102nd Session of the International Labour Conference: Opening address by Mr Luc Cortebeeck, Chairperson of the Workers'Group

Statement | Geneva | 05 June 2013
President and Vice Presidents of the Conference,
Secretary General,
Distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a pleasure to address this august Assembly on behalf of the Workers’ Group. Let me start by congratulating the President and the three Vice-Presidents for their election.

As tripartite actors of the world of work we gather in Geneva for this 102nd International Labour Conference under the motto of “Building a future with decent work”. A goal we are fully committed with but that regrettably remains a distant dream for millions of workers and their families around the world.

As we approach the ILO Centenary and acknowledge the many achievements of the ILO since its creation in 1919, we must look at the present and the future and recognize that the commendable goals enshrined in the ILO Philadelphia Declaration of 1944 and the more recent 2008 Social Justice Declaration of fighting poverty and realizing social justice are far from being achieved in today’s globalized world.

Despite the many references to the importance of decent work and workers’ rights in conclusions and recommendations of global and regional bodies beyond the ILO, improvements in reality remain to be seen.

The economic crisis that started more than five years ago and that was caused by inadequate financial market regulation, excessive speculation and widening income inequalities has had devastating consequences on employment and social progress. Millions of workers have lost their jobs, living standards have fallen dramatically, rights are under attack, precarious and informal work are rising.

In the last two years we have moved to a new and dangerous phase of the crisis. Economic growth is now slowing rapidly in the emerging and developing economies that have been the engines of growth after 2008. The latest figures from the IMF and other regional organisations confirm that the outlook for global growth continues to deteriorate. The World of Work report recently released by the ILO confirms these trends when it stresses that and I quote: “The social fabric has been affected by growing and persistent income gaps between rich and poor. Progress has been made in many emerging and developing countries but more efforts are needed to consolidate the gains. Meanwhile, income inequalities are widening in advanced economies, Central and Eastern Europe and in a number of Arab countries”. (end of quote).

We are now entering a truly global crisis which will create further obstacles to poverty reduction and the realization of decent work. The race to the bottom in respect of workers’ rights that we are currently experiencing in several countries is an extremely worrying trend.

The Workers’ Group believes that the ILO has a crucial role to play to reverse these trends and put decent work, rights and social justice at the centre of economic and social policies as well as recovery measures. I will have an opportunity to come back to these issues on the 12th of June when we will debate the proposals of the Report of the Director General on the ILO role in the twenty-first century.

Let me now touch on the other items of this year Conference agenda and some of the workers‘ priorities.

The recurrent discussion on social dialogue under the follow-up to the 2008 ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization provides the opportunity to re-affirm the key relevance of social dialogue in promoting social justice, fair workplace relations and decent work. Key in this respect is the importance of the continued ratification and implementation of Conventions 87 and 98 without which there cannot be any meaningful social dialogue. The conclusions of the discussion need to re-assert the role of the ILO in addressing more forcefully than in the past the severe attacks on collective bargaining that took place in several countries as part of crisis responses. Strong messages should also be conveyed that particularly during economic downturns social dialogue institutions need to be strengthened rather than undermined.

To retake the words of the ILO Director General Report: “the ILO has a constitutional obligation to promote collective bargaining” (page 17). Our Group therefore believes that the ILO should engage into a comprehensive programme of work on the promotion of collective bargaining including the promotion of relevant standards, the strengthening of the knowledge base, technical assistance and capacity-building. The discussion will also have to address the growth of precarious forms of employment in the private and public sectors that undermine the capacity of unions to organise and bargain collectively. Strategies to promote respect for the right to organise and bargaining collectively in export processing zones and global supply chains should also be addressed.

The general discussion on sustainable development, decent work and green jobs offers the opportunity to identify the challenges that environmental degradation poses to the world of work and how to anchor the promotion of decent work and a rights’ based approach as essential elements of a just transition towards an environmentally sustainable world of work. The conclusions need to stress that ILO tripartite constituents do not want to be passive victims of environmental degradation but drivers of change towards sustainable development. The move towards green jobs has a huge job potential. However such transformation should not merely be about more jobs but about quality jobs. The discussion should therefore allow to identify those standards that can ensure that green jobs are also decent jobs and to enhance their promotion.

Importantly our Group believes that in light of the significant transformation that the greening of the economy will entail for the world of work, the ILO is best placed to provide consistent and needed guidance to its constituents through an instrument with a view to ensure that just transition arrangements are put in place. Issues like sustainable investment in green and decent jobs, greening of the economy, social dialogue, economic diversification, workplace action, skill and training and social security could be possible issues included in such an instrument.

The general discussion on employment and social protection in the new demographic context will address the challenges of demographic change and its impact on employment and social protection. Increased life expectancy and the growing share of older people is a very positive trend. Ageing is not a problem. What is a problem is that millions of people die prematurely due to bad working conditions or are left with no or insufficient pensions in old age. Extending social security to all in its vertical and horizontal dimensions should therefore be a priority in line with ILO Convention 102 and Recommendation 202 on social protection floors. It will be equally important that any strategy aimed at tackling demographic change recognizes the urgent need to create many more decent and productive jobs in the economy. The millions of young people around the world that are without a job or in informal and precarious working conditions show the urgency of bringing them into the labour market and to give them decent and well-paid jobs which in turn will contribute to the financing of pension systems. The Committee also provides an opportunity for the first time to discuss the growing care economy. Respecting the dignity of those in need of care and ensuring decent work for care givers requires a multilevel policy response. Member states surely could greatly benefit from ILO policy guidance in this respect.

When it comes to the Committee on the Application of Standards, I am confident that workers and employers will be able to agree on a list of cases and that this year the Committee will be able to fulfil its essential mandate of supervising the application of standards.

This year the Conference will be called upon to adopt the programme and budget for the 2014-2015 biennium. After the good debate we had at the March Governing Body I am confident that the programme and budget will be adopted. Our Group supported the proposals put forward by the ILO Director-General that set out an ambitious reform agenda to enable the ILO to play a key role in rebalancing the global economy for strong and sustained growth and in advancing its mission of global social justice. To do so the ILO will rely on the decent work agenda and the ILO Social Justice Declaration while identifying a limited number of areas of critical importance where collaboration across sectors and with the regions will be enhanced with a view to improve the impact of the ILO, re-build expertise in some key areas of its mandate and break down the current silos.

Let me conclude by saying that the Workers’ Group looks forward to engage with Governments and Employers in the coming weeks in order to address the important topics on this year Conference agenda. I wish you all a fruitful Conference and let us be ambitious in the results we will achieve.

I thank you for your attention.