103rd International Labour Conference

Opening Address by Luc Cortebeeck, Chairperson of the Workers’ Group

Statement | 28 May 2014
Luc Cortebeeck, Chairperson of the Workers’ Group
President and Vice Presidents of the Conference,
Secretary General,
Distinguished delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

My congratulations go to President Daniel Funes de Rioja and the three Vice-Presidents for their election.

My first thoughts go to the miner workers who have died so tragically in Turkey and I wish to extend to their families and fellow workers my sincere sympathy and the solidarity of the whole Workers Group.

At the beginning of this Conference, let me touch on the items of the agenda and some of the workers’ priorities.

According to the most recent ILO estimates at least 20.9 million people are victims of forced labour globally. No region of the world is spared. Forced labour generates 150 billion US Dollars in illegal profits per year, which is about three times more than previously estimated. Trafficking for labour exploitation also constitutes a very large and ever increasing share of the trafficking business. Migrant workers, domestic workers, workers in informal and precarious employment are the most vulnerable, left completely unprotected and victims of abuses that cannot be tolerated.

Changes in patterns of exploitation and their magnitude - associated with the vulnerability of the victims - calls for bold action by the ILO. Eradicating forced labour requires to supplement and strengthen existing ILO standards on forced labour and to provide more detailed guidance to Member States for its effective eradication. The Workers’ Group strongly supports the adoption of a Protocol supplemented by a Recommendation to address implementation gaps to advance prevention, protection and compensation measures. Forced labour, including human trafficking, represents one of the most serious violations of human rights and goes against the ILO constitutional value that labour is not a commodity. Victims of forced labour are themselves commodities for those who exploit them. They have no rights and ILO standards do not apply to them. This is why we need a Protocol. As we approach the ILO Centenary let us send a strong signal about the commitment of us all to protect people against the scourge of forced labour.

The second recurrent discussion on employment provides an opportunity to take stock of the progress achieved and challenges ahead of us. The lack of employment remains the main challenge faced by policy makers. The quality of jobs has deteriorated with increases in job insecurity, precarious work and low wages further exacerbated by austerity measures which have resulted in growing inequalities, with a negative impact on employment and aggregate demand. Addressing these challenges requires the adoption of economic and social policies aimed at increasing aggregate demand including addressing income inequalities and adressing too the decoupling of productivity growth and real wages.

Concerning developing countries more emphasis needs to be put on the structural transformation of the economy through industrial and sectoral policies that allow countries to move towards higher-value added production instead of remaining trapped in low productivity sectors providing poor quality jobs. The Office should provide policy guidance to countries to implement alternative policies to improve the quantity and quality of jobs; greater research and guidance are also needed on which policies should be implemented to address inequalities and job insecurity. We further aim at adopting a comprehensive policy framework for full and productive employment and decent work to guide member states as well as a peer review mechanism on employment policies to foster policy coherence.

Our Group also welcomes the standard-setting discussion on formalizing the informal economy. The vast majority of workers who undertake economic activities in the informal economy do not do so by choice but because there are no decent jobs available. Workers in the informal economy are subject to many decent work deficits. They are excluded from the coverage of labour laws, deprived of social security, earn very low or no wages and are denied the protection of fundamental principles and rights at work and other labour standards. Women are disproportionately represented among informal economy workers.

The Recommendation should aim at providing comprehensive and practical guidance to formalize the informal economy covering the economic, social and legal issues that affect the informal economy. Extending rights and protection to workers in the informal economy should be a key element of the transition: millions of workers worldwide are indeed effectively denied their rights because of the inadequacy of laws or its application, which often does not cover the full range of relationships under which work is performed. Transitioning to the formal economy also requires that all workers enjoy a living wage and access to social protection. Importantly the instrument should also provide guidance on the set of macro-economic policies to promote decent and formal jobs.

We also welcome the Director Generals Report on setting an ILO agenda for a fair migration. In this regard, any strategy needs to have at its starting point an approach based on rights. I will come back to this topic next week at the opening of the discussion of the DG report.

Let me stress once again the importance that our Group attaches to the supervision of ILO standards. After the incidents in the Applications Committee in 2012 we discussed a lot informally and formally in the Governing Body. There is one important result now. The Governing Body agreed on the content and value of the mandate of the experts, as formulated by the experts themselves. This has consequences for the work of the Committee on the Application of Standards: 25 cases will be discussed without further conditions being in terms of the choice of cases, their discussion and the formulation of conclusions. But the Governing Body didn't finish the work. Based on articles 37.1 and 37.2 of the Constitution, we have to define how disputes about interpretation of conventions can be solved, preserving the treasure of interpretations built up by the experts over 85 years. And with a lot of distinguished specialists of human rights in this room, I do not have to recall the importance of the right to strike.

In addition to the country cases this year the Committee will also discuss an important General Survey on minimum wage fixing. As workers worldwide confront stagnating, declining or low wage it is important for member states, in consultation with the social partners, to ensure that minimum wages are set at levels such as to reduce poverty and income inequality.

I wish you all a fruitful Conference and let us be ambitious in the results we will achieve. I thank you for your attention.