PHNOM PENH, Cambodia (ILO News) - Faced with a volatile economic environment and the mounting challenges of globalization, government, employer and worker representatives of more than 20 Asian nations gather here this week to tackle such issues as freedom of association and abolishing forced labour, discrimination and child labour - and to begin constructing a new foundation for "fairer societies" in the region.
Organized by the Regional Office for Asia and the Pacific of the International Labour Organization (ILO) -- with funding and ministerial-level representation from the United States and Japan -- the meeting will focus on implementation of the principles contained in the ILOs fundamental Conventions, and a new thrust to eliminate the worst forms of child labour.
Cambodian Prime Minister H.E. Samdech Hun Sen will inaugurate the event, which runs from 7-9 December, reflecting Cambodias commitment to fundamental rights at work, as the second country in the region to ratify seven of the ILOs core Conventions.
"I congratulate the Royal Government of Cambodia on these ratifications," said ILO Regional Director Ms Mitsuko Horiuchi "it is a decision that provides the foundations on which a fairer society can be based. The Indonesian Government last year became the first in our region to ratify seven, working closely with the ILO on the ratification process, and then to ensure that its national laws reflect the principles of the Conventions."
Ms Horiuchi said globalization and its effects, thrown into sharp relief by the Asian financial crisis, highlighted the relevance of these rights.
"In the wake of the crisis, we see that in our region, the challenge of globalization has never been greater," she said, "and the principles enshrined in the ILOs core Conventions and its Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work are crucially important. Freedom of association and collective bargaining, equality and non-discrimination, and eliminating forced labour and child labour are essential aims."
"To say that an integrating world economy - globalization - is a powerful force is an understatement. But we can resolve to do our utmost to ensure that globalization serves peoples needs, and not the other way around. The real challenge is to put a human face on globalization, and the ILO Declaration offers us a way to do that."
Adopted last year, the Declaration commits the ILOs member States to respect, promote and realize the principles contained in the core labour Conventions, identified by the 1995 World Social Summit in Copenhagen as the social floor of the emerging world economy. The commitment to the principles stands even if they have not ratified the Conventions.
A new awareness and commitment to achieving these fundamental rights at work that had begun to dawn in the region might well be the crisis silver lining, Ms Horiuchi said. "Although no one would wish a repeat of the devastating circumstances of the crisis, it has produced a new understanding of the importance of the fundamental rights that these Conventions guarantee."
Ms Horiuchi said the seminar would help turn this awareness into concrete gains. With funding from the governments of Japan and the US, the ILO/Japan/US Regional Seminar on the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work brings together government, employer and worker representatives from 23 countries and one special administrative region, as well as three ministers of labour, and high-level ILO representatives among them the worker and employer vice chairpersons of the ILOs Governing Body.
Targeting child labour
An important part of the seminar will focus on the ILOs newest Convention, the Worst Forms of Child Labour Convention, 1999 (No. 182), passed at the International Labour Conference in June of this year. It targets such practices as child slavery, forced labour, trafficking, debt bondage, serfdom, prostitution, pornography and various forms of hazardous and exploitative work. ILO Director-General Juan Somavia has already said that this Convention will become one of the ILOs fundamental Conventions.
The Convention has already been ratified by the Seychelles and Malawi, and US ratification was announced last week. Addressing the June Conference, US President William Jefferson Clinton called the Convention "a gift for our children worthy of the millennium," and promised to send it to the US Senate for ratification. "I ask all other countries to ratify it as well," President Clinton said.
The ILO estimates that, around the world, some 250 million children between the ages of five and 14 work for a living. Almost half, some 120 million, work full time, every day, all year round. Of the 250 million, some 50 to 60 million are between five and 11 years old and work, by definition, in hazardous circumstances considering their age and vulnerability.
The seminar will also focus on planned ratifications of the ILO fundamental Conventions in the region, and pathways to implementation, drawing particularly on the experiences of the host country, Cambodia, and its neighbour Indonesia.
A new ILO report, Demystifying the core Conventions of the ILO through social dialogue: The Indonesian experience offers countries in the region a step-by-step account of the implementation process, which took place amid the maelstrom of the Asian financial crisis. "The devastating social consequences of the Asian financial crisis and the collapse of the authoritarian regime flung open the door to Indonesias acceptance of democratic and political reforms including the fundamental principles and rights at work and its willingness to work with international organizations," the report says.
The comprehensive Follow-up provided for in the Declaration will also be examined. The ILO Executive Director for Standards and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, Mr Kari Tapiola, said the procedure did not aim to supervise compliance, but to allow transparent deliberation of the kind of technical assistance and cooperation needed.
The Follow-up also includes a yearly Global Report, to be discussed at the International Labour Conference. The first of these is currently being prepared, and will focus on freedom of association and collective bargaining.