Justin Trudeau tells Davos: tackle inequality or risk failure

Canadian prime minister says employing more women is the smart thing to do.

Canada’s prime minister, Justin Trudeau, has challenged leaders of the world’s biggest corporations to hire more women and to tackle sexual harassment as he warned that a business-as-usual approach to tackling inequality would lead to failure for everyone.

In a keynote speech to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Trudeau said hiring, promoting and retaining more women was the key to narrowing the “staggering” gap between rich and poor.

Business leaders at the annual WEF meeting in Switzerland have enjoyed an increase in wealth in the past year as a result of rising stock markets but the Canadian premier asked whether they wanted “to live in gated enclaves while those around them struggle”.

He said: “Too many corporations have single-mindedly put the pursuit of profit before the wellbeing of workers. All the while, companies avoid taxes and boast record profits with one hand while slashing benefits with the other.”

Trudeau said that employing more women was the smart thing to do, adding that it would lead to a greater diversity of ideas, more innovation and fewer disputes.

He said there needed to be a critical discussion about the the rights, equality and power dynamics of gender. “Sexual harassment in business and government is a systemic problem and it is unacceptable,” Trudeau said, giving his support to the #MeToo campaign that started after the revelations about the Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein. “As leaders, we must recognise and act to truly show that time is up.”

Trudeau used his speech to announce that the 10 remaining members of the Trans Pacific Partnership would go ahead with a free trade agreement despite Donald Trump’s decision to pull the US out of the deal.

The US president is due to speak in Davos on Friday but, before his arrival, the heads of some of the world’s leading financial institutions were warning that the stock market boom since his election victory could be threatened by systemic IT failure, political crisis or a failure to remember the lessons of the recent past.

Concerns that the recent rise in share prices that has taken markets around the world to record highs might be too good to last dominated the first full day of the Davos event.

Anne Richards, the chief executive of the UK’s M&G Investments, said a collapse of IT systems that put markets out of action for several days could be the trigger for a crash. “We all have businesses which are absolutely reliant on a very small number of people who provide the [IT] pipes that effectively we all put our business though,” she said.

Jes Staley, the chief executive of Barclays, said the mood reminded him of how Davos had been in the year before the biggest financial meltdown in recent history, noting that it was “a little bit like 2006 when we were all talking whether we’ve solved the riddle of economic crises”.

David Rubenstein, the co-founder of the Carlyle Group, a US private equity and asset management company, said: “Generally, when people are happy and confident, something wrong happens.”

The Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, warned that globalisation was under attack from the “forces of protectionism … who want to reverse its flow”. He cited climate change and terrorism as major threats to the global economy.

“Everyone talks about reducing climate emissions, but there are very few countries who back their words with their resources to help developing countries to adopt appropriate technology,” Modi told delegates.

The rise of technology giants also came under scrutiny. David Autor, the Ford professor of economics at MIT, pointed out that companies that appear all-powerful can actually fade pretty fast, either because regulators act or markets change.

Walmart was considered indomitable 15 years ago, now it faced enormous competition from Amazon, Autor said, adding: “I would guess that Facebook will be almost non-existent 20 years from now.”