Unions meet the World Bank and IMF: Warm words, but much more to do
The well-deserved reputation of the World Bank and International Monetary Fund (IMF) for what, at best, could be described as an offhand regard for workers’ rights came under fire recently when over 90 trade union leaders from 35 countries (the largest gathering of its kind to date) met senior officials from both International Financial Institutions (IFIs) in Washington for 3 days of talks in January.
What exactly was achieved? There’s no doubt that in contrast to previous meetings the mood music coming from both institutions had changed as a result of the campaigns the TUC and others have led in recent times. With these meetings now firmly established in the political and trade union calendar (something beginning to get media attention) there is an opportunity to keep the pressure on to argue for a change of direction not just at IFI level but at the G20 as well. On the wider question however of whether the actions of both IFIs will match the words spoken in Washington, the jury remains out.
The international trade union community restated their firm view that workers’ rights are synonymous with human rights and that this should be reflected in all areas of IFI activity. For their part, and in noticeable contrast to previous gatherings of this kind, and I’ve been to a few, there did appear to be a greater acceptance by the IFIs of the trade union demands to have social protection and job creation built into the fabric of their lending.
The Bank in particular drew attention to the programme they have developed for the next ten years. WB President Robert Zoellick saw the recent conference in Oslo organised jointly with the ILO as a significant factor in bringing about a change of direction. The IMF, for their part, accepted that in the past their policies too often lacked understanding of workers’ concerns.
But with the Tunisian crisis unfolding as the meeting progressed it provided the opportunity for union leaders to remind the IFIs once again of the dangers of doing business with regimes that lacked any democratic credentials or concern for workers’ rights, as well as the impact of globalisation on poverty. And whilst the Bank is currently undertaking a review the labour indices of its ‘Doing Business’ report there is no confidence as yet that this will result in any major change of approach.
Perhaps also with an eye to next year’s Presidential election in France, where he hopes to be the Socialist candidate, IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn acknowledged that not enough had been done to date to regulate the financial markets and that top priority must be given to creating more jobs. He gave support in principle for some form of financial tax, although not specifically the Robin Hood Tax favoured by the TUC and other international trade union bodies.