Voice of the masses

Published : Jul 29, 2011 00:00 IST

Freddy Huck, former president of the Trade Union International, addressing the third conference of the group in Paris. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Freddy Huck, former president of the Trade Union International, addressing the third conference of the group in Paris. - BY SPECIAL ARRANGEMENT

Representatives of over 150 organisations from 82 countries meet in Paris at the third Conference of the Trade Union International.

IF the French Finance Minister, Christine Lagarde, has become the first woman Managing Director of the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the French trade union movement has already brought together unions worldwide to challenge its policies militantly. Representatives of over 150 organisations (spread over 82 countries), 29 of them from Africa, 17 from Latin America and 16 from Europe, met in Paris for a week from June 20 to 26, at the third Conference of the Trade Union International of Workers in Agriculture, Food, Commerce, Textiles and Allied Industries. It was a remarkable cross-section, with representatives from advanced economies such as France and Russia, the fastest-growing economies such as China and India, oil-rich states such as Kuwait, Iran and Algeria, countries rich in minerals such as Indonesia, Angola, Brazil, the Congo and the Ivory Coast, states steeped in poverty such as Burkina Faso, and crisis-ridden countries such as Greece, Portugal, Cyprus, Palestine, Sudan and Pakistan.

The political systems they operated ranged from the remnants of old empires such as France, Spain and Portugal; liberated colonies pursuing the path of capitalist development, such as India, Brazil, Mexico, Morocco and Egypt; former socialist states such as Russia, Moldavia, Belarus, Uzbekistan, Kazakhstan, the Czech Republic, Serbia, Poland and Ethiopia; socialist states such as China, North Korea, Vietnam and Cuba; Bolivarian socialist ones such as Venezuela; and Sandinist ones such as Nicaragua; to Baathist ones such as Syria. But they had one thing in common. They were bitterly opposed to the market steamrolling of their centuries-old peasant agriculture and handing it over to agro-multinationals, which replaced the concept of food sovereignty and food security with captive markets for global monopolies to profit from.

Poverty, war and hunger

What did this mean for the people? Freddy Huck, former president of the Trade Union International, pointed out in his opening speech: Capitalist globalisation means an increase of the wealth of the rich while the poor sink into misery. Both locally and internationally, the capitalist accumulation of wealth and the means of production throws millions of people in all countries of the world into dire poverty, war, illiteracy and hunger.

Perhaps nowhere is it more evident than in India, as was pointed out by S. Ramachandran Pillai, vice-president of the Union, who is also the president of the All India Kisan Sabha and a former Member of Parliament. He said:

India continues to be one of the poorest countries in the world despite its figures of growth and the rise of a narrow stratum of those who have made quick money through shady deals. There were only nine billionaires in India in 2004, and their number increased to 49 in 2008. Assets of the 10 largest corporates tripled during this period. According to the Indian government's study, 840 million people in India spend less than half a dollar a day. A large part of rural India is backward and lacks adequate transport, communication, healthcare and other basic facilities. Though India is endowed with rich land, water and labour resources, Indian agriculture is characterised by low productivity with average yield for most crops far below world levels. [A total of] 220 thousand distressed peasants and agricultural workers committed suicide from 1997 to 2008. It is estimated that every hour, two peasants and agricultural workers are committing suicide at present.

The distorted form of the capitalist path of development favouring landlordism pursued by the Government of India after Independence in 1947 and the neoliberal economic policies since the 1990s have caused an unprecedented agricultural crisis in India. The intensity of the crisis is different in different areas But the overwhelming majority of the peasants and agricultural workers are adversely affected by it. Agriculture is increasingly becoming an unviable venture for the vast majority of the peasantry. Spiralling input prices and highly volatile output prices, influenced by international market trends, are the main reasons for the squeeze on farm income. Output prices no longer cover the cost of production in the case of a significant number of crops. The contribution of the agricultural sector to the gross domestic product in India came down from 32 per cent in 1991 to 15.7 per cent now. But there is no proportional deployment of the agrarian population to service and industrial sectors. Rural unemployment has tripled in the last two decades.

Because of the unviable nature of agriculture, farmers are forced to sell their cattle and land to meet livelihood expenses. Landless peasant families in the countryside constituted 22 per cent [of the population] in the beginning of the 1990s; they now constitute 41 per cent, with 6 per cent of the households owning 46 per cent of the land and 63 per cent owning one hectare or less. About half of the peasant and agricultural worker households are deeply indebted, paying more than 60 per cent interest to private moneylenders. The workdays of the agricultural workers have declined from 123 days in 1980 to 57 days at present. Agricultural workers and poor peasants have no food security, nutritional security, health security, housing security, employment security, income security, life and accident security and old age security except in States that were ruled by the Left, which conducted large-scale land reforms, passed comprehensive legislation for agricultural labourers and ensured pensions and a proper public distribution system. India's rank in the global hunger index is 66 among 88 countries; 43 per cent of the children below five years are underweight and India has the highest number of anaemic women.

