The opening morning of the 3rd International Trade Union Confederation World Congress saw a passionate panel discussion on how to protect workers’ rights in an “age of insecurity, poverty wages, [and] unemployment”.
It followed a stirring opening speech from ITUC General Secretary Sharan Burrow who raised the helmet of a Turkish miner who died in Tuesday’s disaster in Soma.
Director-General of the International Labour Organisation, Guy Ryder, also addressed the packed auditorium at the Berlin City Cube, endorsing their plan to organise 20 million new union members in the next four years.
“You will meet the challenge of the 20 million,” said Mr Ryder. “And you must, because the echoes of history tell us everything about what is at stake”
Larry Elliott, economic correspondent for The Guardian, hosted the discussion in which a range of panelists were asked to address why the growing consensus that inequality is at unsustainable levels has not met with a stronger response from governments.
Referring to ongoing austerity measures, the International Trade Union Confederation’s chief economist, John Evans said: “The policy has not changed, the analysis has changed.”
Other panelists included Sony Kapoor from the think-tank Re-define, Bernadette Ségol of the European Trade Union Confederation, and Jayati Ghosh, professor of economics at Jawaharlal Nehru University.
Ms Ghosh said that instead of increasing government spending, and taxes on the wealthy, countries are allowing domestic credit bubbles in areas such as housing and consumer goods.
“We know these bubbles end in tears,” she said.
Ms Ghosh also championed the role of media, arguing that mainstream outlets were often beholden to corporate interests and that working people must form their own publications to present an opposing view.
Ms Ségol said it was important to show that austerity measures in Europe had failed, as the public debt of those targeted countries had not decreased.
It was unacceptable, she said, that some workers earned as little as 400 Euros a month, adding that successful economies were those where salaries are high and social dialogue remains strong.
Mr Kapoor urged action on two fronts. Firstly, tax havens:
“There is so much money lying there, that if we were only to address the money that has remained untouched for the past 20 or 30 years, […] bring some of it back, then the whole problem of public sector deficits which has been the driving cause of austerity […] would instantly disappear.”
The second issue was pension funds, with Mr Kapoor urging delegates to lobby members of the labor movement who sit as trustees on the board of pension funds.
“Agree to have a co-ordinated strategy to make those funds invest in infrastructure, invest and send money to SMEs, not put money in the S & P 500 index where corporations no longer need that money and use that money to make any investments.”
Mr Kapoor advocated taxing corporate profits that were not being invested, but said there was a perceived first-mover disadvantage, which he characterised instead as a “colossal failure” of common sense and political boldness. The likes of China, the US and Europe, were such significant markets, Mr Kapoor said, that they would not witness any capital flight if they took basic steps to reduce inequality for their citizens.
An interview with John Evans and Sony Kapoor is online here.
Read Sharan Burrow’s speech to congress here.