In 2005 as the finance ministers of the G7 gathered in London, Nelson Mandela remarked “massive poverty and obscene inequality are such terrible scourges of our times – times in which the world boasts breathtaking advances in science, technology, industry and wealth accumulation – they have to rank alongside slavery and apartheid as social evils.”
In recent historical periods citizens have walked past slaves and victims of apartheid without flinching. There was an acceptance that such victims were either not fully human beings or at least, less deserving beings than those in privileged positions of power or those who were free due to an accident of birth.
Although, slavery and forced labour are still far too common in today’s world the moral justification which makes them acceptable has gone from our societies.
Mandela again: “Overcoming poverty is not a gesture of charity. It is an act of justice. It is the protection of a fundamental human right, the right to dignity and a decent life.”
The recent decades of globalization, deregulation and privatization have massively increased inequality and poverty in countries as rich in resources as Aotearoa New Zealand. The need to increase profits by driving down costs has been regarded as ‘inalienable law’ by big business promoters of globalization and their narrow cheerleader economists who lack any kind of moral universe in which to frame their prescriptions for inequality.
In our obsession with raising GDP and attracting investment, our nation has eroded the human rights of its citizens. Yes we have enshrined the rights to be free from discrimination based on ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief, age and so on but none of these rights threaten the economic order.
The UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights refer to the State’s duty to protect against human rights abuses. This means all human rights, rights that cannot be diluted or compromised and includes the right to food and the right to join a union and the right to collective bargaining. Businesses also have a duty to promote human rights, protect against human rights abuses and to remedy any violations within the company’s sphere of influence, including within its supply chain.
New Zealand as part of the UN and the OECD has signed up to these commitments. Is it not time to hold Government and Business to account for their duties and obligations?
As the President of the NZCTU keeps reminding us, the mainstream media, NZ businesses and their Government are locked into a model in which employment is viewed as a charity. This permits and frames an environment where social protections and opportunities for advancement have been systematically stripped away. If workers have rights, the moral justification for the deregulation of the labour market can no longer be framed in a charitable model. “We should pay our servants more” is not an approach which is grounded in the observance of human rights.
It is time poverty and inequality were placed at the top of the political agenda as social evils which must be eradicated just as slavery and apartheid once were. These injustices should not be reduced to vacuous excuses about what is good for the economy. The economy is there to serve people, all people, and to reduce poverty. People should not be required to sacrifice their human rights for the sake of the economy.
Some political and business leaders are now recognizing that this economic model that increases inequality is bad for business and is threatening society. The world needs a pay rise. Yes most of the worlds’ workers do but this approach is a band aid and does nothing to address the human rights deficits. How many of society’s elite are advocating a return to one of the main tools for reducing inequality – collective bargaining? Inequality will not be reduced by hope and dreams. It will be reduced by regulation and practical tools. Taxation is one tool, collective bargaining is another.
A NZ Government which is serious about reducing poverty and inequality will not just promote collective bargaining in an Employment Act as the last Labour Government did but rather will establish the rules and framework for comprehensive collective bargaining that leaves no sector untouched.
In doing so, we will not only make great advances in fighting poverty and inequality but will also enhance human dignity and observe our human rights obligations.