International Labour Conference 2012: interview with Luc Cortebeeck, Worker Vice-Chairperson of the Governing Body

The 101st session of the International Labour Conference ended with the adoption of a new Recommendation on social protection and a call for democracy in Myanmar. Luc Cortebeeck, Worker Vice-Chairperson of the Governing Body, reviews the highlights of this Conference – the last one in which Juan Somavia took part as Director-General of the International Labour Office. Elected as Juan Somavia's successor is Guy Ryder.

Press release | Geneva,Switzerland | 15 June 2012

ACTRAV INFO: The International Labour Conference has just ended with the adoption of a Recommendation on social protection. What does this ILO instrument mean for workers?

It's the first time we've had an instrument of this kind. Of course, there's the Social Security Convention, but what's new is that, from now on, workers throughout the world are to have the benefit of a social protection floor. So we now have the possibility of building social security everywhere. This is a gigantic step forward for workers. Naturally, we're talking about a Recommendation that still has to be put into practice. Negotiations must start now in every country on the international institutions' support for achieving this objective. I think the adoption of this Recommendation was an important moment, but the work starts now.

ACTRAV INFO: One of the issues discussed at this conference was youth employment. In your view, how can the ILO tackle this challenge in an economic context marked by the austerity measures and precarious jobs that are affecting workers, particularly in the rich countries?

What we can see about the austerity measures is that they're not helping much. I see that in many countries, there are problems with economic and budgetary growth. I think we need to balance this out and work with more elements of growth and investment. In the rich countries too, we see that many young people are out of a job, which is why we think that we really have to work for a growth that can be lived with in future. If we don't want to lose our young people, now is the moment to move forward by investing and by changing the current policy in a number of European countries.

ACTRAV INFO: Can the ILO act to that effect, so as to strengthen these youth employment policies?

Yes, absolutely! The European Community used to have a social model, but it was noticeable during this ILO conference that this element has almost vanished in these countries. And the ILO is the one that can strike the right balance. It's the ILO, for instance, that can tell the European Union to cooperate with the social actors and work for jobs and stronger social security. In Europe, if we compare present times with other difficult periods, notably the Thirties, we can see that taxes on financial transactions are something that can give us sufficient means to invest. So I think we have to change the current policies.

ACTRAV INFO: Taking part in this conference was the Chairperson of the National League for Democracy (NLD), Aung San Suu Kyi, who also met the Workers' Group. What did this visit mean to you?

It was a unique moment. Before that, the ILO had already been visited by Nelson Mandela and Lech Walesa. These are all people who changed not only their countries, but also part of the world. They are examples to us all, including the workers. Her visit also means that the ILO system has worked. For years on end, we fought the fight in the Committee on the Application of Standards, where we held sometimes pessimistic discussions on change in Myanmar. But after 20 years, it has to be said that change did happen. And Aung San Suu Kyi said so herself: if there was one international organization that really supported her, it was the ILO.

ACTRAV INFO: The ILO has decided to lift the restrictions on Myanmar. Is this the culmination of a long struggle waged by the ILO for the eradication of forced labour and the strengthening of trade union rights there?

I recently took part in a high-level mission from our Organization to Myanmar. We noted that progress has been made and we met the facilitators, who confirmed to us that changes are happening in Myanmar. We have the impression that things are heading in the right direction, but we must remain cautious. That's why there will be further new assessments in November 2012 in the Governing Body, and discussions will take place in March and June 2013. So we must make our presence felt and demand more progress on eradicating forced labour.

ACTRAV INFO: Finally, this was the last conference attended by Juan Somavia in his capacity as Director-General. On behalf of the Workers' Group, do you have a message for the Director-General and his successor, Guy Ryder?

As regards the outgoing Director, Mr. Somavia, we really owe him a big thank you. His was not an easy job, because the ILO is a tripartite organization. And at one point, people were saying, “Yes, there's the ILO but is it still very significant?” Now, we can see that the ILO has become more visible on the world stage, both for countries and for other institutions, notably the IMF and the World Bank. These are important elements and it should also be noted that the ILO is represented by its Director-General at the G20. Today, the ILO has its place in the world. It may be that the great mass of workers don't know the ILO well enough. But it's a good thing that the ILO gives us this opportunity to discuss with employers and governments at the world level. Workers have their place in this international institution. There's still a lot to do, but we mustn't forget that the ILO is very important. Many things have been achieved thanks to the Director-General, Juan Somavia.

To the new Director, Guy Ryder, I would say that much has been done. What we need to do now, I think, is to see what we can do with the Conventions, with the standards, in future. How can we improve these standards? How can we adapt them to the present-day context? The values stay the same, but times change. So we sometimes have to take the risk of adapting to these new times, while holding on to the values. Then we must strengthen the cooperation between the ILO and the other economically oriented international organizations so as to strike the right balance between economic concerns, which are necessary, and social ones. Because the real economy can't function without the workers, without the trade union organizations, without concertation and social dialogue. That's the message that has to be hammered home in each and every country. We still have to ratify more Conventions and insist that they be applied. We must have not just words, but deeds. That's the message I'll be taking to the new Director-General, because he'll have a lot to do.