Putting Britain back at the head of the international development movement


Last week, Britain’s Shadow Secretary of State for International Development, Labour MP Jim Murphy, made his first major public speech on development.

He is just over a year away from a General Election which he hopes will propel him back into government. But the world is only a little further away from the far more important September 2015 UN General Assembly which must put in place a new global agenda when the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) expire.

Last week, Jim was in Qatar with the help of the ITUC as part of our #ReruntheVote campaign to make workers’ rights a key element of global sporting events like the 2022 Qatar World Cup.

His experience of the squalid labour camps where migrant construction workers live in modern slavery has clearly had a major impact on his view of the post-MDGs agenda.

Jim is an ardent football supporter and a key member of the Parliamentary soccer team, according to our Professional Footballers’ Association. So the issue of abuses of migrant construction workers involved in the preparation for the 2022 World Cup was particularly poignant for him. As he says:

“The truth is the treatment of these workers is the ugly secret of the beautiful game. Some are tricked into travelling thousands of miles under false pretences. Too many have their passports confiscated, work without pay, suffer squalid conditions, work excessive hours, and deal with staggering levels of debt. These abuses amount to forced labour, and they aren’t one-offs – Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch have made clear that these problems are widespread.

“Hundreds have already died and the ITUC predict that if things don’t change 4,000 will die to bring us the 2022 World Cup.”

Workers around the world are looking for the successor to the MDGs to deliver real action on poverty, and that requires not only sensible and realistic policies, but the sort of global leadership that has been absent since the developed world was hit by the global financial crisis from 2008 onwards (a crisis that hit developing countries even harder!).

In particular, trade unions are looking for millions of jobs, fair pay and a welfare safety net, as well as renewed commitments to education for all, health and access to water.

Unions have been demanding sustainable development goals that provide social protection and the other elements of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) decent work agenda: more and better jobs, rights at work, and social dialogue to give people a say over their working lives. Britain’s Conservative-led Department for International Development (DFID) has taken a lead on social protection through the G20, but its record on decent work has been lamentable.

Jim Murphy’s speech was, on the contrary, excellent on decent work. He pledged that a Labour-led DFID would make workers’ rights central to its agenda; restore the cuts in funding for the ILO; and extend to Qatar’s building workers the DFID-funded ILO Work in Freedom project which has begun to address the plight of migrant domestic workers in South Asia and the Middle East.

Those are the sort of policies that we want to see inform the post-2015 MDG agenda. They would make growth equitable, by putting workers’ rights back at the heart of international development, managing market freedoms, rather than unleashing them, and balancing the uncritical embrace of the role of the private sector.

This week in Mexico, unions will be criticising that embrace at the high level panel on development effectiveness which is one of the most positive initiatives the current UK Secretary of State Justine Greening has promoted.

The Global Partnership for Effective Development Co-operation is not a big deal, although unions have got involved. But it’s nothing like the sort of global leadership that the UK provided to the global development movement in the Blair-Brown era of the 2005 Gleneagles G8.

That is what Jim Murphy – with support from UK trade unionists – appears to be planning. A new DFID that aspires to lead a new development agenda to tackle the issue of the day: inequality.