Global Economic Governance at the G20: Prospects for the Labor Agenda


The international financial crisis unleashed in 2008 has given a renewed prominence to the Group of 20 (G20) as the main forum for political agreement for the governance of the global economy. The main challenge for the G20 is to articulate a political dialogue capable of generating basic consensus for a new globalization paradigm that not only allows us to overcome the current crisis, but also to guarantee the social and environmental sustainability of a new growth model in a post-neoliberal context. Unlike other international crises, the defense of employment and social security enters the G20 as an unavoidable agenda to define economic recovery policies. This is attributed to the joint leadership of Brazil and Argentina, in coalition with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the international trade union movement. This article analyzes the treatment and scope of the work agenda based on the changes in the international political situation, increasingly marked by a neoliberal restoration of globalization.

Keywords: Group of 20 (G20), financial crisis, globalization, work, international trade union movement, global governance, post-neoliberalism, complex multilateralism.


The international financial crisis unleashed in 2008 has been given renewed prominence to the Group of 20 (G20) as the main forum of governance in the world economy. The main challenge of G20 is to articulate a political dialogue that can generate a basic consensus for a new paradigm of globalization that not only can overcome the current crisis, but also ensure social and environmental sustainability of a new growth model in a post-neoliberal context . Unlike other international crises, the G20 acknowledges that employment and social security are imperative agendas for sustainable economic recovery. The incorporation of this agenda results from the joint leadership of Brazil and Argentina in coalition with the International Labor Organization (ILO) and the international labor movement. The article discusses the content and scope of the labor agenda in response to changes in the international political context marked by a restoration of neoliberal globalization.

Key words: Group of 20 (G20), financial crisis, globalization, employment, international labor movement, global governance, post-neoliberalism, complex multilateralism.


The Group of 20 (G20) 1 was created in 1999 to respond to the 1997 Asian financial crisis, bringing together the main advanced and emerging economies to stabilize the global financial market. Since its establishment, the G20 has held annual meetings of finance ministers and central bank governors to discuss measures that promote the world’s financial stability and sustainable economic growth. The economies of the countries re-presented in this forum constitute 85 percent of the world gross product (GNP). To face the financial and economic crisis that swept across the world in 2008, the G20 members were called upon to intensify international cooperation. Since then, the G20 has acquired great political prominence as a forum for the governance of the global economy. G20 summits at the level of heads of state have taken place in Washington in 2008, London and Pittsburgh (in 2009), in Toronto and Seoul (in 2010), and in France (scheduled for November 2011).

The impacts of the international financial crisis on employment have been considerable. Today there are more than 220 million unemployed in the world, the highest level recorded in history, an increase of more than 31 million from the 2007 level. Another 100 million people – mainly in the countries where development – have been plunged into extreme poverty (ILO, 2010). The issue of employment was taken up in the G20 at the London Summit as a dimension to consider in the search for consensus to multilaterally coordinate policies in the face of the crisis. In particular, the debate on employment has focused on measures that ensure the preservation and generation of decent and environmentally sustainable employment, social protection systems in accordance with universal minimum standards, labor rights, and reforms for the financial system with redistributive criteria.

The incorporation of the issue of employment in the G20 reflects the fact that, unlike the financial crises that hit emerging economies during the 1990s, this time the crisis affects the center of the world economic system. The implications of the systemic nature of the crisis are noted, which would compromise the continuity and general orientation of the global financial and productive system as a whole. Imbalances in the world economy, unregulated capital, and huge concentrations of wealth in a financed economy disconnected from the real economy were unsustainable and have led to severe economic collapse.

In a first approximation to determine the meaning of the inclusion of the labor agenda in the main forum of global economic governance, at least two interpretations are plausible: on the one hand, it is important not to fall into easy enthusiasm, predicting the beginning of a new more inclusive policy paradigm that perhaps supersedes and supersedes a declining neoliberalism. There are elements that suggest that the G20 process may end up being “more of the same”, with the only important difference being that it has invited new partners (Tedesco and Youngs, 2009).

Likewise, that the meaning of the G20 is simply that of a space for the political administration of the crisis, in such a way as to enable the reordering of global capitalism in its financial, speculative and concentrated matrix, within the framework of new political and institutional conditions ( Soederberg, 2010). From this perspective, the labor agenda enters the G20 as a temporary tactic to contain the social impacts of the crisis on employment, as well as to decompress the demands of protectionist policies on the State that, in principle, it was feared that would erode the guidelines of an open market economy. In this case, the G20 will indeed have marked a change of course, although not one that favors a more equitable distribution of income and that fosters a productive economy by reducing the preponderance of the financial sector.

On the other hand, it is not convenient to underestimate the opportunities presented by the current political context to advance in the forms of international ties that allow employment to be positioned in the matrix of a post-crisis order. There are favorable conditions for this. Not everything is the same as before. The fact that the crisis is settling in the central countries, in a context of relative strengthening of the emerging economies of the South, is not a fact that goes unnoticed (Garten, 1997; Hurrell, 2006; Woods, 2010). A political space opens that allows at least to suppose possibilities of transformation that, although modest, at least guide the discussion in another direction.

