Workers must Become Transnational...

Antonio Neto


[Antonio Neto, currently the president of Central Geral dos Trabalhadores (CGTB), is one of the most prominent labour leaders in Brazil. He is also the president of the World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU). Souparna Lahiri, had a conversation with him for Labour File, Excerpts : ]


Being a trade union leader, what are your concerns today?

Rising unemployment, under employment and poverty across the globe. There are fewer than 500 billionaires in the world today while over 1.3 billion people live in absolute poverty. Between 1985 and 1995, more than 10 million workers lost their jobs in Africa. In Japan, the unemployment figure has crossed 3 million while in Europe, it has crossed the 3.5 per  cent level. In my country, Brazil, the unemployment rate is a staggering 20 per cent. The transnational corporations and the speculative finance capital, abetted by the International Monetray Fund (IMF) and World Bank, are demolishing labour laws and destroying labour justice. The basic rights of the workers are at stake.


What is your opinion about WTO and its role in propagating the ideology of globalisation and free trade?


WTO is the instrument of neo-liberal economic programme and an extension of the ‘Washington Consensus’. It has helped the forces of globalisation to rip apart the Third World economies, weaken the states and compromise their sovereignty in the name of free trade. The control of the poor countries’ markets is being transferred to the  monopolies and the roving finance capital.


Globalisation is not creating a free market. It is creating a closed market for some with an ultimate monopoly. How can WTO determine what is good for one’s economy and impose penalties on countries simply because they cannot restructure their economies according to WTO rules? How can it dictate who produces what and force others to cease producing them? While the US preaches free trade and opening of economies, it is itself erecting one barrier after another to trade into American mainland. From the fixation of quotas to the use of enviornmental and social clauses and human rights, it is the one who has undermined international trade.


What has been the effect on Brazil?


We are witnessing the devastating effects of globalisation in Brazil. Brazil is rich in natural and human resources. Yet, a large percentage of the population lives in misery. The US, European and Japanese finance capital domiantes the economy. Our biggest problem today is an enormous debt and the high interest attached to the debt. Brazil’s debt is estimated to have crossed $116.5 billion, about 33 percent of the country’s GDP. Servicing this debt diverts money from production which leads to large-scale closure of plants, higher unempolyment and poverty and lower taxes and consumer spending. The government then borrows more. It is vicious cycle from which Brazil has been unable to escape.Today, around 10 million workers are unemployed and millions more underemployed.


For many Brazilians, life is difficult and often impossible. With the lowest minimum guaranteed salary, the average Brazilian cannot afford the basic necessities. About 52 percent of the workers manage the bare minimum wage. Forty million people are illiterate and millions are homeless.


How have the trade unions in Brazil geared up to face this onslaught?


The trade union movement in Brazil has a history of leading massive nationwide struggles. It has been successfully able to mobilise millions on the street both against the government and the external forces on issues of national policy, sovereignty, monopoly and dominance of transnational corporations, fraudulent privatisation and closure of industries and rights of workers.


I myself  was christened to the trade union movement at a time when the trade union in Brazil were leading a massive people’s movement against the military junta. I was then working in the data processing industry. Between 1964 and 1985, when junta was finnaly ousted, thousands were incarcertated, tourtured and imprisoned. My father, who was a trade unionist among the transport workers, was imprisined for two years. Those were the heydays for the trade unions in Brazil. A united opposition of the people, political parties and the trade unions brought down the dictatorial regime. Since then, the successive civilian governments have also faced the wrath of the workers.


In Brazil, the neo-liberal politics began in 1990 with the government of Fernando Collor de Mello, Widespread dissatisfaction and popular  mobilisation led to his impeachment. It was preceded by Brazil’s biggest demonstration ever, when millions gathered outside the Congress in a seize which was lifted only when Collor was voted out of his office. The trade unions have not spared Corduso even. He tried to amend the constitution to make way for the transnationals. The Brazilian constitution clearly defines what is public and what is private. So, the trade unions had to defend the constitution in a bid to protect the sectors like telecom, petroleum, transportation and social insurance. Today, increased united initiatives among the trade union federations have made the formation of a wide national front in defense of the homeland, a reality. People are again on the streets. And, we are at the forefornt.


How do you envisage WFTU’s role today?


Today, more than ever, the unity of the workers is the need of the hour. We need international solidarity to fight the forces of globalisation and the penetration of the speculative financial capital. WFTU has been an important force during the last 50 years upholding the rights of the workers world wide. The international workers solidarity should defend the politics of employment generation, the national, democratic and popular state and the national sovereignty and self-determination of the people. WFTU has to defend the labour laws and policies affirmed in the Philadelphia Declaration of 1944.


We have to show that we can all work together to build up a transnational labour movement. And the workers must become transnational too.