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Trine Lise Sundnes: Nordic workers’ voice at the ILO

Trine Lise Sundnes: Nordic workers’ voice at the ILO

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

The most important labour-regulating conventions were first introduced in Europe before being exported to countries elsewhere. Yet these same rights are now under threat from European countries looking for more ways to cut costs in the face of the economic crisis, says Trine Lise Sundnes, who represents Nordic workers on the ILO’s governing body.

The ILO is the UN agency for labour issues. The organisation is unique in that it is tripartite: Workers and employers make up one half of the governing body and governments make up the other.

“The Nordic region’s seat on the governing body enjoys a long tradition. We have had a representative nearly non-stop since 1919. I represent all the Nordic labour organisations, not only LO [the Norwegian Trade Union Confederation] where I come from.”

Trine Lise Sundnes is part of the Norwegian Trade Union Confederation’s leadership. One of her areas of responsibility is  the work environment. She has had a seat on the ILO governing body for three years and last year she signed up to a further three. 

Nordic spirit

“The ILO is very much an organisation with a Nordic spirit. Both sides of our working life is highly organised and we have comprehensive collective agreements. This is the ILO’s backbone. 

“We meet three times a year, but each meeting lasts for two to three weeks - so each year I live in Geneva, where ILO’s headquarters are, for two months. 

“I head the workers’ group on finance, programme and administration. I am also a member of a small committee known as the CFA, the Committee for Freedom of Association. It deals with the right to organise and to hold collective negotiations. 

“It’s a committee which allows you to get very close to individuals’ lives because we sometimes deal with persecuted trade union leaders who’ve received death threats or who are in prison. Or a union might be denied their right to industrial action. We deal with the kinds of things which really matter to people’s lives,” says Trine Lise Sundnes.

She climbed the career ladder quickly herself. Her CV states she worked as an au pair in Chicago, in a cafe at Oslo’s Aker Brygge and on the switchboard of building entrepreneur USBL before working for several years as administration secretary. She then became a full-time union representative. She has been on LO’s executive board since 2001.

The conventions represent the core of the organisations’ work, i.e. the rules which secure certain rights for workers in all of the ILO’s membership countries. The rules’ universal nature means countries at least to a certain extent are prevented from competing to have the worst possible conditions for workers.

Regulating domestic work

“The latest convention covering domestic work has been called the final nail in the coffin of slavery. It covers people working in other people’s homes where it is very hard to control terms and conditions. It has taken 20 years to finish this convention.”

It can be frustrating that things take so long, says Trine Lise Sundnes:

“But when we talk to the other UN agencies they still think things move quicker at the ILO, especially when it comes to implementing things. That’s because the three parties already talk together. When other UN agencies make changes they often face protests form the countries and other national groups.”

The most important question facing the ILO right now is how the member countries should handle the economic crisis. 

“The ILO goes the furthest in talking about employment, while others mostly talk about cuts. We are very clear on the fact that you cannot overcome the crisis through cuts alone. We need to balance the economy, welfare, growth and employment while keeping an eye on workers’ rights and making sure working environments don’t deteriorate. 

“A good balance between these factors will result in a well-functioning society.”

"Paying off debts with a credit card"

During her interview with the Nordic Labour Journal, Trine Lise Sundnes repeatedly returns to how important she thinks it is that the crisis is met with active measures and that it doesn’t turn into an excuse for making conditions worse for workers.

“When economists talk about the finance crisis it almost sounds like an ideology - deregulation has become the new mantra. In reality the opposite is often true, that well-regulated countries are also better at creating growth.

“Certain European countries try to rebalance their economy though cuts alone, but that won’t work. It’s like paying off debts with a credit card, where you end up paying even higher interest. Furthermore, the parties must be included. I asked the Greek labour minister why the parties had not been involved when  deciding on cuts.

“The answer was ‘we didn’t have time’. That attitude has cost them dearly.”

She uses Brazil and the USA as examples of just how different strategies can be. ILO’s contact with other UN agencies and other organisations like the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund is also important. 

One of the ILO’s great successes was the joint meeting between the ILO and the IMF in Oslo in September 2010. 

“It was crucial because it was a breakthrough for the ILO’s way of thinking. Through our Decent Work agenda we focus on four areas which must work well in order to create a sustainable society: The improvement of workers’ rights, the strengthening of the social safety net, the social dialogue and creating new jobs. The ILO has developed tools which work.” 

IMF stretched the furthest

The ILO did, however, acknowledge that a healthy economy needs a balanced budget.

