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Inflation sparks global wave of protests for higher pay, aid

AP – Rising food costs. Soaring fuel bills. Wages that are not keeping pace. Inflation is plundering people’s wallets, sparking a wave of protests and workers’ strikes around the world.

This week alone saw protests by the political opposition in Pakistan, nurses in Zimbabwe, unionised workers in Belgium, railway workers in Britain, Indigenous people in Ecuador, hundreds of United States (US) pilots and some European airline workers. Sri Lanka’s prime minister declared an economic collapse on Wednesday after weeks of political turmoil.

Economists said Russia’s war in Ukraine amplified inflation by further pushing up the cost of energy and prices of fertiliser, grains and cooking oils as farmers struggle to grow and export crops in one of the world’s key agricultural regions.

As prices rise, inflation threatens to exacerbate inequalities and widen the gap between billions of people struggling to cover their costs and those who are able to keep spending.

“We are not in this together,” head of inequality policy at antipoverty organisation Oxfam Matt Grainger said. “How many of the richest even know what a loaf of bread costs? They don’t really, they just absorb the prices.”

Oxfam is calling on the Group of seven leading industrialised nations, holding their annual summit this weekend in Germany, to provide debt relief to developing economies and to tax corporations on excess profits.

“This isn’t just a standalone crisis. It’s coming off the back of an appalling pandemic that fuelled increased inequality worldwide,” Grainger said. “I think we will see more and more protests.”

Truck drivers protest against the high price of fuel in Madrid, Spain. PHOTO: AP

The demonstrations caught the attention of governments, which responded to soaring consumer prices with support measures like expanded subsidies for utility bills and cuts to fuel taxes. Often, that offers little relief because energy markets are volatile. Central banks are trying to ease inflation by raising interest rates.

Last week, thousands of truckers in South Korea ended an eight-day strike that caused shipment delays as they called for minimum wage guarantees amid soaring fuel prices.

Months earlier, some 10,000 kilometres away, truckers in Spain went on strike to protest fuel prices.

Peru’s government imposed a brief curfew after protests against fuel and food prices turned violent in April. Truckers and other transport workers also had gone on strike and blocked key highways.

Protests over the cost of living ousted Sri Lanka’s prime minister last month. Middle-class families said they’re forced to skip meals because of the island nation’s economic crisis, prompting them to contemplate leaving the country altogether.

The situation is particularly dire for refugees and the poor in conflict areas such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar and Haiti, where fighting has forced people to flee their homes and rely on aid organisations, themselves struggling to raise money.

“How much for my kidney?” is the question most asked of one of Kenya’s largest hospitals.

Kenyatta National Hospital reminded people on Facebook this week that selling human organs is illegal.

For the middle class in Europe, it’s become more expensive to commute to work and put food on the table.

“Increase our salaries. Now!” chanted thousands of unionised workers in Brussels this week.

“I came here to defend the purchasing power of citizens because demonstrating is the only way to make change,” protester Genevieve Cordier said. “We cannot cope anymore. Even with two salaries… both of us are working, and we cannot get our head above water.”

In some countries, a combination of government corruption and mismanagement underpin the economic turmoil, particularly in politically gridlocked countries like Lebanon and Iraq.

The International Monetary Fund (IMF) said inflation will average about six per cent in advanced economies and nearly nine per cent in emerging and developing economies this year.

Global economic growth is projected to slow by 40 per cent, to 3.6 per cent, this year and next. The IMF is calling on governments to focus support packages to those most in need to avoid triggering a recession.

The slowdown comes as the COVID-19 pandemic is still gripping industries worldwide, from manufacturing to tourism. Climate change and drought are hitting agricultural production in some countries, prompting export bans that push up food prices even further.

Rising food prices are particularly painful in low-income countries, where 42 per cent of household incomes are spent on food, analyst tracking food security at risk advisory firm Eurasia Group Peter Ceretti said.

“We will see more protests, probably broader and angrier, but I do not expect destabilising or regime-changing protests,” he said, as producers adjust and governments approve subsidies.