Opening Address to the National Tripartite Workshop on Labour Relations in Middle-Income Growth Economies - Exchanging Experiences Between Thailand and South Africa

by Ms Christine Evans-Klock, Director of ILO Sub-Regional Office for East Asia

Statement | Bangkok | 10 August 2006

Mr. Thapabutr Jamasevi, Deputy Permanent Secretary of Labour,

Your Excellency Mr. Eusebius Benjamin Jansen van Resburg, Counsellor and Chargé d'Affaires a.i., Embassy of South Africa

Distinguished resource persons, participants, observers and colleagues,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I wish all of you a heartfelt welcome to this workshop which carries a long, but hopefully auspicious title: National Tripartite Workshop on Labour Relations in Middle-Income Growth Economies - Exchanging Experiences between Thailand and South Africa.

This workshop has been in the works for quite some time, and it bears testimony to the determination and patience of the Government, Employers and Workers in Thailand that I have the opportunity and pleasure to inaugurate this workshop today - after a few trials and errors in finding suitable dates.

I thank the staff of the Ministry of Labour, particularly the Department of Labour Protection and Welfare, for their intensive efforts to convene participants and organize this workshop.

I owe a special tribute to our South African resource persons for bearing with us through the various tribulations involved in organizing an innovative type of workshop at long distance. Despite their responsibilities that come with an impressive record of duty for their country, they travelled nearly 20 hours to be with us today and share their rich experience with us all. I thank them for having taken time out of their schedules to provide us this service.

This is an unusual workshop in many respects. First, it is unusual because workshops that bring together representatives from Government, Employers and Workers are not all that common in Thailand . This is remarkable because our tripartite constituents - as we tend to call you in the ILO jargon - should have plenty to talk about.

First, the Thai economy is the envy of many of its neighbours: economic growth almost reached double digits before the Asian financial crisis hit in 1997, and rebounded vigorously in the years following the crisis. The number of people living below the poverty line has fallen to 10 percent. The economy continues to diversify away from agriculture into manufacturing and services. Economic success and the key role Thailand is playing in the development of an ASEAN Free Trade Area also makes the country an attraction pole for trading partners seeking to increase their export opportunities - this is aptly illustrated by the negotiations for a Free Trade Agreement which the United States and Thailand launched in 2004.

But economic success can never be taken for granted. The more an economy develops and the more it diversifies, the more it must rely on its human resources to generate the innovation that keeps it competitive, and the more it must be prepared to collectively rethink methods that worked in the past so that it can successfully face new challenges. Globalization is one such challenge, but one that holds out the potential to benefit countries that have the institutions in place to ease the adjustment of to rapidly changing conditions.

Well-functioning institutions include :

· labour law that provides a minimum standard of protection for all workers, but that does not make it unnecessarily cumbersome to shift workers from less productive to more productive processes;

· it includes a comprehensive system of collective bargaining that allows employers and workers to easily adjust wages and other working conditions so that workers can keep their jobs (and employers their accumulated experience) while enjoying the highest affordable compensation;

· it includes public space for tripartite dialogue where representatives from employers and workers can continuously argue with the Government about what new skills the labour market requires and how to ensure that as many people as possible acquire them; or share data on what kinds of shortages appear in the labour market and under what conditions these shortages should be eased by welcoming migrant workers; or discuss what sort of measures may be taken by all three parties so that all sections of society can participate in economic life, so that businesses can tap the full productive potential of society, and so that inequality - which undermines fair distribution of gains of a growing economy -is kept in check; or even brainstorm on what sort of social protection should be put in place so that vulnerable groups in society can tide over sudden economic downturns.

Because change itself is the only thing we can count on seeing more of, all countries, and especially countries like Thailand with expanding economies, must regularly question whether they have these institutions in place. And perhaps even more fundamentally, they need to honestly assess whether they have sufficiently strong, representative and independent organizations of employers and workers to make these institutions function effectively.

Thailand 's record of ratifying international labour conventions sheds little light on the political commitments underpinning such institutions. Thailand is the only founding member of ASEAN not to have ratified the Convention 87 on Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize, nor Convention 98 on the Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining Convention. Equally significantly, it has not ratified Convention 144 on Tripartite Consultations.

BUT TO COME BACK to my original observation, that this workshop is unusual… This workshop is also unusual, maybe, in the sense that it will not be the Office attempting to answer all or even any of these questions. Facilitating the reflection will be three distinguished personalities from another middle-income economy – South Africa .

South Africa is part of another continent, but shares many characteristics with Thailand . It has a sizeable population, is rich in natural resources, attracts workers from neighbouring countries, is coping with the need to embrace a significant informal economy, and embodies the hopes for leadership of many of its neighbours. When South-Africa abandoned its policy of ethnic segregation - called "apartheid" - it resolutely opted for social dialogue as the basis for overhauling its labour law.

· Prof. Halton Cheadle, who is currently a member of the ILO Committee of Experts and teaching at Duke Law School (in North Carolina, United States), was the Chief Advisor to the Minister of Labour at the time when labour law underwent its first overhaul in post-apartheid South Africa. He headed a constitutional litigation unit representing the Government of South Africa in constitutional litigation.

· Prof. Andre Van Niekerk has more than 20 years experience advising the employers federation of South Africa on labour law,

· and Prof. Paul Benjamin has an equally impressive degree of experience advising trade unions in South Africa . They both hold positions in the labour judiciary and in the teaching profession.

As a middle-income country, South Africa has been feeling the competitive strains of globalization. Our three resource persons were recently commissioned to evaluate South African labour law from the viewpoint of competitiveness 10 years after the adoption of its main Acts, the Labour Relations Act and the Basic Conditions of Employment Act.

I am hounoured to meet our distinguished resource persons and to join you in welcoming them to Thailand . Their presence offers a rare opportunity to gain insight into the methods of labour law reform from a practical perspective of another middle-income economy, rather than from an abstract international labour standards perspective or a remote Western perspective. I sincerely hope that their insights will help you to reform labour law and labour relations in a way that meets the needs and ambitions of all who work and trade in Thailand in the 21st century.

And I also hope that the ILO Office in Bangkok will continue to find new and innovative ways to support you in this effort, that you will be receptive to some of these suggestions and that we will continue to listen attentively to yours.

I wish you all a very productive two days.