with Nicola Bullard, Deputy Director of Focus on the Global South,
Bangkok, Thailand, March 9, 2001
Tell me about the work of Focus on the Global South.
Focus on the Global South was set-up about six years ago. Our mission
is policy and advocacy work on the issues of gobalization, particularly
in the South. This encompasses different aspects, such as culture
and technology, but most of our work is on economic impacts like
trade and the integration of developing countries into the global
economy. That became sharply defined during the Asian financial
crisis when all the contradictions were so clearly laid out.
Can you tell about the international conference you held in March?
It’s called The Bangkok International Roundtable of Trade
Unions, Social Movements and NGOs. Our principal interests are the
social clauses debate which has been around the WTO for two years
now. Of course it’s a contentious issue. There are splits
on whether or not we should have some type of labor and environmental
sanctions in the WTO. The trade unions and International Labor Organization
have been strong proponents of sanctions, but a lot of groups in
the South say its disguised protectionism. The wrong solution for
a wrongly diagnosed problem. Given the way in which the new internationalism
has emerged it has become an increasinglyimportant basis for dialogue
between the trade unions and different social movements.
is one of many initiatives that are taking place in all parts of
the world to try and build some links. The trade unions and social
movements come out of very different histories. Structurally they
are very different and their decision making process is different.
So we have to find a new way to articulate our actions, make decisions
and propose solutions. And its important to find constructive ways
to do that.
What are some of the trade unions and groups that are coming?
The International Confederation of Trade Unions, the Korean Federation
of Trade Unions, the CUT from Brazil, IG Metal which is one of the
big industrial unions from Germany, the TUC from Ghana, Canadian
Auto Workers, the AFL-CIO, and many others. There is in fact strong
trade union representation. Also there will be a number of organizations
strongly linked to the trade unions such as Jobs for Justice from
Some of the social movements groups here are ATTAC from France,
MST from Brazil, the indigenous organization CONAIE from Ecuador,
Assembly of the Poor from Thailand, Via Campesina from Indonesia,
as well as others.
The social clause debate centers on creating sanctions around issues
such as child labor, the freedom to organize and fair wages in the
global South. Some countries like India have said this is just an
attempt to create trade barriers against their goods. But in the
US a large section of the anti-global movement is active in opposing
sweatshops and corporations like NIKE. A lot of people come out
of the 1980s solidarity movements with Central America and are now
taking on labor issues. How do you think this will play out in the
conference, are these demands that should be made in the North,
or should they be left up to the local trade union groups within
I think the demands should be made. It’s an absolute imperative
that child labor, worker’s rights, the protection of workers,
the right to organize, all these things have to be promoted and
protected. But we have to think about what is the best and most
effective way to do that. We have to look at the contradictions
within the system as it exists now. The whole logic of the market
pushes down wages with investments moving from one low wage area
to the next. I don’t think we can solve the problem by simply
putting another layer of rules on an existing set of bad rules.
The WTO rules are very unfair in their benefits and marginalize
very large sectors of the working population.
if we look at the agreement on agriculture it is heavily biased
in favor of the huge agricultural producers in the US and European
Union. It favors agribusiness and export orientated agriculture.
There is no place within the agreement for small-scale local production,
sustainable agriculture, or any of the important questions that
effect the vast majority of the developing world. If you look at
developing countries about 60% of the working population are dependent
on agricultural production or farming for their livelihood.
In fact, if
we’re really interested in working people and in the South
we need to pay attention to people in the non-formal sector and
people in the agricultural sector. We have to look at how these
trade agreements and financial organization affect the conditions
for these people. Then we can start to talk about how do we organize,
how do we work on the basis of solidarity and organizing people
in all sectors. As it stands the proposals for the social clauses
really focus on people in the formal sector who already have the
possibility to organize. Who already have a relative advantage because
they are skilled or semi-skilled. The reality of the labor force
in the developing world is a dual system where you have this huge
pool of available labor. So in strictly economic terms you can’t
push up the price of industrial labor without dealing with the surplus
in the agricultural and non-formal sectors.
When you were at the global meeting in Porto Alegre, Brazil did
you find any interesting examples of movements or countries dealing
with the issue of child labor?
There have been some really innovative responses to some of these
issues. In Brazil, the Workers Party had the governorship of Brazila
for about five years in the 1980s. During that time they implemented
a whole series of grounded, practical, innovative community based,
community endorsed projects. They were designed to make the city
safer, to keep kids in school, and to support mothers so they could
look after their kids properly. It did things like paying scholarships
so kids went to school. This dealt in a very practical way with
this question of child labor. Because kids don’t go to work
because they want to go to work, they go to work because their families
are poor or their parents can’t afford to keep them in school.
Now if you make it possible for families to keep their kids in school
every family would choose their child’s education. What they
did in Brazila is give people the choice because they made it possible
for families to afford to keep their kids in school. They also developed
a program in which families could increase their income by training
women to improve their employability.
