Three ways trade unions are making cities and local communities more equitable and inclusive

06 June 2017

In their position on Habitat III and subsequent submissions to UN Habitat on the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda (NUA), trade unions elaborated and advocated a set of practicable policy recommendations that continues to be a reference towards making urban and local economies sustainable and inclusive for all and generating decent work in cities and local communities. These commitments are contained in the final text of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) adopted on 23 December 2016 by the UN Council, which is now to be honoured by UN member states.

In their position on Habitat III and subsequent submissions to UN Habitat on the Zero Draft of the New Urban Agenda (NUA), trade unions elaborated and advocated a set of practicable policy recommendations that continues to be a reference towards making urban and local economies sustainable and inclusive for all and generating decent work in cities and local communities. These commitments are contained in the final text of the New Urban Agenda (NUA) adopted on 23 December 2016 by the UN Council, which is now to be honoured by UN member states.

PSI prepared a trade union assessment of the text of the NUA that highlights which parts of the document can serve the rights, interests and values of workers and trade unions, and identifies its downsides and pitfalls. Making societies and economies equitable and inclusive has been the daily job of trade unions since they came into existence, and continues to be so.  Three  trade union initiatives stand out for their concrete nature, transformative power and immediate relevance and use to uphold the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and the NUA. 

1 . Negotiating local tripartite agreements with local authorities and employers for decent work generation and socio-economic inclusion

Local tripartite agreements are negotiated transformative policy frameworks that representatives of city and local governments, together with local trade unions and business representatives, draw up through social dialogue and collective bargaining. Each party puts its expertise and leverage to work on the local social and economic situation, takes its part of responsibility, and shares commitments to generate sustainable development. It does this by designing and implementing  agreed policies that create decent employment and pursue socio-economic goals in the local community. When such agreements are designed and managed in an inclusive, transparent manner and are rooted in a climate of trust among social partners, they represent powerful, empowering, participative tools that generate decent employment opportunities in cities, metropolitan areas and regions while promoting compliance with human, social and labour rights.

Local tripartite decent work agreements can include, among others:

  • active labour market policies for decent employment generation, including positive action for gender equality, youth and ageing workers, and diversity targets
  • mechanisms to promote legal, regulated employment relations complying with labour rights to facilitate the transition of informal workers into to the formal economy [1];
  • city or metropolitan living wages benchmarks; positive listing and incentives to employers paying living wages[2]
  • provisions for the creation of decent green jobs, jointly with just transition plans for those employed in carbon-intensive operations, within the commitment to local climate action consistent with the 2015 Paris Agreement on Climate Change;
  • training, upskilling and employability actions to realize climate change and disaster anticipation and mitigation measures, just digital and circular economies transitions, and to build viable paths between education and vocational training and local decent employment opportunities; as well as inter-generational knowledge transfers between elderly workers and entrants in the local labour market;
  • specific measures to acknowledge the role of small and medium enterprises (SMEs) in local employment creation and appropriate policies to enable them to generate quality employment;
  • social cohesion measures to support the integration of migrants and refugees within the local economy and communities.

Local sustainable development and decent work pacts are already a reality in many parts of the world. PSI Colombian affiliate the National Union of Government Workers (Sindicato Nacional de Trabajadores Estatales (SINTRAESTATALES) recently negotiated a Municipal Agreement for decent work creation with the municipality of the City of Bello (Antioquia Department) to introduce public policies on decent work, not only in local government but also in the municipality’s entire private sector. The agreement binds social partners to set up joint initiatives to generate quality employment, to formalise work and to promote inclusive economic development in the local community. The Sindicato Único de Trabajadores del Gobierno de la Ciudad de México (SUTGCDMX), another PSI affiliate, took part in the constitutional process that led to the promulgation of the first Constitution of Mexico City in February 2017, where it enshrined enhanced maternity leave facilities, minimum wage provisions above the federal state’s, and a guarantee that essential public services such as water belong to the citizens and cannot be privatized.  

