Labour expert leads call for basic income

A former top International Labour Organization official predicts that there will be a tremendous improvement in the economic rights of ordinary people around the world. Guy Standing, director of the Geneva-based ILO's socioeconomic security program from 1999 to 2006, told the Georgia Straight in a phone interview that he expects this to occur in both industrialized and developing countries in the coming years.

"Social rights was the big rights [issue] of the 20th century, and political rights of the 19th century," he said. "This is a time when we're going to be seeing a great advance in the economic rights of ordinary people."

Standing said he will elaborate on the campaign for a "basic income" tonight (March 29) at a free public forum at the Maritime Labour Centre (1880 Triumph Street). It's part of a two-day conference on vulnerable workers' rights hosted by the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives.

Standing said that globalization has led to "massive economic insecurity" and "horrendous inequality". He noted that North American CEOs earn salaries 300 times higher than the average worker. Meanwhile, he said, there are "thousands and thousands of social protests" in China, where he is consulting with the government on labour policies.

"Millions of people in China are, in fact, suffering chronic insecurity," Standing said. "It's leading to tremendous social conflict, which is not widely appreciated in Canada or North America."

He noted that many multinational corporations have shifted operations to low-wage countries such as China, which puts downward pressure on wages in western countries. He said this is resulting in "capital" gaining an increasing proportion of national incomes. As a result, he said, workers are losing out in terms of real wages.

"The question is, 'Why should this be a natural aspect of globalization, and what can we do about it?'" he said.

Standing said history demonstrates that whenever inequality reaches extreme levels, people start demanding changes. "At the moment, we're in a sad stage of world history when workers' needs are being neglected," he said. "That won't continue."

He is cochair of the Basic Income Earth Network, which promotes a "basic income" as a universal economic right. He said that in poverty-stricken Africa and Asia, a basic income of $20 or $30 per month can turn a poor person into a "citizen".

"There have been huge gains in places like Brazil and Mexico where the schemes for a basic income have been found to work," he claimed, noting that such approaches encourage people to gain skills and become more productive. "There is no reason to think that in Canada or in the United States or in Western Europe that such a scheme won't work, either."

He said that "access to shares of capital" is also emerging as an economic right. As an example, he cited the Alaska Permanent Fund, which collects at least 25 percent of mineral-lease royalties and federal mineral revenue–sharing payments into a social fund. Annual payments in the form of dividends are distributed to qualified Alaska residents.

"The annual benefit has been found to have a very effective use in terms of fairness and distribution, and has enabled ordinary people to spend more on consumer durables and services," he said.

The B.C. government has not created a similar fund to distribute benefits from oil, gas, and mining operations in this province, choosing instead to put all of the money into general revenue.