Global unions need to speak global languages

In the last few months, LabourStart has added two new languages (Danish and Finnish) to its editions. The online global labour news service is now available in twelve languages. And there are more on the way.
I mention this in passing because it should be obvious that if you want to use the Internet to communicate, and if you are aiming to reach a global audience, surely you will want to do so in as many languages as possible.
But a brief look at the other international labour websites will reveal that we have a very long way to go before we can claim to be speaking to workers in their own languages.

The Global Unions website is a joint effort of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions (ICFTU), all the global union federations, and the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC). The aim of the website is to give the affiliated unions “the ability to draw the attention of their partners, their members, and the press to the news they produce and the campaigns they run.” Unfortunately the site – several years after its launch – is only in English.
The website of the ICFTU itself adds Spanish and French to its list of languages, but this hardly makes it accessible to the organization’s 151,000,000 members, only a minority of whom will be able to read from the three languages being offered.
The global union federations fare somewhat better. The food workers (IUF) have a website in eight languages (soon to be nine), with the number of available languages having nearly doubled in the last three years. The metalworkers (IMF) have seven languages available and the chemical workers (ICEM), transport workers (ITF) and public sector workers (PSI) follow with six each.
The textile workers (ITGLWF) and Union Network International (UNI) offer four languages each, the journalists (IUJ) three, the Education International two, and TUAC and the building workers (IFBWW) only one.
ICTUR’s own website offers material in three languages.
In contrast, a number of web-based projects (often run entirely by volunteers) have been far more successful at serving those Internet users who are not English speakers.
The web’s leading search engine, Google, offers interfaces in 88 languages. The online encyclopedia Wikipedia, appears in 51 languages. The Open Directory Project features directories in 72 languages.
The software we use to browse the web is also increasingly multilingual. The open source web browser Mozilla has 98 language versions. Its commercial rival Opera is available in 34 officially supported languages. The popular instant messaging software ICQ is available in 19 languages.
There are an estimated 6,000 spoken languages in the world today. Many of these are spoken only by small numbers of people and roughly half of these are expected to become extinct in the next several decades. But there are still forty languages spoken by fifteen million speakers or more.
But many of these are languages we never see on the global trade union websites. If we look at a list of languages spoken by at least fifty million people, they include the following: Chinese, Arabic, Bengali, Panjabi, Hindi, Javanese, Korean, Vietnamese, Telugu, Marathi, Tamil, Turkish, and Urdu.
One might argue that a global trade union website need not feature languages that are only spoken in one country (such as Korean) – but if that were the case, why are global union federations choosing languages like Italian, Croatian and Japanese?
Alternately, it could be argued that there might not be very many Urdu or Marathi speakers online – but that is certainly not the case with Chinese or Korean, which have enormous numbers of Internet users.
In their defense, trade unions will argue that creating websites in additional languages is costly – but the examples given earlier of the Wikipedia, Google, the Open Directory Project, and even LabourStart do show that if there’s a will, there’s a way. Even if there is no money.
It might also be argued that there wouldn’t be much of a readership for a global trade union website in a language like Chinese. I would argue the opposite. There is an urgent need to get the message about workers’ rights and free trade unionism to places like China, in Chinese. That’s why the work of groups like the China Labour Bulletin is so vital. For the same reason, the ICFTU and all the other members of the “global unions family” should be producing material online in the world’s most widely spoken languages. And so should ICTUR and LabourStart.
Working together with unions in developing countries, the international trade union movement could be creating a strong web presence in all the major languages spoken in the world. Such websites could prove vital tools in campaigning for workers’ and promoting trade unionism in countries (such as China, Burma and Vietnam) where free and independent unions do not yet exist.
Globalization and the Internet have given our movement the opportunity to break out of its North American and Western European ghettos. But we cannot do so if we choose to speak to the world only in the languages that are spoken in Geneva and Brussels.