“But the fact that the IMF in the joint strategy document acknowledged that Decent Work is the right track to be on was perhaps more startling to IMF’s economists than to those at the ILO. They stretched further than us.”

Among the participants at the Oslo meeting was ILO’s Director-General Juan  Somavía, the then head of the IMF Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the then French Minister for Finance Christine Lagarde, the previous Greek Prime Minister  George Papandreou and Liberia’s President Ellen Sirleaf Johnson.

Anyone looking for signs that 2011 was a turbulent year need only consider the fact that only Liberia’s President - awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in December last year - and Juan Somavía are still in their jobs. The Greek Prime Minister stepped down in November to clear the way for a coalition government. Strauss-Kahn was forced to resign in May over allegations of him sexually harassing an employee at the hotel where he stayed in New York.  Christine Lagarde replaced him.

“How has this affected the contact between the IMF and the ILO?"

“It is so firmly established now that it just keeps going. They meet regularly, every second time in New York or Geneva.

Yet the IMF was of course not entirely unaffected.

“When the news broke it would have been extraordinary if the organisation had not been paralysed for a short while. But there are no signals from the IMF that they wish to abandon the joint strategy document.”

There is still little that indicates the crisis is over. 

“We don’t look at it as a financial crisis but rather as an employment crisis. The ILO’s annual report shows there are now 900 million “Working Poor”, people living on less than two dollars a day. That is 55 million more than when the crisis began in 2008.

“The Decent Work agenda must also be looked at in the Nordic countries. In Norway, for instance, we have changed the makeup of our national ILO committee allowing more government ministries to be involved and not just the ministry of labour. It’s important to involve the ministry of trade, the ministry of finance and the foreign ministry in order to change the various policy areas in a coordinated way.”

Youth unemployment most important

“We focus closely on youth unemployment. You just have to look at the extremely high youth unemployment figures to understand that we risk loosing a whole generation. High unemployment also leads to social unrest, as there are always some groups willing to exploit the situation.” 

That’s why Trine Lise Sundnes finds it a little strange for the EU to call 2012 the year of Active Ageing. 

“In the governing body we have also debated whether employment in a demographic perspective should be a theme at the annual ILO conference. But we chose to let the matter lie and to focus on youth unemployment instead. This shows we are able to change faster than the EU.”

The Nordic region is unique

Her work at the ILO also reminds Trine Lise Sundnes of the fact that the Nordic countries are in a unique situation compared to large parts of the world.

“Take the work environment; in northern Norway we just had a situation where a cleaning firm wanted to improve their customer service. Many called to ask when the rubbish would be collected, so the company installed GPS transmitters on all their rubbish trucks. 

“But then the employer could see exactly where the drivers went, and discovered one of them had taken a longer break than the others. He was fired, even though he had done all his duties within the set time, and nobody had complained.”

According to Trine Lise Sundnes, this is an example of how trade unions need to be on top of technological developments.

“But the same technology is being used in many countries to trace and kill trade union leaders. When we met union representatives recently from Guinea in Africa they were forced to use untraceable mobile telephones, and they took them apart when they weren’t using them as a safety precaution.”

Trine Lise Sundnes

in her office at the top of Folkets Hus in Oslo. “I do play football, but the poster behind me is from a campaign against racism: ‘The only colour that counts is the one on the shirt’.”  


Born in 1970 and first secretary at the Norwegian Confederation of Trade Unions (LO). She was elected onto LO’s executive board in 2001. She came from a position as regional secretary of the LO union Handel og Kontor.

She is on the ILO’s governing body, as well as being responsible for working life, the IA agreement, working environment issues and the collective agreement for the service industry.

ILO facts

ILO report

The UN agency for labour issues, the International Labour Organization, was founded in 1919 as part of the Versailles Treaty after World War I. Its headquarters lie in Geneva, Switzerland.

Juan Somavía has been Director-General since 1998. He is Chilean and the first leader from a country in the southern hemisphere. He is currently serving his third five-year term, but at 71 he will retire in September 2012. 

Workers and employers have 14 representatives each on the ILO’s governing body, while governments have the same number - 28. Nordic employers are represented by Jørgen Rønnest from Denmark. Since June 2011 Denmark has also held one of the government seats on the governing body. The Nordic region therefore have three out of 56 representatives on the governing body.

ILO’s work is concentrated on four areas:

  • To fight the global employment crisis
  • To introduce a social safety net for all
  • To execute the UN Millennium Goals
  • To work for fair globalisation

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