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Address by Juan Somavia to the
Global Compact High-Level Meeting

26 July 2000, New York

The Director-General of the ILO participated in a High-Level Meeting on the UN Global Compact on 26 July 2000 at UN Headquarters in New York. The meeting was convened by the UN Secretary-General to signal the commitment of world business to promote the universal values of the Compact, which include the ILO Declaration's fundamental principles and rights at work. Along with heads of the relevant UN agencies, participants in the open discussion format included representatives of more than 40 multinational companies, as well as the International Organization of Employers, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions, and other business and civil society organizations. For further information on the Global Compact and the 26 July meeting, visit The text of the intervention of the Director-General during the open discussion follows.

I would like to begin by commenting on something Phil Watts (Shell Oil) said: "This is about engagement". Engagement takes time, it's complex, and it's difficult. Trust-building does not happen from one day to the next. So we had better assume that it lies ahead of us. As Phil Knight (NIKE) said: we want to do it because each one of us is struggling with these problems alone; by coming together we feel that we are probably going to solve them more easily. This is the essence of what we think this meeting is all about.

Let me briefly describe the areas in which this public-private partnership could express itself in terms of the ILO, and how we could help in whatever you want to do. We are talking about voluntary private initiatives, and that does not leave the responsibility of governments aside. On the contrary, it highlights what governments need to do.

I want to mention four areas of cooperation and two areas of possible dialogue.

The first area of cooperation is child labour; 250 million children are working throughout the world. Someone employs them. So if we can find out who is employing them and how they are being employed, we can get children into school and parents into work. This could be one of the single most important expressions of the real commitment to make the Global Compact work. Someone employs those children. Why don't we try to solve the problems of child labour in the world?

Secondly, you, as business people, are trying to move towards greater contact with stakeholders. We in the ILO have an 80-year history of social dialogue between employers and workers. The whole standards system in the ILO which is the basis for social legislation in the world was built around Conventions adopted by workers and employers which are ratified and become law.

If meeting stakeholders is something that you care about, we do have a long experience in social dialogue from the enterprise to the global level. If you are interested in engaging sectorally, we have 22 sectoral groups which engage the international trade secretariats and their counterparts in business. The mechanisms are there if you want the dialogue to take place.

Thirdly, we have all the information in the world that you may want on international labour standards and practices which address four of the elements in the Compact: freedom of association and collective bargaining, abolition of child and forced labour, and elimination of employment discrimination. You can discover where the problems are; what happens in certain countries; what are the dynamics; what happens to enterprises that try to do it, but in complex situations. The ILO is at your service -- if you want it and are interested -- to provide all the information in the world and a lot of experience on how you make these things happen in practical terms. The ILO's information base also features best practices in difficult situations, reflecting in many ways the very good examples that Keneth Roth (Human Rights Watch) emphasized.

If you are interested in health and safety at the workplace, an enormous amount of work is going on at the ILO on all of these issues.

Fourthly, in connection with something important that the President of ETHOS said: the Global Compact has to do with the culture of your managers. And we all know -- any one of us who has tried to implement important changes in any large institution knows -- that in the end it happens if the managers become part of it and they transform a policy into a practice which eventually becomes a culture of the house. Each one of us knows where we are at in terms of these issues. So, if you want training for your managers on the four labour-related elements, we are ready to do it. The International Training Centre of the ILO in Turin (Italy) trains thousands of people a year on the types of issues which confront your managers every day.

I would also suggest in terms of your internal policy-making that you reward the risk-taking of your managers who do new things with social management in your enterprises. For example, you could give some stock options to the ones who really innovate -- that would send a new and very important signal. Get the message across that socially sensitive action is important for the bottom line of your managers and for the careers of your managers. I think making that link to the career of your managers could do an enormous amount of good in terms of getting your company on board.

We have talked about social responsibility indicators. Maybe one of the ways to make this happen is to say: look, we have committed our company to the nine Global Compact principles; and we know how to make a social audit of that commitment in terms of our own activities. You guide that process, ask it of your own auditors, do it on your own. You can act on your conviction that the social auditing of these principles is as important as financial auditing, which we all know well.

Two issues of dialogue

I have mentioned some areas of potential collaboration with the ILO. If you are interested in any of these areas, we can work together. Now, let's consider two issues for dialogue as we move forward.

One issue is freedom of association, which is a key principle underlying our Global Compact. You know well that the ILO stands very strongly for the right of citizens to organize themselves and, if you are a worker, to organize within a company. This is not always accepted; it is not always a reality; although in some cases its potential is stimulated to bring more peaceful and productive working climates. I would like to offer you the possibilities of dialogue with us on ways of making this happen, of making it contemporary, of making it modern. Let's move into the areas of linking freedom of enterprises with freedom of association; these two freedoms go hand in hand. You can't have one without the other. In some countries freedom to associate in the workplace is the law; in some countries it's done in practice, and in some cases it flourishes because of your own practices. It is an issue for dialogue. It is an issue that won't go away. The more we talk with stakeholders, the more citizens will want to organize themselves and workers will want to organize themselves in the workplace. They also will want to organize themselves as citizens in other areas, as was mentioned by some of your companies today. I am proposing this issue as an area of conversation. It involves complex considerations. We are aware of some of them, and we can work together to solve them.

Let me end with another issue that I feel is absolutely key to put into a dialogue between those of us here. It's the way in which the global economy is working to generate a growth of the information economy and the informal economy. Both the global economy and the informal economy are expanding, and we are not creating bridges between the two. The whole issue of job creation is becoming the axis, the centre of many of the issues we are talking about. There are 150 million people unemployed in the world today and if we don't find a way to increase employment to deal with that, most of the things we are doing here are going to be completely undermined by the instability of societies resulting from the unemployment. This is not something we can solve here today, but I put it on the agenda as an issue for dialogue. We will have to concentrate as much on local capital as international capital, on small- and medium-sized enterprises as much as multinational enterprises. If we don't solve the employment-generation problem, we are going to have very unstable societies. You are the first to know there are no stable investments in unstable societies. So let's move forward with both action and dialogue to solve some of these problems together. Thank you.

Updated by SMP. Approved by GBR. Last update: 4 August 2000.