Global labour chief says civil society must be heard on finance crisis

By Stephen Brown
February 19, 2009

The global financial crisis is likely to increase social conflict, says the head of the International Labour Office, Juan Somavia, asserting that civil society organizations have an important role in helping those affected to be heard.

"We must expect there's going to be more social tension," Somavia, the ILO's director general, told journalists on 18 February 2009 ahead of the first World Day of Social Justice. The day, on 20 February, was proclaimed by the UN general assembly in November 2008.

He warned that the effects of the crisis would be felt most heavily by the poorest people in society, not only those in developing countries but also sectors of developed countries.

"We overvalued the market, we undervalued the State and we devalued two key things: the dignity of work and the protection of the environment," said Somavia, a Chilean academic and diplomat who has since 1999 headed the Geneva-based body that brings together representatives of governments, employers and trade unions.

He called for "leadership" from a meeting in April of the Group of 20 (G20), made up of the leading economies from the developed and developing world. "We need to change the priorities," said Somavia. "We need a global system that values the dignity of work and environmental protection."

Civil society organizations have a "very important" role in representing voices in society, said Somavia. He noted a significant convergence between the views of such groups and those of the ILO. Somavia's comments came as civil society organizations including churches described the G20 meeting in London as an opportunity to press for reforms in the global economic system.

"Meaningful alternatives to current global finances need to fulfil two fundamental requisites," says Martin Gück, from Kairos Europe, a network of European church-related justice movements, in a statement issued by the Geneva-based World Council of Churches.

"On the one hand, they have to reverse the imbalance of power in the current financial market system, which favours private and public actors - banks and international financial institutions - that are neither legitimised democratically nor accountable to the society," said Gück. "On the other hand, the dominion of finances over the 'real' economy must end."

Somavia in his comments drew a distinction between the "real" economy and the financial markets. Recent high rates of economic development were based on the growth in the financial sector, he said, "and this did not correspond to any growth in the real economy," which provides jobs.

A report on "fair globalisation" issued in 2004 by a panel set up by the ILO had come in for criticism for its statement that the direction of globalisation is "morally unacceptable and politically unsustainable", said Somavia. "Now [the statement] seems perfectly reasonable."

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

Although the views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent the views of Ekklesia, the article may reflect Ekklesia's values. If you use Ekklesia's news briefings please consider making a donation to sponsor Ekklesia's work here.