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May Day: Union leaders share what governments could do to address the cost-of-living crisis and ensure fair and decent work for all

On May Day, trade union leaders have shared with the World Economic Forum how they think governments should respond to the growing cost-of-living crisis and other shared challenges.

On May Day, trade union leaders have shared with the World Economic Forum how they think governments should respond to the growing cost-of-living crisis and other shared challenges. Image: REUTERS/Kai Pfaffenbach

David Sangokoya
Head of Civil Society Impact, World Economic Forum
Giannis Moschos
Community Specialist, Civil Society, World Economic Forum
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SDG 08: Decent Work and Economic Growth

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  • On 1 May, countries around the world will celebrate the contribution that labour groups have made to improving living standards and working conditions.
  • But, as the world faces a 'polycrisis', more work must be done, particularly to protect the rights of women and other minorities in the workplace.
  • The World Economic Forum spoke with trade union leaders to mark May Day, and get their perspective on today's toughest challenges.

As we celebrate May Day, we are reminded of the pivotal role that trade unions have played in shaping our economies and societies in ways that ensure workers are treated fairly and with respect. The establishment of the 8-hour workday, occupational health and safety legislation and collective bargaining are all milestones that have been persistently driven by the organized labour movement.

Today, as we stand in the midst of a polycrisis, workers globally still face challenges that require immediate action.

The cost-of-living crisis, the most severe short-term global risk according to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Risks Report, is affecting all workers — but low-wage earners are disproportionately impacted by inflation. The sharp cost-of-living increases have even led to humanitarian crises in some places.

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The effects of the gender gap in access to employment are also worse than we think, especially in the Global South. When quality of employment comes into play, even in the hypothetical scenario that women and men were to work at equal rates, women would still earn between 43 and 73 cents for every dollar earned by men, depending on their income level and country of residence.

As such, current rising housing costs, stagnant wages and a lack of access to necessities such as healthcare and childcare are more likely to affect women and low-earners, exacerbating existing structural inequalities.

Knowing that these pressures are not only harmful for workers but also pose a systemic risk to the wider economy and society, governments around the world have taken measures to ease this crisis. Yet, these challenges will require stronger social dialogue and even bolder and more coordinated action from governments, businesses and civil society as we move forward.

Trade Unions on May Day

As May Day prompts us to renew our commitment to fundamental workers’ rights, we asked 5 global trade union leaders: What should governments focus on amidst the cost-of-living crisis to ensure fair and decent work for all?

Here is what they had to say:

'Through policy measures and regulation, governments need to address the crises of economic inequality and climate disaster.'

Owen Tudor, Deputy General Secretary, International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

Governments need to tackle the cost-of-living crisis by committing to and implementing the new social contract.

This means action on six key areas: ensuring respect for fundamental workers’ rights, reversing the decades-long decline in the wage share of GDP, reinstating full employment as a central policy objective, ensuring social protection for the 75% of people who are wholly or partly denied it, eliminating gender inequality and other forms of discrimination, and re-writing the rules of trade and finance to end the exclusion of so many people from shared prosperity.

There is no lack of financial resources in the world, but regressive tax regimes mean that vital investments in areas such as climate action with Just Transition, the care sector and in upgrading infrastructure are lacking, while unfettered price gouging by dominant corporations is straining household incomes to breaking point. Through policy measures and regulation, governments need to address the crises of economic inequality and climate disaster.

To restore confidence, ensure the grounds for peace and common security through multilateral action, deal with the current and future pandemics and maximise the benefits of technology while avoiding the downside, governments must make the new social contract a reality.

'The cost-of-living crisis cannot be solved by governments giving in to powerful industry interest and the interests of multinational corporations.'

Atle Høie – General Secretary, IndustriALL Global Union

Inequality in the world, but also within nations, continues to increase and is reaching unbearable levels. This is even recognised by international institutions like the IMF and the OECD as a major challenge, but very little is done about it. Why is that? Are the structures of power that set against labour that even recommendations from powerful international institutions are ignored? The cost-of-living crisis cannot be solved by governments giving in to powerful industry interest and the interests of multinational corporations. They have proven time and time again that intentions are not sincere. The solution is simple and within the power of government.

