Globalisation briefing

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What does 'globalisation' mean?

Globalisation is a term that is frequently used but seldom defined. It refers to the rapid increase in the share of economic activity taking place across national boundaries. This goes beyond the international trade in goods and includes the way those goods are produced, the delivery and sale of services, and the movement of capital.

Is that good or bad?

Globalisation can be a force for good. It has the potential to generate wealth and improve living standards. But it isn't doing that very well at the moment. The benefits from increased trade, investment, and technological innovation are not fairly distributed.

The experience of the international trade union movement suggests that the reality for the majority of the world's population is that things are getting worse. Globalisation as we know it is increasing the gap between rich and poor. This is because the policies that drive the globalisation process are largely focussed on the needs of business. The relentless drive to liberalise trade i.e. to remove trade barriers, promote privatisation, and reduce regulation (including legal protection for workers), has had a negative impact on the lives of millions of people around the world. In addition, many of the poorer countries have been pressured to orientate their economies towards producing exports and to reduce already inadequate spending on public services such as health and education so that they can repay their foreign debt. This has forced even more people into a life of poverty and uncertainty.

Are governments powerless in the face of globalisation?

The type of globalisation we are experiencing is sometimes portrayed as an inevitable, technologically driven process that we must adapt to in order to survive and prosper. For millions of workers, in the developing as well as the developed world, this has been translated into living with greater job insecurity and worse conditions. But the reality is that the globalisation we have seen in recent decades has been driven by a labourious process of international rule-making and enforcement. Goverments have made those rules. There has been a conscious political choice to pursue the policies that underpin the process. Of course, domestic economic, industrial and social policies also play a crucial role in determining living conditions, though poorer countries are less able to resist globalisation due to their economically weaker position.

Who are the key players?

A number of key players are driving globalisation. They include multinational enterprises which carry out business across national boundaries; the World Trade Organisation (WTO), through which international trade agreements are negotiated and enforced; the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) which are meant to assist governments in achieving development aims through the provision of loans and technical assistance. They have championed the trade liberalisation policies mentioned above. Governments, and these international institutions are instrumental in determining the outcome of globalisation.

How can globalisation work for people?

Ways need to be found to manage and structure globalisation so that it supports fundamental human rights and sustainable development, and generates prosperity for ordinary people, particularly the poorest. Left unchecked, globalisation will lead to their further marginalisation and impoverishment.

What is the trade union movement doing to pursue this?

The TUC, along with partner organisations in the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the Trade Union Advisory Committee (TUAC) to the OECD have worked for a number of years to include social issues in the trade agenda. We continue to campaign at both national and international levels for strong and effective regulation to protect fundamental human rights and to manage the negative aspects of globalisation such as financial volatility and the inequitable distribution of economic benefits.

This year, the ICFTU has designated 9th November as a Global Unions Day of Action. Trade unionists around the world are encouraged to carry out an action in the workplace on that date to demonstrate support for 'making globalisation work for people' (the theme for the day). The Day of Action will help to raise the public profile of this issue.

What are we asking for?

Promote development and eliminate poverty

We support fair and transparent world trade and the removal of trade barriers but on the basis that social concerns are not neglected. A lot more needs to be done to promote development in non-industrialised countries and to eliminate poverty. We are asking for debt relief, increased aid, fair trade terms, protection for public services, access to essential medicines such as HIV/AIDS treatment, capacity building and assistance with international trade negotiation, as well as reform of the WTO, World Bank and IMF so that there is greater transparency and democracy within their operations.

Respect fundamental workers' rights

Core labour standards form the basic building blocks of democracy and are crucial to the empowerment of people, particularly those who are impoverished and marginalised. Freedom of association, the right to effective collective bargaining, freedom from forced and child labour, and freedom from discrimination are basic human rights that help people to break out of the poverty trap. These must be respected and not violated in the name of international trade. Consequently, there has to be co-ordination and co-operation between the WTO and the International Labour Organisation (ILO) to ensure that trade rules and policies do not continue to undermine labour standards.

A number of developing countries have expressed concern about labour standards being used for protectionist purposes i.e. to protect jobs in industrialised countries and to reduce the competitiveness of developing countries. This is not our intention, nor are we promoting trade sanctions as the means to secure respect for these standards. We are trying to pursue respect for labour standards in a non-protectionist way and have promoted a joint WTO-ILO Standing Working Forum to try to achieve this. We wish to engage with developing countries on this issue to address their concerns.

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