As the World Economic Forum convenes this week will people and their environment be centre stage?

Sharan Burrow
4 min readJan 24, 2021
Copyright World Economic Forum ( by Daniel Ammann

The choices made by world leaders and by business in 2021 will either heed the call of workers and civil society to reform the economic model and help create a just and sustainable future or maintain business as usual and see a model of corporate greed entrench inequality, exclusion and despair perpetuating instability for our communities and our planet.

Acknowledging the ugly face of vaccine nationalism will be a first test. The corporate greed that makes vaccines in South Africa more expensive than in the US is scandalous. But so too is the ‘profit-first’ approach that denies technology sharing to allow production to be undertaken wherever possible. Universal access to testing, treatment and vaccines is of paramount importance. The right choice is a matter of political will.

Likewise social and environmental challenges require a different choice. An economic model with a fair competition floor of human rights, labour rights and environmental standards is possible but not if we don’t decide to share prosperity and stop destroying our environment.

With almost 500 million jobs lost and 2 billion people struggling in informal work including in new internet-mediated business people need a New Social Contract that delivers recovery and resilience based on the security of five critical demands.

Jobs: climate-friendly jobs with Just Transition. All sectors must transition to stabilise the planet but we cannot accept stranded people or stranded communities.

Rights: the repair of a broken labour market where the despair of informal and insecure work dominates can only be achieved with a floor of rights and protections for all workers irrespective of their employment arrangements. These are laid out in the ILO Centenary Agreement — the fundamental rights of freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining, freedom from discrimination and modern slavery through forced and child labour must be accompanied by occupational health and safety, minimum living wages and maximum hours of work. This labour protection floor is a test of whether people or dehumanising exploitation sit at the centre of today’s business practices.

Universal Social Protection: It defies rationality that the world has increased its wealth seven times over in just the last three decades but 75% of the worlds people have little or no social protection. Only social protection with income support at the centre can with robust services in health, aged care, child-care and education ensure human resilience against family, national or global shocks. Unemployment, accidents, extreme weather events, economic or health shocks are not just events of the past but sadly all too prevalent any reading of the future. And a global social protection fund to close the funding gap in the poorest countries who have no social protection is a base test of our humanity.

Equality: COVID-19 has exposed the despair created by income inequality and the discrimination of exclusion whether of gender or race racial. And then migrant workers who have suffered this and more when simply discarded by nations they are helping to build are stranded without work or social protection. Minimum living wages, collective bargaining rights and universal social protection cannot be optional.

Our world has turned a blind eye to discrimination and distributional inequality. Dehumanising exploitation as a basis of the global economy must end. Xenophobia and discrimination must be called out and equality for women at must be central to both public policy and business practice.

Inclusion: Without peace and a serious shift in development policy so that all nations prosper means that people cannot live stable and optimistic lives. Global monopoly power in key sectors like technology, pharmaceutical and agriculture amongst other global corporate activity is crowding out competition and opportunity. Choice for workers and consumers is being stripped away and impunity for rights violations, environmental degradation and taxation contributions are being cast aside along with it. Growing authoritarianism is threatening democracies, it is clear that if shared prosperity and sustainability are not front and centre in the choices we make to climate and employment proof our future nothing will change but rather despair, anger and conflict will grow.

This recovery must be funded with tax, not austerity and monopoly power and exploitation will only be eliminated if we end corporate impunity with mandated due diligence and the elimination of corruption.

The WEF discussions can start a journey of healing and reform or can perpetuate the failed economic model. The people’s jury is out!



Sharan Burrow

General Secretary of the International Trade Union Confederation. Representing the world's working people.