Podium: Our protection against corruption

From a speech by the general secretary of the TUC to the Commonwealth Trade Union Conference

I SOMETIMES feel that, in the clamour, excitement, and glitz of the preparations for the millennium, some bastard has stolen our tent; not the Millennium Dome of course, but the system of common beliefs and values which used to inform our society and protect it from the random vicissitudes of existence. It is worth noting that in real life, the leaders of the Dome project have been remarkably coy about its contents and meaning.

In political matters, people seem to operate on the assumption that every belief and value is a matter of opinion and of equal validity, even when they contradict one another. There is at the heart of contemporary society a consequent lack of conviction and direction and obvious injustices remain unremedied.

Of course, the market rules in the economic sphere and largely determines much of what happens politically and socially.

The market caters only for resources which are marketable and needs which are solvent, and the demands of justice and the human needs of the poor, the unskilled, and the unemployed rarely register.

The market is not a reliable ally. Its response to righting injustice is as likely to be obstructive as positive, and its remedies are slow working.

Why, for example, has it taken the rich countries and the IMF and World Bank so long to appreciate the wickedness of the burdens placed on the shoulders of the poorest of the poor by debt repayments?

Why so long before the international community realised that the crushing impact of debt served the interests of no country? It perpetuates poverty by denying resources for education and health.

Consider the position of the two most populous countries in the world, India and China.

The first has been a stable federal parliamentary democracy from its independence. India holds together a rich variety of peoples speaking more than 150 languages, holding to all the major world religions, and espousing political views and parties ranging from the extreme nationalist right to the far anarchist left.

India has its problems, and we have pressed for new drives to combat forced and child labour, but it acknowledges those problems and there is a commitment in public policy to tackle them. And the Indian trade union organisations are not slow to expose failures of government and employers.

China is not a democracy. There is no transparency or accountability in public or economic life and working people are prevented from forming their own independent trade unions. There are widespread reports of violations of basic human rights and dissent is harshly repressed. Yet China is experiencing rapid economic growth, a rate nearly twice as fast as India, and takes eight times the inward investment which goes to India.

I am not the manager of a multinational company nor an international financier, but I wonder if those who are have missed something. I wonder if the collapse of Indonesia holds out any lessons for them - considering that there was a similar lack of accountability, a flouting of the rule of law, a pervasive culture of corruption, and the absence of independent trade unions which might channel the accumulating grievances of working people.

Does it really make sense to commit such vast resources to China and at the same time deny investment to India with its vibrancy, stability, and potential to contribute signally to the common good?

A system built on injustice will not stand. The shock of a world recession could well bring the system down.

I would also draw attention to southern Africa which is much worse placed then India in attracting investment in the globalised world though needs are acute. South Africa itself best illustrates the position. The EU still has not been able to reach a trade deal with South Africa, and there is a new slur going the rounds which must harm investment: that the South African labour market is too inflexible.

That is a bit rich when it comes from very much the same people who opposed sanctions through the 1970s and 1980s and defended the most rigid and unjust labour market in modern history.

Market forces played only a minor part in this and they must not now be left by the world's political leaders to jeopardise the immense gains made for peace and justice.

The invaluable contribution which trade unions are making in many Commonwealth countries - particularly in Africa - lies in their encouraging in public bodies transparency, candour, and accountability,

This is the essential protection against mismanagement, corruption, and arbitrary rule.

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