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International Labour Conference
85th Session

Statement by Mr. Michel Hansenne
Director-General of the International Labour Office
3 June 1997

Following the incidents that marked the discussion and adoption of the Home Work Convention last year, I suggested that the time had come to take a new look at the ILO's standard-setting function and indicated that that would be the theme of my Report to the Conference in 1997. For the ILO's standard-setting function has always been -- and, to my mind, still is -- the very backbone of the International Labour Organization. It is standard setting that underlies and imbues all our activities. And it is the ILO's standards that will determine the place that the Organization occupies in the coming century, because it is through them that the ILO can make its most valuable contribution to a world economic system based on the liberalization of trade and genuine multilateralism. Unless that function is strengthened, the promises of progress in the world economy are liable to be jeopardized or to remain a dead letter for all too many workers.

Strengthening the ILO's standard-setting function is not just a matter for the Director-General or for a few specialists. That task is the responsibility of the International Labour Conference, for what other body within the United Nations system could claim to be as representative as your Assembly, combining as it does universality and tripartism?

The second part of my Report contains a set of specific proposals for improving the ILO's output of labour standards and for ensuring that its instruments meet the needs of our constituents and have a verifiable impact on our efforts to further our objective of social progress. The proposals are my response to the analyses that have been made -- some of them a long time ago -- by my predecessors, as well as to the requests and criticisms that have been voiced on a number of occasions by many constituents. In order to take the debate a step further, we have endeavoured to look at the standard-setting process as a whole so as to take into account the interplay of cause and effect and thus to come up with a set of proposals that are both coherent and viable. I trust that this approach will win the support of the Conference so that the Governing Body can then examine in greater detail each of the ideas put forward.

I also feel that the time has come to sum up the three years of debate that have taken place in the Governing Body and its various committees on the social dimension of the liberalization of trade, and to draw a few conclusions.

We have received two important messages. First that of the World Summit for Social Development held in Copenhagen in 1995. Then, more recently, that of the ministers of trade meeting at the first WTO ministerial conference in Singapore. Their final declaration renews the commitment of member States to observe internationally recognized fundamental labour standards, stresses that economic growth fostered by increased trade works towards promoting them, rejects their use for protectionist purposes, and clearly recalls the ILO's major role in defining and implementing such standards. It is certainly not my role to interpret what this declaration means for the WTO -- I would simply reiterate to the Director-General of the WTO that the ILO is entirely open to the idea of continuing to collaborate, as it has been invited to do.

We must take these clear and repeated invitations very seriously and draw all the appropriate conclusions. I am not talking of modifying the mandate of our Organization, but rather of enabling it to carry out that mandate fully so as to achieve its objectives and live up to the expectations placed in it.

The first part of my Report accordingly reviews a number of proposals which have already been extensively discussed by the Governing Body and which have provided us with pointers to a solution that might be acceptable to all the interested parties. I refer of course to the idea that the ILO adopt a solemn declaration reaffirming the universal respect of all its Members for fundamental workers' rights, whether or not the relevant Conventions have been ratified. I want to make it quite clear that the idea behind such a declaration is not that it should impose obligations on member States to which they have not subscribed, but simply that they renew their commitment to certain essential principles that are inherent in the ILO's values and which they accepted when they became Members of the Organization. I therefore sincerely hope that, after a thorough discussion of this vital issue, the Conference will endorse the approach that we have taken so that it may be called upon as early as 1998, the year of the fiftieth anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, to embody its conclusions in a solemn declaration.

Before I end, allow me to say a few words about an idea that has given rise to numerous comments and very different interpretations, some of which are quite the opposite of what I intended. I am referring of course to the "overall social label".

Whether we like it or not, the unilateral initiatives that my Report refers to already exist and are multiplying. Generous though the principles behind them may be, the fact is that they may lack transparency in their implementation and prove hazardous in their effects. The proposal I am making, therefore, is aimed at strengthening the multilateral and voluntary framework constituted by the ILO, in which countries -- and especially developing countries -- are not just pawns in a game but active partners whose voices and interests are properly taken heed of.

It is up to these countries to say whether they want a system such as this and, if so, to help decide what form it should take -- something which remains to be discussed and elaborated. I must emphasize that a system of this kind bears absolutely no relation to a social clause since, unlike the social clause which subordinates the free circulation of goods and services -- and hence their access to national markets -- to the observance of certain social standards, it is designed solely to provide information without introducing any manner of restriction or curtailing anybody's freedom of action.

For all that, it must be made quite clear that this is bound to be a very long process and that we are not suggesting any ready-made solutions. While I feel that it is essential that the ILO be involved in a debate which is of such capital importance for the future of multilateralism, it is equally important that this consideration does not distract your attention from other concrete proposals which require more immediate action.

These are some of the thoughts that I wanted to share with you today. I trust that your discussions will be fruitful and that the Conference will be a success.

Updated by VC. Approved by RH. Last update: 26 January 2000.