Inflation sparks global wave of protests for higher wages, aid

by Kerry G. Alvarez

It is rising food costs. It was increasing fuel bills. Wages that don’t keep pace. Inflation is plundering people’s wallets and sparking worldwide protests and workers’ strikes.

This week alone, there were protests from the political opposition in Pakistan, nurses in Zimbabwe, union workers in Belgium, railway workers in Britain, indigenous people in Ecuador, hundreds of American pilots, and some European airline personnel. On Wednesday, Sri Lanka’s prime minister declared economic collapse after weeks of political unrest.

Inflation sparks global wave of protests for higher wages, aid

Economists say Russia’s war in Ukraine has fueled inflation by further pushing up energy costs and fertilizers, grains, and cooking oil prices as farmers struggle to grow and export crops in one of the world’s major agricultural regions.

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

“We’re not all in this together,” said Matt Grainger, head of inequality policy at the anti-poverty organization Oxfam. “How many of the richest even know what a loaf of bread costs? They don’t do that; they absorb the prices.”

Oxfam is calling on the group of 7 leading industrialized nations, which will hold their annual summit in Germany this weekend, to provide debt relief to emerging economies and tax corporations on excess profits.

“This is not just an isolated crisis. It stems from a terrible pandemic that has fueled global inequality,” Grainger said. “I think we will see more and more protests.”

The demonstrations have attracted the attention of governments, who have responded to rising consumer prices with supportive measures such as expanded subsidies for energy bills and cuts in fuel taxes. This often offers little solace because the energy markets are volatile. Central banks try to reduce inflation by raising interest rates.

Meanwhile, striking workers have pressured employers to discuss wage increases to keep up with rising prices.

Eddie Dempsey, a senior official at the British Railways, Maritime and Transport Union, who nearly brought British rail services to a halt with strikes this week, said there would be more demands for wage increases in other sectors.

It’s time for Britain to get a pay rise. Wages have been falling for 30 years, and corporate profits are skyrocketing,” Dempsey said.

Last week, thousands of truck drivers in South Korea ended an eight-day strike that caused shipping delays as they called for minimum wage guarantees amid rising fuel prices. Months earlier, some 10,000 kilometers (6,200 miles) away, truck drivers in Spain went on strike to protest fuel prices.

The Peruvian government has imposed a short curfew after protests against fuel and food prices turned violent in April. Truckers and other transport workers also went on strike, blocking major highways.

Protests over the cost of living ousted Sri Lanka’s prime minister last month. Middle-class families say they have been forced to skip meals because of the island’s economic crisis, which has left them considering leaving the country altogether.

The situation is particularly dire for refugees and the poor in conflict zones such as Afghanistan, Yemen, Myanmar, and Haiti, where fighting forces people to flee their homes and depend on aid organizations struggling to raise funds themselves.

“How much for my kidney?” is the most frequently asked question from one of Kenya’s largest hospitals. Kenyatta National Hospital reminded people on Facebook this week that selling human organs is illegal.

It has become more expensive for the European middle class to commute to work and put food on the table.

“Increase our salaries. Now!” shouted thousands of union workers in Brussels this week.

“I came here to defend the purchasing power of citizens because demonstrating is the only way to bring about change,” protester Genevieve Cordier said. “We can’t take it anymore. Even with two salaries, we both work and can’t get our heads above water.”

In some countries, a combination of government corruption and mismanagement is fueling economic turmoil, especially in politically jammed countries like Lebanon and Iraq.

The protests reflect a sense of growing financial insecurity. This is how it went in Africa:

— Healthcare professionals in Zimbabwe went on strike this week after rejecting the government’s offer for a 100% pay increase. The nurses say the supply won’t close to the skyrocketing 130% inflation.

— Kenyans have protested in the streets and online as the price of food rose by 12% in the past year.

— One of Tunisia’s most powerful unions held a nationwide public sector strike last week. The North African country is facing a worsening economic crisis.

— Hundreds of activists protested the rising cost of living in Burkina Faso this month. According to the UN’s World Food Programme, maize and millet prices have risen by more than 60% since last year, reaching 122% in some provinces.

“As for this cost of living, which continues to rise, we realized that the authorities have betrayed the people,” said Issaka Porgo, chair of the civil society coalition behind the protest in the West African country.

Protesters condemn the military junta, which ousted the democratically elected president in January, for giving itself a pay rise while the population faces rising prices.

Global economic growth is expected to slow by 40% this year and next to 3.6%. The International Monetary Fund says inflation will average about 6% this year in advanced economies and close to 9% in emerging and developing economies. The IMF calls for governments to target aid packages to the most deprived to avoid a recession.

The slowdown comes as the COVID-19 pandemic continues to grip industries worldwide, from manufacturing to tourism. Climate change and drought affect agricultural production in some countries, leading to export bans and further food prices.

Rising food prices are especially painful in low-income countries, where 42% of household income is spent on food, said Peter Ceretti, an analyst who tracks food security at risk consultancy Eurasia Group.

“We’ll see more protests, probably wider and angrier, but I don’t expect any destabilizing or regime-changing protests,” he said, as producers adjust and governments approve subsidies.

Associated Press writers Jill Lawless in London; Sam Mednick in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso; Cara Anna in Nairobi, Kenya; and Mark Carlson in Brussels, Belgium, contributed to this report.

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