There is a risk that the labor agenda will lose the gravitation that it initially aroused in the G20, as signs of economic recovery are looming. From this diagnosis, the question arose of what implications the entry of a work agenda in the G20 would have, for the possibilities of building a global growth paradigm that surpasses that of neoliberalism.

In this article an analysis of the repercussions of the incorporation of a work agenda in the G20 is carried out in order to generate consensus that will allow reorienting the guidelines of globalization, in accordance with distributive and social inclusion criteria. The analysis covers the period between the G20 Washington Summit (November 2008) and the South Korean Summit (November 2010). Unfailingly, this task can only be preliminary, as the G20 process and the effects of the crisis will continue to mark the trajectory of the political debate on the challenges that the crisis poses to the governance of global capitalism and its relationship with development.

A fundamental premise is that it is not possible to foresee a priori whether the G20 process will necessarily lead to one or the other of the two tendencies already mentioned. Unlike other moments in the history of international relations, the current one is not marked by the hegemonic leadership of a State or group of States, or by the harmonious coincidence of public and private interests that allow to move easily through construction processes of new forms of global economic governance. Multiple interests that converge in the G20 dispute the future direction of globalization and the distribution of its costs and benefits. These are articulated in diverse configurations of national, international and transnational alliances and coalitions between governments, governments and trade union organizations, as well as between trade unions within the framework of a renewed international trade union movement, in addition to transnational companies and particularly financial ones. Ultimately, the chances that the treatment of a labor agenda in the G20 will transform what until recently was the predominant paradigm of international political economy are contingent on the contingencies of a complex process whose results will depend on the dynamics of power. ongoing (Beeson and Bell, 2009).

The first section presents the actors that come together in the G20, around the negotiation and dispute of a work agenda. The G20 process is not linear and is governed by logics of intergovernmental and transnational relations, based on alliances and coalitions of diverse social actors, mainly the international trade union movement. Both policy dimensions that make up the G20 process express its status as “complex multilateralism.” The second section examines the evolution of the G20 work agenda, based on an ongoing process analysis. Finally, the conclusion takes up some of the central ideas raised and outlines the expectations and possibilities of strengthening a work agenda, with a view to the next G20 summit that will take place in France in November 2011.

The actors on the labor agenda

The issue of work in the G20 links a wide and heterogeneous set of interests represented by political, social and business actors. Among the former are mainly States, but also international organizations. The governments of Argentina and Brazil are the main state actors promoting a work agenda in the G20. Although they are states of less weight in the decisions of the G20, the convergence achieved between both governments in various aspects of the labor agenda has allowed them to increase their influence in this forum. Germany and France are also highly relevant countries for the 8 employment issue, regardless of the fact that they have considerable influence in the G20, given the size of their economies. The German government was the promoter in the G20 of the so-called “Merkel Initiative”, or Charter of Sustainable Economic Activity, which consists of a set of principles to regulate the world economy (Stancanelli, 2009). Among these principles is the protection of labor rights based on the basic rights of the ILO.

The United States is also present, especially in relation to the need to prioritize counter-cyclical policies to stimulate economic reactivation and to contain rising unemployment. For its part, Great Britain has played an important role in broadening the issues taken up at the G20 to incorporate employment and finance, which gave rise to this forum. Likewise, South Korea has been a key player in further broadening the G20 thematic agenda to link discussions on the financial and economic crisis to a more comprehensive development-focused approach.

Although the possibilities of political coordination of the G20 are linked to the consensus led by governments, some international organizations have adopted an increasingly important role in the governance of the process, especially in relation to the elaboration of diagnoses, common standards and evaluation criteria of policy performances. This is the case of the ILO and its contribution from the Global Jobs Pact that was signed at the ILO conference in June 2009, which aims to guide national and international policies aimed at stimulating economic recovery, to generate jobs and protect workers and their families in a crisis scenario that generates increased unemployment, poverty and inequality, in addition to causing the collapse of numerous companies. To this end, a series of measures are proposed to respond to the crisis, which the countries adapt to their specific needs and situations. It is not a one-size-fits-all solution, but rather a portfolio of proposals based on successful examples, which have also been designed to inform and support actions at the multilateral level. The policy guidelines focus on generating employment, expanding social protection, respecting the labor standards contained in ILO conventions and recommendations, promoting social dialogue, and promoting a fair globalization.

With the ILO joining the G20, the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) also joins, providing a “market” vision that contrasts and, to a certain extent, competes with that of the ILO for influencing the terms discussion and policies in the face of the crisis. The incorporation of the OECD raises the problem of the double representation of its member states in the G20; a situation that already occurs with the European Community as one more member of the G20.

Trade union organizations are the most relevant social actors in the G20 process when it comes to work. These are linked to the multilateral process through the various forms of advocacy available to contribute to the definition of the negotiating agendas of the respective governments in the G20. Advocacy capacity is variable, with the specific political-institutional characteristics of each country, as well as with the correlation of relative forces that unions have to install agenda items in public debate and exert pressure on governments.

