322nd Session of the Governing Body

Luc Cortebeeck, Chair of the Workers’ Group: “Either we recognise that ILO Convention No. 87 covers the right to strike, or we refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice”

The 322nd session of ILO’s Governing Body has just ended in Geneva. In this interview, Luc Cortebeeck, Chair of the Workers’ Group, sets out the worker delegates’ position on the right to strike. He also discusses the role of trade unions in achieving the objectives of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda, and what ILO can do in the face of the Ebola epidemic that has killed more than 5,000 people in West Africa.

News | 19 November 2014
ACTRAV INFO: The 322nd session of the ILO’s Governing Body has just ended. How would you characterize the outcomes of the session from the perspective of the Workers’ Group?

First of all, we took part in a preparatory seminar on the functioning of the ILO Governing Body, which was organized by the Bureau for Workers’ Activities (ACTRAV) for the new members of the Workers’ Group. It was a great opportunity to have an exchange with each member of our Group, and fix our objectives, but also to prepare for the issue related to international labour standards, which was the most important item on the agenda of this 322nd session of the Governing Body.

At this session, we also discussed the Organization’s Programme and Budget for 2015-2016 in order to set ILO priorities and objectives for the next biennium. We also considered the way International Labour Conferences are organized, the evaluation of the impact of the Declaration on Social Justice and preparations for the ILO centenary.

Obviously, the questions relating to international labour standards, the ILO supervisory system and the right to strike were key to the debate. There was some concern about these issues.

ACTRAV INFO: The issue of the right to strike was at the centre of the debate at this session. Now the Governing Body is over, how would you assess the results of the discussions on the right to strike?

The Workers’ Group was looking for a definitive answer to this question. We call on employers and governments to live up to their responsibilities, because we need to define clearly whether the right to strike is covered by ILO Convention No. 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise adopted in 1948. For the time being, the employers only recognise the right to strike at the national level.

May I remind you that the Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations (CEACR) recognized the right to strike as established under ILO Convention No. 87. As a matter of fact, many governments and employers in Western European countries recognized the right to strike during the Cold War as a means to promote the right to organize and act freely, including the right to strike. At the time, the recognition of the right to strike was seen as a symbol of freedom, and employers in Western countries used it to criticise the lack of freedom in the Soviet Block. But since the Berlin wall came down, employers’ recognition of the right to strike has gradually vanished, and finally there was this incident at the International Labour Conference in 2012, when they did not recognize this right any longer. Since then, there has been a great deal of debate, and many informal tripartite discussions attempting to find a consensus on the issue of the right to strike, but without success.

At the level of the Worker’s Group, we support referring the matter to the International Court of Justice (ICJ), in accordance with the ILO’s Constitution, which provides that in the event of a dispute over the interpretation of a Convention the Governing Body can refer one or more issues to the ICJ. Normally, those who disagree with a certain interpretation would turn to the Court. In this case, the Employers’Group rejects the conclusions of the ILO supervisory system concerning violations of the right to strike on the one hand, and refuses on the other hand to follow the rules of the Constitution. The Employers’ Group does not want to see the dispute referred to the Court. Getting the Court’s opinion on the right to strike is very important, and the Workers’ Group and almost half of governments support referring the matter to the ICJ, including the countries of the Latin American and Caribbean Group (GRULAC), the European Group and the Industrialized Market Economy Countries (IMEC) – they represent almost 50 per cent, but do not form a majority. Now we have reached an impasse, because the positions of employers, workers and some governments are diverging considerably. However, we must recognize that governments have taken a position in this debate for the first time. Although there was no majority in favour of referring the question to the Court, for a variety of reasons, including geopolitical ones, more and more governments are coming out clearly in favour of a right to strike established under ILO Convention No.87 on Freedom of Association.

The International Labour Office is now going to organize another tripartite meeting in February 2015 to attempt to find a compromise before the Governing Body meets in March 2015. At that March 2015 session, there will be two alternatives: either a consensus-based solution will be found, for example by adopting a declaration recognizing the right to strike as an integral part of ILO Convention No. 87, or there will have to be a referral to the ICJ.

Let me remind you that from the workers’ point of view, we were prepared to offer some concessions in exchange for referring this matter to the Court, such as starting discussions on a standards review mechanism, but we did not reach a consensus. A second option would have been to ask the experts to comment on the functioning of and potential for improvement in the ILO’s supervisory mechanisms. In this atmosphere of mistrust and refusal, with the Employers’ Group rejecting any compromise, we cannot and do not wish to begin a debate so vital for the protection of workers. At this stage, the only possible point of discussion for the Workers’ Group is the preparations for the work of the Committee on the Application of Standards at the next session of the International Labour Conference in June 2015.

However, although we regret that no definitive decision has been made on the recognition of the right to strike under ILO Convention No. 87, we do hope that a solution will be found in February or in March. Let’s be logical about this: either we recognise the right to strike established under Convention No. 87, or we refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice.

ACTRAV INFO: The post-2015 sustainable development agenda was brought up at this session, and negotiations on it are continuing in New York. In your opinion, what role could the trade unions play in influencing the negotiations and ensuring that the decent work agenda is integrated into the Millennium Development Goals (MDG)?

The post-2015 sustainable development agenda is very important to the workers. I remember that the original United Nations Millennium Development Goal on poverty did not include the concepts of decent work, employment and social protection. Now, thanks to ILO’s efforts directed towards the constituents and the Director-General’s involvement, the concept of decent work is integrated into Goal 8 of the post-2015 agenda, which includes social dialogue as an important element in the fight against poverty. And then there is Goal 1, which under the post-2015 agenda will also include social protection. We welcome also the efforts by the Group of Friends of Decent Work for Sustainable Development, initiated by Belgium and Angola, to emphasise the ILO’s role in the context of the fight against poverty.

As workers we support economic growth while taking into account the need to create jobs with decent pay. In January, the trade unions will continue discussions with governments at the national and international level in order to protect the interests of workers, ands to allow us to better define the stages and the follow-up to the goals of the post-2015 sustainable development agenda.

ACTRAV INFO: The international news is focused on the Ebola epidemic that has left more than 5,000 people dead, primarily in West Africa. At the level of the Workers’ Group, what action would you prioritize at ILO level to inform people about and prevent the spread of the Ebola epidemic among workers?

At this session the three chairs, Mr Correia (Governments), Mr Rønnest (Employers) and Mr Cortebeeck (Workers) made a declaration, firstly expressing our sincere condolences to the families of the victims of the Ebola epidemic that has predominantly affected West Africa. In the face of this unprecedented epidemic, we expressed our solidarity and our admiration for the staff of national and international health services, the humanitarian workers, the educators and the burial teams.

We also expressed our concern about the socio-economic consequences and negative effects that the epidemic will have on the world of work, in particular in the countries affected by the epidemic.

Insofar the Workers’ Group is concerned, we are ready to offer our support to the populations affected by the virus and we encourage the ILO to pursue its efforts in this regard in order to protect populations, health professionals and humanitarian workers who are sparing no effort in fighting this epidemic that has claimed thousands of victims.