We need to reform a world that rewards wealth, not hard work

Jim Clarken, chief executive of Oxfam Ireland', at an event in the Ulster Hall in 2012 on ending poverty.''Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye
Jim Clarken, chief executive of Oxfam Ireland', at an event in the Ulster Hall in 2012 on ending poverty.''Picture by Kelvin Boyes / Press Eye

Here’s something we’re rarely told growing up: our world rewards wealth, not hard work or talent.

A world where 82 percent of the wealth created last year went to the richest one percent of the population. Meanwhile, the 3.7 billion people who make up the poorest half of the world saw no increase in their wealth last year.

Corporations are driving down wages and working conditions across the globe to maximize returns for their shareholders. They use their power and influence to ensure the rules align with their interests – no matter the cost.

Many of our governments don’t just let this happen, they actively facilitate it, by slashing corporate taxes and stripping away the rights and protections for workers.

The result? Women in hot, overcrowded garment factories in Bangladesh paid poverty wages. Hotel housekeepers cleaning luxury rooms afraid to report sexual harassment for fear of losing their jobs. Poultry workers in the US forced to wear nappies because they are denied toilet breaks.

But in boardrooms things are better than ever as shareholders and corporate bosses enjoy record profits.

Oxfam campaigners recently set up an inequality restaurant in Belfast city centre to illustrate this huge gap between rich and poor, as the world’s political and business elites are meeting in Davos, Switzerland for four days. In that span of time, the world’s billionaires will see their fortunes swell by an estimated $8 billion.

But we can build a better future, by redesigning our economy to truly reward hard work, rather than wealth. What is lacking is political will.

Oxfam is urging political leaders to limit rewards to shareholders and senior executives, introduce a statutory living wage, build fairer tax systems, invest in health care and education and shepherd in a technological revolution that works for all.

We need business leaders to stop paying huge share dividends and awarding bumper pay packages to top executives until they can guarantee that all of their workers are getting a living wage and that their suppliers are being paid fair prices.

I’m sure every political and business leader in Davos will echo my concerns about the inequality crisis. But I, like hundreds of millions of people, am growing impatient waiting for them to act.

• Jim Clarken is chief executive of Oxfam Ireland