All governments have to guarantee full respect of ILO conventions 87 and 98 on the right to organize and to bargain collectively and they have to do so throughout the international supply chains. That means that they have to provide for proper due diligence with the full involvement of those who have the shoes on, the workers and their unions. But governments are eroding these rights in more and more countries and at the same time they do very little to change the development with their own initiatives.

May-day would be the perfect opportunity for everybody to recognize the importance of fundamental worker’s rights and start implementing, not dismantling.

'A good starting point for government focus is accountability.'

David Edwards – General Secretary, Education International

A good starting point for government focus is accountability. Billions of dollars every year are pilfered from public treasuries by tax havens and loopholes, illicit financial flows and debt interest payments that starve public sector spending on priorities like education and decent work.

The UN in December resolved to focus on tax collection in 2023, “against the backdrop of a looming economic and costs of living crisis, rising inequalities and climate change.”

That’s a good starting point for the global union and pro-democracy movements mobilising for an equitable and sustainable social contract.

As budgets for education systems are reduced across the globe, hundreds of millions of the most vulnerable children, young people and adults remain excluded from school. Millions more are there, but without real learning opportunities due to inadequate resources, deficient environments and untrained teachers.

In sub-Saharan Africa, in the Asian sub-continent and the Pacific islands especially, climate change is more than a series of deadly weather events — it is a growing existential crisis of disappearing land masses and displaced human beings. As ever, those contributing least to the problem bear the heaviest burden.

Women and girls, the first and most affected by the pandemic and the last to be restored economically, continue to lag in pay, earning some 23% less than men on average.

Education, climate change, gender equity; only governments held accountable for resources and results in democratic processes can begin to address even these threshold economic challenges.

'We cannot fix a fractured world while suppressing workers’ voices and denying them a seat at the table.'

Christy Hoffman – General Secretary, UNI Global Union

The most important step governments can take to tackle the cost-of-living crisis and to secure work with dignity for all is to enable workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Trade unions are fundamental to democracy in the workplace and in wider society. Yet too many barriers — like inadequate labour protections and rampant union busting — remain for freedom of association, and there are too few consequences for corporations that routinely violate the right for workers to organize.

Unions are an essential solution to rising inequality — the underlying cause of fragmentation — and we cannot fix a fractured world while suppressing workers’ voices and denying them a seat at the table.

Collective bargaining has a critical role to play. There is widespread evidence that increased collective bargaining coverage reduces inequality, improves gender equality and supports employment and productivity. Without protecting workers’ right to join a union, then the ability to bargain collectively is blocked.

It is time that the vital role of trade unions is recognized by all governments and that they make the changes necessary to support and promote the right to organize and therefore the ability of workers to bargain collectively.

'Governments are failing the people who elect them, and the transport workers who power their economies.'

Stephen Cotton – General Secretary, International Transport Workers’ Federation

In a world on the brink of recession, transport can be a driver of economic progress.

The ITF’s 2022 Global Poll provides clear evidence of the global public’s recognition of the critical role that transport, and transport workers, play to the global economy. But right now, people are worried about transport– from the rising costs of getting to work, to concerns about failing supply chains.

One in two people think their government is handling transport badly. Governments are failing the people who elect them, and the transport workers who power their economies.

Across the world, governments have allowed businesses to compete unchecked, with little protection in place for workers across their supply chains. Governments have ripped up labour safeguards to encourage and increase competition. Labour standards across the transport industry have been eroded as businesses have sought cheaper ways to move people and goods. For decades, transport workers have seen their jobs worsen.

It is time now to act. With a convergence of crises from the pandemic, climate change and cost of living, government investment in transport and the rights of transport workers can be a driver of social, political and economic change.

Transport workers and their unions are calling for action on six demands: corporate accountability, sustainability, safety, rights, equality and a say in the future of work.

The findings of the ITF Global Poll prove that people support the demands of transport workers and their unions. Governments, businesses and investors must follow their lead to ensure fair and decent work for all transport workers.

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