This story was written by the ILO Newsroom For official ILO statements and speeches, please visit our “Statements and Speeches” section.

89 th International Labour Conference To Press Forward on Decent Work Agenda

GENEVA (ILO News) - In an effort to forge a new path from "vision to policy" in the world of work, the International Labour Conference concluded its 89 th session here today following a spirited debate by workers, employers and governments on reducing the decent work deficit in a global economy.

Press release | 21 June 2001

GENEVA (ILO News) - In an effort to forge a new path from "vision to policy" in the world of work, the International Labour Conference concluded its 89 th session here today following a spirited debate by workers, employers and governments on reducing the decent work deficit in a global economy.

Summing up the debate on his report "Reducing the Decent Work Deficit," Director-General Juan Somavia told delegates: "If this Conference has a single message, it is that all of us together must now move the Decent Work Agenda from aspiration to action, from design to implementation, from a vision to a policy."

He called on the tripartite delegations to pursue their efforts at the national level in order to "highlight the different ways in which decent work is part of the development agenda."

The Employer Vice President, Mr Daniel Funes de Rioja, expressed satisfaction with the Conference results, including the emphasis on an integrated approach to labour standards and development: "this has to remain a leading forum for strategies capable of creating real jobs in the real world and taking account of the differing nature of the economic challenges worldwide."

The Worker Vice President, Lord Brett characterised it as "a businesslike Conference, one that demonstrates the utility and relevance of the ILO as a meeting point where the social partners can debate topics that are important for people in their daily lives, including vital questions of basic human rights such as the prevalence of forced labour."

The Conference President was Ms. Patricia A. Sto. Tomas, Secretary of Labour and Employment of the Philippines.

In addition to the wide ranging debate on reducing the decent work deficit, delegates gave overwhelming approval to the first labour standard on agricultural safety and health ever - with the aim of protecting the world's 1.3 billion agricultural workers by a vote of 402 for, 2 against with 41 abstentions. The new International Convention on Health and Safety in Agriculture will enter into force once ratified by two ILO member States. A Recommendation on Health and Safety in Agriculture was also adopted by a vote of 418 for, 0 against with 33 abstentions.

In other measures, the Conference made progress in the effort to eliminate forced labour in Myanmar. The Conference moved to send a "High-Level Team (HLT)" to Myanmar to conduct an objective assessment of the situation in that country, which has been repeatedly condemned for widespread use of forced labour.

A special sitting of the ILO Committee on the Application of Labour Standards insisted that the High-Level Team, whose members are to be chosen by the ILO Director-General, be provided with sufficient authority to programme its activities while in Myanmar, including the right to carry out its investigation in all parts of the country and with unrestricted access to all necessary sources of information. It also added that "those people who provided information to the Team must enjoy full social protection." The Team will report to the ILO Governing Body, which meets in November.

The Government of Myanmar has promised freedom of movement, access to people, and protection of witnesses. The ILO Director-General Mr. Juan Somavia "welcomed the decision of the Government of Myanmar to resume cooperation with the ILO."

Delegates also discussed a global report on forced labour prepared as part of the follow-up to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and examined the Director-General's report on the condition of workers in the Occupied Arab Territories.

The Conference delegates approved the Director-General's strategic budget proposals for the 175 member-State Organization, adopting unanimously an US$434,040,000 budget at a rate of exchange of 1.77 Swiss francs to the US dollar for the biennium 2002-2003 to finance ILO activities around the world. As in the previous biennium, the budget is organized around four strategic objectives of principles and rights at work, employment, social protection, and social dialogue which constitute the ILO's decent work agenda.

In addition, the Conference launched a new initiative of the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour aimed at greatly accelerating the removal of millions of children from the most abusive forms of child labour in three states - Tanzania, Nepal and El Salvador - in the next 10 years.

During the Conference, the ILO's Working Party on the Social Dimension of Globalisation met and agreed on a number of steps to strengthen its action and establish a programme to look at certain issues in depth. The first item in this programme concerns trade liberalization and employment, which will be examined in November. It also agreed that the Working Party should offer a permanent forum for exchange of views and dialogue. The Working Party supported the suggestion that an authoritative report be prepared on the social dimension of globalization under the responsibility of the Director-General. It also gave some guidance as to the issues this report should cover, notably that it should take full account of the development dimension. The Working Party will also pursue the idea of creating a world commission of eminent personalities to prepare this report for which there was a great deal of support. The Director-General will present a proposal on how this might be done at the next meeting of the ILO Governing Body in November.

Committee Findings on Application of Standards/Freedom of Association

The Committee on the Application of Standards heard 24 country cases in addition to conducting a special sitting concerning the application by Myanmar of the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29) . It noted considerable progress in some countries (notably Turkey and Portugal) but cited six others (Belarus, Colombia, Ethiopia, Myanmar, Sudan and Venezuela) in special paragraphs of its report. This is a procedure reserved for consistent and serious violations of labour rights. Two of these countries (Sudan and Myanmar) were cited for "continued failure to implement" the provisions of a ratified Convention, following previous Committee discussions and findings."

In the case of Belarus, concerning violation of the Convention on Freedom of Association and Protection of Workers Right to Organize, 1948 (No. 87) as a result of public interference in trade union activities, the Committee expressed "its grave concern at the issuance of instructions by the head presidential administration which called upon the ministers and chairs of government committees to interfere in the elections of branch trade unions."

It urged the Government to "take all necessary measures to put an end to such interference so as to ensure that the provisions of the Convention are fully applied in both law and in practice."

As regards Colombia, the Committee referred to previous concerns over violence in the country directed against trade unionists and persistent allegations of violations of workers right to organise. While acknowledging "significant progress," notably with respect to legislative provisions, the Committee expressed its "concern that many complaints concerning violent acts and discrimination against trade unionists continued to be submitted to the ILO.

It emphasised that the "climate of impunity in the country represented a serious threat to the exercise of trade union freedom."

Regarding accusations of government interference in trade union activity in Ethiopia, the Committee said it was "deeply concerned by the fact that no progress had been made" in respect of a serious complaint concerning the Ethiopian Teachers' Association whose President "had now been convicted, after three years of preventive detention, on charges of conspiracy against the State and sentenced to 15 years of imprisonment.

The Committee strongly urged the Government to "take all the necessary steps as a matter of urgency to ensure that the right of association was recognized for teachers to defend their occupational interests, that workers' organizations were able to elect their representatives and organize their administration and activities free from interference by the public authorities and that workers organizations were not subject to administrative dissolution, in accordance with the Convention (No.87). It also expressed the hope that the ILO Office in Addis Ababa "could visit detained trade unionists."

On Myanmar, "the Committee expressed "its profound regret for the persistence of serious discrepancies between national legislation and practice and the provisions of the Convention" (no. 87).

Sudan was also cited for non-application of the Forced Labour Convention (No.29), with the Committee highlighting "the extreme gravity of the case which affected fundamental human rights". Sudan has previously been cited in special paragraphs in 1997, 1998 and 2000. The Committee observed "that there was a broad consensus among the relevant instances of the United Nations agencies and workers representative organizations concerning the persistence and extent of the practice of abduction and imposition of forced labour, and concluded that such situations were very serious violations of Convention No. 29."

Regarding Venezuela, the Committee "urged the Government urgently to amend its legislation to ensure that workers and employers could form organizations and freely elect their representatives without interference by the public authorities." It "regretted to note that the new Constitution of the Republic contained provisions that were not in conformity with the ILO Convention (No. 87)."

Expressing its "profound concern at the convocation of a national trade union referendum in December 2000 with a view to the unification of the trade union movement and the suspension or removal of its leaders, it urged the Government to take the measures necessary to bring its national legislation and practice fully into conformity with the provisions and requirements of the Convention." The Government of Venezuela has agreed to a direct contacts mission to gather information on the application of the Convention.

Occupied Arab Territories

A special session examining the conditions of workers in Palestine and in the other Occupied Arab Territories highlighted the gravity of the employment and economic hardships resulting from the political crises and violence affecting the region during the last nine months.

Participants at the session were told that increasing segments of the working population of the Territories are unemployed with thousands of Palestinians unable to even get to work in light of the security situation and border closings. A report prepared by the ILO Director General noted that as much as 50 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product of the Palestinian territories has been lost. Poverty affects well over half the residents of the West Bank and as much as 80 per cent in Gaza. Economic losses to Israel have been considerable as well.

The session, which was addressed by upwards of 50 speakers heard impassioned calls for an increased technical cooperation for the workers and employers concerned and renewed dialogue focussed on practical measures to improve the day-to-day lives of workers and their families.

Mr. Juan Somavia endorsed the view that "the ILO must continue to play an active role in the region in promoting employment and respect of workers' rights."

New standards on occupational safety and health in agriculture

The new Convention and Recommendation on Safety and Health in Agriculture are the first comprehensive international standards on safety and health in this sector and propose a universal framework on which national policies can be developed.

