Power Shift: from a politics of persecution to solidarity

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Donald Trump's US Presidential election victory, the outcome of Britain's EU referendum, and Theresa May's misplaced confidence regarding this Thursday's British national election (8 June) didn't come from nowhere.

After decades of neo-liberalism orchestrated by governments across the globe and xenophobia perpetuated by media narratives and political rhetoric, 2016 saw momentous shifts in our political landscape. It was also the hottest year on record. Combined, these forces have devastating impacts for poor people, black, brown, indigenous people, women and non-binary folk, and for millions of people in Central Asia, across the Horn of Africa, and in the Pacific who cannot protect themselves from the climate crisis that industrialised countries created in the first place. In the face of this, though, comes a fightback – from ballot boxes and beyond.

Young people, and communities most impacted have been at the forefront of this fightback. From the indigenous led No DAPL (No Dakota Access Pipeline) movement fighting on the frontlines of fossil fuel infrastructure development to the Samsung workers organizing secret unions, across the globe, people are rising up against injustice. In order to challenge the gains of the right in recent years, and build a successful and sustainable resistance to injustice, we need a new generation of citizens equipped with the skills, knowledge and passion to take action. Banks, big business and elites are powerful. But together, we are more powerful.

Since British Prime Minister Theresa May called for a general election on 18 April, an incredible 1.05 million young people in the UK registered to vote. Young people are rejecting anti-migrant vitriol, looming post-Brexit trade agreements that threaten human rights and weaken environmental obligations, arms sales to countries with repressive reputations, and further delays to the required decisive action needed on climate change.

But, democracy won't end on 8 June. From 5-9 July in Manchester, People & Planet is bringing together dozens of student activists from across the UK and Ireland to meet, skill-share and get trained up to run powerful campaigns that win tangible change at our annual summer training event – Power Shift. We want to help enable a new generation of movement builders committed to addressing the systemic causes of oppression, climate devastation and inequity.

We'll be joined by experienced and dedicated campaigners, from War on Want, Anti-Raids Network, Movement for Justice and No DAPL.

Over the course of these five days, students will be supported to create successful and sustainable strategies for social change, learn how to take effective non-violent direct action, and build powerful understandings of what practical solidarity campaigning looks like. The right has gained considerable power over the last few years, and we're running out of time to shift away from rule by elite power, toward justice.

We'll be asking, what does a world without human and environmental destruction look like? How do we build movements that are led by the people most impacted by injustice? We'll learn campaign skills to build power and practical solidarity. We'll develop campaign strategies to fight in solidarity with communities resisting fossil fuel extraction, and build a movement with collective liberation at its heart.

Between 21 and 45 million people across the world continue to work in conditions of modern slavery, generating more than USD$150 in profits for the wealthiest corporations. Governments are tightening border controls and building walls to keep out migrants. Despite the need to keep 80 per cent of known fossil fuel reserves in the ground to avoid catastrophic climate change, the fossil fuel industry continues to explore for more opportunities to expand extraction. The need for action has never been more urgent, and nor has the need to understand that each of these crises cannot be tackled in isolation.

Join the dozens of young people from across the UK and Ireland who are coming together, coalescing and joining the dots on climate change, economic exploitation and xenophobia. Join Power Shift: Training for Change from 5-9 July in Manchester.

Book here: https://peopleandplanet.org/power-shift-2017

Can post-Brexit trade deals protect social and climate justice?

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Theresa May and the Prime Minister of India, Narendra Modi, September 2016. Narendra Modi under a Creative Commons Licence

There are only so many things that are clear about Brexit: hate crime has risen, the economy has suffered, at least to a certain extent – and new trade agreements are on the British horizon.

As we wait for the negotiations to start, we must prepare to advocate for environmental and social protections to be included in all new agreements, instead of more deregulation.

Professor James Harrison of Warwick Law School has been researching the human rights and environmental impacts of economic laws and regulations for years. He has written on human rights, the environment and trade justice, has worked with numerous NGOs and UN agencies and is Co-Director of the Centre for Human Rights in Practice.

To inform the debate on the UK’s forthcoming trade agreements, Chris Jarvis, campaigner at People & Planet, interviews him.

How do you see the relationship between trade agreements and human rights, focusing on the impacts to workers' human rights internationally?