The Australian Services Union (ASU) just negotiated the Latrobe Valley Worker Transfer Scheme Partnership Agreement with the State of Victoria and local energy employers ENGIE, Yallourn and AGL. It is a landmark just transition tripartite agreement that secures the livelihoods of over 1,500 workers and their families impacted by the closure of the Hazelwood coal generation, a major local community employer since the 1960s. In 2015, the Italian Emilia Romagna Region signed a regional agreement with all social parties (local institutions, unions and employer representatives from all sectors, local universities and public education institutes) to relaunch inclusive economic development, invest in public mobility, digital and education infrastructures; provide social, affordable housing provisions and credit facilities for disadvantaged families; and facilitate enterprise creation and school to work transition.

2. Promoting the inclusion of labour and environmental clauses in local and national public procurement policies and practices

The implementation of the NUA is mainly about building infrastructure and housing, delivering essential urban services to local communities, ranging from bridges and motorways to hospital meals, from public administration computers and stationery to public water, electricity and waste services workers’ uniforms. However, little is said in the document about how local public authorities can make a difference and support sustainable development objectives and urban inclusion using social and environmental requirements in public purchasing and contracting agreements and practices.

The lowest price criteria in public procurement is not always the best value for local authorities and communities. Leveraging the purchasing power of public money is a powerful and ethical way to stimulate quality employment generation, including for the long term-unemployed, informal workers or for minorities and people with disabilities. These provisions are critical to ensure that contracted builders and suppliers, who are paid with taxpayers’ money, also respect human and labour rights and the environment[3].  Local governments have a responsibility and a major opportunity to demand the companies they contract to exercise responsible labour, social and environmental standards with all workers on their building sites or involved in their product or service supply chains in line with ILO Convention 94 on “Labour Clauses in Public Contracts”.

The direct involvement of trade unions in the design and implementation of local authorities’ public procurement rules is essential to ensure such rules are effective and complied with. Responsible public procurement practices protect not only workers, but also the local community from harm linked– for instance – to poor, unsafe building and infrastructures and supplies, while promoting decent employment that benefits the local community and economy. Setting social-economic inclusion and local sustainable development as strategic objectives in public procurement regulation at all levels of legislation (local, regional and national) is critical.

Public contract specifications that serve responsible public procurement and are critical to uphold the SDGs and NUA transformative commitments include:

  • social, labour, environmental and ethical criteria in the specifications and award criteria of public contracts (not only price)
  • provisions for ensuring formal employment, employment protection, decent working conditions, health and safety standards, skills, equal treatment and non-discrimination, trade union recognition and collective bargaining requirements for workers directly or indirectly involved in the product or service delivery, as well as the respect of laws and applicable collective labour agreements in force
  • rules on subcontracting, including a chain of liability based on the master public contract down the whole subcontracting process
  • positive action measures to promote employment and training opportunities for the long-term unemployed, disabled persons, minorities, the young and women, among others
  • the option for local government to give priority to local community providers over foreign ones in public procurement adjudication to prioritize the investment of public resources into the local economy and labour market, waiving compliance with to the trade agreements such as the Trade in Investment and Services Agreement (TiSA) that tie local authorities’ hands when they wish to regulate or pursue local policies with social, health or environmental purposes
  • the systematic involvement of trade unions and civil society representatives in the implementation and monitoring process of the public procurement provisions
  • transparency measures, with the details of public contracts and adjudication processes made publicly accessible to allow for scrutiny and proper evaluation
  • the treatment of non-compliance with social, environmental and ethical public procurement obligations as grounds for exclusion breach from a public contract
  • an integrated approach to corruption covering all actors involved in the adjudication and implementation of public procurement contracts, including adequate, effective measures for proportional and dissuasive sanctions and the protection of whistle-blowers, their families and communities from harm and retaliation.

