Adrian Askew: We must stop seeing globalisation as a threat

Isn't it time to worry when trade unions start singing from the same sheet as the 'Daily Mail'?

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For some trade union leaders and members, the response to jobs going overseas is obvious: we must oppose it. "British jobs for British workers" is an attractive slogan; it can rally unions and hit the tabloid headlines. But isn't it time to worry when some trade unions start singing from the same sheet as the
Daily Mail?

For some trade union leaders and members, the response to jobs going overseas is obvious: we must oppose it. "British jobs for British workers" is an attractive slogan; it can rally unions and hit the tabloid headlines. But isn't it time to worry when some trade unions start singing from the same sheet as the Daily Mail?

Progressive trade unionists need to realise that outright opposition to offshoring is not credible. It will do nothing to protect our workers' careers, to uphold our progressive values or give us a voice in the central political debate of the next decade.

As more and more companies jump on the offshoring bandwagon, the trade union movement has to decide whether to fall back on traditional oppositional arguments or to take a progressive attitude towards globalisation, protecting our members while helping workers in developing countries to experience the benefits of organised labour.

Without doubt, the first of these options is the easiest - but it is also the most ineffective, achieving little while betraying the internationalist principles upon which the trade union movement is founded. Playing the "British jobs for British workers" card may win the plaudits of the popular press, but will achieve nothing in terms of protecting our members' careers.

We have been here before - as workers from the textile, engineering and manufacturing sectors know only too well - and history teaches us a clear lesson: protectionism will not protect British workers. Clearly the UK cannot, and must not, compete on wages alone, but neither can it stand in the face of globalisation. In fact, we should recognise that we gain from it.

Many UK jobs depend on inward investment, and it would be hypocritical, to say the least, to welcome these benefits in the UK while trying to deny them to others. Union members are consumers as well as producers; we all benefit from reduced prices on the high street.

That does not mean we cannot be critical of offshoring, provided that criticism is based on reasoned arguments and not gut instinct. Let's face it, offshoring is not the panacea that many employers believe it to be. Not all economic activity can plausibly be moved offshore. There are plenty of personal services, for instance, which will always require face-to-face contact. And whilst considerable savings may be made through wage costs, there are additional expenses in maintaining offshore business functions which mean that the wage advantages of moving offshore won't necessarily translate into overall savings in the long term.

In a modern economy, a union's responsibility to its members has to evolve to meet new challenges. There is no longer a job for life (in many industries it was a cruel myth anyway). Younger workers expect to change jobs regularly, moving between companies and even industries as their careers progress. Unions need to recognise that their responsibility is to their members' careers, not just their jobs. We have had to adapt to recognise this reality.

However we decide to deal with the changing world of work, we must maintain an internationalist perspective. Under the landmark agreement signed by our union, Connect, with BT last year, there are guarantees that the companies to which our members' jobs are transferred respect ILO (International Labour Organisation) standards, ensuring that the savings made by outsourcing the work are not coupled with a loss of workers' rights.

There is of course a danger that some developing countries could see attempts to export good labour practices as protectionism by the back door. The mercantile style of trade negotiations has instilled a deep-seated suspicion in many governments which is not easily overcome. Both the language and the action of trade unions must make it clear that we have a commitment to workers everywhere; that we do not only get involved with companies which compete with domestic firms, or with industries which export to the UK.

The trade union movement can use the high profile of the globalisation debate to highlight our long-standing campaign to raise the skills of Britain's workforce - to make the UK as competitive as possible on the global market and to help people get the most from their working lives.

The aptitude and expertise of our workforce can make - and is already making - the UK one of the best places to do business. But a commitment is needed to long-term skills development for all, and that commitment is needed right across the board - from government, from business and from the trade unions.

Globalisation must not be seen as simply a threat. It is also an opportunity to help workers in developing countries and it is an opportunity to put skills at the top of the UK political agenda. Protectionism has none of these advantages and will achieve nothing constructive.

The writer is general secretary of Connect, the union for communications professionals. This is an edited version of an article that will appear in September's 'Fabian Review'

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