Workers’ Rights Are Human Rights (Dan Gallin, 10 July 1997)

What is SOLIDAR?
SOLIDAR is an international federation of labour-related NGOs specialized in solidarity work and development co-operation. Until 1995, it was called the International Workers’ Aid. A description of its activities and membership is given in Annex I. In 1996 SOLIDAR published a brochure called “Equity in Europe” which states the requirements of social justice in the field of economic policy, immigration policy and treatment of minorities in the European context (in English, French, Spanish and German).

Workers’ Rights Campaign
This year SOLIDAR has launched an education campaign on the theme “Workers’ Rights are Human Rights”, focused on core labour standards (the social clause), the WTO and development. This campaign was launched at a conference held in connection with the organization’s annual General Assembly (Brussels, July 10). Gallin was asked to be a speaker at this conference. His address is given as Annex II of this document. The other speakers were: Raymonde Dury, vice-president, European Socialist Group, EP, Bill Jordan, general secretary ICFTU, and Papa Amath Dieng, permanent secretary, Socialist Party of Senegal. The conference was attended by 112 participants from SOLIDAR member organizations, NGOs, trade union organizations (ITSs, ETUFs, ICFTU, national centers), European institutions, diplomatic representations, etc.

Within the framework of this campaign, SOLIDAR has also taken on the co-ordination of a Labour Rights Group which is meeting every two months in the European Parliament and whose function is to monitor labour rights developments. Two meetings of this group have been held so far: September 11 and November 13. The participants include ITSs and ETUFs, the ICFTU, TUAC, representatives of the Socialist and Green groups in the European Parliament, NGOs. Much of this activity is intended to prepare an intervention, in various forms, at the next WTO Ministerial Summit which will be held in Geneva in June 1998.

Dan Gallin’s speech
Ladies and Gentlemen, Colleagues and Friends,

We are living in a period of paradox, as far as social standards are concerned.
There has been a general assumption, since the beginning of the century, that social progress, in terms of improving living standards and working conditions, was a goal of society.

Even though the belief in the inevitability of human progress was severely shaken by the experience to two world wars and of totalitarianism, the notion that social progress was at least desirable, survived and, in the post-war years, development was defined in terms of social progress.

Even totalitarian regimes, which maintained their peoples in miserable conditions, held out the vision of a better future. Even today, in a hypocritical and disingenuous way, the vision survives in the form of the trickle-down theory.

But the reality of today is the reverse: for some fifteen years or so, we have been living in a period of reverse expectations. This society is holding out quite explicitly the expectation of steadily deteriorating living standards and conditions, at least for the lifetime of anyone living today. This is something new, and something tremendous. In the past, this would have been considered an admission of failure of a social order. Not today. As poverty advances, the stockmarkets rise.

Why is this happening?
Because capital has finally broken loose from society, and can set its own global agenda without encountering much resistance anywhere.

This is what globalization means in social terms.

Global is not the same as international. Capital has always been international. An international world economy, however, is one where the principal entities remain national economies, linked together by a network of trade, foreign investments and credit.

What we are moving into now is something quite different: a globally integrated, borderless economy where the economies of even successful and advanced states or regions, in terms of wealth and power – like the EU, the US, Japan – are overtaken by more powerful forces operating independently and outside their control.

The predominant actors in this global integration process are the transnational corporations (TNCs). They are the spearhead and at the same time the principal beneficiaries of a revolution in technology, particularly in electronics, communications and air transport, which has been driving this process.

Since the collapse of the Soviet bloc some six or seven years ago, transnational corporate power and the neo-liberal (neo-conservative) ideologies it has generated and which, in turn, sustain it, has become truly global.

The so-called “new capitalist countries” of the former Soviet bloc, and much of the developing world, including China, which had remained outside of the capitalist economy, have added nearly a billion people to the global labour market controlled by transnational capital.

In summary, we have a situation where the TNCs have immensely increased their power within two decades and where mobility of capital is practically uncontrolled. No TNC today depends any longer on the domestic market of the country where it originated and therefore no longer depends on consensual arrangements with the social and political forces that are themselves rooted in the domestic market.

One political consequence, with major social implications, is the decline of the national state, in the first place as an economic actor.

The national state has declined as an employer through privatizations, which have not only increased the power of the transnationals, as they buy up public assets, but which have also deprived the state of economic leverage and have therefore weakened its ability to influence economic policy and, in its role as an employer, labour policy.

The national state has also declined in its role of regulator of economic policy as a result of recent international trade arrangements which narrow the scope of democratic control over social and economic policies, transferring authority from democratically accountable governments and institutions to TNCs which are accountable only to their shareholders.

Finally, the growing inability of the state to control international flows of capital has reduced its ability to tax capital and has thus reduced, sometimes drastically, its fiscal income which provides the basis for public services and social programs, thereby further undermining the social consensus which depends on its ability to protect the weak through the redistribution of the social product.

Eve more dangerously, the inability to control capital within national borders (through legislation or other political measures) carries with it a commensurate loss of influence of all institutions operating within the confines of national borders: national legislatures, political parties, national trade union centers: in other words, all instruments of democratic control where they existed in the first place.

We are deprived of the framework where democratic power was traditionally exercised: although there is an informal world government, there is no democratically controlled world legislative body.

