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Changing the world

STOCKHOLM – Let’s go change the world.

We heard this often at the Sustainability Forum in this Swedish capital, where some 100 participants from 39 countries tackled issues affecting the global labor market.

Snow has started falling in Sweden. As my flight from Amsterdam touched down at Stockholm Arlanda international airport near noon last Sunday, the temperature was zero. Darkness started spreading at 4 p.m.; by 5, it was pitch black outside my hotel room, in a private peninsula about an hour’s drive from the city center. But the lamps quickly came on, bathing the still thin snow in a soft glow.

The landscape reminded me of Christmas cards from my childhood; you can almost hear children’s voices singing “Silent night, holy night…” Charming, but dreary. I read somewhere that suicide rates are high in countries with prolonged periods of long nights.

In that atmosphere, it’s easier to think of daunting challenges in the global labor market than of changing the world. But there was a lot of energy at the forum sponsored by the Swedish Institute together with the Swedish Trade Union Confederation. And it was comforting to realize that we’re not alone in our problems, and that in fact the Philippines is better off than many other countries.

After days of interesting discussions, I could believe that some of the proposals might actually make a dent in the complex problems that were tackled. The forum might actually change the world, even if only one slow step at a time.

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The forum focused on four areas: decent work, employment, governance and anti-corruption, and equality, inclusion and diversity. The topics are so broad most of the participants initially didn’t know where to start, but we managed to focus on specific issues.

The gathering is inspired by the Global Deal Initiative, launched at the United Nations headquarters in New York on Sept. 21 last year by Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Loven in cooperation with the International Labor Organization and the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. 

Loven is a working-class foster child who worked as a welder in a maker of military vehicles before becoming a metalworkers’ union leader. He later entered politics, rising through the ranks of the Social Democrats.

He addressed the first day of our forum last Monday night, reiterating the goals of the Global Deal Initiative, its emphasis on social dialogue and its mantra of “win-win-win” for workers, employers and society in general when the labor force gets decent treatment.

The idea is that people satisfied with their working conditions are more productive, making businesses boom and driving economic growth that in turn allows the government to provide better services. 

“Prosperous societies are more likely to embrace the future” and are “less likely to listen to voices of protectionism, extremism and xenophobia,” Loven told us. “Workers, employers and society as a whole are dependent on each other.”

The Global Deal is a multi-stakeholder partnership that also aims to make globalization work for all. Loven had earlier described his initiative as a “global handshake between employers and employees.”

Still, the idea of unionized workplaces – the norm in Sweden – has been met with caution around the world. Loven reportedly tried to get star wattage for the launch of the initiative last year, but failed to secure commitments from Meryl Streep, Matt Damon, rocker Bruce Springsteen and even Swedish star Alicia Vikander.

Swedish companies also approached the initiative with caution, although clothing retail giant H&M and truck manufacturer Scania promised to come on board. Electrolux and several other companies sent word that they had already launched similar initiatives.

In many developing countries including the Philippines, the focus is also more on job creation and competing with neighbors in attracting investments, with workers’ rights a secondary concern. We used to argue that investors get what they pay for, that while Philippine labor costs are higher than those in most of our neighbors, our workers are more skilled and proficient in English. But now our neighbors are upgrading their workers’ skills and English proficiency, and they have fewer restrictions on foreign investments. 

The Global Deal Initiative, however, believes that multi-stakeholder partnerships are possible so that everyone wins.

Private companies tend to be wary of labor leaders, but they might be reassured by Loven’s narration of his days as a union worker, when he and his colleagues used boxes as chairs. “The most important thing for all of us,” Loven told us, “was to have a job.”

“We also recognized that the company needed to do well or we could lose our jobs,” he said. “We needed to combine different interests… the company needed to survive in a very, very competitive global environment.”

He stressed that while globalization opened many opportunities, it also widened gaps in income, gender equality and social inclusion.

“It is time to make globalization work for everyone,” Loven said in response to a question from one of the forum participants. “This is my vision.”

Loven is not without his critics in Sweden, who accuse him of “symbolic politics” and describe the Global Initiative as “fluff.” But the world is increasingly buying the idea; the initiative now has 57 partners.

So far the country partners in the initiative are Angola, Argentina, Austria, Bangladesh, Belgium, Cambodia, Canada, Chile, Colombia, Ethiopia, Indonesia, the Netherlands, South Africa, Sweden, Tunisia and Uruguay. Last Friday, France became the 17th country to commit to a partnership.

The Global Deal seeks to bring together the social, human rights and business perspectives. With social dialogue, perhaps it might yet change the world.

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