ILO to Address Decent Work Deficit in Asia and the Pacific

ILO opens Conference aimed at shoring up Asia’s economies by providing a new element to the development agenda – the quest for “decent work.”

Press release | BANGKOK | 24 August 2001

BANGKOK (ILO News) – Amidst growing global economic uncertainty involving currency woes, increased joblessness and declining investment, the International Labour Organization (ILO) opens a four-day Conference here Tuesday aimed at shoring up Asia’s economies by providing a new element to the development agenda – the quest for “decent work.”

In its first regional meeting since the high drama of the Asian financial crisis in 1997 – grouping 39 member States – the ILO’s government, employer and worker constituents will discuss a plan for ensuring social protection, rights at work and job creation, as a way of applying its global strategy for decent work to the region’s people and helping them weather global economic turmoil.

“The goal of ensuring decent work is all the more important in the current economic climate which is cause for increasing concern,” said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. “While there are signs of a recovery from the 1997 financial crisis here in the region, new economic uncertainties are emerging worldwide as industrial economics falter, unemployment rises and the benefits of globalization are questioned more loudly in the streets and the boardrooms.”

Mr. Somavia said promoting decent work can provide the key to reducing poverty, restoring economies and providing a viable and productive response to the challenges of globalization.

In his report to the Thirteenth Asian Regional Meeting of the ILO which takes place here on 28-31 August, Mr. Somavia examines developments in the region since the 1997 financial crisis which exposed the economic and social risks accompanying globalization. The report outlines the new ILO agenda adopted since then, centering on programmes for decent work, which links fundamental principles and rights at work, employment, social protection and social dialogue.

“There has emerged a general recognition amongst policy-makers in Asian countries that economic progress alone does not result in balanced development,” Mr. Somavia says in the report. “Decent work can make the difference,” the Director-General says, adding that the ILO is ready to support efforts by governments, workers and employers region wide to “develop practical approaches that can build decent work goals into the diverse development patterns of Asia.”

“The task at hand now is to determine the status of decent work in the (Asian) region, to identify where decent work deficits exist and why – and move towards reducing them,” the ILO report says.

The global deficit in decent work, which the ILO describes as one of “immense proportions,” was discussed at the ILO’s annual meeting in Geneva in June. The decent work deficit is defined as “the absence of sufficient employment opportunities, inadequate social protection, the denial of rights at work and shortcomings in social dialogue”.

“This decent work deficit illuminates the gap between the world we work in and the hopes people have for a better life,” Mr. Somavia said.

“Basic rights are an essential part of the decent work agenda, but they cannot be effectively realized if there is no work,” Mr Somavia says. “To achieve the primary goal of ensuring that all women and men have opportunities for decent work, in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity, means pursuing full employment.”

At the end of 2000 the ILO estimated that open unemployment stood at 160 million worldwide, with underemployment and some 500 million working poor putting the total of those in need of decent work over one billion globally.

The report shows wide differences in Asia in respect of fundamental principles and rights at work, employment, social protection and social dialogue. Programmes to reduce decent work deficits will vary from country to country. They will bring together key elements of the ILO agenda - but will reflect specific development priorities and national realities.

The Director-General highlighted the fact that the Asian financial crisis had acted as a catalyst for the region’s development of social dialogue.

“In efforts to cope with the Asian financial crisis, social dialogue involving the tripartite constituents gained new or renewed acceptance,” the Director-General says. “While the Asian financial crisis wrought economic and social havoc on millions of working people and their families, it also brought awareness of the need for a more participatory approach in addressing social and economic concerns.” It also triggered a renewed and region-wide discussion on the protection of workers, especially in times of economic downturns.

Mr. Somavia called for a “package deal” to enforce the decent work agenda.

“Three agents of change can reduce the decent work agenda,” he said. “The first is the State which needs to strengthen its capacity to discharge its responsibility, while working closely with the social partners. The second is public opinion and public awareness of the importance of social change. The third is the international development community which must recognize and promote employment goals and rights at work in global development policies and programmes.”

The way forward

Decent work brings to the fore the need for policies integrating social and economic concerns, for rights-based development, for employment, social dialogue and social protection.

“At best, very uneven,” is the report’s description of the situation in the region in respect of freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Social dialogue is a key instrument to achieve economic reform and social equity, as well as an effective means of dispute resolution.

Child labour remains a major problem in Asia, the report says, noting that an “unacceptably high number of children still toil under extremely dangerous conditions for meagre wages while they should be at school.” However, the report also notes that a considerable number of member States in Asia have ratified the ILO’s Convention on the worst forms of child labour since its adoption in 1999, and that Nepal is among the first countries in the world to adopt a time-bound programme for the elimination of these forms of child labour within a specific timeframe.

In the area of forced labour, the report notes that “debt bondage and trafficking of human beings (especially women and children) remain important problems in some parts of the region.”

Mr. Somavia also noted that “there has certainly been progress” in the fight against various forms of discrimination in employment in a number of Asian countries, but much remains to be done, especially regarding discrimination based on gender.

The report calls for work with both training and social protection, particularly unemployment insurance, integral parts of employment policies. Above all, the report says, “there is a need to give employment a high priority on the national development agenda.”

Noting that there is an initial cost associated with building the framework required for decent work, such as providing security of tenure, social protection systems, skills training and safer working conditions, the report says that such developments can also contribute to gains in productivity. “Decent work has an economic dividend,” the Director-General says.