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IUF at ILO Calls for Social Regulation of Trade, Investment in Tackling Food Price Crisis

Posted to the IUF website 17-Jun-2008

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As part of this year's International Labour Conference, which included the first discussion in 20 years on rural employment issues, the ILO on June 11 convened a “High-Level Panel on the Food Crisis, Production, Investment and Decent Work”. Pakalitha B. Mosisili, the Prime Mnister of Lesotho; Phil O’Reilly, Chief Executive, Business New Zealand, speaking for the Employers; IUF General Secretary Ron Oswald, speaking for the Workers Group: Lennart Båge, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development; and ILO Director-General Juan Somavia took part in the discussion.

Oswald began by noting the failure of the recent FAO High Level Conference on World Food Security to address the fundamental nature of the crisis, because the Conference limited their analysis to the rapid escalation in food prices over the past three years. "Yet this is only one manifestation of a persistent, longer-term crisis in which the right to adequate food is denied to more than 800 million people, including those who work in agriculture", Oswald told the ILO.

"A system which routinely condemns over 800 million people to hunger and malnutrition is self-evidently in permanent crisis. From the standpoint of international human rights law, which establishes the universal right of all human beings to adequate, affordable nutrition and the obligation of governments to ensure that that right is defended and fulfilled, the system is more than a failure. It is a crime. Among the foremost victims of this massive violation of the right to food are the nearly half a billion women and men who help produce the food we all depend on: waged agricultural workers."

"While it is an urgent necessity to halt the rise in prices, let us ask why there are no official proposals to raise rural workers' incomes to compensate for the loss of purchasing power and the reduction in calories. We should be asking why millions of rural workers sank into hunger and poverty when agricultural commodity prices fell steadily downwards, as they did through the 1990s. We should ask why the retail prices of, for example, coffee, tea, or sugar remained essentially stable, or even increased, for over a decade, while world market prices for these commodities were in prolonged free fall. Why, during these years, did the profits of the transnational processors and traders increase, along with their buying and marketing power; while the wages of coffee, tea, and sugar workers stagnated or fell, sometimes drastically?"

Oswald challenged the view that the rapid completion of the WTO Doha Round negotiations offered a solution to the present, asking "Where is the linkage between commodity prices, retail prices, wages and purchasing power the WTO assured us liberalized trade would achieve through the "optimal utilization of resources"? Dependence on volatile global commodity prices has pushed entire populations to the brink of starvation."

"Commodity prices in themselves", he said, "tell us nothing about the capacity of the world's agricultural workers to feed themselves, or the urban poor. The key issues are vulnerability, volatility, and the extraction of value along the food chain.

Highlighting the key inflationary roles of corporate concentration along the supply chain and the impact of rapid investment flows into commodity markets, Oswald stated "The missing link between investment, production and decent work –the title of this panel - is social regulation. No matter how many billions or even trillions flow into agriculture, this investment fails to deliver decent work and fails to advance the right to food. What we see instead is more volatility and therefore more vulnerability. Social regulation at national and sub-national level, including the implementation of ILO standards, is necessary to ensure that these capital flows are channeled into decent work, poverty alleviation and sustainable food security. Governments must have and be able to exercise the right to be able to protect food and food workers.

"This is why the ILO must play a central role in the UN's interagency work on food security."

The full text of the IUF presentation is available (in pdf format) here.