102nd Session of the International Labour Conference

Plenary address on the Director General Report: Statement by Luc Cortebeeck Chairperson of the Workers’ Group

Statement | Geneva | 12 June 2013
Distinguished delegates, ladies and gentlemen,

The Workers’ group welcomes the Report of the Director-General to the Conference.

We concur that the ultimate objective of ILO work should be the eradication of poverty and reversing the global trend towards excessive and ever expanding income inequality. The ILO must devote upmost and equal attention to these two goals.

ILO strategies to end poverty and address excessive inequality need to recognize the key role that wages play in ensuring that workers get their fair share of the wealth they create. As the Report correctly notes the implementation of an adequate living wage has been a core component of the ILO mandate since its founding in 1919.

This must change. The ILO needs to directly confront and help reverse the decline in the wage share of output that has been evident across all regions and most countries in recent decades. The recent World of Work report confirms that profit levels among corporations and executive salaries are once again soaring. At the same time workers face large cuts in take home pay, the erosion or elimination of minimum wages and a new vicious attack on collective bargaining.

The ILO must mount a much stronger response to these challenges. The economic evidence is clear. Comprehensive and coordinated collective bargaining has a positive impact on economic growth, employment and investment. It is also the best way to counter increasing income inequality, social disintegration and the rise of extreme political views. The ILO therefore needs a renewed focus and a well-resourced programme of work on the promotion of collective bargaining and an adequate living wage for all.

We concur with the DG Report that another key priority for the ILO is reversing the expansion of precarious employment. The ILO should ensure all workers – not just those in regular full time jobs - receive the full protection of labour legislation and social security. Let us recall that our objective is decent work for all. That includes workers in the informal economy, workers in disguised employment relationships, workers in new forms of work where there is less direct supervision and workers caught between an agency and an end-user.

New standard-setting activities are required in these fields. We will make a start on this in 2014 with a focus on the informal economy. To be successful we will require innovative inputs from the Office and good faith bargaining from constituents. This will be an opportunity to demonstrate that the ILO can function effectively and deliver consensus on a critical issue.

This leads me to the institutional challenges identified in Chapter 2. We agree that the ILO can only be effective if it is composed of strong, independent, democratic and representative constituents.

We acknowledge that the global trend in trade union density has been declining. However, I am please to say that this trend is moderating and there are grounds for optimism. The international trade union movement is completely committed to assisting our national affiliates with organising strategies and building workers power. A major focus of this work involves reaching out to workers in the informal economy.

Although a lot of work lies ahead there are also good examples of new unions being created in industrialized and developing countries targeting new sectors, a-typical and informal economy workers. We also recognise that the union movement needs to improve its image and show that it can reflect and represent the objectives of young workers, the next generation and those that often face discrimination at work. I am confident that at international level the trade union movement is slowly moving in the right direction.

But we require help. One of the major obstacles to organising and collective bargaining in today’s world remains the lack of respect for Conventions 87 and 98 and the growth of precarious and informal forms of employment. The trends in each of these areas are very bad. The environment for trade union organising in most countries becomes more hostile every year. Today, even the heart land of unionism and collective bargaining in Europe is under attack. Member states need to strengthen social dialogue institutions and ensure the full participation of the social partners.

The Workers’ group is open to consider innovative ideas about the place of NGOs. This includes increasing the involvement of non-governmental organisations in ILO work provided these organisations are representative, accountable, relevant and credible partners. But it remains important to ensure that engagement with non-tripartite actors does not replace engagement with ILO constituents including in our decision-making bodies. As stated in the Report, clear guidelines governing the involvement of actors beyond the tripartite community will have to be established.

The adoption, promotion and supervision of Standards is the raison d’être of the ILO. This mandate was re-affirmed in 2008 through the Social Justice Declaration. Our Group is also committed to ensuring international labour standards are relevant for today’s world of work. This is why in March 2012 we agreed with employers on a set of principles that would guide a review of standards and we were prepared to discuss the modalities of an ILO standard review mechanism.

Regrettably after the events of June 2012 in the Committee on the Application of Standards, trust - one of the key pre-requisites for our engagement in this process - was destroyed. Today we reaffirm in principle our willingness to work with governments and employers to up-grade standards. But we cannot engage in such a process when one of the parties continues to launch attacks on the experts and the ILO supervisory mechanism. Until an acceptable tripartite solution is found to this controversy we see major difficulties in initiating the standards’ review process.

