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International Labour Conference
85th Session

Reply by the Director-General
of the International Labour Office to
the discussion of his Report
18 June 1997

Permit me, first of all, to congratulate your assembly on having adopted yesterday -- unanimously, save for two abstentions -- the budget proposals for 1998-99. You will understand also if I am somewhat less happy that the budget is for some US$481 million, 5.6 per cent less in real terms than the current budget. Though these past years we have been able to absorb the reduction in resources by increasing productivity and streamlining our services in Geneva, you must realize that any further cuts in the future are bound to mean a reduction in the technical assistance and services provided to our constituents in the field, at a time when their needs are growing. The Programme, Financial and Administrative Committee and the Governing Body itself will surely take this into account when they start discussing the next budgetary exercise in a few months' time.

In my reply to the discussion on my 1994 Report dealing with social justice in a global economy, I recalled that we had started on a job which would occupy us for a long time, but that it was up to us and to us alone to be the architects and builders of our future. My Report this year, dealing with standard setting in the ILO, is to my mind a major step in this job of preparing the ILO for the twenty-first century. Thanks to you we have made progress along this path, and I would like to thank the 314 speakers who participated in 11 plenary sessions, particularly the 117 ministers who expressed their views on the Report.

I think that the first result of our debate has been to make us think very carefully. This complex issue, which has been discussed for nearly three years in the Governing Body, has now been brought to the attention of international public opinion by our Conference. The interest that the whole world has shown in this discussion has, I think, increased the importance and visibility of our Organization. Throughout the debate we have been able to remove certain misconceptions and clarify certain misunderstandings. At the same time we have by and large avoided indulging in immoderate language or extreme positions, and have thus made it possible for the Governing Body to see a little more clearly. Indeed I feel -- and this is one of the first major conclusions of our Conference -- that whatever opinions may have been voiced nobody suggested that we do not continue our work. We now have a year before us to come up with a significant compromise in this area; I believe that we can do so. I cannot imagine that we might fail, bearing in mind the disastrous consequences that that could have for the values in which we believe and for the Organization which we support.

As might have been expected, the section of the Report dealing with the fundamental rights of workers was the subject of a most lively debate. The comments of various delegates representing workers throughout the world on the situations that have been provoked or aggravated by the sudden liberalization of trade are sufficient to convince us of the need for globalization to have some kind of social parallel. As the Prime Minister of Luxembourg, Mr. Juncker, recalled, economic development does not automatically bring social progress even though, to quote the Union Labour Minister of India, Mr. Arunachalam, the purpose of economic development is to promote social progress consistent with human dignity and social justice. This view was shared by many Government ministers and representatives, including Mr. Mboweni, Minister of Labour of South Africa, as well as by a large number of Employers' and Workers' delegates.

The discussion showed that there is broad consensus on the importance of strengthening fundamental rights, not only because they affect the essential rights of working people but, as the Minister of Labour of Sweden, Ms. Winberg, and the Secretary of State for Labour of the Dominican Republic, Mr. Alburquerque, reminded us, because they are the means of and the condition for promoting the other rights, according to the preferences and possibilities of each country.

Where opinions differ is how to strengthen these fundamental rights. There are two major channels: universal ratification of the seven core Conventions, and the adoption of a solemn declaration on fundamental rights. These two paths are not mutually exclusive; they are complementary.

Many of you welcomed the campaign for the ratification of the core Conventions which we launched in 1995 and whose impact we will be looking at in the Governing Body in November. So far, about 60 ratifications have been recorded and more than 20 are still expected, mainly of the Minimum Age Convention, 1973 (No. 138). This massive response shows how wrong it is to claim that the ratification of the fundamental standards depends on a country's economic and social development. Very many developing countries have ratified, or have undertaken to ratify, these standards in the very near future. This is extremely encouraging, and with your support this action will be continued and extended. In those countries that really want it we shall continue to provide technical cooperation to help them ratify and apply the core Conventions, as the Minister of Labour of Uganda, Mr. Etiang, suggested.

