in the Gaza Strip, which demonstrates the vital importance of the international rule of law and effective enforcement.

The ICJ’s binding provisional measures address the urgent need to protect and prevent further harm to the Gazan population. The ICJ and the convention exist to protect human rights and the safety of vulnerable people and rely on the support of the international community. Now is the time to amplify trust in the international legal order.

The Global Unions emphasise the gravity of the situation. Our members in Gaza are being killed while they go about their work including teachers, healthcare workers, transport workers, journalists, UN staff, international aid workers and many others.

We urge Israel to comply with the ICJ’s Order to take immediate steps to prevent acts of genocide, punish incitement to genocide, and facilitate the provision of basic services and humanitarian assistance to Palestinians in Gaza.

The signatories also request the following actions from the international community:

  • All States Parties to the Genocide Convention to fulfil their obligation to prevent genocide: The UN Security Council and member states must take collaborative action to ensure that the provisional measures are implemented in full.
  • International Criminal Court prosecutor must expedite investigations into allegations of war crimes and crimes against humanity committed by Israel and Palestinian armed groups: A thorough and independent investigation is crucial to bring perpetrators to justice and prevent future violations.
  • World leaders to prioritise diplomacy and dialogue over violence: Secure the release of all hostages and work towards an immediate and lasting ceasefire that guarantees the safety and security of all Palestinians and Israelis.

While expressing support for the UN’s internal investigation, the people of Gaza and our members depend on the lifesaving support UNRWA provides. The Global Unions urge countries who have suspended their funding of United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNRWA) to re-consider.

The Global Unions below represent millions of workers across all sectors of the economy around the world. We are committed to promoting and protecting human and trade union rights around the world, and we will continue to raise our voices in defence of working people.

Signatory Global Unions

Building and Woodworkers’ International
Education International
IndustriALL
International Federation of Journalists
International Transport Workers’ Federation
Public Services International
UNI Global Union

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TUED Bulletin 141 – Indonesia: TUED Supports Unions in Constitutional Court Battle to Stop “JETP” Energy Privatisation

Broad coalition organises to defend public energy clause in Indonesian Constitution, oppose  pro-privatisation electricity reforms.

Following yesterday’s elections in Indonesia, we turn to the country’s energy sector and the Indonesian labor movement’s fight to defend public energy against the threat posed by the “privatise to decarbonise” agenda reflected in the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) between the rich countries and the Indonesian government.  

TUED and the Indonesian Energy Unions 

In mid-January 2024, TUED supported a broad coalition of trade unions, academics and public figures that petitioned Indonesia’s Constitutional Court to declare unconstitutional the electricity sector reform provisions in Law Number 6 of 2023.  

Known as GEKANAS, the coalition’s petition reflected concerns that the new law would lead to the “unbundling” of PLN, the public power utility, and increase the role of the for-profit independent power producers (IPPs.) The coalition’s effort is supported by power sector unions, namely:  

  • PT Perusahaan Listrik Negara (Persero) or SP PLN
  • Indonesia Power or PP IP, 
  • The PT Pembangkitan Jawa Bali

Article 33 of Indonesia’s Constitution states that the country’s vital resources should be controlled by the Indonesian state. Appearing as an expert witness before the Court in Jakarta, TUED coordinator Sean Sweeney drew attention to the “privatise to decarbonise” agenda embedded in the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) between the rich countries and Indonesia. This, suggested Sweeney, lies behind the energy provisions of Law Number 6 which, he said, would “eviscerate Article 33.” A video of Sweeney’s intervention Constitutional Court is available here.

Strings Attached 

Sweeney told the court that JETP financing from rich countries comes with strings attached, as seen in the South African case. Announced in November 2021, the JETP with South Africa, the first of its kind, set the tone. It states that financing would be contingent upon unbundling of the public utility, Eskom. The JETP statement between the rich countries and the Government of Indonesia called for a “clear strategy for private sector engagement,” detailing “policy reforms necessary to address any regulatory barriers.”  

In November 2022, at the G20 Summit in Bali, a group of developed countries—led by the US and Japan—pledged to mobilize US$20 billion over the next 3-5 years to accelerate Indonesia’s energy transition through early retirement of coal power plants and deployment of renewable energy. Currently, the public utility PLN generates about 65% of the country’s electricity, down from 92% in 1990. The presence of IPPs has grown to 35% of generation. The JETP is designed to accelerate the growth of the for-profit IPPs. 

