Inside Labour: A networking session drips with irony

2015-01-26 10:00

The annual World Economic Forum (WEF) extravaganza got under way this week as 700 private jets whizzed into the Swiss resort town of Davos.

This is a gathering where the heads of immensely rich corporations wine, dine, bribe and bully various power brokers and wannabe tycoons to do their bidding, and to adopt policies that suit the corporate world.

Far from being the UN-style interdisciplinary institution it is often portrayed as, the WEF is a private club whose members comprise the chief executives of 1?000 of the world’s wealthiest corporations.

The annual Davos talk shop is now a horrendously expensive event where anybody who thinks they are anybody has to be seen.

It provides an opportunity for pop stars and fading movie icons to parade their hearts on their sleeves as they tuck into caviar or R400 hamburgers to discuss issues such as alleviating global poverty.

But there is no denying it is a very professional and successful public relations exercise.

It should be remembered, for example, that at the 1993 WEF gathering, Nelson Mandela was persuaded to dump the redistributive policies drawn up over several years by the ANC’s Macroeconomic Research Group, headed by the late Vella Pillay.

This led to the formal adoption in 1996 of the business-friendly “trickle down” approach of the growth employment and redistribution programme, pinpointed by the unions as a major reason for our current social and economic woes.

It is for all these reasons that the South African labour movement is not represented at Davos this week.

However, President Jacob Zuma and a clutch of ministers and officials are there. As indeed are invited media representatives, some of them professed acolytes of the WEF, who may rub shoulders, as apparent equals, with presidents, monarchs and politicians.

Their hosts are the representatives of the 1% of the global population that this week’s Oxfam report notes will, by next year, own and control 50% of the wealth of the world.

As Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven says: “This is a business elite who are more powerful than the political elite.”

And, according to Federation of Unions of SA general secretary Dennis George, it is “a talk shop with no real follow-up”. However, the unions generally concede that there may be a few crumbs from the tables of the uberrich, often in the form of tax-deductible donations to one or other good cause.

This is not to denigrate those international labour, religious and human rights representatives who have gone – again – to Davos to plead for real change.

British Trades Union Congress general secretary Frances O’Grady says: “If Davos is a closed shop for the wealthy and powerful elites who caused today’s global inequality, it won’t come up with the answers needed for a more fair and prosperous future?...?We need the business leaders attending to commit to?...?investing in decent jobs, instead of the casino capitalism that caused the crash.”

However, much of the labour movement argues that the positions of the superrich members of the WEF club and the corporate dynamic put their profit-driven interests above those of humanity. And the members are desperately worried. WEF founder and CEO Klaus Schwab noted this week that “the world is at a crossroads”.

He pointed out that in one direction lay disintegration and terror; in the other, cooperation and stability. This is what the trade unions have been saying for years. But as the labour movement points out, it is the likes of the WEF club that have created the crossroads.

“These are representatives of a system in which inequality is entrenched,” says Craven.

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