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Inequality: The Scourge of Our Times

When the historians of the future reflect on the world of today, what will the history books say? How will they describe this period in the long life of our planet?
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When the historians of the future reflect on the world of today, what will the history books say? How will they describe this period in the long life of our planet?

Will they speak of the millions of impoverished workers stuck at the bottom of the global supply chain -- those victims of modern day slavery? Or explain why a Bangladesh factory collapsed and killed thousands who were producing cheap clothes for our high streets? They might struggle to understand how, centuries after the pyramids were completed, a thousand migrant workers were allowed to die during the construction of stadiums for a football tournament we appear to value more than life itself.

In those grim revisions there will be a word that appears more than most -- inequality. Today's world, historians will note, is a world twisted out of shape. Between 2009 and 2014, at the height of a financial crisis forced upon working people, the number of billionaires doubled. During those same years so many of the rest of us were losing our homes, pensions, jobs, welfare, wages and rights.

For years, no, decades, the labour movement has warned that if we did not fend off massive income inequalities, we would wind up with a world torn straight from the pages of a science fiction novel -- a dystopia consisting of an all-powerful super-rich and an increasingly desperate, impoverished underclass. Well, the richest remain untouched by austerity -- their wealth increases by a sickening half a million dollars every minute. Meanwhile, around 30 million jobs have been lost since the financial crisis began, incomes have stagnated for decades and debts have risen. The middle class is disappearing and that fantasy world does not seem so far away.

This spiraling in income inequality correlates directly with a fall in trade union density, fueled by a nasty right-wing policy push. The erosion of labour market institutions has left workers without a seat at the table and unable to bargain for fairer wages and a better life. We cannot take back our economies as individuals, we can only create the change we need with a strong, united labour movement.

It can be done. At the turn of the century I became the General Secretary of the all-new UNI Global Union -- now one of the world's largest labour federations. Today membership and influence continue to grow and the organization, which represents the services sector, counts 20 million members in 150 nations and 900 unions. We have negotiated 54 global agreements with leading multinationals and co-created the Bangladesh Accord on Fire and Building Safety -- a deal signed by over 180 global brands that will save thousands of lives.

As a labour leader, I have been informed by the struggles that have shaped our times -- South Africa, Tiananmen Square, the Berlin Wall and dictatorships in the likes of Argentina, Chile and Brazil. It was working people who struggled for the freedom and market opportunities that exist in those countries today and they deserve to reap their share of the benefits.

Next week, UNI will hold its World Congress in South Africa, twenty years on from the country's freedom from apartheid. Our Congress theme will be Including You, which encompasses the fight for union growth, the promotion of a new fairer and sustainable global economy and the world of work where quality jobs, collective bargaining and social protection will be the keys to success.

If we fail, we expect to see income inequality worsen. The super-rich will keep getting richer by living on the returns of their wealth, while the rest of will slip further behind. If we win, then perhaps the history books might look back on us just a little more kindly.

Philip Jennings, General Secretary, UNI Global Union UNI Global Union will hold its 4th World Congress in Cape Town 7-10 December 2014

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