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  Issue No 83 Official Organ of LaborNet 09 February 2001  

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Interview

Dispatch from Davos

Interview with Peter Lewis

ACTU President Shahran Burrow reports back on the trade union movement's presence at last week's meeting of the heavyweights of global capital.

 
 

What was the head of the Australian union movement doing talking to the richest businessman in the world the other week?

The Labor Delegation went to Davos with a clear agenda. One was to present our views about globalisation, and to pose the challenge that companies who were considering signing up to Kofi Anan's global compact had to be serious about the issues of human and trade union rights, or they would be monitored, and indeed exposed by the labour movement in partnership with NGOs around the world.

The other perspective we painted for business and heads of government was that the protest movement is not in fact a backlash. It is a new internationalism, where people - both workers and civil society are saying we no longer will accept being marginalised by a global dominance of the corporate dollar. We actually want to see societies where people's rights are protected.

Beyond that we were shocked by the level of security and the oppressive nature of the Swiss military in regard to democratic protests. There was a combined set of protests from the NGO groups, including quite a large number of NGO groups led by Amnesty International and the labour movement. We indicated to the managing director that there had to be a turnaround in treatment of people, and respect for democratic protest or Davos would find itself out of business.

But while we were there, we took the opportunity to set up a number of alternate briefings which were very constructive, with the exception of the meeting with Mike Moore from the WTO.

We had a meeting with Kofi Anan about the global compact and the unions' willingness to endorse the global compact but our concerns that it be genuine and that the commitment from companies and communities be big commitments to human and union rights, as well as of course to environmental standards.

On the global compact - does that actually include the core labour standards?

Yes it does. The global compact has nine principles. On the human rights side it requires that businesses support and respect the protection of international human rights, and make sure that they are not complicit in human rights abuses. In regard to labour standards it requires businesses to uphold the freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargain. This is a right, I might add, that the courts of Australia aren't prepared to uphold in terms of our current legislation. It also requires the elimination of all forms of forced and compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; and the elimination of discrimination in respect to the employment and occupation.

And then there are three areas in regard to the environment where businesses support a precautionary approach to environmental challenges; undertake initiatives to promote greater environmental responsibility; and encourage the development and diffusion of environmentally friendly technology.

So, it is a comprehensive set of principles. The challenge for us is to ensure that companies that sign up to that agreement - and indeed there are communities who are interested in signing up - are respectful of those principles and move to implement a global standard. We discussed that at length with Kofi Anan. We discussed both our support for the global compact and indeed, our role - which would be part of the monitoring role and/or partnership with companies where they were genuine in terms of those principles.

With Mary Robinson we talked extensively about workplace discrimination in regard to racism, and in the prelude to the lead up - or in the lead up I suppose to the UN Conference in Durban in September of this year. And the role of labour again was welcomed by Mary Robinson. She is very keen to see a focus on two issues: Indigenous, and particularly indigenous employment from our perspective, and the whole issue of racism and workplace discrimination.

We also met with Fischer from the IMF and Woolfensen from the World Bank. We have been running a campaign now for a number of years to have formal labour consultation structures - a little like the TUAC structures that are a permanent advisory group to the OECD. The response from both Fischer and Wolfensen was positive - very positive from the World Bank I have to say. They have agreed to consultation processes and now the deal is to work them out so that when the ICFTU meets with the World Bank in May they can be agreed to in terms of implementation. With the IMF there will be discussions around proposals at the scheduled May meetings with the ICFTU.

And finally, the other significant one for us was in terms of our campaign around fair trade - was the meeting with Mike Moore from the WTO. And it was appalling I have to say. There was no real sense of leadership from the WTO, or indeed a number of countries around the question of labour standards and trade agreements. There is a slightly alternate picture to that from some of the European nations, from the South African Trade Minister, and some others - and of course, it is still being played out in the US. But you would have to say that our campaign for fair trade and a new set of global rules has to remain fundamental in terms of a determined approach from labour. That is made even more significant now because of the move by the Howard Government to bilateral arrangements with Singapore and talk of bilateral trade agreements with the US, and perhaps Chile.

Now, we have made it quite clear to the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade that core labour standards, as well as of course human rights and environmental standards, but from our core business, core labour standards must absolutely be part of any suggested trade agreement and if not, we will be campaigning against it.

What about the business leaders at Davos - what was their response to the things that you and your colleagues had to say?

I think that business is now divided. The big theme of Davos this year was "Divide". There was the poverty divide if you like - the widening gap between the haves and the have nots. The technology divide. And I would add a third one - and that is the divide between business. There are some businesses who are keen to hear what the unions have to say, and I suspect there are others who tolerate our presence but don't really have any commitment to any sort of social responsibility beyond their quest for profits.

At the same time, there has been some criticism of the unions for actually being in Davos in the first place and actually going and supping with the devil. How do you justify going in there in the first place?

That's a difficult issue isn't it. Our business as unions is to negotiate pay and conditions for our members. To actually make their lives better in the context of safe working environments where they get a fair share of the company's profits through wages and conditions agreements.

As the multinational companies are increasingly global and increasingly their head offices are offshore and our members are again subject to their industrial relations policies, then the unions are going global. They are negotiating global frameworks. And on the one hand, if that is a place that we can engage with those businesses in the interests of our members, then that is a reasonable thing to do. On the other hand, there is no question that we need to continue the protest against a corporate world where the aspirations of corporate capital are quite different to the aspirations of labour.

So, we have employed an approach to the - if you like a dual strategy - of being part of the protest and being part of discussions that we would hope - in many cases arguments that we would hope - but nevertheless progress the future for working families.

