Trade unions at World Urban Forum 9: “cities will not be inclusive until workers and labour rights are fully taken on board”

16 February 2018
On 11 February 2018, PSI together with BWI, Action Aid, WIEGO and the UCLG - brought the voices of trade unions, informal workers and local and regional governments in a roundtable at UN Habitat’s World Urban Forum 9, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The ILO offered concluding remarks.

Trade unions must be recognized as equal partners in shaping global urban policies guidelines, together with local authorities and business 

Highlighting the decent work creation opportunities offered by tripartite social dialogue and collective bargaining at a local level and the lingering poor working and living conditions of many city workers in a context of urban inequality and gentrification, trade unions demanded an open recognition of freedom of association and collective bargaining in UN Habitat urban policy guidelines and frameworks for sustainable urbanization. They also reclaimed their role in the governance and bodies overseeing the implementation and monitoring of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) at the same level of local governments and business.  

The 10 policy recommendations for fair and inclusive cities trade unions elaborated for Habitat III remain the cornerstones of our approach to inclusive urban policies. They are levers with the power to turn cities from hells of urban segregation, rampant inequality and social unrest into hubs of opportunity and socio-economic inclusion for all, fuelling vibrant local socio-economic development. They continue to represent our roadmap for action and goals for urban policies. If UN Habitat and member States are serious about delivering the NUA’s promises of social inclusion they should fully take them on board,” said PSI Local and Regional Government Officer Daria Cibrario.  

Taking stock of trade union initiatives advancing the implementation of the NUA in terms of decent work creation, local tripartite social dialogue and right to housing, the panel highlighted good practices from PSI affiliates in Colombia, Mexico, Norway and Switzerland that can be promoted and encouraged elsewhere 

The privatization of vital public services hurts the most vulnerable city dwellers  

Talking about the challenges posed by securing accessible and effective health care systems for all in Asia-Pacific in a context of rapid urbanization, PSI’s representative Nor Hayati Abdul Rashid, President of the Malayan Nurses Union, said: “Rapid urbanization fuelled by both internal and international migration has increased the demand for public health care services. The trend we see is that governments believe that the answer to the growing demand is health service privatization and commercialization.”

We don’t this that is the way to go. Instead of investing public resources in private hospitals, governments must take the responsibility to ensure accessible and affordable health services to all city dwellers. And quality public health service goes hand-in-hand with the right to self-organization and collective bargain of all health care workers, be it in private or in the public sector,” she added.   

Unions continue to expose and denounce the real human and economic cost of essential public service privatization/PPPs/outsourcing, once more exemplified by the recent collapse of UK government contractor Carillion - overwhelmingly borne by working people, service users, tax payers and the government fuelling urban poverty and social exclusion. Unions also play pivotal roles in civil society coalitions that brought back many of the over 800 public services into public hands in more than 1600 cities, offering alternative models of participative, democratic public service management and delivery. 

A majority of city workers cannot afford or access the services, housing and goods they provide to others  

Looking at the state of workers’ rights and living conditions in cities worldwide two years after the adoption of the NUA, the panel concurred that many city workers such local government and building workers - not to mention the overwhelming numbers of informal economy workers continue to be unable to afford decent housing and essential public services when these are privatized and involve user fees. Low- and mid-income households continue to be pushed to the edge of cities, in socially segregated areas, or informal settlements and slums. This is a cause of profound poverty and inequality replication in cities and local communities and detracting from the NUA’s goals.  

BWI’s affiliate representative, Phyo Sandar Soe, a Senior Organizer of the Myanmar BWWF trade union, showed dramatic evidence of the miserable working and living conditions and OSH challenges of many Burmese migrant workers employed in the building sector in Myanmar and neighboring countries. These workers cannot afford the housing they build even when this is for low-income households, and they live in sheds with no access to services, suffering extremely painful living standards and unacceptable occupational health conditions. This situation would dramatically improve if unions were recognized and their right to collective bargaining upheld by employers and authorities involved with the building projects. The regular inclusion of labour and social clauses into building and infrastructure contracts would be an incredibly effective way to ensure that workers are not abused or exploited while ensuring that buildings and infrastructures are safe for city inhabitants and communities. 

