326th session of ILO Governing Body

How the ILO is improving workers' protection through dialogue

Interview with the President of the ILO’s Workers’ Group on the achievements of the governing body meeting held in March. Luc Cortebeeck explains how the protection of workers ‘rights in Qatar, Venezuela, Fiji and Guatemala was a major focus of the discussions as well as the protection of migrant workers and the application of international labour standards by multinational enterprises.

News | 04 April 2016
Luc Cortebeeck, President of the Workers'Group
ACTRAV INFO: The 326th session of the ILO Governing Body has just ended. How do you see its results from the Workers’ Group point of view?

Luc Cortebeeck:
As with each Governing Body session, it’s impossible to gauge all the energy that went into the preparations, the tensions, the hours of discussions, debates, informal negotiations with employers and governments, and tripartite meetings, but our group rounded off this Governing Body with a positive assessment and positive feelings. That’s also due to the fact that we’re increasingly managing to work as a group, in unity, and to share the work out more and more among our members of the Governing Body.

ACTRAV INFO: Several complaints about breaches of workers’ rights were tackled at this session. How do you assess the Governing Body’s decisions on the cases of Qatar, Venezuela, Fiji and Guatemala?

Let’s start with the success on Fiji. The pressure from a possible Article 26 (Commission of Inquiry) and the High-Level Tripartite Mission to Fiji in February 2015 have, after several extremely difficult years, led to a fundamental change in the country’s labour legislation. Freedom of association, social dialogue and collective bargaining have at last been established. That wouldn’t have been thinkable just a few months ago. It’s a success for the Workers’ Group and the ILO but above all for the Fiji Trades Union Congress (FTUC) and its National Secretary Felix Anthony who showed courage, perseverance and the capacity to succeed. I had the opportunity to congratulate him. For us workers, this case demonstrates that change for social justice is possible and that the ILO can be a very important instrument.

On the Venezuela case, where the complaint was lodged by the employers, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Workers’ Group took the initiative of promoting, together with the government and the employers, a relaunch of the social dialogue. Commitments were made on that, and we’ll assess the situation in a few months’ time. We’ll be doing the same for Guatemala, which is known for serious violations of freedom of association and murders of trade union leaders. The new Guatemalan labour minister has promised to get back to the action plan and roadmap agreed between us and the government two years ago. In the meantime, for those two countries (Venezuela and Guatemala), the appointment of a Commission of Inquiry remains pending.

That also goes for Qatar. Together with the Chairperson of the Governing Body, my colleague the Vice-Chair of the Employers’ Group and the Office, I took part in a High-Level Tripartite Mission at the beginning of March 2016. There are 1,700,000 migrant workers in Qatar, under the kafalah system, which makes workers totally dependent on their employers. Quite simply, this system is forced labour. In our report, we describe the progress made with the new legislation which will come into effect in December 2016, but many problems remain, and all the more so for domestic workers. A new report will be discussed in November 2016 and March 2017, to assess if progress has been sufficient for the government to avoid a Commission of Inquiry. The government of Qatar has used all sorts of pressure and lobbying to try and halt the procedure against the country, but it hasn’t succeeded. Let’s hope that international pressure this year will force the government to bring in decent work for the migrant workers.

ACTRAV INFO: One of the subjects discussed at this session was labour migration. What solutions do you envisage for protecting migrant workers?

The Workers’ Group is aware of the important role played by workers, employers and governments in promoting and supporting, in the short and medium term, the effective integration of refugees and other people who are forcibly displaced. The role of governments and social partners is to look for answers at both the national and the international level.

We wish to emphasize the need to also work towards long-term solutions and programmes, so as to ensure that peace, economic growth and opportunities for decent work are created both in the countries of origin and in the receiving countries.

Opposing all discrimination, xenophobia and stigmatization, the ability to unite the workers must be a major priority for the trade union organizations at the national and international level. Social dialogue is, of course, essential in order to avoid or minimize tensions between the new arrivals and the existing labour force, as well as to determine the broader labour market integration issues, such as the identification of the corresponding competences, the recognition of skills and qualifications, and the provision of language courses, education programmes and (vocational) training.

So there’s a need to promote the creation of decent jobs for all, so that refugees don’t end up in informal work or being used to undermine existing labour standards and collective agreements. Fortunately, the European employers and workers have clearly expressed their opposition to the proposal by Donald Tusk, the President of the European Council, to allow refugees to work for less than the minimum wage. Investment in job creation for local labour is of capital importance in achieving social cohesion – but unfortunately, no attention is being paid to this, due to the austerity programmes.

The approach should be based on a win-win scenario for the refugees and people displaced by force but also for the countries that receive them. It’s important to recognize that these people could offer opportunities to the receiving countries once they are able to work. Research shows that, within a few years, the costs are neutralized. Given the ageing population in Europe, refugees and other forcibly displaced people can indeed fill the present and future gaps.

But this work at the national level must be guided and supported by a multilateral policy within the UN agencies, and the policy pursued by the ILO will be part of that. I’m thinking of labour market impacts, the promotion of decent work and social protection. These programmes ought to be coordinated and financed by the international community. Greater international financial cooperation and support are needed to help the countries that are experiencing the biggest mass influxes of forcibly displaced people and refugees into their territories.

The ILO should call for the full respect, ratification and application of Conventions n° 97 and n°143 on the implementation of labour migration in the receiving countries, as well as the UN’s International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families.

In September 2016, at the ILO, a tripartite meeting will deal with concrete measures for just recruitment. In the course of this year, there will be other initiatives, such as a Conference organized by the United Nations Organization for Refugees on 30 March, a World Humanitarian Summit on 23-24 May and a high-level United Nations plenary on 19 September. The ILO will be taking part in these conferences. Let’s hope for, and work for, concrete results.

ACTRAV INFO: The draft review of the Declaration on Multinational Enterprises was one of the items at this session. What does the Workers’ Group expect from this review?

The revision of this declaration, which dates from 2006, is very important in view of developments in this field – first, the growing importance of global supply chains, but also the adoption of the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and, here at the ILO, of new international labour standards. Also, this declaration hasn’t been used enough in the world of work.

The revision of the Declaration must make it more comprehensive and useable. For instance, the interpretation mechanism isn’t very accessible. We’d like to replace it with a mechanism for improving dialogue and preventing and resolving disputes between multinationals on the one hand and workers and trade unions on the other. In order to learn from other experiences, a repository centre for good practices on dispute resolution and social dialogue could also be a step forward.

As regards the revision of the text of the Declaration, we would like to include several new elements, including recently adopted international labour standards (among others, the Forced Labour Protocol and Recommendation n°198 on the Employment Relationship), the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (including the complaints mechanisms and “due diligence”), references to a living wage, the protection of migrants’ rights, references to labour inspection and transparency, and references to atypical forms of employment.

We are expecting a lot from the meeting of a working group that is to prepare for the Governing Body in March 2017. And all this is clearly, directly linked with the general discussion on “supply chains”, which will be held during the next International Labour Conference in June 2016. Yes, there will be plenty to do, but it is worth it.