Distress in Russia

Viktor Karnyushin of Russia, president of the Timber and Related Industries of the Workers' Unions of the Commonwealth of Independent States, lamented how the promised prosperity after the dismantling of socialism in the erstwhile Soviet Union had not materialised. He said not only were the wages insufficient to feed workers' families in a climate of inflation, but workers were subjected to pressures from imperialist monopolies as well as the Russian oligarchy, who managed to violate all the laws meant to protect labour.

Working hours had increased to over eight hours a day. Resources were being plundered, he said. However, he said, with the experience of the working class of the Soviet Union behind him, he hoped that fora like the conference would help the workers coordinate struggles and win, especially in a period of crisis.

Kostantinos Liapatis, general secretary of the Food and Agriculture Union of Greece, pointed out that while there was an upsurge in workers' struggles, one could not ignore the possibility of increased attacks on their rights. Multinational control was not confined to production; it was threatening food security to the extent that vast quantities of corn, which could feed the hungry, was being used as fuel.

To face the all-round attack, he said, an alternative should be created with a socialist society as the objective, a society in which the workers must demand the right to manage the wealth they create not as individual units but as a class. He also informed the conference of the Greek resistance to the European Union's (E.U.) austerity measures, starting with a 48-hour strike.

Petros Mylonas, president of the Panhellenic Federation of the Drinks Industry, highlighted how world famous names like Heineken, Coca-Cola and Pepsi made those serving in their factories do tough work for long hours, with minimal social security, while speculators and corrupt politicians got away with the wealth. In fact, Greece had become a sort of laboratory of speculators who were responsible for the crisis that was being blamed, by international institutions, on the working class, which was fighting for its right to survive the shackles that came in the name of help.

Dragan Zarubica, president of Serbia's Union of Workers in Agriculture, Food and Tobacco Products, stressed how capitalism spread its tentacles cruelly and anarchically and how the working class accounted for the largest number of its victims. In Serbia alone 500,000 workers were jobless, representing 25 per cent of the workforce, largely as a result of privatisation, he said.

He pointed out how, while a united struggle of the working class was necessary to get out of such an impasse, the erstwhile Yugoslavia had seen the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) use force and divisive tactics to destroy the unity of workers that existed before.

Mohammad Yahya, assistant secretary-general of the General Union of Palestine Workers, described the Israeli blockade of Gaza as a powerful and cruel weapon imperialism had used against self-expression by people. In Palestine, this weapon was brutally supported by a system of apartheid, brutal attacks on and reduction of people, including women and children, to conditions of extreme inhumanity, destruction of homes and assaults on religious places.

He, however, was hopeful of the international support of the working people and called for all kinds of social pressure on Israel, including a boycott of Israeli goods, and for the social and political boycott of the Israeli state, to force it to agree to a peaceful solution to the Palestinian problem.

Kim Sang Bong, vice-president of the Korean Agricultural Workers Union, highlighted the sharpening of exploitation under capitalism and the increase in disparities and conflicts. He also highlighted how, for the sake of profit, cereals were destroyed rather than provided to those who needed them. This made food security doubly important for all states, he said.

He went on to describe the Democratic Republic of Korea's (DPRK) efforts at securing food safety with workers' intervention, increased investment in agriculture, and better motivation of the masses to increase production and through socialist emulation. He pointed out how the policies had borne fruit and ensured that North Korea would be less and less dependent for its food security on outside imports with the passage of time.

Food security

Jian Nan, vice-president of the Agricultural Trade Union of the Chinese Trade Union Federation, also stressed food security. She pointed out that in the present conditions, food and agricultural production were of prime importance and China had to ensure that its population of 1.4 billion people was fed properly.

While incomes were growing at a rate of over 8 per cent a year, income inequalities, the fragility of the infrastructure, strengthening of collective consultation, reinforcement of provisions to protect labour, improvement of techniques, the quality of work and life of workers, and workers' safety were important concerns of the state and the trade unions. As many as 6,750 public sector companies and mass organisations of workers functioned as instruments to ensure better conditions, health, education and livelihoods for workers. They had to be watchful constantly, ensuring maximum democratic participation in implementing policies, she said.

Bac Kwok Khang, president of the Vietnam National Union of Agriculture and Rural Development, spoke of the enormous strength of a united working people that could be mobilised and unleashed even by a small country like Vietnam. He highlighted the connection between agriculture and culture and the general orientation of the people. He pointed out that not only was Vietnam the second largest producer of rice in the world but it diverted no less than a third of the profits to the primary producers.

But, he said, more needed to be done to ensure food as a right, by enlarging the membership of organisations of agricultural labourers and peasants and by evolving democratic functioning and involvement to strengthen these. Agrarian policies of socialist states still provided the best solutions to the agrarian crises that had gripped many countries as a result of pro-corporate and the anti-peasant policies dictated by the IMF, the World Bank and other similar agencies, he said.