Informal workers must be recognized as workers and enabled to access health care and social security  

Poonsap Tulaphan, representing HomeNet Thailand, an informal workers’ organization member of WIEGO described the daunting challenges faced by Thai informal workers in accessing even basic health care and social protection such as paid maternity leave. The lack of recognition of informal workers as workers in Thailand is one of the major obstacles to overcome, a challenge where there is an opportunity for trade unions and informal workers’ organizations to join forces towards recognition and demands access to essential services and rights for all. 


Women and girls need gender-responsive urban public services 

Public access to potable water, proper sanitation, safe public transport, municipal police and affordable housing are critical to preserve the bodily integrity of women and girls and to protect them from harm, violence and harassment.  

Radha Kumar, a young woman activist representing Action Aid India and Shaheen (a women’s rights organisation based in Hyderabad, India) highlighted the demands of young women living in informal settlements across India and shared her first-hand experience of mobilizing her local community to demand proper water and sanitation facilities for all. She also pointed out at the differential treatment of sanitation workers employed by the municipality compared to the outsourced ones. 

Quality, accessible gender-responsive public services primarily benefit the most vulnerable city dwellers, notably women and girls, reducing time spent on domestic care work (e.g. water fetching, child and elderly care, family health care) and empowering them to fully access educational opportunities and the labour market on an equal basis with men.

Financing for local government and essential services and fair pay key for socio-economic inclusion

UCLG’s Edgardo Bilsky commented on the challenge of local and regional authorities’ financing for basic public services, often due to inadequate inter-governmental transfers, constrained tax subsidiarity or lack of staff. 

Unions called on UN Habitat to halt the promotion of PPPs, private sector financing, city benchmarking, and philanthropy as the only options to address the financing of much needed urban public services. They called instead to include public ownership, public banks, and in-house government management of essential urban public services (such as remunicipalization, public financing, public-public partnerships and intermunicipal cooperation) in the set of options that states and local governments can chose from to sustainably deliver quality public services to their cities and local communities and showcased good practices (e.g. Eau de Paris, winner of the 2017 UN Public Service Award).

They additionally pointed out that tax justice for local government and communities remains the big elephant in the room for the NUA, calling on UN Habitat and member States to be open about it and to raise the matter that multinational companies and big wealth should pay their right share of tax for the use of local communities services, labour and resources. Central governments have a duty to chase the mobile tax base that multinationals and business hide away from the tax office and adequately fund local government mandates – including those for the implementation of the NUA – via tax decentralization, local government empowerment, intergovernmental transfers and by ensuring local government has a voice at the table of agreements with new investors involving their territories

ILO’s Edmundo Werna closed the panel by reminding that “if city workers cannot afford to pay for decent housing and access basic services in the cities where they work, it is high time the question of fair worker pay is raised. All workers deserve to a living wage that enables them to live with dignity”.


Trade unions were in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016, when governments adopted the New Urban Agenda, where they obtained commitment to decent work and to a progressive transition of informal workers into the formal economy. However, the 10 critical policy recommendations unions had identified to achieve the SDGs in cities and the NUA remain mostly unaddressed.

World Urban Forum 9 is the first event taking stick of the state of the implementation of the New Urban Agenda approved in Quito, Ecuador, in October 2016, and the first organized after the appointment of the new UN Habitat Executive Director Maimunah Mohd Sharif, succeeding Joan Clos. PSI and BWI continue to lead the labour and trade union advocacy in UN Habitat and urban policy forums on behalf of the Council of Global Unions.


Speech of PSI’s representative Nor Hayati Abdul Rashid, President of the Malayan Nurses Union

PSI Contributions to the implementation of the New Urban Agenda

Trade Union’s Ten key points for Fair Cities and an inclusive New Urban Agenda

Also see