State of the BRICS Class Struggle: ‘Social Dialogue’ Reform Frustrations

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BRICS Trade Union Forum advocacy

In contrast to the militancy now rising in Brazil-Russia-India-China-South Africa (BRICS), the BRICS Trade Union Forum (BTUF) annual efforts at influencing the bloc are mostly aimed at social dialogue: promoting state-capital-labour tripartism in areas of common concern with BRICS leaders and the BRICS Business Council.

But whether in Russia (2012), South Africa (2013), Brazil (2014), Russia (2015), India (2016) or China (2017), these efforts have not been successful. This is likely to continue, if labour links to civil and uncivil society continue to be ignored, and if workers are not brought into the process. Privileged leadership seems to prefer closed-door sessions, and does not bring the BTUF to its membership’s attention, much less bring workers’ concrete demands and struggles to the BRICS elites’ attention.

The BTUF will meet on July 27-28 on the sidelines of the BRICS labour ministers’ Durban meeting, not at the Johannesburg leaders’ summit a few days earlier. The BTUF acknowledges lack of agency: “The Government of the Republic of South Africa has determined the time and venues of events with the participation of trade unions under the South African presidency in BRICS.”

Over six years, the BTUF has made reform proposals in the fields of global trade, finance, investment, climate and geopolitics, all areas in which workers and the rest of the world had hoped BRICS leaders might provide a genuine alternative to Western imperialism. Instead, the BRICS amplify neoliberal and anti-Southern multilateral perspectives, as argued elsewhere.

These initiatives sometimes raise a rhetorical possibility of labour solidarity, as International Trade Union Congress President João Felício argued at a July 2015 Ufa BTUF plenary: “The BRICS have an opportunity to establish a de facto different political discussion on the direction of the economy, finance and the world of work… The new financial institutions of the BRICS cannot share the neoliberal rationale of the Troika, which puts the interests of big business above the rights of workers and the well-being of citizens in their countries.”

Multilateral deform

But that opportunity was lost within six months, when multilateral deform – i.e., strategies adopted by world elites against the interests of workers – occurred in world finance, trade and climate summits in Washington, Nairobi and Paris, and will probably not arise again. Indeed it is ever more likely with the role of Donald Trump, with economic conditions rapidly worsening, and with growing official hostility to trade unions in especially Brazil, India and South Africa, that the interests of big business will prevail even more in the years immediately ahead.

Felício remarked, “It is necessary to put solidarity before austerity, rights before profits, democracy before the market. If the BRICS succeed in becoming at least part of this process, it will create a political and economic frame of reference for other bodies, such as the G20, the International Monetary Fund or the World Bank and even national governments.”

In 2015, at its most expansive deliberation (at Ufa in Russia), the BTUF expressed ambitious expectations that BRICS leaders would address the world’s problems: “BRICS is an emerging structure of the new global management. Its flexible mandate allows the most dynamic economies of the world to consider a much broader range of issues than, for example, in the UN Security Council, and to find answers to many economic and environmental challenges. Decisions adopted by BRICS have a multiplier effect because the key States which have joined it are in a position to translate solutions from BRICS into deliberations of other leading international agencies. BRICS countries are brought closer together by their consistent joint efforts in favour of reforming the international monetary and financial system.”

The sad reality is that so-called ‘reforms’ actually strengthen and relegitimise the neoliberal forces in the world economy. When higher voting shares in the International Monetary Fund (IMF) were won in 2015 by China (37%), Brazil (23%), India (11%) and Russia (8%), this occurred at the expense of poor countries (e.g. Nigeria and Venezuela lost 41% each and nearly all other African and Latin American countries lost voting share – including even South Africa at -21%.)

With non-existent BRICS reforms, the IMF retains its structural adjustment orientation and the BRICS representatives voted to confirm Christine Lagarde as its managing director in 2015 and even in December 2016 the day that she was convicted of negligence in a Paris corruption trial for a $430 million tax avoidance gift to a French Conservative Party contributor.

In Nairobi at the 2015 World Trade Organisation summit, the BRICS were split when Brazil and India defected from long-standing positions in favour of food sovereignty, joining the negotiators from Washington and Brussels against the interests of the masses.

And at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change in 2015, the BRICS also endorsed the U.S. and European Union standpoints, rendering useless the Paris Climate Agreement: no binding agreement; inadequate emissions cuts; no climate debt; a return to carbon trading; no concern for military, air and shipping emissions.

Hence the main question today, especially after right-wing, anti-worker forces have ascended to power in so many countries, is whether the BRICS role in ‘new global management’ is any different than the old – and whether trade unionists have any influence, and hence an interest in legitimating the BRICS as a bloc.