Not all functions of the state have declined, of course. What is under attack, are the social functions of the state. But we are not dealing here with the inevitable workings of an impersonal system, some sort of planetary clockwork: policies are made by mere mortals, and we all know that the so-called “free market economy” is an ideological construct that bears no resemblance to reality or to any system existing on earth. What has happened here is a power shift.

Wherever state activities coincide with the interests and the agenda of transnational capital, the state is stronger and more active than before.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the global labour market.

The global labour market means that, because of the mobility of capital and the fluidity of communications, workers of all countries, regardless of their degree of industrial development or their social system, are competitively underbidding each other, with wage spreads ranging from one to fifty, in all areas of the economy.

This competitive underbidding on a global scale has set in motion a relentless downward spiral of deteriorating wages and conditions and, in industrialized countries, of rising unemployment through production transfers, outsourcing, casualization, etc. But: there is no quid pro quo in terms of a balanced social and economic development for the industrially underdeveloped countries of the South, where unemployment remains a massive and growing problem – only beginning in a country like China – and where wages remain in most cases below poverty level. What is growing, is the wealth of local elites.

So far as the workers are concerned, there is no bottom to the downward spiral except the near-slave labour conditions that prevail at the bottom of the scale: a defenceless labour force, nearly without rights, working at wages of 10-20 dollars a month or less or, as in the case of China, prison labour.

Why is this? Because the whole system is ultimately held in place by repression.

The main point to be kept in mind here is the economic role of repression: the global labour “market” is ultimately not regulated by economic laws but by political laws, state intervention, in the form of military and police repression.

Take the example of the Export Processing Zones (or Free Trade Zones) where national police and armies have been turned into the security guards of transnational capital. These zones, which contribute virtually nothing to economic development, now number 700 and their number is growing by the day. Whole countries have turned themselves into EPZs, or aspire to that status and, in order to join that club, are repressing unions, popular movements and democratic rights in general.

World poverty is not difficult to understand. No people ever chose to be poor. If people are poor, it is because they have been forced into poverty and kept there by violence.

The poorer countries which are significant actors in the global economy are either severely repressed societies (China, Vietnam, Indonesia) or societies that have been victims of severe repression in their recent past (Russia, Eastern and Central Europe, Brazil, Central America) and because it is these countries that are setting the standards at the lower end of the labour market, that the repressive regimes that govern them now, or have governed them in the recent past, represent a direct threat not only to the workers of these countries themselves, and to workers anywhere, but to any perspective of balanced economic and social development where the well-being of the people is a social priority.

What does competition mean when the terms of competition are ultimately determined by police repression?

Neo-liberal globalization where everything is free but the people leads to a nightmare future world society and a highly unstable world society, where a few islands of high-tech prosperity will survive under military and police protection. They will be prosperous garrison states, gated estates, not democracies, and they will be surrounded by a world of squalid poverty with millions of people revolting and kept down by repression.

Because they will be revolting, of course. They already are. The “West” – or the “North”, as you like – did not invent the movement of landless farmers in Brazil, the struggle of workers in China or Indonesia for free trade unions, more often than not young women without any previous union history or experience, and kept in isolation from the world labour movement. Or the struggle of Korean workers for free unions and a re-ordering of social priorities and for democracy.

This is why the fight for workers’ rights is such an important component of the fight for human rights and democratic rights in general.

For workers, it is an imperative that is common to workers in all countries. It is the clearest expression of the common international labour interest, that is, the converging interest of those who work in conditions of virtual slavery and struggle to break out of it, and those who are threatened with sinking into slavery and struggle not to sink deeper.

In this context it is relevant to keep in mind that workers’ rights are ultimately trade union rights, the rights of organized workers, freely organized to defend their interests, that the trade union movement is the largest democratically organized force in the world and that it is indestructible as long as there will be people working for wages and salaries anywhere.

For others, other actors in civil society, including employers capable of long-term thinking, and for governments, we would suggest that in this struggle, the struggle for workers’ rights, also lie the makings of a saner system, adjusted to meeting human needs.

That is what the “social clause” is all about. It is about the kind of society we want to live in in the next ten to twenty years.

In conclusion, I would like to quote William Greider, who recently wrote a book, “One World – Ready of Not”, which I strongly recommend to you and who says it better than I could:

“Imposing international rules for minimal wage and working conditions may be the only way to rescue citizens in the poorest economies from the vicious treadmill they are on now. … As advanced nations learned in their own early development, organized labour is an important ingredient of genuine national prosperity, forcing the economic system to share returns more broadly and thus creating a middle class of consumers.

“In the long run, a global floor on labour practices should lead to more positive development strategies and less human wreckage – at least an opportunity for growth that is built on more stable social relations.

“The introduction of labour rights is the necessary predicate for ever reaching a prosperous future, whether those rights are achieved by orderly global politics or by decades of bloody conflicts and social explosions in poor societies.

“The social ideal is an economic system that is measured, not by wealthy abundance alone, but by how well it fosters the process of individual realization by everyone, regardless of where they stand in the order of things or how they might define their own personal aspirations in terms compatible to their own culture and circumstance.

“Economic progress -overcoming scarcity, expanding comforts – advances this ideal, but it cannot be considered progress to tolerate enterprise that, for many, destroys life’s possibilities.”

I thank you.