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Published in Print: July 11, 2001, as International Union To Debate Effects Of 'Globalization'

International Union To Debate Effects Of 'Globalization'

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It might seem unlikely that Swithun Lowe and Salimata Doumbia could share any common concerns.

Mr. Lowe is the general secretary of the largest teachers' union in Singapore, where the government has put the salaries of K-12 educators on a par with those of publicly employed doctors. Meanwhile, Ms. Doumbia complains that the teachers she represents in her union in the West African nation of Ivory Coast are only now getting a raise that will bring them back to about $200 a month, where salaries were several years ago.

And yet, when the two met here last week at the National Education Association's annual meeting, they echoed each other in their fears of being left behind in the new global economy.

For Mr. Lowe, it's the fear that a U.S. or European recession could hit Singapore's export of computer components, driving down revenues and putting the squeeze on the nation's education budget. For Ms. Doumbia's members, the crisis has already unfolded. A drop in the price of cocoa and coffee on the world market over the past decade has dealt a major blow to her country's economy, contributing, she says, to a long period of belt-tightening in public spending.

Stories of similar challenges are expected to drive much of the discussion when some 1,000 teacher leaders from across the globe converge in Jomtien, Thailand, later this month for a meeting of Education International, a worldwide coalition of organizations representing education workers. About 70 delegates from the NEA and the American Federation of Teachers—both of which are members—plan to be on hand for the July 25-29 gathering, where the top item on the agenda will be globalization.

Impact on Schools

"People are really starting to understand the implications," said Mary Hatwood Futrell, the president of Education International and a former president of the NEA. "This is not some concept off somewhere; this is something that is really is impacting schools and educational employees and children and communities."

Mary Hatwood Futrell

Fueled by advances in technology and the reduction of trade barriers in recent years, the emergence of a global economy is seen as a source of both great promise and peril. While many countries and industries are reaping the benefits of selling their products to a wider market, the readjustment has also seen the loss of jobs in some countries and, some argue, the exploitation of workers in others.

Education workers might seem to be favored by a global economy that puts a higher premium on a workforce educated well enough to keep learning new skills. But at the same time, education groups in many countries say their members feel the same pressure that is driving other sectors to do more with less.

"I live in a country overflowing in milk and honey," Helga Hjetland, the president of the Norwegian Union of Teachers, told a forum of 10 international guests here last week. "We have good working conditions, and still, in this globalized world, our government officials say they can't spend more money on education or the public sector, because then we will have inflation and we can't compete internationally."

Teachers' groups in many developing nations also blame multinational institutions such as the World Trade Organization, through which member countries set the ground rules for trade, for part of their plight. In particular, union leaders in Africa and parts of Latin America maintain that such organizations, including the International Monetary Fund, through which countries seek cooperation on monetary policy, press their governments to cut spending, including their budgets for public schools.

Another prominent topic for discussion at the gathering in Thailand next month will be the prospects for expanding international trade in the education sector. The trend has begun to be seen in the United States with the establishment of private companies that recruit teachers from overseas to work in American schools. The advent of distance learning also offers the possibility of delivering instruction across national borders. Moreover, in 1994, countries in the WTO included education on a list of services in which member countries could agree to liberalize trade.

"For companies [that] want to privatize services, they see this as an enormous market, and markets need to make profits," said Sheena Hanley, a deputy general secretary of Education International, speaking from the organization's headquarters in Brussels, Belgium. "So for those of us who believe that education should be a public service, that it is a public good, the thought that it becomes something for profit becomes very disturbing."

As an organization, said Ms. Hanley, Education International does not oppose globalization, but rather wants to make it work more in the favor of workers. The group advocates, for instance, that trade agreements include labor standards, such as bans on the employment of children and guarantees of the right to form unions.

"We believe you need rules for trade, and the WTO should be developing those rules," Ms. Hanley said. "But we also believe that if governments coming into these trade agreements would agree to these labor standards, then this would make it possible for workers in different countries to protect their own interests."

But others say such concerns are misplaced. Pointing out that each member country of the WTO is free to decide whether to sign on to an agreement, some argue that labor groups should focus their attention on their own governments. Many further maintain that globalization benefits workers by opening up new possibilities for economic growth for many countries.

"Poverty is the worst enemy of workers' rights and human dignity," said Hans-Peter Werner, a public-affairs officer with the WTO in Geneva. "The question is: How do you attack poverty? Most economists around the world agree that it isn't by having sanctions against products made by very poor countries."

Officials at Education International acknowledge that their own member organizations are not of one mind on the issue. Some argue that groups like the WTO should be abolished, while others believe that international labor groups should play an important role in working with such multinational institutions.

Mr. Lowe, the union leader from Singapore, sees globalization as offering as many new solutions as it does challenges. By forming new trade partnerships with such major markets as China and India, his country would be able to weather the impact of a dampening economy in the West, he said.

"Globalization to me is neither good nor bad," said Mr. Lowe. "It's two sides of the same coin. It depends on how you treat it."

Despite such differences of opinion, Education International officials expect delegates to adopt a number of resolutions related to globalization when they assemble in Thailand for the organization's main policymaking body, known as the World Congress.

The assembly also plans to take up resolutions on adopting a new international code of ethics for teachers and on efforts to increase school attendance around the world.

Vol. 20, Issue 42, Pages 12-13

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