To explore that question, consider the BTUF’s 2012-17 statements about its agenda, grouped into the categories of institutional development; participation and vision. (Elsewhere, in the book BRICS Politricks, we consider more content-oriented topics: trade reform and regulation of transnational corporate investment; multilateral financial reform and innovation; climate change and environmental protection; and geopolitics).

In each case below, the most explicit advocacy statements are provided (in quotation marks with date of statement in parenthesis) followed by a preliminary assessment of results.

Institutional development

The BTUF in 2012 “declared the setting-up of a BRICS Trade Union Forum” and has followed through each year with a meeting, discussions and a declaration. “Our representation in the BRICS Trade Union Forum will be broad, pluralistic, democratic and inclusive of working men and women of our nations” (2014). “We also aim at identifying common programs and activities that build on each other’s strengths and virtues, with research and policy cooperation as a key element of that effort” (2014).

Though representivity is obviously in dispute given the conflicts especially involving BTUF member federations from China, India and South Africa (in relation to other workers not members of those federations), the objective of establishing the BTUF has been largely achieved. However, the BTUF could obviously be much better empowered for participation in BRICS summits, could generate alliances with other actors, could bring masses of workers into the process, and could establish the basis for genuine solidarity (e.g. when workers and citizens fight the same BRICS firms), in order to avoid the perception of a talk-shop. The need for research and policy coordination appears to have only begun; given that with perhaps one exception (Rio-based Instituto Brasileiro de Analises Sociais e Economicas), BRICS think tanks are hostile to organised labour’s interests .


The BTUF has made a consistent request to the BRICS leaders to “include the issue of Social Dialogue and of cooperation with Trade Unions” (2012), including through “national and global tripartite dialogue structures” (2013). The BRICS leaders should recognise the BTUF “as an institutional space within the BRICS official structure. We express therefore our expectation to have the same treatment as the Business Council, having our conference as part of the official program” and “be represented in the various task teams” (2014). “The model of interaction in the social triangle trade unions/business community/government structure has long proved its effectiveness at the national level in each BRICS country, and must find its logical extension into BRICS institutions” (2015). “We consider formal recognition of BRICS Trade Union Forum on an equal basis with BRICS Business Council as one of our priority objectives” (2016). “We appeal to the BRICS countries to improve the BRICS cooperation mechanism, grant the BRICS Trade Union Forum a status on par with the BRICS Business Council…” (2017).

These annual attempts at reaching formal tripartite status have been rejected, although there are efforts by BRICS Labour and Employment Ministers to at least briefly discuss matters of participation with the BTUF, and a BRICS Working Group on Employment has been established. The problem lies not only in BRICS mechanisms, but in each country. For example, most Indian trade unions boycotted 2016 BTUF proceedings on grounds of differences with the Modi government, just a few weeks after the historic September strike which witnessed 180 million labourers refusing to work. The BTUF consistently fails to tap into such militancy on the ground, preferring polite ‘policy asks’ to any sign of protest at BRICS’ leadership events.

The BRICS countries with the strongest social dialogue structures and collaboration between ruling party and trade unions are Brazil and South Africa. The tough Brazilian trade union critique of Temer’s government – as a corruption-riddled constitutional coup regime – reflects breakdowns in the former tripartite arrangements, especially after the jailing of Lula on an apparent corruption frame-up in 2018. South Africa’s Nedlac has not functioned well in recent years, as noted above.

Further, the BTUF requested that BRICS trade unions should be represented on the BRICS bank’s highest decision-making body” (2013). This request was ignored in the Fortaleza construction of the BRICS NDB, which resulted in a small (10-person) management and directorship – all male – without any high-profile voices that represent the interests of poor and working-class people, or the environment.

One result, in South Africa, is that the first two BRICS NDB loan offers promote privatised electricity supply through the corrupt Eskom parastatal agency, and port expansion through the corrupt Transnet parastatal. The BTUF is silent on such malgovernance of finance, even though $2 billion has been contributed to the NDB from the fiscus in each of the BRICS member countries.


 The BTUF vision statements repeatedly stress the need to promote labour’s interests, albeit within the capitalist system. The most recent, from the China meetings in 2017, are illustrative: “Foster the concept of a community of shared future for mankind and deliver robust, sustainable, balanced and inclusive growth in the global economy” (2017); and “improve their labour policies, increase jobs, encourage innovation and entrepreneurship, raise financial input for vocational education and job training, establish an inclusive and efficient job training system, deepen cooperation with social partners, intensify efforts to provide employment and re-employment training for workers and enhance workers’ competency and adaptability” (2017).

The BRICS Trade Union Forum vision statements are all appropriate as minimal common desires for labour, but they lack the sense of a proper workers’ manifesto. The traditional goals of the working-class movement – socialisation of production and decommodification of the reproduction of labour power – are not mentioned much less elaborated.