I said at the beginning of my statement that discussions on the proposal on a draft solemn declaration aimed at reaffirming the universal respect of the fundamental rights of workers have made it possible to clarify a number of points.

As was recalled by many governments, the representative of the Trade Union Advisory Committee of the OECD, Mr. Evans, and the Employers' delegate of Australia, Mr. Noakes, the Governing Body, following the 1994 Session of the Conference, has on several occasions examined the question of the social dimension of the liberalization of trade. A vital conclusion has become clear from the work of the Governing Body: the liberalization of trade and the removing of obstacles to international trade provide the raw material for social progress. However, at the same time this liberalization may pose a danger that uncontrolled international competition become "an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions [of labour] in their own countries", to use the words of the Preamble of our Constitution. The ILO must therefore, in particular through its standard-setting activity, try to bring about a certain parallelism between social progress and economic progress resulting from the liberalization of trade. This is in conformity with the mandate entrusted to the ILO by the World Summit for Social Development of Copenhagen and paragraph 4 of the Ministerial Declaration of the Singapore Conference.

It is, however, clear from certain statements that the results of the fruitful debate which took place on this subject in the Governing Body have not been sufficiently broadcast. I will take the necessary measures to remedy this failure in communication between the Governing Body and our constituents as a whole.

At the end of your discussions, it seems to me that although some countries expressed or made known their disagreement with this initiative of the Governing Body, presented during its March 1997 Session -- and we have to examine carefully the reasons for their hesitation or reluctance -- a fairly broad consensus has arisen in both the Government group as well as amongst Employers and Workers concerning the principle of the consideration of such a text and the application machinery which will accompany it.

In order to dissipate any last doubts to which this proposal might still give rise, it seems to me important to emphasize once again that it is in no way a question of imposing, through such a declaration, new obligations on member States against their will. The declaration is aimed at reaffirming the logic of the commitments and the values to which States have already freely subscribed in joining the ILO. Is there any need to recall here that membership of the ILO is a voluntary act of the State? But nobody could reproach the Organization for inviting its Members to take seriously such commitments by making them more explicit. This precisely is the meaning of the declaration which is aimed at reiterating the specific scope of the fundamental values which each Member has chosen to support of which, as the international community, in Copenhagen and Singapore, has recognized, the ILO is the depositary.

The next question concerns the consequences of this reaffirmation of the sense of their commitment. On this point again we need to dissipate any concerns or misunderstanding. The nature of these consequences should arise from the very nature of the declaration. Thus it is not a question of sanctioning violations or failures by means of a judicial procedure. This was recalled by both the Minister for Labour and Manpower Development of Kenya, Mr. Masinde, and the Minister of Social Affairs and Employment of the Netherlands, Mr. Melkert. It is a question of verifying whether, even if it has not ratified the respective Conventions for reasons which may in certain cases be legitimate, a country nevertheless respects the spirit and principles.

There are many ways of devising such a mechanism. At this stage I do not intend to review them all. However, I would like to assure the Conference of my conviction, as reflected in the concern that I have had of associating it from this year in the discussions under way in the Governing Body since 1994, that this mechanism should receive as broad support as possible. The Governing Body will thus continue its work on this subject in accordance with methods which it will itself examine the day after tomorrow. The proposals which will be submitted to the Governing Body in November on the declaration and its application machinery should provide a sufficiently consensual basis and reflect the various sensitivities and make it possible for this vital question to be included on the agenda of the 1998 Session of the Conference.

