Opening Remarks to the ILO/Japan/US Asian Regional Seminar on the Application of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

by Mr Yasuyuki Nodera, Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific

Statement | Bangkok | 25 February 2002

H.E. Mrs. Ladawan Wongsriwong, Deputy Minister for Labour and Social Welfare, Royal Government of Thailand
Mr. Takashi Saito, Minister, Embassy of Japan in Thailand
Mr. Kenji Tsunekawa, Director, International Affairs Division, Ministry of Health, Labour and Welfare, Government of Japan
Mr. Joe Yun, Economic Counsellor, US Embassy in Thailand
Mr. Tapiola, ILO Executive Director
Excellencies and Distinguished Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen

Good morning and warm welcome, and thank you for joining us here this morning. In three years, this ILO/Japan/US Asian Regional Seminar has become one of the landmark events on the ILO calendar in this region. At the very outset I would like to acknowledge the support provided by our joint donors, the governments of Japan and the US, which makes this event possible. I would also like to thank the Royal Government of Thailand for its cooperation with the organization of this seminar.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Its importance is partly due to its size - but mostly due to its subject. The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work of 1998 is perhaps the most significant step our Organization has taken since the Declaration of Philadelphia, some five decades ago. The Declaration enshrines a key commitment by member States to respect fundamental principles and rights at work in four key areas - whether or not they have ratified the Conventions. Countries accept, by virtue of membership of the organization, the principles of freedom of association and collective bargaining; of freedom from forced labour, freedom from child labour, and freedom from discrimination in respect of employment and occupation. Just as importantly, the ILO accepts a responsibility to do all it can to help countries ensure that those principles and rights are put into practice. It is a double commitment, an marks a clear ILO focus on technical cooperation.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The Declaration is reshaping the ILO's work in this region - and globally. I think it is important to note here that the countries of this region played an important role in shaping the Declaration itself, and that promotional approach. The wisdom of that advice is now very evident. Some three years after the Declaration's adoption, we are part way through the first follow-up cycle. This meeting focuses on the practical application of that follow-up in Asia and the Pacific.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The current 12 month follow-up focuses on forced and compulsory labour. The Director-General's Global Report, Stopping Forced Labour, has given a global overview. That report is the technical foundation for this meeting, together with the technical cooperation proposals discussed by the November Governing Body. This week, we will focus on practical ways to move forward with action against forced and compulsory labour in Asia and the Pacific.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The principles that the Declaration brings together are universal. The unanimous adoption of the Declaration in 1998 showed this clearly. Freedom from forced and compulsory labour is no exception. In Thailand, for example, His Majesty King Chulalongkorn's commitment to this principle was so strong that his first step on assuming the throne in the mid 19th century was to move to abolish systems of bonded labour. A belief in work in freedom is not new to Asia and the Pacific. And yet, in our region, as in other parts of the world, there are difficulties with implementation. Forced and compulsory labour does exist in Asia and the Pacific. As the global report points out, it takes many forms. It is a complex phenomenon. It is difficult to eliminate. The Declaration and the ILO's commitment to assisting with that implementation - means that we are actively involved in that process. The ILO is not standing apart, judging process. The Declaration puts us firmly on the inside. Our constituents' problems are our problems too.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Even with all of the advances of our modernizing, globalizing world - we still have forced and compulsory labour. it is tempting to think that this is a leftover of a bygone age. It is tempting to assume that it will just die away of its own accord. And yet, it has not. Some forms, such as trafficking, seem even to be increasing.

We can't afford to assume that change will simply happen. First and foremost, because forced labour is a fundamental injustice. It is a terrible infringement on the lives and on the human dignity of its victims. Those victims are often the most vulnerable members of society. It is the young, the weak, the poor, the disadvantaged, the uneducated - who are most at risk. And there is another reason why we cannot afford to delay action against forced labour. It takes a terrible toll on the well being and development of whole societies. Forced labour, in all its forms, is short sighted, and self-limiting. The costs are huge. A girl who has been trafficked into domestic labour - to cite just one example - loses her education and her opportunity to gain further skills. Her contribution to society at large is vastly reduced. The cost of the physical and psychological damage done by forced and compulsory labour - is too high to calculate.

Ladies and gentlemen,

Identifying the problem is the first step - and takes courage in itself. Taking action can be even more difficult. The Declaration's promotional approach, and the focus on technical cooperation, involves the ILO as an active partner. We are already working with constituents in many parts of the region to tackle forced and compulsory labour, in a range of forms. I will not list all the examples. However I will point to our work in Nepal, the host country for the previous regional seminar, where we are working together with the government and the social partners - and with donor support from the US, the Netherlands and Italy. Our experience in Nepal underlines the complexity of these issues. A Cabinet Decision in 2000, for example, declared the kamaiya system of bonded labour illegal, and cancelled all debts. That decision spelled freedom for tens of thousands of people. And yet, ensuring that freedom is sustainable, is no simple matter. Technical cooperation work has meant wide ranging consultation - to ensure that the former kamaiyas can build a better future. Their needs include: training in social dialogue to negotiate wages; as well as land; housing; microfinance; schooling and training for their children - and help for girl-children who may have left the family for outside work.

This is just one example. There are others across the region. These are complicated situations. There are no easy solutions. Our discussions here this week cannot hope to solve all the problems. And yet I hope that we will move closer to our goals. The commitment that you demonstrate through your presence here today is an extremely encouraging start.

Once again, I thank you, and I look forward to a productive meeting.