In Indonesia’s case, the utility PLN is encouraging the growth of IPPs as seen in the PLN’s Electricity Power Supply Business Plan (RUPTL), 2021–2030, from October 2021. The World Bank and its regional Asia Development Bank (ADB) “will simultaneously target pioneering large-scale RE and storage (RE+Storage) projects led by the private sector that will aim to serve demand both in grid-connected and captive power contexts.” 

Why would PLN wish to further undermine its position in the power sector? The RUPTL notes that the World Bank and ADB is “preparing a results-based lending (RBL) program to support PLN in accelerating Indonesia’s clean energy transition.”  Periodic loan disbursements will be contingent upon “satisfactory performance.” The ADB partnership with the Government of Indonesia notes that “ADB support will center on policy reforms toward stronger energy sector governance, clean energy and energy efficiency, and private sector participation, while the investment focus will be on sustainable power generation, power transmission systems, and electricity grids.”

The JETP, Article 33, and Private Sector Participation 

The designers of the JETP with Indonesia do not want to explicitly confront Article 33, said Sweeney, but the innocuous language of Law No 6, allows for private sector “participation” in the electricity system will allow this objective to be achieved via the “back door.” Read the official court press release on Sweeney’s intervention. 

In his written submission to the Court, Sweeney stated that by 2030, PLN’s role will be reduced to being mainly a buyer of electricity (as the “off-taker”) from privately owned generators. This would mean the state would no longer have control over its electricity system. 

Released in late November 2023, the Indonesia JETP Comprehensive Investment and Policy Plan, explicitly states: “A PPA [power purchase agreement] should not be treated by its contracting parties as a procurement of a ‘project’ or an ‘asset’ that PLN would eventually own but rather as a procurement of electrons.” In other words, electricity will no longer be seen as a public good generated for human development and nation-building; rather, electricity will become a commodity that PLN is legally obligated to purchase from private companies.

Sweeney’s submission also provided data that pointed to the failure of the “blended finance” model that informs the JETP. The $20 billion dollar JETP package would add to the country’s debt obligations while leaving Indonesia to find an additional $97 billion to finance the transition away from coal. 

Public Pathway as an Alternative to JETPs

Sweeney then explained that Indonesia and other coal-dependent countries in the Global South could pursue an alternative “public pathway” approach where state control and public financing can be the drivers of economy wide decarbonisation based on prudent energy planning within a framework of global public goods.
 
The need for this policy shift is made evident in the data on global energy trends, he said. These trends indicate that we are witnessing an energy transition, but an energy expansion. Fossil fuel use is rising, not falling. Greenhouse gas emissions (GHGs) also continue to rise, making the Paris Agreement targets almost meaningless in the short term.

Indonesian Trade Unions Fight Back

The Indonesian labor movement and its allies continue to organize in defense of Article 33 and PLN’s role as the principal energy provider. 

On January 17th, roughly 60 union leaders gathered for a discussion on “ Lessons Learned from the Privatisation of Electricity around the World” – and the Public Pathway alternative. 

Said Andy Wijaya, the General Secretary of Persatuan Pegawai Indonesia Power: “Once I was told by a Parliament member that if a State-Owned Company is privatized, the wage would increase sevenfold. I said that currently I am working in PT PLN, and I am paid. But there is no guarantee that my children, my family will be able to get a job at PT PLN that is also well-paid, just like me. Especially if PLN is privatized. I will feel very guilty if in the future, our children will have to pay expensive electricity price because PLN is privatized and I don’t do anything to stop it.” 

“Public sector unions play a pivotal role for social justice and public energy that improves people’s lives. Therefore, we need to stay strong in defending public services with pure vigour and use all our powers as unions to keep public energy and services in the hands of the public. Our work with affiliates in Indonesia is to fight againts privatisations and towards a Public Pathway alternative that democratises public services,” said Indah Budiarti, Project Coordinator of the PSI Southeast Asia Office and based in Indonesia. Read Budiarti’s insightful article, “Analyzing the Dynamics of Indonesian Energy: Between Government’s Subsidy, Privatization, and Ecological Sustainability”.

