Are you the kind that struts about thinking that “building wealth has nothing to do with money, and everything to do with your mindset”? It’s a fashionable aphorism. In the world of global capitalism, it will not be surprising if you have lapped up such ideas – which often come with cherrypicked homilies on entrepreneurs who have made it big. If the poor worked hard enough and were smart, these stories argue, they too could become filthy rich.
All this gyaan is nonsense, data says. Published just a day ahead of the annual meeting of the World Economic forum last week, a report by Oxfam India argued against the notion that the poor don’t work hard or that billionaires work hard to accumulate their wealth. To make things exciting, a summary of the research in the report is now available in byte-sized posters, which bust popular myths about poverty.
The report by Oxfam tells the story of Anju, a worker in Bangladesh who sews clothes for export. She works 12 hours a day, often misses meals to earn more, and still makes just around USD $936 an year. The report then compares this to the whopping €658 million Stefan Persson, son of H&M founder, earned in share dividends last year.
If that sounds like selecting particular stories, Oxfam calculated average income of the CEOs of five largest publicly listed apparel retailers. They assumed these ‘CEOs work 12 hours a day, including three out of every four weekends, and take fewer than 10 days’ holiday per year.’ It then calculated the lifetime pay of the highest-paid tier of workers based on the legal minimum working age and retirement age. The result is below.
It is true that the number of people living in extreme poverty, determined by defining an extreme poverty line based on basic needs of people averaged for 15 poorest countries in the world, has reduced. In fact, between 1990 and 2010, the number halved. That doesn’t mean, however, that inequality too reduced in the period. Research published by the Overseas Development Institute in 2014, cited in the Oxfam report, says that the we could have done better. If inequality had not grown, 200 million more people would have been lifted above that extreme poverty line. In fact, if you think reducing poverty is an indicator of reducing inequality, even the World Bank hasn’t got your back.
Ahem…ever heard of Panama Papers or Paradise Papers? A trove of secret documents reported in the past two years revealed how the global elite hide their wealth in tax havens. That bit of info was just to jog your memory. But what does this tax-avoidance do? “Developing countries lose at least $170bn annually because of corporate and individual tax avoidance schemes,” the Oxfam report says, citing research from 2015. Then of course, there is pressure from companies to weaken labour unions, outsourcing of labour to countries or communities that can offer it cheap because of a lack of work, creation of monopolies, gradually reducing taxes on the rich – all of which has been linked to the rise in inequality. Competition? Healthy?
Even the rich don’t think so. Pricewaterhouse Coopers and UBS, who in their own words “advise a large number of the world’s wealthy, and
have unique insights into their changing fortunes and needs”, conduct a regular research on the billionaires of the world. And below is what their ‘Billionaires insights 2017’ says.
But we can. Remember Anju sweating away her life sewing while CEOs of garment companies earn her life’s worth of earnings in 4 days? The Oxfam report asks us to consider an alternate model. It gives the example of Mondragon, a multinational cooperative, where decisions are take democratically and job security is promoted. The highest paid at Mondragon earns 9 times more than the lowest paid – still a better scenario.
Even if we don’t immediately redistribute wealth just out of spite for the four myths that are peddled to keep the poor in poverty, there is hope. All Anju needs is her basic rights – healthcare, education, social security. It works. Among the 35 member countries of the The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, it has in fact been shown to reduce inequality by an average of 20 percent, the Oxfam report says.