Speech by Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier at the Third World Congress of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

18.05.2014 - Speech

-- Translation of advance text --

Michael Sommer,
Ladies and gentlemen of the ITUC,
Guests from near and far alike,

I could speak to you as a member of the German trade unions, as a member of parliament for the Social Democrats or as an associate of Michael Sommer’s – but let me be official and assume my capacity as Foreign Minister of the Federal Republic of Germany to wish you all a very warm welcome. Welcome to Berlin, this city that is not just our capital but a magnet for many young people from around the world. Even 25 years after reunification, this city still embodies the idea of innovation and rejuvenation.

So things were looking good for your world congress, when plenty of helpful people came together to lend their hands and brains to the preparations.

Little did we know that tragedy would strike the week of the event itself.

A terrible tragedy shook Turkey on Tuesday. More than 300 miners lost their lives in the Soma mine. We in Germany – and, I am sure, all of us here in this room – remember those killed in Soma. Our thoughts and our sympathy go to their families, their friends, their loved ones.

Amid the grief at this tragic incident, a call is emanating from Soma that cannot be overheard: protect the workers! All those whose hands do the work that upholds our society need to be sure that society will protect them and their work in return!

Safe working conditions are something that the ITUC has been fighting for ever since it was founded. That makes what happened in Soma all the more of a bitter setback – but all the stronger is our determination to fight for safety at work around the world. You have our support, ladies and gentlemen!

Michael, I know how much the ITUC does in that field. I’ll give just the one example here, namely the progress that has been achieved since the tragedy in Bangladesh. Just over a year ago, more than 1000 people died in the ruins of Rana Plaza. The suffering was immeasurable, but the world’s trade unions responded with one voice. Although things are still far from perfect, a lot has been achieved since then. We have the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, for example, which many major companies have signed up to, as well as a compensation fund for the people and families affected.

Michael, you were in Bangladesh yourself last month, speaking to injured workers, meeting children orphaned by the disaster and, above all, doing something that the people affected could hardly believe: you listened to what these people had suffered and relayed it to those in power, to the Prime Minister of Bangladesh herself as well as to management boards and political leaders all over the world.

All of this has an effect, I can assure you, and your efforts for safe working conditions will definitely prove worthwhile – not only in Bangladesh but beyond it too.

One key area of your work is sport. Sport captures our attention very effectively, as I hardly need tell you in the run-up to the FIFA World Cup.

It therefore sends an important message for you to be fighting so that the people whose work major sporting events depend on can do that work in proper and safe conditions. We are talking to the Qataris about that very topic. This one principle has to be upheld, after all: the people who make our sporting pleasures possible must not themselves be made to suffer for them.

Michael, you have already passed on the baton of the German Trade Union Confederation, and now you’ve passed on the ITUC baton too. Let me express my personal gratitude for the great strength with which you have fought for the interests of workers in Germany and for cohesion in the international labour movement over all these years. We all hope that you will stay close to the action in the trade unions and in politics!

As Martin Luther King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

There are long debates to be had about whether the world is a more just place today than it was in Martin Luther King’s day. What is indisputable, though, is that the world has become much, much smaller.

Our day-to-day lives are interconnected with the lives of millions of others all over the planet. Every shirt we put on, every meal we eat has seen far-flung corners of the earth. One click of the mouse online, one holiday or, to state the obvious, one trade union congress like this one, and borders and distance disappear from our everyday reality.

That is a good thing, and it is important. But it does lend even more urgency to Martin Luther King’s warning: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

We, the country hosting this congress, have a particular duty to bear that quote in mind – not because there is more injustice here than elsewhere, but because Germany has the densest network of ties to the rest of the world. Not only are we well-connected as an exporting nation; the same is true when it comes to flows of electronic data and migration of people.

To borrow an image from the economic sphere, Germany is right in the middle of the global marketplace. Our stall is one of the richest, and our contacts extend to every corner of the market square.

What that implies is that it matters to us what goes on in that marketplace. The maintenance of order in the marketplace, including order in the labour markets; prevention of spiralling poverty; people’s safety and access to opportunities – all of these things not only underpin social harmony but in the end also ensure that our economy can function.

There is a phenomenon that poses more and more of a threat to social harmony – growing inequality. The gap between rich and poor has widened over recent decades, globally, in Europe and in Germany.

That inequality causes rifts in societies. It divides them into winners and losers, into them up there and them down there, into gated communities no-one’s allowed into and slums that no-one dares enter.

What worries me most is that this rift could get worse and end up tearing societies apart. That is exactly what Thomas Piketty predicts in his celebrated book “Capital in the Twenty-First Century”.

Piketty says that the combination of great wealth in few hands, low growth rates and high returns on investment is becoming almost a natural law in economics – along the lines of “The haves shall have more”.

I believe that if that is so, if Piketty is right, then the work of trade unions is all the more vital, and the voice of the labour force needs to be heard all the more clearly in the 21st century, nationally and globally.

Inequality needs to be balanced out.

And a strong trade-union movement is the way to do it. What that might look like – how the labour movement should be organised at the global level in the 21st century – is one of the key questions of this congress, and I wish you the best of success for those discussions.

I’d like to finish with a few words about foreign policy. We have come together here at a very special time and in a very special place. We are in Berlin in 2014, exactly 100 years after the First World War started, 75 years after Germany launched the Second World War and 25 years since the Wall fell here in Berlin and the Cold War came to an end.

In this of all years, a foreign-affairs crisis is boiling over on the borders of the European Union, raising spectres we all thought had been laid to rest. The fear is that Europe could be divided once again, when everyone believed such divisions had been overcome a long time ago.

This makes it all the more important for those in foreign affairs to remember the summer of 1914 and take the lessons of history to heart. Diplomacy failed in 1914. A crisis that began with two gunshots in Sarajevo spread like wildfire. Within a few weeks, all diplomatic channels had been cut off and the only voice left was that of the guns.

Diplomacy, ladies and gentlemen, may sometimes have to put up with people smirking, but it simply must never stop seeking ways to escape the spiral of violence – even, indeed especially, when escalation seems obligatory and inevitable. That lesson from 1914 remains supremely applicable in 2014!

However – to bring us back round to trade unions – that time a century ago was not just a failure of diplomacy. It was also a time that saw the international labour movement knocked back by decades.

The hopeful beginnings fought for by Carl Legien in Germany, Keir Hardie in Britain and Jean Jaurès in France were destroyed.

Comrades became enemies, and those who stuck with their belief in peace were denounced as traitors.

It basically took until the present day, until this International Trade Union Confederation was founded in 2006, for the wounds of two World Wars to heal in the labour movement.

Reading about 1914, I came across a quote from the great Jean Jaurès. Michael, we were just speaking about this the other day. I would like to end my speech with that quote.

“Everywhere, international socialism raises its voice to condemn the methods of brutality and to affirm European workers’ common will to live in peace.”

Jean Jaurès wrote that on 30 July 1914, two days after the assassination in Sarajevo. Just one day later, in a Paris café, Jaurès himself was shot dead by a French nationalist.

In the midst of the crisis in 2014, Jean Jaurès reminds us that peace is not something to take for granted, not even in Europe. The Ukraine crisis is a reminder of that. We must work all the harder to ensure that this crisis doesn’t turn into a military conflict and doesn’t result in fresh polarisation in Europe and the world. “Peace is not everything,” Willy Brandt said, “but there is nothing without peace.” I know we all agree on that. That is why we will never stop working for it.

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