105th session of the International Labour Conference

The realization of decent work in Global supply chains: ILO’s role is recognized

The President of the Workers’ Group, Luc Cortebeeck, looks back over the results of the 105th Session of the International Labour Conference, and reflects in particular on ILO’s role in the realization of decent work in global supply chains. Mr Cortebeeck also sets out the position of the Workers’ Group on the cases of violations of international labour standards, the subject of decent work for peace and resilience and the impact of the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization.

News | 23 June 2016
Luc Cortebeeck, President of the Workers' Group
ACTRAV INFO: The 105th session of the International Labour Conference has just finished. What’s your assessment of how it went, and of the results of this 2016 session?

Luc Cortebeeck:
This session of the Conference was a success, but we really were in suspense until the last possible minute in the Committee on decent work in global supply chains. Although the Committee on Employment and Decent Work for the Transition from War to Peace and the Committee for the Social Justice Declaration completed their work, as did the Committee on the Application of Standards, my colleagues and I were very worried about the outcome of the discussions on global supply chains. There were times when failure loomed on the horizon. Let’s just say that in the framework of the “Future of work” initiative – without underestimating the role of Member States – not recognizing the responsibilities of supply chains would have been a bad sign for the future of ILO. But fortunately at 1.30 in the early hours of Thursday 9th June, after complicated and difficult negotiations, an agreement was reached, and was greeted by applause from the workers, the governments and the employers.

ACTRAV INFO: Following that agreement, what’s your assessment of the content of the final draft of the Committee on decent work in global supply chains?

The challenges were enormous. Obviously, we had to acknowledge the positive contribution global supply chains have on employment in some countries and regions, but at the same time, we needed to emphasize the fact that supply chains have created a permissive environment for violations of labour standards and failure to respect decent work.

The Committee’s conclusions call on governments to strengthen their labour inspection systems, promote social dialogue and fundamental principles and rights at work, including freedom of association and collective bargaining. The conclusions also call on businesses to put in place measures that reflect the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights, as well as to implement due diligence procedures and to promote decent work in their supply chains.

In my previous interviews, I’ve drawn the link with the review of the Tripartite Declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy, which is recognized in the text. But above all it is the consensus on the need to promote cross-border forms of social dialogue, including international framework agreements, as measures for the protection of vulnerable workers independent of their occupational status that is the most important achievement.

A meeting of experts will be invited to identify weaknesses in the current recommendations and conventions and will examine: “what guidance, programmes, measures, initiatives or standards are needed to promote decent work in global supply chains”. Much remains to be done, but what prevails is that the Employers’ Group has recognized the problems being caused by certain practices in these supply chains. It recognizes that it is not only governments that have the responsibility to supervise companies’ attitudes; it recognizes cross-border forms of social dialogue and leaves the door open for a new standard. The support of the countries of the European Union, the African countries and the United States had an important impact on the final outcome of the general debate on this.

I think that winning this agreement and the conclusions of the Committee show the importance of ILO’s role, through tripartism, in establishing decent work in global supply chains.

ACTRAV INFO: There were 24 individual cases relating to violations of international labour standards debated at this session. What should we take away from that debate in terms of the results of this Conference?

Anybody who knows anything about ILO knows just how delicate the work of the Committee on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations can be. The Committee was unable to operate from 2012 until the end of 2014. It was only after a joint declaration last year between the International Organisation of Employers and the International Trade Union Confederation that the attack that the Employers had launched in 2012 against the right to strike and the interpretation of that right by the experts was deescalated to a level that made it possible for the work of the ILO supervisory mechanism to resume. This year, for the second time since that crisis, the Committee was able to examine 24 cases, selected as a result of delicate and difficult negotiations between the representatives of the workers and of the employers.

The Workers’ Group does regret that countries such as Turkey, Egypt and Algeria, where trade union freedoms are deteriorating, did not feature this year. Many of the cases discussed concerned freedom of association and collective bargaining, which is no surprise given the violations of trade union rights that go on in many countries. This is the case notably for the United Kingdom, which must inform the Group of Experts as to how Mr Cameron’s government respects freedom of association in new legislation. It is also the case for Ireland, which must provide information because of interference by the European Commission in collective bargaining, which is a warning that has been earned given the attitude and demands coming from the Commission.

I am pleased with the content of the conclusions, which made it possible to give clear directions to governments as to the measures they need to take to conform with the conventions. Following the High-level Tripartite Mission, the conclusions included a special paragraph on Bangladesh (freedom of association). Some particularly worrying cases were presented in the special paragraphs of the report to the Conference, and the same is also true for El Salvador (freedom of association, violence and lack of social dialogue).