I think it is a complex issue. We made it clear - the NGOs and labour made it clear to the Managing Director and the Swiss authorities, that if there wasn't a rethink about the rights of democratic protests, we would consider the question of our participation. But I can't pretend that, in terms of at least the impact that the labour leaders had, that the world hearing from John Sweeney about the rights of people to construct a new internationalism about people like me around the question of unions acting globally and reinforcing our role in the interests of workers - and the other labour leaders - is not worthwhile, provided that that the context for peaceful protest is reasonable.

On the broad issue of globalisation, have you perceived any shift in the debate over the last twelve months?

I perceive that there is a growing concern amongst those businesses that I said were on one side of the debate. I think I used the Davos - the legitimacy of a Price Waterhouse Coopers millennium poll - and for your reference my speech is on the Net I think, but we can get it to you - but it showed that 92 per cent of Australians, but overall globally, more than 60 per cent of people said that companies had responsibilities to go beyond their core business of making profits, to be conscious of social and environmental issues.

Now, in that context there are smart operations who are saying, well, the global compact; labour standards; environmental standards; social protections; these things are clearly good for business. On the other hand, there are those die-hard companies who believe that they should have untrammelled rights to exploit people in the environments where they can.

So, I think there is a shift in terms of the debate. Certainly there were a number of debates at Davos on the agenda, about all of those questions, but I have to say that I think we have got a way to go. That the protest movements are as legitimate as we enter this decade as they were in the last, and that civil society and unions have a determined partnership to forge in the interests of a better world.

A lot of what the unions talk about is the institutional response to the issues of globalisation. What do you feel ordinary workers can actually do if they are concerned about the inequalities amongst who is winning and losing on the global stage?

Individuals can now have a direct impact. I mean, you have got increasing shareholder, consumer, customer, community alliances - that are saying to companies: We will use your products or we will accept your business if in fact it is about a sustainable future - if it's about social protection - if it respects labour and union rights.

The other area of course, is that - well, the strength I suppose of community action, is that if these companies are global, then they feel it right around the world, so the link between local action and global networks are now much more concrete, much more able to be delivered quickly, and I think much more effective - and we've got to up the ante on that basis.

Consumers now have unlimited power in my view. If we can use our commitment to collective action from the community level to the national and global levels, and build those networks of response around the world, then we can actually bring down those corporations that refuse to recognise the rights of people and their environments.

It can be a difficult issue though, can't it? I mean, we've got this new supermarket chain that has opened in Sydney called Aldi, which is having a non-union workforce, on individual contracts. The problem is, the prices are much lower than anywhere else. If you are a working person on a low wage, aren't they just going to go where the cheapest goods are? Are we asking them to pay more for some greater good?

I think what we are trying to say is that this company has to respect the rights of its workers and if our campaign is for the right to collectively bargain, then that is an issue that we need to test with the community in regard to our commitment. I mean, we would endorse low prices for working families. We know how they are struggling. But if their families who work in those supermarkets are not being treated with fundamental respect in terms of their rights to have a collective voice, then we will have to test our capacity to generate community concern - as we should.

That has always been the issue trade protection and tariffs. It is the question of whether the best way to look after our people is to have the lowest prices, or if there are other imperatives...

The lowest prices are only beneficial if we have got sustainable futures, and that means if people are treated with dignity. If their environments are protected, so that we actually know that there is going to be a dignity and respect for people in their communities for people into the future. Lower prices at any cost is not something anybody in Australia, I don't think, would endorse.

Finally, do you see this sort of push to actually think globally becoming much more a priority for the ACTU over the next year.

I think that for unions a global framework is critical. There are some unions of course, who still by and large might deal with local companies, but they are fewer and fewer in number, and whether it is the global impact on government thinking about public services, or whether it's the direct international policy around industrial relations and those other issues like the environment we care about, then our responsibility is to have both a local and a global voice. And so in that sense it is an imper


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In this issue
Features
*  Interview: Dispatch from Davos
ACTU President Shahran Burrow reports back on the trade union movement’s presence at last week’s meeting of the heavyweights of global capital.
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*  Unions: After the Gold Rush
Recent mass sackings at high-profile e-businesses are beginning to expose the flimsiness of the ‘jobs for all’ predictions made on behalf of the sector.
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*  Economics: The Other Davos
While the world’s business leaders met in Davos, a very different gathering was taking place in Porto Alegre, Brazil. Pat Ranald was there.
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*  Politics: While We Were Snoozing
As we lay in our banana chair through summer the political world kept turning with a new man in the White House. Here’s what we missed while we were off the air.
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*  History: Federation Day, 1901
One hundred years after Australia became a nation, Ralph Sawyer relives the original Federation Day through the eyes of Billy Hughes.
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*  International: Burma: The Struggle Continues
As the internatinal community moves to bring Burma to account, APHEDA - Union Aid Abroad is working on the ground.
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*  Review: Inside the Journopolis
In his new book, Rob Johnson brings the infamous Cash for Comment Affair to life.
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*  Satire: Families Demand Longer Work Hours
A new report confirms the long held suspicion that employees who reduce their workload to spend more time with their spouse and children just end up annoying their families even more.
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»  Action as Australia Considers WTO Ties
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Columns
»  The Soapbox
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»  Sport
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»  Trades Hall
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»  Tool Shed
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Letters to the editor
»  Cavalier Attitude to Cricketers
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»  Unions and the WEF: How should unions bridge the divide?
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»  Botsman's Ivory Tower
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»  Volunteering a Modest Proposal
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»  Well Done, Workers Online
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