ACTRAV Symposium on the Challenge of Inequality:Time for Change-Introductory remarks by Maria Helena Andre, Director of ACTRAV

Statement | 10 December 2013
Dear colleagues

Welcome to our ACTRAV symposium. It is a great pleasure to meet you here in Geneva to discuss the challenge of inequality.

For the trade union movement, growing inequality is no longer part of the big news. Trade unions have been addressing this for many years and were well aware that if not addressed they would have terrible consequences. What seems to be changing, very slowly and not yet confirmed, is that those in the (neoliberal) mainstream, who have always refused to acknowledge the growing inequalities, seem to finally identify it as a growing problem.

Inequality was considered as a secondary policy concern. The consequences of the financial crisis in the real economy and in people and societies at large, are leading to a certain shift in positions. We now hear multilateral organizations such as the OECD, the IMF and the World Bank express concerns about the fact that growing inequalities are the toughest expression of a malfunctioning economic and social model.

This is not bringing us any comfort! Although inequalities seems to have become part of mainstream agenda, we should not expect that the solutions put forward by these institutions will differ substantially from those offered in the past.

So, it our responsibility to help define an alternative course. This is why we are meeting this week around this issue.

Inequality deprives people of fair opportunities and decent lives. It prevents societies from using their full potential for sustainable development and growth. It creates economic imbalances both at the national and international levels. Unequal societies fail to generate and maintain sufficient levels of final internal aggregate demand that are indispensable for sustainable and inclusive growth. As we will see later today, quality of life is directly linked to the levels of inequality in our societies.

Ultimately, inequality is a threat to social cohesion and social peace in any society. Outrage over profit maximization and greed by the elites, unfair distribution of resources and revenues, unfair burden sharing of sacrifices are at the basis of mass protests in many regions of the world. I don’t need to tell about these, many of you live them on a regular basis.

The labour movement has many achievements throughout its long history. One of the most significant is certainly its contribution to reducing inequalities. Throughout the 20th century, through the recruitment and organizing of an increasingly significant number of workers, the capacity to bargain collectively, the mobilisation for fairer and better working conditions, the fight for the establishment of protective social welfare and social protection systems, transformed trade unions in the key architects of industrial democracy, the welfare state and more democratic societies. Trade union actions contributed to the growth and development of what came to be known as the “middle-class”. Still to this day, the strength of the welfare state and the level of equality in our societies remain tightly bound with the success of trade union bargaining coverage.

The ILO itself was established to protect workers and to contribute to social justice and social peace across the globe. It was founded to set and promote rules for a minimum floor of fairness any society must have. International Labour Standards are not only intended to eradicate the worst forms of exploitation - like child labour or forced labour - but to regulate the entire labour market. It is worth remembering that ILO convention No. 1 established the 8 hour working day and that a living minimum wage, social security and adequate health care for all, as well as the right of workers to organise in trade unions, are enshrined in the ILO constitution.

More equal and inclusive societies are not a utopian dream. The European post war model was by no means perfect and the insufficient progress on areas such as non-discrimination are a proof of that But at the same time, it was a period of high economic growth rates, lower overall inequality, strong democratic institutions and respect and rights for workers and their collective organisations at the work place.

But the truth is that even during this “golden age of capitalism” social progress did not come along automatically. It had to be fought for every day and it was globally limited to a privileged minority, hardly a reality for workers and their families living in the developing world or under dictatorships. But there is no point for nostalgic dreams over the good old days. They will not return.

History teaches us that there are no inevitabilities about the fabric of our societies. The destruction of regulated capitalism in the industrialised countries was a deliberate policy attack on workers’ rights and conditions for the sake of profit maximization, moving from the real economy to the casino economy. But we have not reached the end of history and things do not have to stay as bad as they are.

Many countries in the Global South have industrialized rapidly. The majority of the industrial workforce of the world is no longer in the northern industrial societies.
But like in the North, in most emerging economies the gains of this economic transformation have not at all been equally shared. Yes, many people have been lifted out of extreme poverty in particular in Asia, but the distance between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have-nots’ has been growing tremendously. For democratic and inclusive societies, poverty alleviation is not enough. They need to be based on shared prosperity.

