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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

COSATU Input to ICFTU Executive Board delivered by its General Secretary, Zwelinzima Vavi

21 June 2006

Dear brothers and sisters, comrades and friends.

I am glad to have the opportunity to make an input to this important meeting. It is especially important because we are sitting at a time of crisis and threat for workers in the South, as a result of the current negotiations at the WTO.

In these circumstances, the ICFTU today has the historic chance to demonstrate to millions of workers around the world, including in South Africa, that the international labour movement can bring real improvements in their lives.

As many of you know, COSATU thought long and hard before it affiliated to the ICFTU. It decided to join because of its deep-seated belief that international solidarity is critical for every union and every union federation. In a globalising world, no worker is protected unless every worker is protected – and that in turn requires the solidarity between us all.

It is for this very reason that the labour movement has always said: in unity is our strength – an injury to one is an injury to all!

Now we need to reforge our unity in the face of the threat from the WTO, which threatens to take away any hope of development in the South and in the process condemn workers to unemployment, poverty and oppression. In the long run, that will undercut conditions for workers everywhere.
Three areas of negotiations at the WTO pose a critical threat.

First, on NAMA, the current proposals for the formula will lead to extensive cuts in tariffs by middle-income developing countries, making it virtually impossible for them to industrialise further. We would again be doomed to be producers of raw materials, cheap manufactures and tourist spots. In contrast, today’s rich countries in Europe, North America and Asia all used very high tariff levels to develop their manufacturing industries.

The architects of apartheid wanted to relegate black workers in South Africa to be forever only hewers of wood and drawers of water. The WTO proposals would reinstate that proposition.

Second, in agriculture, the current proposals will reportedly do little to open the doors to exports from most developing countries. In any case, most African farmers lack the marketing networks and resources to expand export production. Most studies find that the current proposals for sharp tariff cuts under NAMA and very limited market access to the EU and the US would impact negatively on Africa as a whole.

Finally, on services, current proposals from the EU and the US seek liberalisation in key areas such as finance, retail and telecommunications. Experience to date suggests that opening basic services under WTO rules will make it harder to maintain a strong public sector and to subsidise the poor to support universal access.

How will these proposals affect the world labour movement?
To start with, they mean the countries of the South will remain a source of cheap and often oppressed labour in international production chains. They will impoverish Africa even further and prevent most of the rest of the South from industrialising. At the same time, they make no provision that countries respect core labour standards or provide any social protection.
In these circumstances, countries with weak unions and limited labour rights may flood the international market at the cost of better jobs across the globe.

Furthermore, governments in some key countries in the North, especially the US, have done almost nothing to ensure that workers don’t bear the cost of adjustment. As a result, many workers in the North seem to see the poor of the South as a threat, rather than as workers to whom they owe a duty of solidarity. All too often, we see short-term and short-sighted support for protection against labour-intensive goods like clothing as well as agriculture, at the cost of the very poorest workers in the world.

Finally, unions in the South ultimately feel betrayed by the North as a whole, including the unions that don’t take a strong stand to help them out in their hour of need.

At the same time, these difficult conditions give us a chance to re-assert the strength and importance of international solidarity. The demand for core labour standards must be supplemented by demands that ensure that countries in the South do not pay an even higher price for globalisation. Moreover, we must develop common positions on what governments in the North must do to ensure the costs of adjustment do not fall solely on workers.

COSATU’s immediate demands are, first, that the NAMA negotiations must use a coefficient of at least 40 and exempt 15% of imports for developing countries. Even so they will see huge cuts in tariffs, but at least will have some space to industrialise.

Second, the EU and the US must make genuine concessions on agriculture, coupled with commitments on assistance to smallholders in developing countries. At the same time, we must demand that governments in the North take measures to ensure that the adjustment costs do not fall on the back of workers and the poor.

Finally, on GATS, basic services must not be tabled by any party. Any agreement on services must explicitly that governments may take any measures needed to improve access for poor and working people.

Brothers and sisters, comrades and friends,

This Executive marks the final stage of international workers’ unity with the merger between the ICFTU and the WCL. It would be tragic if it also opens the door to deeper divisions between workers in the industrialised and the developing countries.

Instead, this Executive must give us a way forward in this difficult era of globalisation by reaffirming a common labour position on trade and development. It is only through workers’ solidarity that we can ensure that workers in the South have options and won’t just undercut those in the North. Only on that basis can we build a strong voice for workers through the international labour movement.