In the United Kingdom, due to austerity policies, home care services traditionally provided by money-stripped local councils have been largely outsourced to private providers. As a result, the working conditions of home care workers – an overwhelming majority of them women – have significantly worsened, with low-paid, part-time work with no meaningful training and travel time not counted as working time becoming the rule. PSI affiliate UNISON launched a national campaign for local authorities to sign up to UNISON’s Ethical Care Charter, and become Ethical Care Councils ensuring that their private home care service contractors abide by a minimum floor of decent labour conditions for their workers, including the payment of a living wage, no use of zero-hour contracts, proper health and safety standards, sick leave coverage and adequate training. This implies the commitment by local authorities to include the Charter as an integral part of their public contracts with private providers. UNISON publishes the list of adhering councils on its website. In the Netherlands, PSI affiliate FNV has campaigned for years to stop the race to the bottom in home care service and ensure that municipalities’ procurement contracts for outsourced home care workers guarantee decent working conditions. As a result of the FNV campaign, in February 2017 the Dutch Government passed a national act that mandates local councils to apply fair and equitable rates for home care workers with their private providers.

In Denmark, 62 Danish cities including Copenhagen have adopted social and labour specification in municipal building contracts in cooperation with the building workers’ trade unions. The results are tangible: the municipality gets better value for money, while building workers have formal contracts and social protection, and get training and skills to provide quality building and infrastructures, and work under conditions that are safe for all. This greatly benefits workers’ families and the local economy by fostering urban socio-economic inclusion. It also benefits business, as the contractors who play by the rules and implement labour clauses get more work and a good reputation, whereas those who compete unfairly by lowering costs and squeezing workers get a compelling reason to change their practices or are driven out of the market. When municipalities embrace this system, they benefit from the permanent, effective on-site monitoring and compliance system that is provided by trade unions, whose representative on building sites can assess, inform and rectify contractor’s breaches in the municipality’s interest.

3. Reclaiming public ownership and universal access to essential local and urban services

Accessible, affordable quality public services are the cornerstone of inclusive, sustainable cities. Universal access to water, energy, health care, transportation, waste management, social services, education, public spaces, social housing and other essential public services significantly reduces inequality among urban populations and is a prerequisite for the respect of human rights, including gender equality. Making cities inclusive and fair without public services is just mission impossible. 

When public-private-partnerships (PPPs) enter the provision of essential public services, prioritizing profit and dividend maximization, the social and environmental sustainability objectives that public institutions have a duty and a mandate to pursue are distorted and are no longer achievable. Essential local service jobs are externalised, headcount is reduced, pay and conditions are lowered and workload increases to squeeze resources out of the service into private profits: this systematic destruction of decent local community jobs is at odds with the SDGs and NUA’s commitments.  

After 20 years of evidence of failure of public-private partnerships (PPPs) to deliver essential services[4], cities and communities worldwide are increasingly bringing essential services back in-house through remunicipalization[5]. Public options also include inter-municipal cooperation and public-public partnerships, which are more socially inclusive and accountable, place service delivery control and know-how back into the hands of local authorities, and are economically sustainable in the long run, due to unbeatable public sector financing interest rates much lower than any private investor can raise on the market[6]. When essential services are public, profits are also reinvested in the public service to improve it or cut user costs rather than to extract profit and pay shareholders. This goes to the advantage of local communities and fosters urban socio-economic inclusion.

Trade unions play a critical role in this process.

One of the largest water privatisations in Buenos Aires ran from 1993 to 2006 and was abruptly ended when the national government cancelled the contract with Aguas Argentinas, a subsidiary of Suez.  The trade union SGBATOS was asked to help the government establish and run the new public utility, Agua y Saneamentos Argentinos (AySA) for a transition period.  Since that time, AySA has significantly expanded access and its service area in the Greater Buenos Aires region, including through worker cooperatives in poor and rural areas.  The union runs the technical training school, and has helped improve plant safety and hygiene.  The union sits on the management board of the utility.  AySA has a 20-year strategic plan for investments and improvements, and is helping other utilities in Argentina through public-public partnerships. 