BTUF statements never draw explicitly on the constitutions and policy documents of the member federations, several of which are explicitly socialist. One such labour manifesto stands out, the earliest one, from the International Working Men’s Association: The Communist Manifesto. Such traditions of labour solidarity are vital for turning working-class values into practical cross-border collaboration. But it would be a quite extraordinary leap of ideological maturity for the BTUF to mention this tradition, one still too far to contemplate.

The big question remains whether these values can be implemented by BRICS governments which are in all cases – rhetoric aside – quite explicitly hostile to the BTUF agenda. Several examples of this dilemma can be considered, such as trade and corporate investment, multilateral finance, climate change and geopolitics. In each case, as discussed elsewhere, the BTUF has returned empty handed, year after year.


Because of the BTUF’s consistent failures, international labour leader Felício concluded, “politicising the debate was the only way to combat the deepening of inequality, fight for better salaries, promote collective bargaining and reverse the downward trend in unionisation rates.”

Further politicisation is evidently necessary.Indeed, the potential for fighting back – for class struggle instead of class snuggle – is enormous.

The alternative approach to BRICS labour politics – based not on social dialogue but social power – entails, first, identifying as many other oppressed allies as possible (not simply gazing upwards in search of tripartite relationships which have proven so disappointing thus far). Making alliances with these social forces would expand the BTUF field of vision to more explicitly incorporate the interests of poor and working people, women, students and youth, environmentalists, the LGBTI community, and social movements across so many other issue areas.

(The BRICS counter-summits in Durban, Fortaleza, Goa and Xiamen had such ‘brics-from-below relationships emerging, in contrast to government-sponsored BRICS Academic Forum, Civil BRICS and Youth BRICS events which have been essentially uncritical, and forced to remain within each group’s ‘silo’ – disconnected from the others.)

The best example of brics-from-below dates back more than 15 years: the economic attack against Western pharmaceutical corporate patents by two governments – Brazil and India – subsequently aided by South African HIV+ activists in the TAC, Cosatu and their allies. By opening a state-supported generic industry and ignoring international property rights, the Indians and Brazilians assisted progressive South Africans who overthrew the denialist AIDS policy adopted by former president Thabo Mbeki.

The combination of decommodification and deglobalisation of capital, and the coalition between progressive governments and radical community activists was decisive, with an extraordinary result: a rise in life expectancy from 52 to 64 in South Africa alone. Can that same alignment be repeated, and can it serve as the basis for an entirely different approach to BRICS, fusing states and people in the public interest?

Regrettably, the BRICS have chosen the course of undergirding – not undermining – imperialist multilateral agencies (the Bretton Woods Institutions, WTO and UN climate process) whose role in commodifying all aspects of life and globalising capital is disastrous for poor and working people, within the BRICS as well as for Africa.

What that means for BRICS in the years ahead, it is fair to predict, is more top-down scrambling within Africa, and more bottom-up resistance. Where African governments emerge that have more patriotic instincts, there will be scope for campaigning on matters of economic justice: e.g. against mining and petroleum extraction, illicit (and licit) financial flows, and illegitimate debt.

With the profits of so many Western firms in Africa hitting new lows and their share value nearly wiped out (e.g. the 2011-15 cases of Lonmin, Anglo, BHP Billiton and Glencore, which each lost more than 85% of value), there are precedents for what BRICS firms now may find logical: yet more extreme metabolisms of extraction and more desperation gambits to keep BRICS-friendly regimes in power, at the expense of the reproductive needs of society and nature.

But resistance is already evident. For example, the BRICS People’s Forum counter-summit in Goa in October 2016 had strong labour inputs, as did the next year’s event, in September 2017 in Hong Kong. In Johannesburg, a brics-from-below Teach-In will occur in Johannesburg on 23-24 July followed by a protest march – ‘Break the BRICS’ – to the BRICS summit itself will be sponsored by the United-Front Johannesburg network, which was itself the product of the metalworkers’ break from Cosatu.

Further alliances of a horizontal nature are also obvious, not only with civil society – especially trade unions – and not only reaching out far into Africa where BRICS has had a destructive or constructive impact, but also with other trade unions across the world.

Also in the 2018 host city, Johannesburg, the week before the BRICS elites’ summit, the 800,000-member SA Federation of Trade Union – an explicitly socialist and anti-ANC network led by the metalworkers union (SA’s largest) – has called for a July 21-22 Workers’ Summit, at which the main grievances of the BRICS working class will again be aired – and the inability of the elites to solve these problems will again be obvious.

Patrick Bond is professor of sociology at the University of Johannesburg in South Africa. He can be reached at: