9th BRICS Labour and Employment Ministerial Meeting

ILO Director-General speech on “ Labour rights - Ensuring rights at work”

Statement delivered at the meeting of BRICS nations* in Durban, South Africa. (*Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa)

Statement | 28 September 2023
Excellencies, let me start by quoting our august institution.
“Universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice”.
These words, part of the preamble to the International Labour Organization’s Constitution, date back to our founding in 1919.
A hundred years later, the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work reaffirmed this mandate for social justice. It called for a human-centred approach to the future of work that puts the rights, needs and aspirations of all people – including workers - at the heart of economic, social and environmental policies.

With many countries still recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and amid compounding crises, social injustices persist. The aspiration of ‘decent work for all’ is a long way from being achieved.  
According to the latest ILO estimates, as many as 160 million children were engaged in child labour in 2020, while close to 50 million people were living in modern slavery in 2021.
Since 2016, the absolute number of  children in child labour, has risen by over 8 million.  The number of  people in modern slavery has  increased by 2.7 million.

Every day, millions of  people work in unsafe or unhealthy conditions, just so they can feed themselves and their families. Well over two million die each year as a direct result of occupational accidents and diseases.  Hundreds of millions more are injured at work.

We know that many including in the BRICS countries are working excessive hours.
Forty-eight hour working weeks – and even much longer – are all too common.  

Discrimination in the workplace remains a problem of immense proportions. If we consider gender for instance, we see significant gender wage gaps and lower employment participation rates in most countries.
Globally, just over one in five employees have experienced violence and harassment at work – particularly migrant women, who are twice as likely to be targets.
Violations of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights continue to account for the majority of allegations that are examined by the ILO’s supervisory system.

Looked at in the long term, over the past century progress has certainly been made.  
There is proportionally much less child labour and forced labour than before, even if recent trends are concerning.
In most countries the level of participation of women in the workforce is much higher than it was before the relevant ILO Conventions were adopted, when governments began a long-term effort to eliminate such discrimination.
And the level of ratifications of the ILO’s fundamental rights conventions continues to increase each year.  
But we still have a long way to go before all workers enjoy full rights at work.

Yet all 187 Member States of the International Labour Organization have an obligation to implement fundamental principles and rights at work – whether they have ratified the fundamental rights Conventions or not.

We are talking about:
  • ILO Conventions 87 and 98, on freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining;
  • Conventions 29 and 105, on the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour;
  • Conventions 138 and 182, on the effective abolition of child labour;
  • Conventions 100 and 111, on the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation; and
  • Conventions 155 and 187, on a safe and healthy working environment.
The BRICS Ministerial Declaration you are adopting affirms your commitment to “respect, promote, and realise fundamental principles and rights at work to provide decent work for all and achieve social justice.”  
We wholeheartedly welcome this for many reasons.

Firstly, labour rights are human rights. A founding principle of the ILO is that labour is not a commodity. Workers must be treated with dignity and be protected from the disproportionate power of employers, whether public or private.
Secondly, respect for  labour rights helps reduce inequalities and enables workers to claim a fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate.  

Central to this are freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining. Together, they foster the development of employers’ and workers’ organizations - and importantly, social dialogue.

It's through social dialogue that workers secure their rights – such as agreements on the minimum wage and limits on working time. In turn, social dialogue ensures a productive, resilient and sustainable economy and advances social justice.

So how can BRICS nations develop policies to protect and advance rights at work?

Firstly, they must ensure the ratification and effective implementation of  ILO Fundamental Conventions.

Some Fundamental Conventions, for instance, such as those on Equal Remuneration and Discrimination have been ratified by all BRICS countries.

However, those on Freedom of Association and on the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining, have only been ratified by a few.

Last year, the ILO adopted the right to a safe and healthy working environment as its fifth fundamental principle. In that regard, it should be mentioned that, while 4 out of 5 BRICS countries have ratified the Occupational Safety and Health Convention, No. 155, only one has ratified the other fundamental Occupational Safety and Health Convention, No. 187.

The second policy consideration is the need to ensure an inclusive and effective legal and institutional framework that  provides adequate protection of all workers. This is particularly important in light of the rapid world of work changes taking place in BRICS and other countries, that are affecting workers’ working conditions.

The third consideration is the importance of maintaining an efficient and effective labour administration, including labour inspection and labour dispute resolution.
I know that in this forum, I do not need to convince you of the importance of a strong labour administration. Allow me to reiterate that we can assist in this endeavour.

The final policy consideration I would like to mention today is the need for investment in the various elements of the national infrastructure for occupational safety and health, OSH. This will need to be a priority in the coming years. It is an area where the BRICS can play an important role as well.

Thank you.