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Housing for the wealthier middle classes rises above the insecure housing of a slum community in Lucknow, India. (Photo: Tom Pietrasik/Oxfam)

Inequality Is Not Inevitable: It’s Time to Even It Up!

Winnie Byanyima

This January, Oxfam revealed that the richest 85 people in the world possess the same amount of wealth as the world’s poorest 50 per cent.

Our report caught the public’s imagination, and keyed into a conversation about inequality that was taken up by many players globally – amongst them Christine Lagarde of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), President Barack Obama and the Pope.

The collective wealth of this tiny global elite has increased by US$668 million per day between 2013 and 2014. That’s almost half a million dollars every minute.

Today Oxfam launches a new campaign, Even it Up.

What we aim to show through our campaign is that inequality is not inevitable. It is the result of policy choices.

As Sharan Burrow, general secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), highlighted recently, the alarming increase in inequality is linked to the prescription by international institutions of low wages, flexible labour markets, insecure work, less social protection and low taxes.

Oxfam’s new report shows that since 1990, income from labour has made up a declining share of GDP across low-, middle- and high-income countries alike.

In South Africa, for instance, a miner in the platinum belt would need to work for 93 years just to earn the average CEO’s annual bonus.

But there are so many sectors in which women and men are caught in a working poverty trap, unable to earn their way out of poverty – however hard they work.

Studies led by Fairtrade International found the legal minimum wage for picking grapes in South Africa, bananas in the Dominican Republic or tea in Malawi was just one to two thirds of a living wage – not nearly enough for food, clothing, housing or anything else.

A significant factor keeping work and wages on a low road is political capture.

When the wealthiest use their financial power and the influence that comes with it to bend laws and policy choices in their favour, the ability of governments to enforce labour laws is weakened. This affects women most.

Women are relegated to the worst-paid and most insecure jobs, and on average women are paid 10 to 30 per cent less than men for comparable work, across all regions and sectors. At the current rate that the gender wage gap is closing, it will take 75 years before men and women have equal pay for equal work. 

Another way is possible

Oxfam argues that it doesn’t have to be like this; another way is possible.

Brazil raised its minimum wage by nearly 50 per cent in real terms between 1995 and 2011, and poverty and inequality declined in step.

Ecuador now requires profitable companies to demonstrate that they pay a living wage

In the garment sector, international brands are starting to speak up for a higher road for jobs, and promising to play their part, for instance by writing to the government of Cambodia.

There is also persuasive evidence that gender equality – particularly in jobs and education – actually encourages growth.

GDP is not an adequate measure of economic progress, equality or sustainability. But even by this measure, narrowing the gender wage gap has growth benefits.

Kenya’s cut flower sector, the target of civil society campaigns 10 years ago, has seen real improvements for the most skilled workers in pack-houses, 75 per cent of whom are women.

Improvements in health and safety, a reduction in sexual harassment and more secure contracts compared with 10 years ago have all been achieved.

More professional human resource management has helped, along with the establishment of gender committees, better legislation and sustainability certification.

Wages are still well short of a living wage, but as Oxfam calculated in our Poverty Footprint study with IPL/Asda wages could be doubled if just five pence (US$ 0.08) were added to a £4 (US$6.5) bouquet and earmarked for wages.

This is perfectly achievable with a collective will.

There is growing consensus that, as Owen Tudor of the UK’s Trades Union Congress has highlighted, if economic growth is to deliver a social dividend, the quality of the jobs created is key.

We need collective will to tackle runaway economic inequality and entrenched gender inequality.

It is time for a higher road for work and wages, with governance gaps closed, repression of unions and corporate lobbying challenged, and business models that deliver more social good over longer time horizons.

These are some of the ambitious outcomes we are optimistic our Even it Up campaign can help bring about, with the support of all those who share our vision for a fairer and more equal world.

Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.
Winnie Byanyima

Winnie Byanyima

Winnie Byanyima is the UN Under-Secretary-General, Executive Director for UNAIDS and Co-Chair of the People's Vaccine Alliance.

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