This is an interesting point because so much of the new labor force
are women. Some interesting examples have emerged in India and Mexico
that tie together the women’s social movement and labor because
their demands extend to their families, to their children and home,
as well as work. Do you think women as a new force in labor can
be the factor that brings together the social movements and labor?
Yes and no, I think that neo-liberalism has been one of the big
systematic attacks on labor unions. At the same time I think the
unions also weaken themselves during the 1990s because they had
no capacity to accommodate either the environmental movement or
the women’s movement. It’s an old story but it’s
still true. The trade unions are still paying the price and I don’t
think that story is finished yet. At the local and national level
a lot of things have been solved because people have been in very
concrete struggles where they have had to form alliances and come
up with solutions.
One of the reasons
for the conference is that the issue hasn’t been resolved
at the international level. It’s the first time since the
early part of the 20th century where there has been a real international
labor movement. So we have to find a way of working together. At
the moment the women’s movement is not very strong in the
anti-globalization movement. I think there is a hell of a lot work
for everyone to do in terms of bringing both the ecological and
feminist critic to globalization. What you have is a number of world’s
colliding: the trade union world, the feminists, the ecologists,
the developing world and disinfected political party activists.
All of these activists’ worlds are colliding at the international
level. So we have to find a way of articulating not only our demands
and proposals, but also articulating different organizational traditions,
histories and ways of working. It’s not easy to do that because
organizations and institutions are very different.
Perhaps we can turn to some theoretical questions and the nature
of the capitalist class. A popular view sees globalization based
on large international corporations that compose national blocs,
are promoted by their national state, and compete worldwide. But
perhaps there is a developing world capitalist class taking form
through international mergers, complex alliances, and the integration
of finance and speculative capital. This class has competitive contradictions,
but is guided by global accumulation strategies where they invest,
employ and market worldwide. In this case the nation state becomes
less important as a base of operations. I know at the Global South
you view globalization mainly as a project of US hegemony. Can you
contrast that to this view that sees the nation state as secondary
to an emerging world bourgeois.
The world is in a period of transition and flux where it could go
in the direction your suggesting, but I think the style of American
capitalism is becoming the dominant form for globalization. As a
global form of capitalism you do get an internationalization of
the capitalist class, but it’s very difficult to escape their
embeddedness in national structures. Obviously the US systematically
promotes the interests of its own corporations and actively intervenes
in other places to promote its model of capitalism. At the same
time you get the WTO and World Bank implementing the rules of US
style capitalism. So the institutions themselves are embedded in
nation state realities. The major characteristics of geopolitics
are the contradictions that have emerged between the European Union
and US in finance, defense, military strategy, and a whole range
of issues. So what is taking place is a struggle between models
Take Germany, who was dragged kicking and screaming into this model.
There is a big debate about globalization in Germany because they
had this island of security. They were protected from global markets
because they are an exporting industrialized economy. But in fact
they haven’t restructured their workforce, they haven’t
liberalized the labor market, and now there is tremendous pressure
from the corporations and finance markets to make them do so. It
was just last year that the German government did not interfere
when Vodaphone took over Mannesmann. That is an interesting example
of where the state did not intervene to protect the national capitalist
class. So they are selective. They look at how many jobs are lost
and what is going to be the public reaction.
assessed on a case by case basis. They have to look at the political
equation at the national level, but also at the international level
because they are intertwined so much. National and international
politics are not that much different.
Lastly I’d like to ask you about the reaction in Thailand
to the Asian financial crisis. What has been the effect on local
I think nationalism still plays its part, which you find a little
bit in Thailand. It’s the domestic elite capitalists that
are antagonistic to the foreign capitalists, although they do have
backing from Japanese capital. However there is a very strong anti-IMF
sentiment. This also takes an anti-US form and is stronger since
the crash. IMF has become the enemy, the symbol of the end of the
The new Prime
Minister, Thaksin Shinawatra, is somewhat of a populous. He has
offered debt relief for farmers for three years, proposed a national
health care system, and a million baht fund for every village. Also
some serious action on non-performing loans from the crisis, which
were up to 50% for two years and a huge drag on the financial sector.
This has acted as a ball and chain on any type of recovery so they
want to deal quickly with the bad assets. Basically the government
is going to buy them up. Earlier they were auctioned off and General
Electric bought-up absolutely billions of baht in mortgages and
credit cards at rock bottom prices. So now the government won’t
write off these loses and sell them, but manage them, get back what
they can, and issues bonds to cover the loses. They are saying we
can manage our assets, we don’t need foreign companies to
buy them up. Thaksin is a capitalist to his fingertips but he represents
national Thai capital and not foreign capital. So the problems are
not just between the EU and US, but also in the South, especially
in Asia where local capital has been strong.