May Day 2024 Message: For a global democracy and inclusive multilateralism that defend workers' rights and dignity

May 2024

More than 30 years have passed since the East-West division symbolised by the Berlin Wall ended and globalisation began to take hold. The world's economies have become more interconnected, but at the same time, social divisions have increased and international conflicts have become more intense. While two major wars have recently left many dead and cast a dark shadow over our future, many of us are questioning the effectiveness of multilateralism as represented by the United Nations (UN) to take actions on issues requiring global responses, such as lasting peace, climate change, human rights violations, and growing inequality.

Globalisation and the growing inequality

As for globalisation, some have argued the hypothesis that a globalised world economy would be unified, that fair competition would be possible everywhere on common terms, and that the lives of people all over the world would be equally enriched.  However, looking at the current situation, this hypothesis was nothing more than a fantasy.

In parallel with the development of globalisation, neoliberalism was an economic theory that emerged globally in 1980s and 90s.The premise of this idea was that if a government’s redistributive functions, such as collection of taxes, provision of social security and labour market regulations, are minimised to give the market as much freedom as possible, the rich will be richer, but their wealth will trickle down to the poor. Multilateral organisations, especially the international financial institutions, promoted this theory, primarily to developing countries.

Contrary to this theory’s assumption, wealth has never trickled down evenly, and inequality has widened in both rich and poor countries. Globalisation has not been benefitting the majority of the population, especially the working poor. Instead, it has exacerbated precarity in employment, eroded the hard-won labour rights, accelerated climate change, and left poor people and developing countries further behind in development. Because of the failure of globalisation to serve the interest of the majority of the people and the planet, a popular backlash against globalisation has been intensifying. At the same time, there has been an increasing criticism about the failure of multilateral institutions in regulating and controlling the adverse impacts of globalisation.

Multilateralism centred on the International Labour Organization

Multilateralism is built on international cooperation which binds individual states with the dual goal of preserving national sovereignty and ensuring fair and equitable sharing of responsibilities on issues requiring global responses, such as climate change, human rights violations, and the growing inequality. International organisations such as the UN are the embodiment of multilateralism, but to see how multilateralism fulfils its original role, let us look at the International Labour Organization (ILO).

The ILO and the League of Nations, the predecessor of UN, were established under the Treaty of Versailles in 1919 and 1920, respectively. While the League of Nations ceased to exist in 1946 due to political and institutional flaws, coupled with the outbreak of World War II, the ILO has consistently worked to protect the rights and livelihoods of workers and overcome political and economic crises in the past, such as the Great Depression, the World War II, and the Cold War.

For more than 100 years, the ILO has continued and developed its role by taking indirect approaches to achieving global peace, such as by developing international labour standards that seek to eliminate unemployment, poverty, and inequality, which are among the underlying causes of war. Based on the agreement between governments, employers, and workers, the ILO has enacted international labour standards concerning maximum limits on working hours, minimum wages, and minimum social security benefits, and has assisted its member-states in applying these standards within their countries.

In 1998, the tripartite constituents of the ILO adopted the resolution to identify fundamental rights at work, namely freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of forced labour, the abolition of child labour, the elimination of discrimination, and the right to a safe and healthy working environment, as the global minimum to ensure that the social dimensions of globalisation are addressed.

Unlike in other UN agencies, policymaking at the ILO is not exclusive to the member-states alone. Other key social partners, including trade unions and employers, have a seat at the table and through social dialogue, they co-create labour standards that are aimed at contributing to the achievement of social justice.

For trade unions, an inclusive and transformative multilateralism starts with ensuring that workers’ voices are represented and heard in processes that must ultimately aim to put people at the centre of development and foster global cooperation for a lasting change.

Shifting the policy paradigm and rebuilding multilateralism

Since the global recession following the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers in the autumn of 2008, awareness of market limitations has been widely renewed. Since then, increasingly clear instances of poverty and inequality have been witnessed. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) released a series of reports on inequality, the G20 discussions and other global policy debates focused on narrowing inequality, and the UN unanimously adopted in 2015 the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), which address not only absolute poverty but also inequality.

Global and national economic and social policies continue to be designed in favour of wealthy countries, large corporations, and major financial institutions. Governments and their leaders are pursuing policies that, for example, prioritise attracting foreign investment over and above protecting workers’ rights. Moreover, tax and trade rules are designed for the benefit of corporations and the wealthy, official development assistance target and climate finance commitments are unmet, and debt repayments and extraction of natural resources drain the wealth of developing countries.  

There must be a policy paradigm shift from labour exploitation to labour protection, from extractivism to environmental sustainability, from free trade and unjust tax policies that promotes concentration of wealth on the elite few to fair trade and progressive tax system that redistributes wealth and ensures shared prosperity, and from militarisation and war to just and lasting peace.

The international trade union movement has been advocating for the strengthening of the social dimensions of globalisation and eliminating the “race to the bottom” by ensuring the integration of international labour standards in trade and investment agreements. Moreover, it has also been calling for reforms in the international trade and tax systems to make it work for the people and the planet and for renewing multilateralism to guarantee that the benefits of the globalised economy are fairly distributed.

This policy paradigm shift requires rebuilding multilateralism and fortifying democracy in global governance. Pope Francis, in his Exhortation, proposes a “multilateralism ‘from below’ and not simply one determined by the elites of power.” This calls for “spaces for conversation, consultation, arbitration, conflict resolution and supervision, and, in the end, a sort of ‘increased democratization’ in the global context, so that the various situations can be expressed and included.”

This is consistent with the trade unions’ promotion of social dialogue in developing policies, decisions, and collective solutions to global problems. Thus, trade unions must exercise and reinforce their role as development actors and assert the importance of social dialogue in multilateral processes to ensure that workers’ voices are represented and heard.

Trade unions must…

In order to make the policy paradigm shift and transform the systems to benefit the vast majority of people, trade unions must rebuild a countervailing force to gain stronger bargaining power in the negotiation for a new social contract based on jobs, rights, wages, social protection, equality and inclusion.

To this end, trade unions must return to their fundamental principle, that is, that they listen to the voices of not only their members, but also as many workers as possible, transform them into concrete policies through democratic procedure, and hold negotiations persistently with businesses and the government.

While we call for democracy in multilateral institutions and in national governments, we must start from within. Trade unions must strengthen democratic procedures internally by enabling the participation of groups that has not been included in the past, such as women, the young and migrant workers, among others. Additionally, in order to ensure greater representation, legitimacy, and bargaining power, more workers need to be incorporated into unions, especially those who have traditionally been difficult to organise or have not been targeted.

Trade unions must also go beyond traditional trade unionism and harness the potential to collaborate with various stakeholders in society that place utmost value on decent work. The threats from the recent global trends are affecting not only the workers but also other sectors of the society. Thus, as the main advocates for social justice for all, trade unions must not only focus on the needs of their members, but they must also broaden their collective actions to advance the interests of wider groups within society.

Therefore, trade unions must build solidarity with organisations and individuals that they may have been previously reluctant to cooperate with, including under-represented groups with multiple and intersecting identities and experiences of discrimination, such as LGBTQIA+ persons, racialised and indigenous communities, people with disabilities and older groups in society. Furthermore, trade unions must collaborate with the progressive youth movement so that we can jointly challenge unjust policies and systems.

We must once again be convinced that each of us, if united, has the power to change the current structures and defend the rights and dignity workers.

Shoya Yoshida
General Secretary
ITUC Asia Pacific