MELBOURNE - Either the 21st century will continue to produce increasingly divided societies or we can make concerted decisions to ensure that economies serve communities. This means putting people at the heart of balanced development.
Trade unions are committed to economic growth. They understand that it is the most effective way to overcome poverty and unemployment. They also understand the role of technology in driving both growth and structural adjustment.
Despite unprecedented progress in science and technology and giant improvements in living standards in the 20th century, too many people have been left out. 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 don't go to school and many millions more who drop out before getting a basic education. There are 880 million people who are illiterate.
Even in Australia there is increasing child poverty. More than 800,000 children live in poverty. The emergence of a class of working poor is a shocking indictment of a corporate culture that denies working people a fair share of profits. Forty-eight percent of gross weekly income is taken home by the wealthiest 20 percent of Australians, while the poorest 20 percent take just 3.8 percent.
Sixty thousand manufacturing workers have lost their jobs in the last two years. There is a growing sense of powerlessness and alienation. People know the reality of bank, school and hospital closures in their communities, relatives or friends made redundant as a result of downsizing or privatization.
Market-led globalization is leading to a race to the bottom where efficiency and profit matter more than a fair share for working people.
The situation for working people in Asia is even more insecure. With major instability in Indonesia, slow growth in Japan, huge debts and major deficiencies in education and infrastructure throughout the region, the divided society pattern is stark.
The subsistence livelihoods of millions of people have been destroyed by global trade. Structural adjustment policies of the World Bank have largely failed, and poverty has increased again since 1997. Reforms imposed by the IMF have guaranteed that the region will be increasingly volatile in the midst of currency speculation or as companies move production to different locations in the hunt for cheap labor and low tax.
Globalization has much potential. It could be the answer to many of the world's seemingly intractable problems. But this requires 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, such as ensuring that all children get a basic education, reducing debt for the poorest nations and protecting the world from global warming and AIDS.
The corporate community understands the need for rules. Indeed, it argues for regulation to protect intellectual property, physical property rights and contract law. So why does it oppose global regulation to protect people and the environment?
Why do otherwise law-abiding citizens, when put in charge of companies or governments, reject the idea that trade agreements should protect basic human and labor rights as well as the environment? What is so frightening about a formal presence of nongovernmental organizations in the World Trade Organization, the World Bank and the IMF?
If companies continue to carve up the world, and unchecked capital speculation makes the security of communities increasingly volatile, the tide of protest against globalization will grow.
The alternative is to build a more socially equitable vision of global development. We can do so by 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.
Globalization can be shaped to ensure that people matter.
Sharan Burrow is president of the Australian Council of Trade Unions. This comment was adapted by the International Herald Tribune from an address on Tuesday to the World Economic Forum Asia-Pacific business conference in Melbourne.