When risks become reality who needs to act?

The 2017 World Economic Forum Global Risks Report should more aptly be seen as the sounding of a global emergency alarm.

Now the lever has been pulled, who will heed it and in whose interests?

Despite the fact that the world's GDP has trebled in the last three decades the realities faced by working people and their families are not new. Unemployment and underemployment have been warning signs of exclusion for three decades.

Five trends tell us why the alarm bells are ringing so loudly now:

  • the fall in income share has been the central pursuit of corporate globalization;
  • tax fraud has undermined social security and public services where they exist and cemented lack of progress for the 70% of people without social protection;
  • child labour, slavery, precarious and informal work are all the result of a corporate capture of governments such that they fail to regulate or prosecute to protect their own citizens or provide safety nets;
  • our financial systems are vulnerable purely as a result of speculative greed and regulatory failure, and
  • climate change has been a scientific reality for many years but renewable energy has giant enemies in the fossil fuel establishment who continue to resist the transition.

When you add the threat of an unregulated approach to the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the potential for a Darwinian scramble for low wage work with potential loss of secure jobs in many areas, coupled with the rapid escalation of cyberattacks including financial, institutional and political attacks, the then the pursuit of more of the same is pure folly.

And working families and their communities no longer trust the winners from a stacked deck. This is hardly surprising.

In 2013 when 1129 people were killed when Rana Plaza collapsed in Dhaka Bangladesh, when street riots took place in Cyprus when the IMF bailout taxed bank deposits, and nearly 1500 people were killed in chemical attacks in the suburbs of Damascus, the ITUC's polling indicated that only 13% of people thought that governments were acting in their interest, and that 28% were disenchanted or at worst disengaged with the belief that governments were acting in the interests of neither people nor business.

In the 15 countries we surveyed in 2014 as the Eurozone faltered again and pro-democracy protests took over Hong Kong streets, we found there was not one country where people believed the economic system was fair to most people. 78% of people thought the economic system favoured the wealthy.

In 2015 while the refugee crisis was unfolding on Europe's borders, which continues today and threatens to put up walls between nations, 55% said companies couldn't be trusted to look after their workers in different countries.

The new ingredient is that working people are hitting back. The use of the ballot box is indicating renewed interest in democracy. People's feelings of economic exclusion are driving them to take revenge in elections and plebiscites.

Tragically the solutions offered by those promoting populist alternatives are equally if not more damaging for secure working futures. And these offerings are built on fear, prejudice and increasingly misogyny.

In the absence of truth telling and courageous policies that are people centered, political leaders simply represent more of the same, putting democracy itself at risk.

Who will change the rules of the game in 2017?

Is there a chance G20 leaders will seize the opportunity or will the polarization of the largest national economies thwart the agenda set by Angela Merkel? Will business support unions in the quest to invest in jobs and wages and reduce inequality as well as strengthen social protection, rights and the rule of law or merely maintain short-term self-interest? Will the winners of globalization continue to dominate the IMF and the WTO political discourse where workers and developing economies face even greater inequality?

When people feel powerlessness and the loss of a sense of control over their lives and where corporate power dominates and undermines society, there is an answer. There are policies that politicians can enact which put all people at the centre of their decision making.

Workers and their unions want:

  1. A new model of global trade in supply chains with freedom of association, minimum living wages, collective bargaining, safe and secure work and the rule of law. Informal work and slavery have no place in decent work.

  • Renewed commitment to implement the rule of law that is laid out in the UN Guiding Principles for Business and Human Rights, beginning with the endorsement of corporate responsibility for due diligence.
  • The scaling up of quality apprenticeships, skills investment and labour market support for young people.
  • Universal social protection.
  • The strengthening of labour market institutions, wages and safe work with the support of the ILO and the strengthening of the complaints mechanism of the OECD Multinational Enterprises Guidelines begin with universal due diligence guidance and sanctions for corporate abuse.
  • Investment in jobs with a focus on enabling green infrastructure and in the care economy, which in turn supports the participation of women.
  • Mandated disclosure of investments and just transition measures in national and industry plans for climate action.
  • The requirement for disclosure of beneficial ownership to end tax corruption.
  • Certainty that technology is deployed for the public good and employment relationships are not broken in the "platform economy".
  • The global decisions of 2015 with the Sustainable Development Goals and the Paris Climate Agreement hold the promise of a zero poverty zero carbon world.

    But when wages, employment protection, human rights, industry policy and corporate responsibility for due diligence remain "objectionable" policy priorities to be opposed by the winners of globalization as it's constructed today, it is easy to understand the anger of working communities and to be pessimistic that the sound of global alarm bells will be heeded.

    There is no shortage of money in the world to meet the needs, but political will seems to be in short supply.