Zimbabwe can expect a high-level tripartite mission due to anti-trade union discrimination and lack of trade union dialogue, as can Venezuela for its labour policy.

There will be direct contacts missions (made by the Office) to Philippines, El Salvador, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Swaziland and Cambodia due to lack of freedom of association, social dialogue and incidents of violence, and to Mauritania due to slavery. Other countries will receive technical assistance from ILO, namely Madagascar, Nigeria (child labour), Turkmenistan (forced labour in cotton), Belarus (forced labour), Ecuador, Malaysia, Mauritius (lack of bargaining rights), and Honduras (indigenous people). The case of Qatar (discrimination) is already being debated in the Governing Body (with the possibility of a Commission of Inquiry).

Other countries have been told to supply additional information: Guatemala (which is already risking a Commission of inquiry in the Governing Body for lack of trade union freedoms and violence), and the Czech Republic (discrimination against Romany), which is the third case in the European Union.

ACTRAV INFO: The matter of employment and decent work in the service of peace was also discussed at this session. What do you think about the discussions on this theme and what follow-up proposals are there on the part of the workers?

The goal is to revise the ILO Employment (transition from war to peace), Recommendation, 1944 (No.71), an instrument that assisted the reconstruction of several countries after the Second World War. This year we had the initial debate, and next year’s session of the Conference in June 2017 will finalize and vote on the amended recommendation. For us this is about not just wars but also other types of conflict, emergencies and natural disasters: 1.5 billion people out of a global population of 7 billion are affected by various kinds of disaster or war.

This was expected to be an easy discussion, but that was not the case at all. There were intense debates between the workers, the employers and the governments to get through the 350 proposed amendments. Some Member States feared an attack on their sovereignty; some were afraid that ILO was going beyond its remit of employment and work; others wanted to draw a distinction between certain kinds of refugee or feared “too much protection” for minorities. In any event, two sections that are of great importance for the Workers’ Group, those dealing with “vulnerable groups” and “refugees, displaced persons and returnees” could not be agreed upon and had to be left in brackets. Before the second reading of the draft recommendation in 2017, a new text will be prepared that takes into account the richness of this year’s debates, as well as the results of the ILO’s Tripartite Technical Meeting on the access of refugees and other forcibly displaced persons to the labour market, planned for July 2016.

ACTRAV INFO: What should we take from the discussions on the impact of the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fairer Globalization?

That Declaration was adopted in 2008 to create a fairer globalization. But three months and five days later, a financial and economic crisis erupted. That crisis disrupted the implementation of the Declaration, which has four objectives: employment, social protection, social dialogue and tripartism as well as the fundamental principles and rights at work.

The economic and financial crisis showed that the response of governments – often under pressure from global and regional financial and economic institutions – weakened the rights of workers and social dialogue in many countries. Consequently, we welcome the confirmation of the importance of the Declaration, and the political commitment by ILO’s three constituents, as well as the call for ILO to develop a strategy to promote its values, its mandate and its standards in economic and financial organizations. Member States are also called upon to do more to promote political coherence by integrating decent work into national policies through consultations with the various ministries concerned and with the social partners. States are invited to intensify their efforts to ratify and apply the fundamental Conventions and the governance Conventions.

The follow-up mechanism at ILO level with an annual debate at the Conference around the four strategic objectives must be maintained. It is a matter of indicating any new standards, or the support that ILO can provide to Member States and to the social partners. There is still formalization work to be done for the Governing Body through the next Strategic Framework, Programme and Budget for 2018-2019. We are counting on the commitment of ILO’s members to continue down this path. When that is done, I am sure that we will have achieved an important step towards our shared objective of decent work for all.

ACTRAV INFO: And there were other important topics discussed…

Of course, it was difficult to follow everything. The plenary debate on the Report of the Director-General on poverty eradication flowed from the idea, which I expressed on behalf of our Group, that we all stand to lose if levels of inequality increase. I was also able to speak at the Evening of Solidarity for Palestine about the Report of the Director General on the troubling situation of workers in the occupied territories in Palestine. We celebrated the World Day Against Child Labour which focused this year on child labour in global supply chains, and the World of Work Summit produced a very interesting debate, among other things with the young worker Nice Cornocion from the Philippines who spoke about the vital role that trade unions play for the protection of young workers. This year, the General Survey of the Committee on Standards focused on migration, which is a theme that the Conference will have to come back to next year…

ILO is not perfect, but the I05th session of the Conference has proved once again that “the old lady of 97” is strong and dynamic – fortunately for the workers!