Blas Berriel Pena of Cuba highlighted the regional cooperation developing among Cuba, Venezuela, Nicaragua, Peru, Chile and several other Latin American states as a challenge to the United States' imperialism in its own backyard.

A report from Haiti, now occupied by U.S. forces after an earthquake, highlighted the terrible conditions of Haitians that give the lie to U.S. claims about the Caribbean. Indeed, the recent mass upsurges in countries that were the Arab allies of the U.S., such as Egypt, Tunisia, Morocco, Yemen and Bahrain, were also equally an indictment of the U.S.' economic policies and gross political opportunism, which had now become unbearable to the mass of workers as they had given rise to inflation, unemployment and authoritarian regimes owing allegiance to the U.S., the world's most notorious exporter of destabilisation in the name of promoting democracy, the Cuban representative said.

The issues highlighted at the conference had been discussed at the second conference of the Trade Union International in Paris in April 2004, which was attended by 53 countries. It was there that the major issue of food sovereignty was introduced.

People must be given the means of agriculture and rural development based on the satisfaction of their food needs, it was stated. State intervention was called for through the planning process, organisation of markets, financial and economic support, and a pricing policy, to ensure stable provision of necessities for everyone. To ensure this, each country had the right to protect its agriculture with measures to prevent national frontiers from being done away with to the detriment of producers and consumers, and to protect industry, and to nationalise sectors related to basic needs. In this context, the privatisation of water resources was opposed and revolutionary and democratic land reforms in Asia, Africa and Latin America were supported as measures taken to ensure the survival of the peasantry. The patent regime in agriculture and science was criticised and there were calls for the cancellation of the huge debts imposed on developing countries.

The fiscal discipline imposed by international financial institutions, which has resulted in jobless growth, is an area of concern in almost all the countries that have been pandering to the growth models imposed by the IMF and the World Bank. Large-scale unemployment, growing poverty, distress migration and chronic undernourishment have been the major effects, made worse by armed interventions by imperial forces in areas of strategic importance. The use of embargos and blockades against Cuba, Iran, North Korea and Palestine, among others, has inflicted unnecessary miseries on millions of innocent people.

The Call From Paris issued by the Trade Union International at the end of the conference noted that there were clear signs that the class conflict between the exponents of capitalism, the bourgeoisie and the working masses is coming to a head, reaching a heightened level of violence and ferocity. In the face of this, workers on every continent are engaging in furthering the fight for wages and employment, the fight against unemployment, for better working conditions and improved living and health conditions, for proper pensions and the right for free health-care for all.

The delegates called upon workers in our industries and upon peasants, indigenous peoples and the rural masses to band together and unite under class trade union organisations, to reinforce the international working class movement and join our trade union international. They denounced the underhand schemes of imperialism which aim to reinforce capitalist domination, monopolise national wealth and appropriate labour and challenge them with a call to give an alternative socialist agenda.

While condemning the use of food as a weapon by imperialism and major capitalist societies, the delegates came out against regional and continental free trade agreements that brought in profits for the agro-monopolies but misery and dispossession to the people. In this respect land relations were seen as a fundamental issue and real revolutionary processes of agrarian reform were called for to put an end to feudal and semi-feudal landlordism as well as the capitalist system.

The conference took up issues relating to farming to feed the people, coming out against genetically modified organisms being left to the will of agro-businesses and profiteers without proper monitoring by public institutions. The delegates opposed the surrendering of food-producing agricultural lands for the production of bio-fuels, exacerbating financial speculation and multiplying the dangers to the planet and humanity. Further, they affirmed that water must be recognised as a vital need, a social good and a common good of humanity essential for all living beings and gave a call to work to ensure that access to water is freed from all private appropriation and market participation.

There was a call to cancel the debts of developing countries, most of which had paid back enough interest on them to cover the original amount taken. They called for the spirited defence of trade union laws and rights and opposed the barbarism of wars dividing the people instead of uniting them in peace and brotherhood. The conference stressed the strengthening of continental coordination bodies in Latin America, Europe and Africa, while calling for regional conferences and coordinating facilities in Asia and the Arab world with a view to creating trade organisation under the umbrella of our TUI.

Far from giving vague slogans of global unity in struggle, they called for action appropriate to each individual situation. A more decentralised and democratic approach was called for even in international organisations such as the International Labour Organisation (ILO) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) by combating the hegemonic approach of a single trade union organisation and calling for trade union pluralism to defend workers' rights. Indeed, the appeal issued by the conference from Paris reflects the fact that by now the first shock of the collapse of the Soviet Union and East European socialist states is over and an alternative approach to the diktats of international institutions and the savagery of imperialism is taking concrete shape across the world in a coordinated way so that the myriad of struggles taking place do not just boil over and get frittered away without registering concrete gains for the millions dependent on agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries and related industries in different countries.

To ensure this, the union has elected a young general secretary, Julien Huck from France; a president, Aliou Ndiaye from Africa; and a woman office-bearer, Souad Mahmoud from Tunisia.

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