After 30 years of privatized waste collection in the town of Conception Bay South, Canada, service quality to the local community had remarkably deteriorated, working conditions were poor and local council costs were rising. In 2011 the CUPE local 3034, representing local municipal waste service workers, managed to convince local authorities to present a motion to the town council to remunicipalize the service. The motion passed. Now in 2017, in a recent survey of town residents, garbage collection topped a list of what residents liked about their community, with nearly 82 per cent of people putting the service in first position. The average yearly council savings since bringing services back in house is at about 230,000 CAD a year to total $1.15 million CAD over five years.  At the end of a successful five-year in-house trial period, the service is staying public. The town-run service has been able to expand to include curbside recycling pickup.  

Norwegian PSI affiliated union Fagforbundet was key in the decision by the Oslo City Council to reseize control of care homes previously run by the Norlandia company as of 1 January 2017. Since the contract was outsourced to the private sector, workers' pay had fallen well behind comparable rates in the public. The union informed the Oslo Council of the deterioration of pay and employment conditions that home care workers faced. The remunicipalization meant that home care workers saw pay rises of 40000-50000 NOK per year, while profits will be reinvested in the municipal service and the local authority will have direct control over service delivery and quality.

The implementation of the SDGs and of the NUA must draw on these lessons and rely on public financing and management as viable alternatives to the PPP mantra for much-needed urban essential services.

Trade union-led initiatives like the ones described above are occurring in many parts of the world and can be stepped up to embrace the SDG and NUA commitments, as long as unions and workers have full access to their fundamental rights of freedom of association and collective bargaining and are included in the governance system and decision-making on par with local and regional authorities and the private sector. The UN, UN Habitat, member states as well as local and national authorities have a critical responsibility to guarantee the enabling environment in which trade unions can fully operate and unleash their potential power to spot, denounce and redress human and labour rights violations, beat inequality through collective bargaining, defend and reclaim public services for the people, and make cities and local economic development equitable and inclusive for all.




[1] In most developing countries, a majority of slum dwellers are casual workers and not informal entrepreneurs, who are forced to live in substandard conditions due to the proximity of their jobs. A 2006 World Bank study documented in Nairobi, Kenya, that 49% of adult slum dwellers were casual workers, while only 19% were engaged in microenterprises http://documents.worldbank.org/curated/en/2006/05/7066075/kenya-inside-informality-poverty-jobs-housing-servicesnairobis-slums

[2]In the United States over 130 cities have introduced ‘living wage’ ordinances as a way of ensuring that individual workers are provided with enough income to stay out of poverty. This concept is being explored in several countries including Canada (Waterloo, Ontario) and the United Kingdom (London). During a period where the private sector has continued to use low pay and zero hour contracts as a way of keeping labour costs down, the recognition that a ‘living wage’ can help to reduce poverty is becoming more widely accepted”. Lethbridge, J., “Overview of Global Megatrends affecting Local and Regional Government”, PSIRU 2016., p. 11.

[4] Wainwright, H., “The tragedy of the private, the potential of the public”, PSIRU, March 2014; Hall, D., “Why PPPs don’t work. The many advantages of the public alternative”, PSIRU, February 2015;; Jomo KS, Anis Chowdhury, Krishnan Sharma, Daniel Platz, “Public-Private Partnerships and the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development: Fit for purpose?”, DESA Working Paper No. 148, February 2016,; María José Romero, Mathieu Vervynckt, “PPPs lead to dangerous debts for developing countries — it's time for the World Bank to act”, 27 February 2017

[5] Kishimoto, S.; Petitjean O., Lobina E.;Here to stay. Water remunicipalization as a global trend”, TNI, Multinationals Observtory, PSIRU, November 2014,; Keith Reynolds, Gaëtan Royer and Charley Beresford, “Back in house. Why local governments are bringing services home”, Columbia Institute, Centre for Civic Governance, February 2016,

[6] Lethbridge, J., “Overview of the megatrends affecting local and regional governments”, PSIRU, August 2016, p.13

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