Together with mining and construction, agriculture is one of the three most hazardous industries both in developing and industrialized countries. It is estimated that about half of the world's 1.2 million occupational fatalities occur in agriculture. Exposure to pesticides and other toxic chemicals and accidents with machinery are the two primary causes of injuries and diseases in the sector.

Much of agriculture is still in small-scale and subsistence farming, with only 5 per cent of the world's 1.3 billion agricultural workers being subject to supervision by labour inspectorates and having some legal protection.

The Convention obliges ratifying member States "to ensure that an adequate system of inspection for agricultural workplaces is in place and is provided with adequate means." As far as it is compatible with existing national laws and regulations, "the employer shall have a duty to ensure the safety and health of workers in every aspect related to the work." Workers in agriculture also have a right to be informed and consulted on safety and health matters including risks from new technologies.

The major points considered in the Convention include appropriate means of risk assessment and management, preventive and protective measures regarding machinery safety and ergonomics, handling and transport of materials, chemicals management, animal handling, construction and maintenance of agricultural facilities.

There are also provisions concerning young workers and child labour, temporary and seasonal workers , insurance against injuries and sickness, and welfare and accommodation facilities. The minimum age for assignment to potentially dangerous or unhealthy work fixed by the Convention is 18 years.

Workers in agriculture should be covered by "an insurance or social security scheme against fatal and non-fatal occupational injuries and diseases, as well as against invalidity and other work-related risks, providing coverage at least equivalent to that enjoyed by workers in other sectors."

The Convention excludes from its scope subsistence farming, agro-industries, the forest industry and certain undertakings and categories of workers which are to be determined after tripartite consultations between government, employers' and workers' organizations.

The Convention is accompanied by a Recommendation which provides for a progressive extension of the protection afforded by the Convention to self-employed farmers. The Recommendation also sets out specific internationally agreed provisions designed to serve as guidelines as to how the national policy on health and safety in agriculture should be implemented.

Action on Child Labour

The International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) launched a new initiative on Tuesday, 12 June aimed at greatly accelerating the removal of millions of children from the most abusive forms of child labour. The initiative - starting first in Tanzania, Nepal and El Salvador - involves intensified efforts aimed at ending the worst forms of child labour, in participating countries, in 10 years or less.

The effort, known as the "Time-Bound Programmes", is a major step to implement ILO Convention No. 182, adopted unanimously by the International Labour Conference in 1999, to ban the worst forms of child labour. The Time-Bound Programmes in the three countries will focus on eliminating the use of children in such activities as scavenging at garbage dumps, portering, mining, domestic work, bonded labour, commercial agriculture, fishing and commercial sexual exploitation. Several other countries are expected to join the initiative during the next two years.

The United States Government is the largest donor to IPEC and has provided initial funds for startup of the Time-Bound Programmes in the three countries. The German government was the founding donor for IPEC in 1992. IPEC is currently supported by some 25 donors and operates programmes in more than 70 countries.


The Conference adopted the conclusions of the Committee on the Promotion of Cooperatives which held a first discussion on a new international labour standard on the promotion of cooperatives, which are playing an increasingly important role in facilitating job creation worldwide.

The new definition of cooperatives stresses their autonomy as well as their entrepreneurial character, with the role of the State being strictly normative and promotional in order to create a conducive operating environment. Worldwide, cooperatives have 800 millions members and employ 100 million people. They are important for promoting economic and social development because they can balance the need for profitability with the wider interests of the community.

In remarks to the Committee, Mr. Juan Somavia insisted that "Cooperatives create job opportunities for those who have skills but little or no capital and provide protection by organizing mutual help in communities."

Cooperatives mainly operate in agriculture, finance, wholesale and retailing, health care, housing and insurance, but they are continuously entering new fields of activity, including most recently the information and communications technology sector.

Social Security

Reflecting the high priority given to social security questions by many member States in recent years, the Social Security Committee held a general discussion on the issue. A wide-ranging consensus emerged from the discussions. Social security, it was agreed, was for everyone in society and highest priority should go to policies and initiatives to extend it to those who have none. Participants agreed that social security should not only ensure equal treatment of men and women, but should also play a positive role in promoting gender equality.

As regards the financing of social security, the major concern of the industrialized countries was the ageing of the population, but for many developing countries - particularly in sub-Saharan Africa - HIV/AIDS was having a more acute effect. There was agreement that pension systems would be affected by ageing, whether they were pay-as-you-go or advance funded. In terms of economics, the discussion focussed not only on the cost of social security: it also underlined that, if properly managed, social security enhances productivity and supports economic development. And with globalization, this is more necessary than ever.