Here it is impossible to carry out a review of each of the G20 member countries to assess the degree of autonomy or permeability of each government to the demands of the trade union organizations in each case. However, as already mentioned, Argentina and Brazil stand out for the importance they attribute in the G20 to the promotion of employment as part of a comprehensive concept of growth and development; employment as a constitutive element of the macroeconomy (Abeles and Koper, 2010). This is due, in large part, to the particular characteristics of the relationship between the trade union movement and the state in a context of governments based on coalitions with unions and traditions ideologically linked to labor movements and a history of demands for labor rights. Although these characteristics are not exclusive to these two countries, it can be said that none of the governments of the other G20 members has such solid political guidelines with the trade union movement as in Brazil and Argentina.

Beyond the participation of trade union organizations in the G20 process, through their incidence at the national level, there is also a transnational scale that is expressed in the international trade union movement. In recent decades, a global labor movement has been strengthened, based on a gradual process of formation of international union centrals, global and regional campaigns coordinated between unions in various countries, in order to promote different issues, such as the promotion of standards. universal labor standards or the creation of global frameworks for the negotiation and union supervision of transnational companies with common guidelines. The trade union movement is undoubtedly already one more actor in globalization (Anner, 2006; Bronsfenbrenner, 2007; Harrod and O’Brien, 2002; Moody, 1997; Munck, 2002; Saguier, 2008 and 2010; Verma and Kochan, 2004; Waterman, 2001).

The voice of the international trade union movement in the G20 process is commonly called “G20 Sindical”, which is made up of about fifty general secretaries who are responsible for the international sections of the main trade union centers of the expanded G20 countries (which includes Spain and Holland). It is also made up of the heads of the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), 2 the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) and the Global Unions (GU) group. In turn, the latter is made up of the ITUC and TUAC, which affiliate the national trade union centers made up of trade unions from various sectors, as well as the eleven International Trade Union Federations (FSI) that group national trade unions according to the sector. or occupation. The international trade union movement has the infrastructure and support of the TUAC labor and social policy working group for research and reporting.

The main demands of the G20 Trade Union are the need to agree on a coordinated plan for recovery and sustainable growth, agreed at the international level, aimed at creating jobs, public investment and the fight against poverty in the world; the coordination of efforts to stabilize the international financial system and the establishment of a global regulation of it, with strong norms and supervisors that apply them (ITUC, 2007); the fight against the risk of wage deflation and measures to end decades of increasing inequalities; major initiative in the fight against climate change and the creation of green jobs (Green New Deal); the renewal of the global economic governance system, through the reform of international financial and economic institutions (IMF, WB, OECD, WTO) and the role of the ILO.

There is no attempt here to overstate the density and autonomy of transnational union processes in relation to the national processes in which they are embedded. Certainly, the G20 Union is not exempt from contradictions and tensions, typical of a force with such heterogeneous characteristics. There are North-South differences regarding views on the world of work and its priorities. Unions in Northern countries tend to prioritize job losses, as a result of the relocation of companies in countries with lower labor costs, often linked to the precariousness of working conditions, little regulatory capacity of the State and union weakness, especially in the Southeast Asia region and China (Anner, 2006). Some union movements in the South express socio-political views that go beyond the defense of employment and workers’ rights to question the prevailing development model and the role of the State in it (Godio, 2003). Added to this are the growing dynamics of South-South competition for employment and investment, which also conditions the possibilities for global solidarity of the trade union movement (Ross and Chan, 2002).

Despite such diversity of interests and expectations, it has been possible to converge on issues on the global agenda, such as the current international crisis, among others. National and global (or regional) union processes are not exclusive, but complementary. To the extent that economic and political interdependence transnationally links local and national realities, the trade union movement develops new forms of organization and mobilization according to the challenges posed by the defense of work in a context of globalization. For the international trade union movement, the G20 is an opportunity to insert itself into the governance structure of globalization, and thus influence the definition of policies that guarantee the centrality of decent work in the matrix of the productive model of globalization. For this, it aspires to formalize a permanent consultative role in the G20 process, establishing itself as an advisory body in the image of the role that the Trade Union Advisory Commission (CCS, or TUAC, for its acronym in English) fulfills before the OECD.

This section took up the main actors that converge in the G20, to influence the construction of consensus and instruments that allow setting a work agenda in the international coordination of policies in the face of the crisis. The set of formal and informal interactions between these public and private actors, both at the national, international or transnational level, make up the political space of the G20. Thus, complex multilateralism (O’Brien et al, 2000) is a dynamic constellation of forces and counterforces, tactical and strategic alliances that demarcate an open and indeterminate field of action. In this process, the relationships of strength, expectations and functions are structured from which the possibilities of emerging forms of global governance emerge (Beeson and Bell, 2009). The following section evaluates the scope and limitations of this political process to advance a work agenda.