In respect of the Committee on the Application of Standards, let me say that we are happy that workers and employers have been able to agree on a list of cases. We reiterate however the importance of ensuring that consensual conclusions are adopted for each case.

Our Group wants to see a much more pro-active approach from the Office in promoting the ratification of standards. Often standards are said to be irrelevant because they have low ratification rates. But all too often however the low ratification rates of a Convention results from insufficient promotional efforts by the Office. Therefore the review of standards will have to be closely linked to a tripartite commitment to promote standards and Office strategies to do so.

The Report focuses on the importance of policy coherence in the multilateral system. The Director General rightly points to the mandate the ILO has “ to examine and consider all international economic and financial policies and measures ” and to determine whether they are consistent with the fundamental objectives of our Organisation.

But as the Report makes clear the ILO despite having a clear mandate based on the Philadelphia Declaration has encountered major difficulties in implementing it. Some of these difficulties are largely outside the control of workers and employers. They stem from resistance from the international financial and economic institutions who prefer to retain their complete independence without any real commitment to open debate and policy alternatives.

To help resolve such obstacles we look to governments for help. If the political will existed governments could exert more influence in promoting real collaboration and policy coherence. In the last decade governments have endorsed a vast number of international resolutions and conclusions calling for policy coherence around decent work. The same governments must now make this happen through their Executive Directors and other officials controlling the IFIs.

If the Office wants to examine and assess international financial and economic policies it must be more assertive and more professional. If the Office waits for an invitation from the IMF to give an opinion on austerity measures in Portugal or labour reforms in Spain we will never become a key player in these critical debates.

The Office needs to intervene early and systematically in such circumstances in an independent fashion and on the basis of ILO values. This is also the mandate that was given to the ILO by the Oslo Declaration. This should be done in conjunction with the constituents in the country concerned through tripartite forums or at the demand of one or some of the parties. On the basis of sound research and empirical investigations the Office must prepare and widely disseminate detailed assessments of austerity measures and structural reforms on economic growth, employment, income inequality and decent work.

When it comes to the WTO, the ILO should go beyond technical studies and enhance its support to constituents by undertaking ex-ante impact assessments of trade opening and trade agreements on employment and production structures. The ILO should also promote industrial policies to speed up the process of structural change. It should develop guidance for labour clauses in trade agreements to enhance efforts at country level to improve wages, working conditions and workers’ rights particularly in export sectors, including in EPZs.

The tragedy of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh that resulted in the death of more than 1’000 workers showed the dramatic consequences that lack of regulations and violations of workers’ rights have in global supply chains. This human tragedy equally showed the limits of corporate social auditing schemes that all failed to prevent the illegal building construction and unsafe practices.

The tragedy resulted in the signing by brands, trade unions and NGOs of a Binding Accord on Fire and Building Safety with a monitoring role for the ILO coupled with increased pressure on the Government of Bangladesh to amend its labour laws to ensure compliance with ILO standards. This shows the key role that trade unions and governments should play in holding companies accountable to respect workers’ rights.

The ILO has a key role to promote decent work in global supply chains. We therefore reiterate our support for a Conference discussion on decent work in global supply chains.
In conclusion, we welcome the suggestions for ILO centenary initiatives but we need time to reflect on these proposals. We would suggest that an additional area of focus should be the reduction of income inequality with a major focus on collective bargaining. We welcome the reference to an adequate living wage in the initiative on poverty.
As I indicated at the outset we need to see a strong and equal emphasis on eradication of poverty and reversing the trends in income inequality. The ILO cannot just focus on the most disadvantaged in the world of work. The ILO must also be about fairness for the majority of workers and preventing them from falling into poverty.

When it comes to the standard initiative, the promotion of the ratification of standards should be included. In respect of the green initiative we expect that just transition will be at the centre of ILO initiatives. For the enterprise initiative we reiterate the importance of involving workers and also recall that as per the Social Justice Declaration work on enterprises has also to cover the public sector and cooperatives.

We would support further discussion on all these initiatives within the Governing Body.

We face huge challenges that require bold answers. As we move towards the ILO centenary we cannot be less ambitious then the founders of the ILO. If anything we need to show that 100 years later the vision they had of a world with social justice at its core can become a reality.

I thank you for your attention.