Seminar Address Julius Roe

Address to the Seminar on Alternatives to the WTO Agenda,
10th November, 2002, Tom Mann Theatre, Sydney.

by Julius Roe, National President,
Australian Manufacturing Workers Union,

The WTO is about the interests of the Transnational Corporations (TNCs). Australia, Canada and New Zealand are the developed countries which have economies totally dominated by the global corporations.

This means that the neo-liberal policies which have weakened the capacity of our Governments to intervene to support our economy and society have a great effect and it alsomeans that we are most vulnerable to the WTO agenda. Look at the key sectors or our economy which are already totally dominated by the TNCs:

  • Food processing
  • Cars and transport equipment
  • Mining
  • Consumer goods including white goods, electronics, telecommunications equipment
  • Machinery
  • Packaging
  • International transport by sea and air
  • Oil and gas

The banks and the big retailers as a result of favorable regulation are so profitable and concentrated that they are themselves increasingly becoming TNCs or are linked to TNCs.

The TNCs have their eyes on the big remaining prizes of health, education, water, electricity, gas, post, airports, and Telstra. Through the combination of privatisation, de-regulation and the agenda of the WTO this is fast becoming a reality. The increasing domination of big global corporations over our key infrastructure and services will mean lower prices forbig business and higher prices for ordinary consumers, lower quality and less universal services, less reliability of supply, weaker government, declining government revenues, more insecure and more non-union jobs and massive profits for a few.

The WTO is primarily an organisation to ensure that new countries only emerge from underdevelopment if they are prepared to accept US dominance and the dominance of their economies by the TNCs. We all know that the countries which have emerged from underdevelopment - starting with the US itself and moving to Japan, Korea, Malaysia and now China - have done so with strong state intervention. In particular they have introduced strong State support for the development of capacity in products and services undergoing major productivity advances. Their success is not built on concentration in areas such as basic agriculture where prices have been declining nor areas such clothing where there is little productivity advance and hence competition is based on lowering labour costs through increasing exploitation. We are all aware of the key elements of the agenda:

  • Privatisation
  • Free movement for capital
  • Weak labour and environmental legislation
  • Low corporate tax
  • Free trade for the multi-nationals to have access to all markets

One aspect which is under-emphasised in my view is the spread of casual, temporary and contact labour and de-regulation of working time. There is also an increasing trend for the TNCs to bargain in a coordinated way - to try and introduce common labour pollicies across operations in different countries but at the same time to push for regulation to ensure that workers must bargain at a more and more local level. It does not matter which country you go to there is enormous pressure for this. Contract and temporary labour is not primarily about flexibility to meet production fluctuations. It is really about increasing job insecurity and weakening the capacity for effective union organisation. These policies are destroying the lives and health and safety of millions of workers.

What the WTO and the neo-liberal agenda is about is the capacity of the TNCs and the US to kick away the ladder to development unless countries agree to privatisation, free movement of capital, low taxes on business, anti-union policies, removal of price controls and the like.

If the Australian Government succeeded in its policies of destroying the agriculture in Europe and Japan would the impoverishment of European and Japanese farmers really help job security and wealth creation in Australia let alone in developing countries? I don’t think so. Agribusiness in Australia is very efficient but it employs very few people, it is dominated by big corporations and massive expansion is not sustainable on environmental grounds.

The most important questions we need to answer are:

  • Why when the results of the free trade policies of the WTO and the TNCs are so disastrous and so unpopular are they still accepted by the major political parties?

  • What do we need to do to build a more effective alliance and campaign to stop the free trade agenda of the WTO and its expansion through GATS?

In my view the progressive forces in the 1980s lost faith in the role of national Government and in the welfare State in particular. We were rightly critical of many of the things that Governments did and the inflexibility and lack of popular control of many bureaucratic institutions. We were thus half hearted in our defence of the role of the State when it came under such sustained attack from the employers and the TNCs in particular. This was hardly surprising. It seemed during the period after the Second World War that Government intervention in industry and economic development was mostly directed at increasing the power and wealth and the companies.

The State is now - it is already greatly weakened by financial deregulation, lack of control on capital movement, privatisation, weakening of the tax system, decay and privatisation of our health and education systems, an end to any effective industry support and development policies, lack of any intervention in housing and the like.

However, in the current environment without a stronger role for the national Government we have no hope against the power of the multi-national companies and against US dominance. Without a stronger role for national governments we cannot strengthen international regulation and institutions to act in defence of the poor, human rights, labour rights, the environment and peace.

Of course it is not just a matter of defending the state from further erosion. It is also a matter of building citizens organisations including trade unions and linking them internationally.

The international regulation in the environmental areas shows us that it is possible to achieve our goals. International conventions and processes to control whaling and CFCs in the atmosphere have been quite effective. The World Heritage treaty process enabled the role of the national government in environmental protection to be strengthened: this saved the Tasmanian forests and rivers and Fraser Island. If the Kyoto protocols process survives US opposition then it will introduce new regulation at a national and international level.

Why is it possible to achieve this in respect to the environment but not in respect to fair trade and labour standards?

I think that there are two key factors in the relative success of the environmental movement.

The first is the nature of the coalitions and their innovative campaigning in the green movement internationally.

The second is what I call the London sewage factor. In the last industrial revolution the same liberal policies dominated. Free trade (in the interests of the UK at that time), charity not public services in health education and welfare, consolidation in agriculture regardless of the environmental and social consequences, slavery, and so on.

This changed due to two factors: first the organisation of the oppressed - the formation of trade unions, the growth of campaigns for democracy and justice but second because the disease and the smell of the raw sewage and poverty and crime could not be kept confined to the working class areas and so influential more wealthy people joined the campaign for better public services and justice. The current environmental crisis is like this crisis in London in the late 18th and early 19th century.

The devastating effects of the WTO agenda including privatisation and contracting out and temporary work and de-regulation of working hours are in my view no different from that which applies to the environmental issues.

There is no international regulation of labour standards and in fact trading regulation through the WTO and IMF and World Bank actually encourages the undermining of labour standards. This is why the international trade union movement wants enforceable labour standards. These standards should be enforced and regulated by the ILO not the WTO but there must be a link to trading regulation to a transformed WTO and to policies for protection, jobs and industry support.

So long as we have concrete demands about what our Government can do, about what the popular movement and citizens and trade unions themselves can do, and about what international coalitions can do, then we will build in strength and influence. In my view there is plenty of scope for new and surprising coalitions. Regional Australia is particularly hard hit by neo-liberal pollicies. The National Party and the Farmers Federation in their support for free trade are out of step with the interests and views of Regional Australia. We can build some powerful coalitions in this area. Many employers who act as suppliers to the big corporations and who in a de-regulated environment are unfairly treated also have good reason to oppose free trade. There can be some coalition of interests here as well.

But the most immediate step is to build support for the rally next Thursday. To show that we are not intimidated by the climate created since September 11 from continuing to protest and from continuing to believe that a better and more just world is possible.