In solidarity,
The TUED Team


Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network.

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Toolkit on Taking Action on Violence & Harassment Against LGBTQI+ Workers & other Vulnerable Groups

Violence and harassment in the world of work is a daily reality for millions of workers across the world and has devastating impacts for those affected. Groups in situations of vulnerability (or ‘vulnerable groups’) and workers with intersectional identities also face increased exposure to violence and harassment. LGBTQI+ persons are one of these vulnerable groups facing harassment, violence, and discrimination on the basis of their sexual orientation, gender identity, gender expression, and sex characteristics. This discrimination remains a root cause of their continuing inequality in society and at work and is one of the major challenges facing the labour movement globally.

GLI Manchester was commissioned by a coalition of Global Union Federations to produce a facilitator guide and a participant workbook as a resource for the international trade union movement.

These training materials are primarily for workers’ educators and facilitators and trade union staff and representatives. They are intended to support the development of training programmes. The three modules cover:

  • Raising Awareness
  • Taking Action in the Workplace
  • Taking Action in the Union

These training materials are designed to:

  • Encourage discussion about violence and harassment, and the disproportionate impact of violence and harassment on vulnerable groups, including LGBTQI+ workers.
  • Raise awareness about C190 and R206 and their relevance for LGBTQI+ workers.
  • Encourage workers and unions to take action around violence and harassment and integrate C190 into the union bargaining agenda.
  • Enable the development of more inclusive unions and union spaces.

The toolkit includes a facilitator guide (currently available in English) and a participant workbook to assist in delivery of courses (currently available in English).

Click here to read the facilitator guide.

Click here to read the participant workbook.

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BWI Report – Social Dialogue and Collective Bargaining in the Green Transition

Social dialogue and collective bargaining are key tools for trade unions and workers to shape, negotiate, and influence the transition to greener models and practices. As part of its work to tackle the climate crisis and fight for a green transition, BWI is aiming to expand the scope of International Framework Agreements (IFAs) to include provisions for a Just Transition.

This report – commissioned by the Building and Wood Workers’ International (BWI) from the Global Labour Institute (GLI) with the support of the Laudes Foundation – highlights good practices and provides guidance and recommendations on how to include a just transition in social dialogue and collective bargaining, with a specific focus on IFAs, with the aim of contributing to strengthening workers and trade unions’ agency on climate change issues. 

It is designed for trade union leaders, workers’ representatives, and organizers at the workplace in BWI’s sectors to support them in advancing social dialogue and collective bargaining on a just transition, particularly with multinational corporations (MNCs). It also includes a toolkit to support BWI and affiliates in developing a union policy and bargaining position and engaging in collective bargaining with multinational corporations on a just transition in BWI sectors, particularly through IFAs.

Click here to read this report in English.

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Abidjan Bus Rapid Transit and Metro: Labour Impact Assessment 

Abidjan faces major problems in passenger transport, most of which is in the informal economy. Services are frequently slow and unreliable, roads are congested and poorly maintained. Most services are provided by numerous gbâkâs (minibuses) and wôrowôros(taxis), mostly old environmentally harmful vehicles operating on a target (‘la recette’) system that encourages dangerously long working hours and on-street competition between drivers.

Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) and Metro systems offer the prospect of more efficient, cleaner, and faster passenger transport. At the same time, they potentially threaten the livelihoods of thousands of people who currently depend on the employment provided by the informal transport industry.

This labour impact assessment attempts to build a comprehensive understanding of the composition and characteristics of the workforce, the issues that workers face in their day-to-day work, and detailed illustrations of the microeconomy, as well as an attempt to estimate the number of livelihoods in the transport industry at risk or to be created through the introduction of BRT and Metro.

This report of research was commissioned by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF) from Global Labour Institute (GLI) and Université Alassane Ouattara (Côte d’Ivoire).

Click here to read this report in English.

Click here to read this report in French. 

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INFORMAL TRANSPORT WORKERS IN ACCRA: Livelihoods, Organisation and Issues

Accra’s passenger transport system is dominated by a large paratransit industry, primarily informally operated buses and minibuses (“trotros”) and motorcycle taxis (“okada”) and taxis. In common with most major African cities, Accra’s streets are highly congested. The paratransit industry has also become notorious for inefficiency, violent criminality, pollution and corruption.

On the other hand, it offers cheap transport essential for the more than four million commuters and is highly flexible and responsive. It also informally employs hundreds of thousands of people in a city where earnings are poor and where employment is scarce.

The transformation of Accra’s informal public transport into a more efficient, less congested and more environmentally sustainable system is a critical issue for national and local government in Ghana.

This report analyses the paratransit industry in the Greater Accra Metropolitan Area (GAMA) from a socio-economic perspective. It provides a description of the informal transport workforce in Accra, including those working in the trotro minibus, taxi and okada (motorcycle taxi) industries. It examines workforce characteristics, livelihoods and employment relationships, provides in-depth economic profiles of operations, identifies key issues, and considers options for formalisation.

The main objective is to support a public transport reform and streamlining of the highly fragmented paratransit sector. The findings, analyses and recommendations are meant to support a constructive engagement with stakeholders

The report is based on research undertaken by GLI in 2021 in partnership with the University of Cape Coast and transport trade unions in Ghana, as part of a broader project with Transitec Consulting Engineers and Organisation Development Africa (ODA), commissioned by the Ghana Urban Mobility and Accessibility Project (GUMAP) of the Ministry of Local Government and Rural Development.

Click here to read this report.

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TUED Bulletin 137 – Updates on TUED South & Discussion on Position Paper “Reclaim & Restore” Public Utilities to Fight Energy Poverty

RSVP and join TUED on Wednesday, August 16th, 0800 – 0930 Eastern US to discuss: Reclaim and Restore: Preparing a Public Pathway to Address Energy Poverty and Energy Transition in sub-Saharan Africa.

Reclaim and Restore

In mid-May 2023, unions from 12 countries in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) came together in Johannesburg to lay the groundwork for a public pathway approach to addressing the challenge of energy poverty in the region.  

Convened by TUED South, the 3-day meeting discussed a draft position paper that brings to light the abject failure of neoliberal approaches to addressing energy poverty in the region. 

Focusing on the World Bank, the paper describes how the Bank’s structural adjustment agenda of the 1990s targeted public utilities and redirected financial support to for-profit independent power producers (IPPs). The results have been devastating. Today half of the region’s population (roughly 600 million people) have no electricity, 70% in rural regions. 

The document has been updated and is available here. It advocates for a “reclaim and restore” approach to energy utilities so they can begin to repair the damage of the past 30 years. 

We will first hear from TUED unions based in Namibia, Uganda, South Africa, and Kenya. View the draft program here. 

Please RSVP for the Global Forum here. Interpretation will be provided in English, French, and Spanish. 

New TUED Union: Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU).  Welcome IEU! 

The Independent Education Union of Australia (IEU) represents over 75,000 workers in non-government schools and institutions across Australia. Learn about IEU’s work on their website and Twitter (X)

In solidarity,
The TUED Team


Trade Unions for Energy Democracy (TUED) is a global, multi-sector trade union initiative to advance democratic direction and control of energy in a way that promotes solutions to the climate crisis, energy poverty, the degradation of both land and people, and responds to the attacks on workers’ rights and protections. TUED is is part of the Global Labour Institute Network. 

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WIEGO Job Advertisement – School Coordinator

Women in Informal Employment: Globalizing and Organizing (WIEGO) is hiring a School Coordinator consultant role to coordinate the rollout of the WIEGO School. The School is aimed at the global and national leaders of WIEGO’s institutional members (membership-based organizations of street vendors, waste pickers, domestic workers and home based workers), as well as other membership based organizations of workers in the informal economy that WIEGO works with.

Click here for more information about the role.

WIEGO is a global network focused on securing livelihoods for the working poor, especially women, in the informal economy.

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GLU Call for Applications – GLU South Africa Honours and MA Programme 2024

The Global Labour University (GLU) is an exciting and innovative postgraduate programme designed to equip and engage trade unionists more effectively to tackle the challenges of globalization. It offers unionists and labour activists formal post-graduate Honours and Masters degree qualifications through the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, South Africa. It is a fulltime coursework and research study programme located in the School of Social Sciences.

Applications for the 2024 programmes are now open and must be completed ONLINE.

Click here for more information.