As regards my proposals relating to a periodic report on social progress throughout the world, I would like to recall that the fact of becoming a Member of the ILO implies not only a commitment to immutable values but to the dynamics of social progress. Each country takes on a commitment to participate actively in associating its workers with the fruits of economic progress, rather than contenting itself with this being done spontaneously, the consequences of which have once again been emphatically emphasized in the UNDP report on human development. Hence the idea of providing references and exchanging information or good practice to encourage such a dynamism by means of a regular report. It goes without saying that such a report was never intended in my mind to dictate to anybody the level of social progress which is appropriate for each stage of economic development. Since 1994 I have repeated constantly that it is not appropriate for anybody, not even the Organization itself, to dictate to its Members what is appropriate for them in terms of social progress. I am encouraged by the support of all of those who have understood the essentially promotional and pragmatic nature of this project. Without doubt it is going to require a great deal more consideration and discussion, but I am reasonably optimistic about the results, because amongst the small number of those who have shown some hesitation concerning this proposal, I believe I can see some possibility of reaching agreement.

The tensions which at certain times marked the discussions on the technical questions on the agenda of this session of the Conference illustrate perfectly the problems referred to in the second part of the Report. They have in particular highlighted the problems of embarking on in-depth discussions, within the short period available to the Conference, of extremely complex technical questions sometimes included in the agenda without there being a clear idea of their shape or content. It seems to me imperative to pursue actively the proposal that new questions should be the subject of a preliminary discussion in order to gain a better idea of a possible instrument before the matter is definitively placed on the agenda of the Conference. This session will have also provided many examples of improvements which could be made to various procedural aspects, and in particular in the drafting of questionnaires. Generally speaking, the ideas and proposals contained in the second part of the Report have attracted interest and support, which I welcome. It is my firm intention to continue this work actively in the Governing Body and in the competent committees.

In the presentation of the work of the Conference Committees, I will come back to certain points illustrating the need for a review of the rules and procedures of our standard-setting machinery.

At this stage I will not dwell on the question of the social label which, as Mr. Chotard said, has given rise to considerable agitation and some negative reactions. I will simply emphasize the fact that the proposals on this matter were aimed mainly at initiating debate on a multilateral and essentially voluntary solution, which is very far removed from the philosophy of the social clause. By definition, such a multilateral framework could not be established without there being very broad consensus which is clearly, at the present stage, still lacking. I had made this proposal thinking particularly of the developing countries, which run the risk of being rapidly submerged under private and unilateral labelling systems, the positive and less positive aspects of which are emphasized in the Report. It will be for the Governing Body to decide whether or not to continue the debate on this question. For my part I am convinced that the proliferation of private initiatives of which the Office already has many examples should lead us back to a more tranquil debate on the merits of this approach, as has been suggested by the Minister of Labour and Social Security of Mexico, Mr. Bonilla Garcia.

This session of the Conference has just taken a decision of great historic and symbolic importance, giving itself an effective instrument which will make it possible for it to deal in a transparent and definitive manner with standards which have become "dead wood". This constitutional amendment will give the International Labour Conference the power of abrogating international labour Conventions that the Governing Body and the Conference itself agree to recognize as obsolete. I would like to call upon member States to ratify this amendment, which I would remind you requires ratification by two-thirds of member States, including five of the ten Members with the highest degree of industrial importance, for it to enter into force. If we want to adapt our standard-setting machinery we must lose no time.

The visit of His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan was one of the highlights of the Conference. Recalling the commitments of his country to the values of the ILO, King Hussein welcomed the pragmatic, objective and transparent nature of the ILO's response to the challenge of globalization. On the situation in the Middle East, the King recalled his determination to continue to work to bring about a just global and lasting peace in this region of the world, which will guarantee prosperity for its inhabitants.

The report on the situation of workers in the occupied Arab territories was the subject of many interventions and statements. The Office must continue and perhaps intensify its technical cooperation efforts in this region to advance the cause of democracy and the fundamental rights of workers, the promotion of employment and the fight against poverty, as well as worker protection. This is without doubt the best possible contribution that the ILO, within its sphere of competence, can make to the efforts to bring about peace in the region.