Although Latin America is still the most unequal region of the world there is an encouraging rise of trade union power and progressive governments during the last decade, leading to a reduction of poverty and inequality. There is still a lot to do, but their struggles and success are today an inspiration for workers far beyond their own countries. Asia has seen the fastest growth and is becoming the center of gravity for industrial production. At the same time, this is a region with extremely low trade union density, including a number of countries where workers are not allowed to organize and act collectively. Not surprisingly, inequality has been rising very fast in these countries. However, we see also growing membership rates and mobilising strength of trade unions in several countries in the region. Courageous workers are taking strike action even where governments deny them the fundamental right of freedom of association and the right to strike or where they are faced with fierce employers’ hostility.
The lack of workers’ right is also a bitter reality in most of the Arab regions. Migrant workers, in particular in the Gulf States, are forced to work under conditions that are far from any notion of decent work. The preparation for the Soccer championship in Qatar focuses the world’s attention on a 19th century-like exploitation regime in one of the richest countries of the world. The hope and the enthusiasm of the Arab spring have yet to translate into lasting change, but surely in a number of countries we see a rising potential for a reformed or new independent trade union movement. After many years of devastating structural adjustment programmes, Africa has seen growth in recent years. However it is often based on commodity extraction and the revenues are shared extremely uneven. Too little of the revenues is used to eradicate poverty and to invest in education, health, social security and other determinants of sustainable development.

Times are changing rapidly. The old dichotomy between industrialized world and developing world is a feature of the past. Today, industrial production and competition is global. Wages, working conditions, labour productivity, and production structures are still very different, but there is a trend towards greater convergence, often downwards and not upwards. This makes the need for international labour standards more urgent and closer to the aspirations and needs of our constituents.

For many years, it was argued that international labour standards are too low for the industrialized country and too high for the developing world. In today’s world, problems are becoming more common. Lack of income security, precarious and informal employment, the abuses by multinational companies, tax evasion, the need for a living minimum wage and universal social security are issues for all of us. Taking labour out of competition is a precondition for a fairer globalisation everywhere, and it cannot be done without international policy coordination. Or speaking with the words of the ILO constitution: “the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.”

Addressing the challenge of inequality requires a multilevel policy response. Without reining in financial markets and limiting the power of multinational companies, without putting quality employment at the center of macroeconomic policies, without social protection, without progressive taxation, without public investment and quality public services and without labour rights - in short without a coherent alternative social, economic and development model it will not be possible to achieve lasting and sustainable progress and change.

The purpose of this year’s symposium is to reflect on the roots of growing inequalities and on what can be done to overcome them. The background report is offered as a modest primer for the discussions, not as the final statement on the issue. It is our hope that the discussions will lead to an honest and frank exchange about the current state of affairs, and will allow us to challenge one another on old and new ways of bringing about changes.

Being at the ILO, we would like to use this week to particularly discuss the role of the trade union movement around the world in making these changes happen. We would like to find out how trade unions can use the ILO for effectively combating inequality, and what direction the ILO needs to take in order to tackle this big challenge ahead of us. That is also why we are glad to have the discussion with the Director General of the ILO not at the beginning, but at the end of our deliberations.

This Symposium is not about telling you what we think needs to be done, but about bringing together trade union leaders, ILO officials and outside experts in a common deliberation process. We hope and we are confident that our discussions will not be limited to complaints about how bad things are, but will focus on ideas how things can become better, how we can shape change

Colleagues, today while we are meeting here in Geneva, the people of South Africa and many world leaders gather for a memorial service in South Africa to honour the greatest leader of our time: Nelson Mandela. He has been a source of hope and admiration for all of us and I suggest inspiring our deliberations by his words: “Like slavery and Apartheid, poverty is not natural. It is man-made and it can be overcomed and eradicated by the actions of human beings.”

Let’s not shy on our capacity to act together!