The traditional justification for signing up to trade agreements is that liberalised trade produces growth, growth reduces poverty and reductions in poverty mean that workers will do better in the longer term. But even mainstream economists now recognise that the story is far more complicated than that. It is very difficult to predict the effects of trade liberalisation on each individual country (let alone different groups of workers within each country), and most modern trade agreements include many obligations that are not about trade liberalisation at all (for example intellectual property protection). So we should examine very carefully what the impact of any proposed trade agreement is on workers’ rights.

Much of the anti-trade rhetoric which we now see in the US and the EU is driven by concerns that trade agreements do not take into account the needs of workers and ordinary people, but instead prioritize the interests of big corporations. Perhaps the most notorious example of this is that many trade agreements now contain provisions which give companies the right to sue countries through international arbitration. Companies can win hundreds of millions of pounds in damages. But labour rights are not so well protected in trade agreements. For instance, EU agreements only contain an obligation to have a dialogue between the trading partners. My own research which examined these dialogues found them to be under-resourced and ineffective. So we should be concerned about the relative weight which is given to the concerns of big business and workers within free trade agreements.

Prior to the June 2016 referendum, many in the Brexit camp said they wanted to 'take back control' over trade agreements, and extend free trade agreements with countries outside the EU, often citing previous colonies. Will it be possible for the UK to enter into new trade agreements with countries like Australia, India and South Africa while it negotiates its departure from the EU in London and Brussels over the next few years?

Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade was reported in the Financial Times to be ‘scoping out about a dozen trade deals outside the EU to be ready for when we leave the EU’.

But he is going to have a great deal of problems in doing this, or even talking about deals further. He isn’t in a position to say or do anything about our trading relationship with non-EU countries until the UK’s post-Brexit trade relationship with the EU is clarified. And that isn’t going to happen until we have negotiated the terms on which we will be leaving the EU.

It is becoming increasingly clear that within the UK government some fundamental questions about trade policy remain unanswered. Most importantly are we going to stay in the customs union? It could all be very simple for the UK’s trade relationship with non-EU countries.

If the UK remains part of the customs union – the UK won’t be doing deals with non-EU countries like Australia, India and South Africa because it will not be able to offer reductions in tariffs and all the other goodies that other countries want from the UK.

If we do leave the customs union and the single market we are free to negotiate our own deals. But that is going to be a complex, difficult and long-winded process. Then there are all the countries who already have trade deals with the EU (like South Korea and Norway). Sorting out our new trading relationships with those countries could also get tricky.

If the UK is able to enter into new trade agreements going forward, with the EU and countries outside it, how could we ensure that these agreements uphold – rather than suppress – human rights? And how can we ensure that democratic oversight is maintained over future environmental and labour policy?

Theresa May has promised us an economic system that works ‘for everyone’. The fears and concerns which drove Brexit are partly about a trading system that is part of bigger processes of globalisation which is widely viewed as not achieving that.

On the other hand, reading between the lines of Liam Fox’s speeches and his pure ‘free trade rhetoric’, UK trade policy may well be based around achieving market access and competitiveness for British transnational businesses overseas and for foreign transnationals to invest in the UK.

There are likely to be great tensions between commercial interests in opening up markets and broader social and environmental concerns. Big business always has a strong voice at the table. Broader social and environmental concerns often get left out. So we need to start thinking about those issues now, and come up with viable models for how trade agreements can work to protect a broader social and environmental agenda.

Often policy generation works too fast for academic research to be of value. But the long timescale before the UK’s trade policy gets sorted out makes it possible for us to do research and bring ideas to the table. So, I am involved in a project which brings together academics with trade unions, development organizations and other NGOs to think through some of these issues.

If Britain does get its own independent trade policy, we need to have the policy ideas to make sure UK trade agreements do ‘work for everyone’. For example, one idea is a worker-led complaints mechanism that would lead to suspension of trade preferences for companies found to have violated important labour rights of workers. We need to think carefully about these kind of ideas, and then bring them to trade debates that are otherwise likely to be dominated by narrow commercial interests.

Students, Solidarity and Sweatshops

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Throughout history, the student movement has been at the heart of progressive change.

In 1960, the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee was established in the United States, which operated as the student wing of the civil rights movement. Waves of sit-ins, disruption and occupations erupted across the country as students, black and white, fought segregation, institutionalised racism and the disenfranchisement of African Americans. When marches spread throughout the USA, buses packed with students joined them from campuses far and wide.

As Apartheid continued unabated in South Africa, students in Europe and elsewhere began to form solidarity networks, staging protests and demonstrations, ultimately fighting for institutions and individuals to cut their ties with Barclays bank, a major investor in the country. Students’ Unions refused to accept cheque or card payments from Barclays, as the campaign went on. As leading South African anti-Apartheid activist Desmond Tutu has described, the student movement ‘played a pioneering role in advocating equality in South Africa’.

History has recounted these two instances well. We are taught about them in schools, and they are widely known and understood in the public consciousness. But it is important to remember that these are not isolated cases, not unique moments where otherwise apathetic students woke up and decided to groggily shake off that hangover and take to the streets. Rather, the student movement has a long and proud history of standing up against injustice, acting in solidarity with those who suffer oppression and fighting for a better world.

Many of the revolutions against dictatorship in Eastern Europe from 1989, the fight to de-legitimise US military action in Vietnam in the 1960s and 70s, the protests of Tienanmen Square, the Arab Spring, the anti-globalisation movement – the list goes on. In each of these critical moments of social progress, of political change, the student movement, particularly when allied with the labour movement, played a crucial role.

Today is no different. Across the UK, student feminists are redefining how we conceive of gender and oppression, anti-racist activists on campuses are restructuring our understanding of colonialism and climate campaigners are pushing for a clean energy future through the Fossil Free movement.

It is in this context of student struggle that People & Planet’s Sweatshop Free campaign is situated. For almost 10 years, students in the UK have been working with their counterparts in the US – United Students Against Sweatshops – to build a movement capable of taking on the powerful global forces that allow sweatshops and modern slavery to exist.

Initially focussed on the garment industry and now on electronics, Sweatshop Free is part of a movement of students, workers and citizens across the world who have come together to stamp out worker rights abuses, empower workers to defend, protect and extend their rights and hold the multinational companies who are complicit in the process to account.

Whether it be workers at Samsung in South Korea who have lost their lives due to exposure to toxic chemicals without adequate safety equipment, in a factory in the Philippines who were sacked the day after forming a Union, or in Foxconn factories in China who have committed suicide due to workplace rights violations, the conditions facing the people who make our computers and mobile phones are bleak.

Local legislation across electronics manufacturing countries offers little in the way of workplace protection for factory labourers. Factory bosses are free to enforce long hours without breaks, keep workers on highly casualised contracts, hold pay at levels well below a living wage, exploit migrants, enforce little to no health and safety standards, all while clamping down on attempts to organise unions which could begin to alleviate this. Workers pay the price for our electronics and the major IT brands – Apple, Dell, HP and others, as well as their suppliers, reap the profit.


Scenes from student actions against modern slavery across Britain and Ireland.

In spite of this, workers, their families, civil society organisations and trade unions are resisting and struggling for the rights of workers in sweatshops. Families of workers in Samsung factories who have died from chemical exposure are fighting for compensation in South Korea, and are starting to see results. Redundant Union workers in the Philippines are campaigning for their reinstatement and recognition of their Union against intimidation from C&F. Mexican Labour Rights organisation CEREAL is coordinating workshops on how workers can access their rights and on gender issues in the factories.

And students in the UK and Ireland are standing with them. On 7 October, students from Southampton to Trinity College Dublin and from East Anglia to Sheffield took part in a day of action coinciding with the International Trade Union Confederation’s World Day for Decent Work. They ran stalls, dropped banners and organised solidarity sweatshop shifts. Hundreds took action on Twitter, calling out companies like LG, Panasonic and Samsung for their violations of worker rights and pushing for their Universities to be part of the solution, rather than the problem.

Student activists have been working to push universities to use their significant purchasing power and influence to ensure basic human rights are guaranteed in their supply chains, and holding IT brands to account through public campaigning when abuses come to light. Since its launch, nine universities in the UK have joined Electronics Watch, an independent labour monitoring organisation which supports public sector bodies to identify the location of factories they are sourcing from, write human rights into their IT contracts and directly monitor working conditions through a worker-led process.

One in four computers in Europe are bought by the public sector and many of these are by major institutions like universities. By working to lobby the institutions they study at to use their purchasing power to advocate and fight for ethics in a global industry, students are able to utilise what leverage they have and offer solidarity to those on the front line of exploitation.

The student movement and the international labour movement are coalescing around the issue of sweatshops. United they are building the framework in which factory exploitation can become a thing of the past, where union rights are respected and decent pay and conditions will become the norm rather than an aberration.

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