We also had the pleasure of welcoming in this body Mr. Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank. His presence bore witness to the cooperation which has been established between our two institutions in recent years. We have thus begun to implement together one of the major conclusions of the Copenhagen Summit, calling for closer links between the ILO and the Bretton Woods institutions. After his statement, ministers and the social partners subjected him to a barrage of questions relating to debt, globalization and social justice. I think that we would all benefit from having this type of brief and effective encounter with formers of public opinion more often -- and the Office will take steps to organize further events of this nature at forthcoming sessions of the Conference. I believe that this would help our institution to be more forward-thinking and efficient.

The Committee on Job Creation in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises was called upon to examine all issues relating to job creation in this type of enterprise which, in many countries, are the best placed to create new jobs for a considerable share of the population. The Conclusions adopted with a view to adopting a Recommendation stressed the need to adopt measures to assist small and medium-sized enterprises, as well as specific measures to improve the quality of jobs and protect employment.

The second discussion of this Committee, scheduled to be held at the next session of the Conference, should give rise to the adoption of an autonomous Recommendation. As I suggested in my Report, this type of instrument should no longer be considered as a sort of poor relation in standard-setting. In order to ensure this, there should be a mechanism to monitor the implementation of Recommendations so that their relevance can be periodically assessed.

It is useful to recall that the work on the revision of Convention No. 96 was preceded by a general discussion at the 81st Session of the Conference (1994) on the role of private employment agencies in the functioning of labour markets. Without wishing to make this a hard and fast rule, I think we should make use of this procedure more often, especially when concepts are not clearly defined. I would like to think that this procedure was one of the factors which contributed to the successful work of this Committee.

A Convention and Recommendation have just been adopted by the Conference and -- as far as their content is concerned -- they correspond fairly well to the new type of standard you have been calling for during the discussion of the Report.

The work of the Committee on Contract Labour was difficult. I feel, at this juncture, that it is relevant to try and analyse why the discussions during the Plenary were so difficult. The major problem, as I see it, was linked to the very definition of the subject of these standards. Given the lack of preliminary surveys and discussions, which the Office had pointed out was necessary before including this item on the Conference agenda, it was up to the Committee itself to define the scope of the instruments they were called upon to draft. Without in any way wishing to call into question the qualities of the members of the Committee (or of the secretariat), the outcome of its work suffered as a result of this situation. This is an additional illustration, if one were needed, of the pertinence of the suggestions made in Part II and the Annex of the Report.

As usual, the Committee on the Application of Standards examined the reports from the Committee of Experts. More than 60 countries took an active part in the discussions with the Committee, designed to help them make progress in respect of obligations relating to ratified or non-ratified labour standards. If the comments made by the supervisory body sometimes give rise to delicate or difficult problems in the countries concerned, the Office is ready to provide them with any technical assistance they might require, particularly as part of its active partnership policy and missions by the multidisciplinary teams.

The point raised by the representative of the Workers of the Russian Federation, Mr. Shmakov, concerning the repercussions of the overlapping of procedures to examine a case before the Conference Committee on the Application of Standards, proves that the time has come to codify and modernize certain aspects of the procedures in question. This is particularly true of the procedures relating to article 24 of the Constitution the provisions of which are extremely rigid and imprecise with respect to other procedures. I can perfectly well understand the frustration -- and that is putting it mildly -- caused by the lack of any form of code and the apparent lack of clarity as to its action when the interests of millions of workers are at stake. It is thus my firm intention to call upon the competent services to take up urgently the considerations and drafts for reform of this procedure, which have been under way for a number of years, but which now must be very rapidly brought to a conclusion.

Throughout this reply, I have outlined what has seemed to me to be the basic thrust of the debate of the Conference this year. The Conference has taken the opportunity to go into the work carried out by the Governing Body since 1994 in greater depth so as to breathe new life into the standard-setting activities of the ILO. I am convinced that the Governing Body will find your deliberations a source of renewed inspiration.

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