NUPGE asks 'What in the world is the World Bank doing?'

'Acting only to protect international financial interests, never in the interests of the public.'

By Larry Brown
National Secretary-Treasurer
National Union of Public and General Employees


Did you hear the joke about the World Bank becoming more sensitive to the rights of working people and less rigid in its ideological stance?

For a while, it seemed that the bank was going to turn over a new leaf, because in country after country, its outdated prescriptions and imposed conditions were exposed as being ineffective and damaging. It was clear that the bank was acting only to protect international financial interests, never in the interests of the public.

So, the bank started to claim it had seen the light, was being less rigid in its orthodoxies, was actually working to eliminate poverty, not just to enrich business around the world.

Not a very funny joke, as it turns out.

The 2009 edition of World Bank’s highest-circulation publication, Doing Business, which the bank launched earlier this month in Washington, continues the bank’s tradition of applauding countries that exploit their workforce and ignore international labour and other human rights standards.

In the most amazing example, the bank has lauded Belarus for its top-ranking 'Employing Workers' indicator, even though the ILO has condemned the authoritarian regime’s curtailing of workers’ rights as a violation of Core Labour Standards.

Belarus as a good example?

The European Union has withdrawn trade preferences for Belarus because of its ILO violations, yet the World Bank has given Belarus a gold star for the very things that the European Union and the ILO have condemned. How the bank can suggest Belarus is a good place to do business when the country is on the outs with the EU is not explained.

The bank’s annual Doing Business report has had a long standing habit of giving the best 'Employing Workers' ratings to countries having the lowest level of mandated workers’ rights and social protection.

Two of the top four countries listed by the bank as being the best places in the world for labour issues have not ratified a single one of the eight Core ILO labour rights conventions, while another has ratified only two out of the eight core conventions.

According to the bank, countries with the lowest level of workers’ protection have what the bank considers the best labour regulations. The same report lauds countries for being good ‘reformers’ for, in the bank’s view, making it easier for companies to do business there.

The top 10 list of ‘reformers’ this year includes Colombia, where the murder of trade union and other community leaders continues at a horrendous rate. According to a coalition of Colombian human rights groups, the Colombian military is killing civilians at an alarming pace - more than 300 in the last year. Worse, according to the New York-based Fellowship of Reconciliation, 47% of the extra-judicial killings were committed by army units that had been vetted by the U.S. State Department.


The list of overall best reformers, according to the World Bank, is headed by Azerbaijan. This is the same country where observers were highly critical of the 2003 presidential election campaign which they said had been marred by voter intimidation, violence and media bias.

Opposition demonstrations were met with police violence. Police again used force to break up opposition demonstrations in the run-up to and following the November 2005 parliamentary elections in which the ruling New Azerbaijan Party (YAP) won well over half of the seats. Two sets of international observers declared that the vote had fallen a long way short of international standards.

In 2007 the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) said "continuous harassment" by officials threatened the existence of independent media in the country. In 2008, the Paris-based Reporters Without Borders (RWB) said the private and opposition media were "under constant pressure" from the government. But never mind, the bank says it’s a good place to do business!

One might well wonder how this all jibes with the bank’s stated goal of eliminating poverty.

The Doing Business report doesn’t even use the bank’s own information about what works to actually reduce poverty. It calls for the reduction of the minimum wage in Brazil. Meanwhile, the World Bank’s own 2008 Country Partnership Strategy for Brazil highlights “increases in the minimum wage” as one of the causes of a significant decline in poverty.

This has meant, the bank says, that Brazil’s income inequality, which used to be among the highest in the world, “is finally eroding”. So, on the one hand the bank recognizes that Brazil has reduced poverty by increasing the minimum wage, on the other hand it says Brazil should lower the minimum wage to help business "do business."

That flushing sound

At least the bank had the decency to wait until after Labour Day to release this fundamentally backward, anti-labour report.

There are many credible studies, some from the bank itself, that show improved workers’ rights lead to stronger economies. But surely the argument is more fundamental than that – surely in a civilized world nobody except the World Bank would argue that denying basic human rights is acceptable if it leads to more business opportunities.

That flushing sound you hear is the World Bank’s credibility ? going down the drain.


The National Union of Public and General Employees (NUPGE) is one of Canada's largest labour organizations with over 340,000 members. Our mission is to improve the lives of working families and to build a stronger Canada by ensuring that our common wealth is used for the common good. NUPGE