Dismayed international union leaders emerged from a meeting with G8 labour ministers yesterday deploring its secrecy and warning that industrialized nations are being advised to plot "flexibility" policies that will hurt workers.
"They're now talking about 'labour market flexibility,' which means flexible wages, fewer worker protections, weaker unions and lower minimum wages," said John G. Evans, head of the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development.
Evans was one of several union leaders who, along with Douglas Worth, a former veteran IBM executive turned OECD business adviser, met for several hours Thursday and briefly yesterday with the labour ministers of Canada, the U.S., Japan, the U.K., Italy, Germany and Russia.
Managing Work Forces
In a briefing paper supported by the U.S., the OECD advised the ministers to embrace flexibility as a way to manage work forces better, Evans said. "The neo-liberal agenda is always lurking in the background. I just hope the ministers can resist it."
After he and the other union leaders left, yesterday's meeting was then restricted to the ministers, who were joined by OECD secretary-general Donald Johnston, the former federal Liberal cabinet minister, and by European Union employment commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou.
The meetings are a lead-up to a larger meeting of G8 leaders, including U.S. President George W. Bush and Prime Minister Jean Chrétien in Kananaskis, Alta., in June.
For security reasons and to deflect anti-G8 protests, the Montreal meetings, which began Thursday at the downtown Omni Hotel and McGill University and conclude at noon today at Club St. Denis on Sherbrooke St. E., are closed to observers.
(French employment minister Élisabeth Guigou was not present. Italian labour minister Roberto Maroni was also absent Thursday night, when he skipped a banquet at McGill's Redpath Hall to go to the Canadiens-Bruins hockey game at the Molson Centre.)
None of the locations has yet been officially revealed. Nor has the agenda of the meetings. A final statement summing up the meetings is to be presented by Human Resources Minister Jane Stewart at a press conference today. (The Gazette obtained a draft of the statement yesterday.)
With the front door closed to visitors, labour representatives gathered on the sidewalk yesterday after their meeting and deplored the secrecy of the event, calling it symbolic of the G8's pro-business, hidden agenda.
"Government is made better by more openness and good sunshine," said Thomas Palley, a director of the AFL-CIO in Washington, D.C.
"These meetings need to be more open, not behind closed doors," agreed Roland Schneider, a German union adviser to the OECD.
Added Ken Georgetti, president of the Canadian Labour Congress: "I don't see why they have to be so cloistered. They're not talking about state secrets here. It's a debate that needs to be broadcast, frankly."
Palley said other closed meetings by the G7 and G8 in Canada - of environment ministers in Banff last month, of health ministers last November in Ottawa, of finance ministers in Ottawa last February, and of the heads of state in Alberta in June - are part of a trend.
"This is a very bad turn for public debate, this tendency to make things more private and less accessible. It provokes suspicion and contributes to misunderstanding."
A block away in St. Louis Square, about 50 union and community organizers held a small protest rally around noon. They said they don't believe the labour ministers are working for a fairer deal for workers.
Françoise David, former president of the Quebec Federation of Women who now heads Au Bas de l'échelle (Rank and File), an advocacy group for non-unionized workers, scoffed at the ministers' "flexibility" proposal.
"Flexibility - all it means for the bosses is 'I hire who I want, when I want, at the hour I want, and under the conditions I want.' And to that we say 'No, that's enough.' "
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