Working Life

Anger as workers shut out of G20 talks


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By Mark Phillips

Editor of Working Life

Friday, 14 November 2014

THE international Labour 20 (L20) Summit in Brisbane has been overshadowed by an extraordinary decision by the Abbott Government to lock unions out of any formal dialogue with the G20 leaders this weekend.

The L20 Summit got underway on Thursday with about 80 delegates from 25 nations in attendance, but most of the buzz around the conference has been about how Australia has broken with tradition by shutting unions out of talks this weekend.

The L20 has discovered that while the G20 leaders will be meeting with the Business 20 (B20), unions have not been invited to the consultations.

This appears to have been a decision taken solely by the Abbott Government, as in previous years the L20 has had no problems gaining access to the leaders as a group (some smaller meetings will be held with individual national leaders).

Lockout is ‘insulting and discriminatory’

Sharan Burrow, the General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation and former ACTU President, said the decision to lock out unions was baffling, and raised concerns about how committed the G20 under the Australian presidency was to inclusive growth with sustainable jobs and decent wages.

She said that while they had separate constituencies, in previous years the L20 and B20 had presented a united front to meet together with the global leaders.

“This year in Australia we have a situation where Tony Abbott’s the first leader that hasn’t met with the L20 and it’s the first time that business has been invited to talk with the leaders and labour’s been excluded. This is unfortunate and frankly we would expect better of an Australian democracy.

“It is shortsighted, it is certainly insulting and it’s discriminatory.

“You can’t talk to one group that is a major actor in the real economy and not the other.

“Otherwise you create a sense of opposition that is unnecessary and when governments actually support social dialogue and facilitate social dialogue there’s a much better chance of building an economy with inclusive growth.”

social dialogue

Tim Costello and Richard Goyder, Chairs of the C20 and B20, joined the L20 Summit on Thursday afternoon. More photos here.

Richard Goyder, managing director of Australian company Wesfarmers and chairman of the B20, stressed during a panel discussion at the L20 Summit on Thursday that as far as the B20 was concerned, the two groups were partners in an ongoing dialogue with the G20 leaders.

In a sign of how much the two groups representing business and labour strive to work together at this global forum, the L20 and B20 jointly wrote last week to Prime Minister Tony Abbott with a “common message” for the G20 Summit.

But Mr Abbott appears to have bluntly ignored the union movement – although Employment Minister Eric Abetz did address the L20 Summit on Thursday.

Former Treasurer Wayne Swan, who spoke at a welcome reception for the L20 on Wednesday night, said unions had a crucial role to play at the G20 talks in advocating for inclusive economic growth that lifts wages and working conditions.

“Conservative governments like the Abbott Government will want to take the easy road to that 2% [additional economic growth target],” he said.

“In their narrow view the fastest route to achieving that target is through cutting wages and conditions. It’s the wrong way to go about achieving growth, but it is the conservative way.

“So labour unions will be the last hope for millions of workers.”

Down to business

Aside from the controversy over lack of access, most of the discussion at the L20 has been about “inclusive growth” – economic growth through increased employment, decent wages, and workplace rights.

In her opening comments, Ms Burrow lamented the rise of youth unemployment which threatened a breakdown to social cohesion around the world.

She recalled that at the first G20 meeting in Washington DC in 2008, there had been concern that global economic growth had slowed to 5% – six years later is now closer to 3%.

ACTU President Ged Kearney said that under Australia’s presidency, the G20 was at risk of being remembered for what was not on the agenda.

While she welcomed commitments to infrastructure investment, increasing women’s workforce participation, moving more people into formal work, and cracking down on corporate tax evasion, she said action on climate change and inequality were missing from the G20 program.

“While the IMF, the World Bank and the OECD have recognised the threat to our social cohesion posed by growing economic inequality, and the need for policies to address this, inequality has barely been mentioned by the Australian Government during its presidency,” she told L20 delegates.

“While the threat of global warming grows ever more present, the Australian government has reversed action to cut carbon emissions and deal with climate change, while actively seeking to keep climate change off the G20 agenda all together.”

Ms Kearney said the Abbott Government’s domestic economic and workplace policies were at odds with many other G20 nations.

“To our dismay, the Abbott Government has used its leadership of the G20 this year to push the same ideological agenda internationally. At times, it has seemed to hijack the G20 to legitimise its own destructive policies,” she said.

“While many other G20 participants are now advocating for inclusive growth, increased wages, targeted spending on social protections and action on climate change, Australia is doing the exact opposite.”

In his speech to the L20 Summit, Senator Abetz pledged the G20 would finalise concrete policies to deal with increasing employment for women and young people, safer workplaces and informal work.

Each G20 nation will release an employment plan during the leaders’ summit.

The summit continues today with sessions focused around strategies to reduce unemployment and income inequality, safe and healthier workplaces, and financial regulation.

The heads of the International Monetary Fund, World Bank and OECD will be speaking during the day.

Working Life is a forum to share ideas and opinions about work and life, both light-hearted and serious. The opinions presented on Working Life are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent policies or views of the ACTU.


Creative Commons License
We believe in the free flow of information, and content on Working Life is available to be republished online or in print under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.


  1. Don Sutherland
    Friday, 14 November, 2014 at 10:31 am · Reply

    This is a really important summary from an ACTU point of view of what has ben happening behind closed doors at the G20.
    Some aspects of what we learn from it are in fact deeply problematic and controversial.
    It deserves widespread and more democratic discussion among union members.
    It also pays no heed at all to th Peoples Summit that is happening outside of the security fence that surriounds G20, B20, C20, and L20.
    The Peoples Summit is organising the peoples protest action on Saturday, and Sharan Burrow, chief spokesperson for the L20, will step out from the security bubble into the real world of policed citizenry to speak at that rally
    The Australian union movement itself has contributed directly to the marginalisation of the opposition to the G20 agenda that, at its best, slightly (maybe its a bit better than slightly) amends the austerity assault on working people and the poor around the world. The Queensland Council of Unions have turned away from the Peoples Summit, for reasons that are still generally unknown. How many union offices have actually been shut down? And, why?
    There is widespread dissatisfaction from civil socity oganisations who respect the union movement and who seek solidarity with it in practice at the Australian leadrship of tthe C20, particularly its paternalistic attitudes towards those organisations that are in struggl against extreme austerity in the most impovrishd countries and locations around the world.
    The notion of a union – business unity ticket for dialogue with G20 IS controversial, whether union leaders think so or not. What sort of strategic and policy compromises and mutations go with that?
    What credit does it bring to union leaders who engage in such unity to be seen smiling with Business Council of Australia figures who are actually the co-architects of the Abbott government strategy and decisions that brings so much more harm to the majority of Australians and their communtitiesin so many different ways?
    There are other questions as well – eg the B20 wants fre trade through the TPPA. That’s terrible for the majority in each participating country, and for Australian parliamentary democracy, as we know it. Will the B20 make its compromise on the unity ticket with L20 to step back from what it wants on fre trade? I dont think so.
    I do not say there should not be an L20 process, but it is very important that there be a deeper discussion about the implications and issues at stake with the way in which it has been conducted.

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