Globalisation can be shaped to ensure that people matter and that all economies are strengthened says Sharan Burrow.

Good morning.


Let me begin by acknowledging the traditional owners of the land we stand on today, the Kulin nation, and thank them for their custodianship.


I value the opportunity to address you today. I am not of your community and I recognise that many of you may find fault with my critique. But I urge you to put aside your company or government hats for a few minutes and consider your broader responsibilities as some of the most powerful citizens in the world.


The 21st century can continue to serve up increasingly divided societies or we can take concerted decisions to ensure that economies serve communities. This means putting people at the heart of balanced social and economic futures.


Let me state up front that unions are committed to economic growth. We understand that this is the most effective means of overcoming poverty and unemployment. Likewise we understand the role of technology in driving both growth and structural adjustment.


The 20th century has been characterised by unprecedented progress in science and technology and giant improvements in living standards.


However, these areas of achievement have unfortunately, in global terms, left out far too many people.


With all the wealth in the world we still have;



  • 1.3 billion people living in extreme poverty.




  • More than 150 million children forced to work.




  • 125 million children who have never seen the inside of a classroom with many millions more who drop out before achieving basic education. There is now an incredible 880 million people who are illiterate.




  • And 7 million children die each year as a result of the third world debt crisis.



Unions are institutions that stand for fairness and justice. It is our mission to ensure a fair share for working people and their families. Yet even in this country, one of the richest nations in the world, we have increasing child poverty.


More than 800,000 Australian children live in poverty and of the 100,000 added to this list since 1995 a quarter of them are children of working families.


The emergence of a class of working poor in Australia is a shocking indictment of a corporate culture that denies working people a fair share.


To give you a sense of just how our egalitarian dreams have been shattered, 48% of gross weekly income in Australia is taken home by the wealthiest 20% of Australians while the poorest 20% take home just 3.8%.


You need to understand the growing sense of powerlessness and alienation felt by Australians who know the reality of bank, school and hospital closures in their communities. Who know of family or friends made redundant through downsizing or privatization. Who are part of the 60,000 manufacturing workers who have lost their jobs in the last two years. Who face increasing hours of unpaid overtime as companies reduce staff. Who face the reality that governments are withdrawing from funding guarantees for health and education.


Australia is an educated nation – people know that these experiences are due to the financial markets demanding government surplus or massive corporate profits and cost competitive bottom lines.


We call this corporate or market led globalisation and all too much of the evidence suggests we are in danger of engaging in ‘a race to the bottom’ where efficiency and profit matter more than a fair share for working people.


Despite corporate and government argument the post-economic crisis experience for working people in Asia is even more insecure. With major instability in Indonesia, slow growth in Japan, huge debt and education and infrastructure deficiencies throughout the region, the divided society pattern is stark.


There is the added complexity of millions of people for whom subsistence lifestyles have been destroyed by global trade. Structural adjustment policies of the World Bank have largely failed and poverty has increased again since 1997. IMF reforms have guaranteed that the region will be increasingly volatile in the face of currency speculation and/or corporate relocation in the chase for cheap labour and/or low tax arrangements.


It needs to be remembered that outside of some large Japanese companies, Asia is not the home of global corporations, rather Asia is seen as the profit bowl.


Globalisation has much potential and it could be the answer to many of the world’s seemingly intractable problems. This would require strong democratic foundations based on a political will to ensure equity and justice.


Yet Governments have been shown to be weak in the face of global problems:



  • In 1990 world leaders made a great promise to the world’s children of basic education for all. They have failed.




  • The G8 promised to reduce debt for the poorest of nations. But with little progress the recent meeting in Japan played with the fantasy of ending the digital divide when the vast majority of the world’s people have no access the most basic of technology. A noble notion but what about first priorities like food and health and education.




  • Kyoto offered us the promise of environmental stability. But the outcomes are largely a compromise with countries like Australia securing the right to increase gas emissions while the polar caps melt.




  • There is an AIDS epidemic in many countries in Asia and Africa. Yet the dispute mechanism of the WTO protects the profit interests of the big pharmaceutical companies and prohibits desperate people from the assistance of cheaply manufactured generic drugs.




  • Democracy is fragile. While tomorrow you debate the question ‘Can capitalism and accumulation of wealth stand alongside democracy and the egalitarian ideal’ – the deposed Prime Minister of Fiji calls for help and nations stand by with little political will to act.



In the face of corporate globalisation where companies like Microsoft, General Electric and Cisco Systems are larger economic entities that the entire stock markets of Australia and many other OECD countries, democracy and corporate regulation must also go global.


The corporate community understands the need for rules. Indeed, they argue for regulation to protect intellectual property, physical property rights and contract law. So why do they oppose global regulation to protect people and the environment?


Why do otherwise law-abiding citizens, when put in charge of companies or governments, repulse the idea that trade agreements should ensure basic human rights, labour rights, social projections and environmental standards are protected? What is so frightening about a formal NGO presence at the WTO, or for that matter, the World Bank or the IMF?


Economic democracy is a viable aspiration and one in which good corporate citizens should share. If companies continue to carve up the world and unchecked capital speculation makes the security of communities increasingly volatile, then the tide of protest against globalisation in its current form will grow.


But there is another way.


The Australian Democrats have a Bill in Australia’s Parliament – Corporate Code of Conduct Bill 2000 – which aims to regulate the activities of Australian companies overseas in the areas of human rights, environment, labour and occupational health and safety.


This is a good step forward. What shareholders of Australian companies would want their money to be used in the employment of child labour, the exploitation of working people or the destruction of the environment? But it can’t and won’t stop with a debate in Australia. There is increasing evidence of not just an emerging worldwide civil society protest but also a growing shareholder consciousness and concern about how their funds are being invested. There is a growing consumer demand for ethical investment.


Unfortunately voluntary codes of conduct are not working. The alternate report – The Other Face OF Globalisation – released by the ACTU last Friday portrays the human rights and environment abuses of just a few of the WEF member companies here this week.


We need, and will continue to campaign for, a fairer set of global rules.


Organised labour cannot understand why the concept of fair trade enrages those who profess to be decent corporate citizens. By fair trade we mean trade carried out in a manner that benefits civil society and delivers progress for all countries in terms of;



  • increased employment,
  • improved social protections,
  • implementation of environmental standards,
  • the elimination of child/forced labour, and
  • adherence to democratic values.



We would invite you to join with us in a call for international reform that would set a global floor of benchmarks for corporate citizenship. We would urge you to take responsibility for meeting these standards and that ensure people, and their natural and cultural heritage, are treated with dignity and respect.


The world’s people deserve better. I know that you have proposed philanthropic initiatives and, where genuine, these are to be commended. But why not also support a small tax on currency transactions such that we could provide democratic global solutions to debt, education, health and infrastructure.


A community forum was held on Sunday and the participants from the churches, from aid agencies, from green groups and the unions asked me to convey the priority initiatives they believe will build a more socially equitable, environmentally and culturally tolerant vision of global development.


They include:



  • faster, deeper debt relief,
  • increased aid
  • fair trade
  • a more democratic system of global economic management,
  • a tax on capital flows,
  • a code of conduct for multinationals, and
  • respect for human rights.



Globalisation can be shaped to ensure that people matter and that all economies are strengthened. Your community, the WEF, can play a significant part in this. But it requires reform of international institutions such that the voice of, and the solutions posed by, unions and civil society are heeded.


Thank you.


Sharan Burrow President, Australian Council of Trade Unions. World Economic Forum Address, September 12, 2000 Melbourne, Australia.