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Issue #1754      October 26, 2016

Local Unions, Global Voices

Unions WA Inaugural Conference on Global Inequality

Nationally union membership in Australia continues to decline, yet ironically the need for unions has increased due to global as well as local factors. With this global impetus, the Unions WA International Committee held its first ever conference on global inequality with a view to presenting comprehensive information on a number of contemporary issues through lively and interesting speakers.

The Conference was held on October 15 at the State School Teachers headquarters and was attended by about 60 unionist and community activists.

ACTU President Ged Kearney spoke about global inequality, world capitalist institutions and income inequality since the 2008 global financial crisis. Such factors are feeding growing political instability in the world. Increasing automation is making many workers redundant while the supply chains of global corporations are becoming longer and more dangerous. Kearney was appalled by the language she sees being used today which refers to workers as “human capital” or just another input of the production process.

This leads to the off-shoring of manufacturing to the cheapest location in the world. It was an indirect consequence of the collapse and fire at the Rana Plaza near Dhaka in Bangladesh in 2013, causing over 700 young textile workers – mostly women to either lose their lives or be severely maimed.

Today Burma is attempting to take this mantle from Bangladesh and China by creating economic zones where employment regulation would be minimal or non-existent, thereby attracting foreign capital to set up their production in that country.

Kate Lee from the ACTU’s international solidarity arm APHEDA spoke next about climate change which is behind the hotter weather in Asia. This not only causes food and water shortages in that region but also makes work difficult – especially for female workers in countries such as Cambodia where 40 percent of construction workers are female. Lee observed that although GDP was rising in Asia it was occurring with rising rates of income inequality for workers.

One issue that APHEDA was pushing in Asia was the use of asbestos as several countries continue to manufacture building products from asbestos – in particular in Indonesia, China, Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia.

Other speakers included Dr Patricia Ranald from AFTINET (Australian Fair Trade and Investment Network) who talked about free trade agreements such as the Trans Pacific Partnership (TPP) and the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which is being negotiated between the 10 ASEAN countries plus Australia, New Zealand, India, China, Japan and South Korea. These agreements, said Ranald, do not improve the lives of the majority of ordinary citizens in these countries but make capital freer to make larger profits by exploiting workers more.

We need fairer trade based on labour rights and environmental sustainability which allows governments to act in the public interest to reduce inequality, added Ranald.

To underscore that organisations such as AFTINET and the union movement generally had been having an impact not only in Australia but in the US, the fate of the TPP is looking increasingly shaky as governments are being pushed by their elected representatives not to approve the deal as it would have a detrimental effect on workers’ wages and conditions. Ranald noted that the TPP delivers almost no jobs and there would be a loss of up to 39,000 jobs after 10 years.

The last speaker was Matt Grudnoff from the Australia Institute who spoke about tax avoidance by national and global corporations and how this was harming the ability of governments to fund infrastructure and services.

Corporations such as Apple, Google and Chevron pay very marginal levels of tax as they can claim tax deductions over almost all the revenue they earn due to lucrative deductions or offsets which they can claim. Apple Corp for instance pays a rate of taxation equivalent to 0.7 percent of its revenue.

The solution, said Grudnoff, was to push governments for greater transparency and disclosure by these corporations and to abolish or cap some of these deductions.

The afternoon concluded with problem solving group exercises for the delegates, followed by a plenary session with all the guest speakers on all the issues discussed at the conference on inequality.

The conference demonstrated that as a movement we can lift the lives of workers everywhere, including here in Australia, defending and extending what we have fought so hard for: the quality and safety of our working lives, and the security and prosperity of our families and communities.

Next article – First case of black lung in an open cut miner

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