317th session of the ILO Governing Body: Interview with Luc Cortebeeck, Workers’ Group Spokesperson

The 317th session of the ILO Governing Body has just ended in Geneva. Workers’ Group Spokesperson Luc Cortebeeck looks at the results achieved at this session, the reforms launched within the Organization and the position that the workers will be taking at the European Regional Meeting of the ILO to be held on 8 April in Oslo.

Press release | Geneva, Switzerland | 27 March 2013

ACTRAV INFO: As the 317th session of the ILO Governing Body draws to a close, what are the outcomes for the workers and the unions?

Luc Cortebeeck: Of course, there are always a lot of elements and points that are important for the running of the ILO, and are also important for the workers, but I think we can talk about two important things.

First, with the Governing Body, we set the agenda for the 2014 Conference. This will be about forced labour. We already have Conventions on that issue, the best-known being Convention No. 29, which dates from 1930. Today, we have a certain backlog as far as domestic work is concerned and there are still a lot of problems in the field of people trafficking for labour and employment. We already had an agreement between the employers and the workers, and now we also have an agreement with the governments. What’s still missing is the type of instrument to be used. Will we opt for a protocol on forced labour? Or are we heading towards a Recommendation instead? I think the workers are favourable to the idea of a protocol that would adapt Convention 29.

Secondly, there’s the discussion on informal employment, which is a major problem in many countries of the South. Informal work needs to be formalized, through a Recommendation, because it will be very difficult to get a Convention, even if everyone wants one. We’ve had a lot of problems with certain governments, even if Africa agreed. Some countries in the South were in favour and others against. We already have an agreement with the employers on this point. Currently, the discussions are continuing and a large number of governments have revised their positions. We’re heading towards an instrument, more precisely a Recommendation, on informal work. The fact that this topic has been placed on the agenda of the 2014 Conference is an important step in itself, because in many countries, informal work involves more than 80% of the workers, who are generally living in poverty.

As regards the 2015 Conference, there are some good ideas being looked at, notably on the organization of work within the supply chains, at the level of the small-scale enterprises that work for the big firms and the multinationals. It should be remembered that the workers do not have the same rights in small firms as in big ones. Discussions on this issue will also continue.

ACTRAV INFO: This 317th session of the Governing Body took place in the context of a reform of the Organization, initiated by Director-General Guy Ryder. What does the Workers’ Group expect from this reform project?

Luc Cortebeeck: We have very high expectations of this reform and I think that, on the employer and government sides, there are a lot of expectations too.

It’s all about being credible, not only for the workers but also for the governments and employers. I think it’s the beginning of a process. As far as the ILO is concerned, I think there were two problems. I know there are many staffers who work well at the ILO, but from time to time, I have the impression that they’re working on little islands inside the building, without any horizontal and transversal connections to the other departments. Studies and research are conducted all over the place, in the different departments. So plenty of well-intentioned people were doing a remarkable job, but a lot more can be done to improve the quality, because the ILO is, after all, the Organization that specializes in labour issues. The reform provides possibilities for guaranteeing that.

The other element was that there was no visible linkage between the regional and national offices and the headquarters in Geneva. We need to look at how that can be corrected. Today, we have already had a first response from the ILO and we hope that things will move forward in the right direction – in association with the Organization’s staff, of course.

ACTRAV INFO: The 9th ILO European Regional Meeting is to be held on 8 April 2013 in Oslo. In particular, it will be looking at the crisis in Europe. What measures does the Workers’ Group want to see to end this crisis, which mainly affects the workers?

Luc Cortebeeck: The Oslo meeting really is a great challenge! As we all know, when the ILO started in 1919, the European Union didn’t yet exist, but some of the founding fathers came from the various European countries. For decades, Europe worked within a social model that was a benchmark for a great many countries. Since then, there have been many changes, what with globalization and the financial and economic crisis, and these are still causing a lot of problems, to the point where a number of European countries are consolidating by restructuring labour and modernizing employment. But in practice, that means less protection for workers. So this consolidation is beginning to make itself felt right across Europe, and more particularly in Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy and now Cyprus. And in the countries where this crisis is severe, we’re seeing the Troika made up of the European Commission, the European Central Bank and the International Monetary Fund. This Troika decides how the crisis countries are to manage their affairs. We say very clearly that we must define the role to be played by the ILO in managing this crisis. Because we’ve seen that social dialogue has diminished in all these crisis countries - freedom of association is less respected and the ILO Conventions are not always applied. I think Europe needs the ILO Conventions. So the ILO must have a presence in these crisis countries, because the Troika shouldn’t be deciding everything on its own. Social dialogue has to be strengthened in these countries, and there must be an emphasis on respecting the ILO Conventions.