Economic Crisis and Austerity Measures: Interview with Luc Cortebeeck

At the end of the 312th Session of the ILO Governing Body, the Chair of the Workers' group explains its position on the austerity measures planned in a number of countries. These steps will make workers even more vulnerable, at a time when they have already been hit by the crisis. He also talks about the ILO's international labour standards, which are seen as a response to the crisis...

Press release | 25 November 2011
At the end of the 312th Session of the ILO Governing Body, the Chair of the Workers' group explains its position on the austerity measures planned in a number of countries. These steps will make workers even more vulnerable, at a time when they have already been hit by the crisis. He also talks about the ILO's international labour standards, which are seen as a response to the crisis...

ACTRAV INFO: The 312th Session of the ILO Governing Body was held in November against a backdrop of economic crisis. A number of countries, notably in Europe, are planning to step up austerity measures in order to tackle the debt crisis. What position does the Workers' group take on this?

Luc Cortebeeck: Our position is that these problems can't be solved with austerity measures. Of course some budgets need to be stabilized, but the right balance has to be struck between, on the one hand, social security and pay and, on the other hand, taxes which should also be paid by the wealthy. So we say that those who are better off, who have more resources should pay more. Also, it has to be said that austerity measures will not create more jobs. And if there are fewer jobs, there will be fewer wage-earners - and that will worsen the economic situation in many countries. So where budget stabilization does need to be undertaken, there must be this a proper balance, so that jobs are created and thus a future for young people. I think these are important elements.

Given the rise in unemployment and precarious employment that is hitting more and more workers across the world, what solutions are the Workers' group advocating as a way out of this crisis?

Luc Cortebeeck: The people most affected are the young. In October, together with the Bureau for Workers' Activities (ACTRAV), we took part in a ACTRAV Symposium on Precarious Work (4-7 October, 2011). What we found was that the problem of precarity exists worldwide, not only in the developing countries but in the industrialized ones too. Precarity is everywhere, particularly for young people. That's why I'm very happy that at the G20, they recognized the problem of precarity; and at the ILO, youth employment will be on the agenda of the International Labour Conference in June 2012. The youth employment issue is all about finding solutions for young people and giving them more of a future.

Do the international labour standards developed by the ILO represent a credible alternative for member States, given the risk of social unrest, particularly in the poorer countries?

Luc Cortebeeck: Yes, I think that the international labour standards drafted by our predecessors are a response to precise moments in history, to difficult situations in the economic and social spheres. We can see that most of the Conventions and Recommendations are still topical when it comes to meeting workers' needs. In that sense, I think the standards are an instrument for workers all over the world.

Do you have a message from the Workers' group that could indeed encourage member States to ratify and apply these international labour standards?

Luc Cortebeeck: At a time of crisis worldwide, the standards must be respected. It's not just the International Labour Office saying that. The G20 is too. But before respecting these standards, they first have to be recognized through ratification. Then they have to be applied in practice within the countries. So I think the international labour standards constitute a response to the crisis. The ILO – but also the trade union organizations must, therefore, push more strongly for the standards to be applied. This isn't just a job for Geneva. It also has to be done at the level of each country. Together with the employers and governments, we must achieve this important objective.

Finally, what role do you think the ILO should be playing on the international stage, in view of the succession of economic and financial crises since 2008?

Luc Cortebeeck: It's not just the ILO, it's also the other United Nations agencies, the International Monetary Fund, the World Bank and so on. All of these bodies, including the economic ones, have got to learn that economics and finance aren't the only things that matter. Men and women are what really counts. So we shouldn't just come up with austerity measures that will worsen people's situations. Because those measures won't help. I think that, at the ILO level, we should be working within a multilateral system, in cooperation with other organizations that admittedly have different aims. But we must get the ILO standards taken into account.