Globalization: The quest for a level playing field ILO considers action for fair globalization

The report of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, "A fair globalization: Creating opportunities for all" ( Note 1), called for an "urgent rethink" in the way globalization is governed. At the recent 289th Session of the ILO Governing Body, members held a lively discussion on the report, providing further indicators of the road forward - a subject at the forefront of this year's International Labour Conference.

GENEVA - The Governing Body room was packed as President Mkapa of Tanzania, Co-Chair of the World Commission, rose to the lectern. Speaking as the first-ever African Head of State to address the Governing Body, he said, "the potential of globalization for good or bad is immense. It is a force with many positive aspects that can be harnessed for humanity's collective well-being, but some of its elements have to be tamed for the sake of our common civility and existence..."

That set the tone for a discussion which brought a wide range of views from all sides of the ILO spectrum. But one thing was clear - there was a general consensus that the World Commission report, while hard-hitting and blunt about globalization, was also "balanced and coherent", which many delegates agreed was its main strength.

This was apparent in the comments of the tripartite speakers, as well as representatives of UN agencies and other observers, who variously called the report "ground- breaking" and a "landmark" which provided major suggestions for action.

"Earlier models of globalization must be put aside," said Mr. Funes de Rioja, Employer Vice-Chairperson. Sir Leroy Trotman, Worker Vice-Chairperson, welcomed the fact that "All speakers had endorsed the Commission's strong emphasis on fundamental principles and rights at work."

"The developing countries have long advocated a realistic rather than an idealistic approach to globalization and we view this report as a step in that direction," said the delegate from Pakistan.

ILO Director-General Juan Somavia emphasized that the members of the World Commission reflected the wide diversity of opinion on globalization, but that their report had identified a common approach and agreement on realistic proposals for action. "We deliberately brought together a non-like-minded group of eminent people. Their report shows that dialogue can be a creative force for urgently needed change," Mr. Somavia said.

Making "fairness" a reality

Over the two-day discussion, delegates and participants from international organizations repeatedly urged that the benefits of globalization be more fairly distributed, and all speakers endorsed the report's recommendation that decent work become a global goal.

Canadian Minister of Labour Ms. Claudette Bradshaw said, "We accept the simple economic principle that those who produce the products and services in the economy should also be able to consume them." Several delegates quoted a sentence in the report, saying, "There is no point to a globalization that reduces the price of a child's shoes, but costs the father his job."

The delegate from the Republic of Korea said, "As a country directly hit and suffering from the financial crisis in the late 1990s, Korea concurs with the Commission on its observations on the need for social protection, creation of decent work and open social dialogue."

But the discussions didn't rest on the ills of globalization. Delegates also expressed widespread support for the report's emphasis on better, more democratic and more accountable governance at both the national and global levels. Action at national and international levels should proceed in tandem, and people's needs and aspirations at the local level must be met, they argued.

Gerd Andres, Parliamentary Secretary of State in the German Ministry of Economic Affairs and Labour, supported "the calls of the World Commission for decent work for all. Workers with decent work can leave poverty behind them, feed their families, provide education and training for their children, improve their position in society and become fully aware of their cultural and social rights, and exercise their rights to political participation. The further we move down this path, the less fear there will be of the economic repercussions of globalization."

Many delegates joined the Commissioners in their critical but positive stance on globalization, and their many suggestions for improving the situation. Welcoming the report's call for greater policy coherence in the multilateral system, the French delegate, Philippe Séguin, said, "Globalization cannot be cut up into slices." And other delegates welcomed the report's proposed "Policy Coherence Initiative" among international organizations to deal with the key issues of growth, investment and employment. The report "will serve us all well in the international community", said the representative of the World Bank.

Strengthening global governance

At the heart of discussions, delegates commended the Commission for reiterating the importance of multilateralism. In the words of the South African delegate, "multilateralism and the role of the United Nations, of which the ILO is an essential part, are more important for those of us who come from countries where the majority of our people face the daily challenges of poverty and deprivation". In this way, as a facilitator of dialogue on the social dimension of globalization, the ILO had "put a human face on what is often regarded as the impersonal process of globalization", as the US delegate put it.

The representative of the European Commission welcomed the report's emphasis on reform of global governance. She said, "given the current imbalance in the international system, which focuses more on economic than on social issues… there is a need to strengthen the social dimension and to improve coordination between organizations and all stakeholders".

Several other issues raised in the report received favourable comments, including the emphasis on social dialogue and the building of consensus, which had been the hallmark of the Commission's own work. The Brazilian Minister of Labour, Ricardo Berzoini, commented that his government "confers considerable value on the exercise undertaken by the ILO. There is no stronger tool for promoting changes than dialogue."

Many delegates did not hold back in criticizing today's global financial architecture, and supported the call for fair rules for trade and finance. Many speakers highlighted the serious negative impact on developing countries of industrial countries' agricultural subsidies, and the need for greater market access.

Answering the call for increased development assistance, many speakers underscored the significance of debt relief and increased overseas development assistance to overcome inequality both within and between countries, and to eradicate poverty. And with migration hot on the agenda at the International Labour Conference, delegates highlighted the need to address the impact of increasing labour migration on the migrants themselves and on both origin and host countries, through multilateral dialogue and other initiatives.

Mr. Somavia provided the meeting with much food for thought, saying that the key challenge was to see how the ILO Decent Work Agenda could contribute to a fair and inclusive globalization. Delegates said that they were looking forward to his proposals on ILO follow-up action, to be presented at the International Labour Conference, and to further consultations with the ILO's tripartite constituents.

Closing his final address to the meeting, President Mkapa quoted novelist Robert Louis Stevenson, "You cannot run away from a weakness; you must sometimes fight it out or perish. And if that be so, why not now, and where you stand?" And the President added, "We, the present generation of leaders, must not run away from the weaknesses of globalization. We must fight out those weaknesses now, and where we stand."

A portrait in commitment

President Benjamin Mkapa is the first African President to address the ILO Governing Body. As Co-Chair of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, he has been tireless in his mission, managing to combine his tasks as Head of State with his arduous role on the Commission.

The word which has guided him throughout his work on the problem of globalization is "hope", the hope which has kept people from despair, and the hope that the Commission's message would inspire meaningful action in relieving the plight of those for whom globalization had been negative rather than positive.

The problems related to the social dimension of globalization, according to President Mkapa, can be attributed to a lack of accountability among many global actors. It is important to ensure that rules are put in place to bring an end to this situation. It is also important to create an environment conducive to building people's capacities to allow them to seize the opportunities which globalization presents.

He was quite firm in stating that the problem of debt relief must be settled as soon as possible so that developing countries can face the challenges with a clean sheet. He also seeks coherence in development policies of both donors and beneficiaries. Policy coherence should start at home, he stressed. Nations cannot demand good democratic and participatory governance at the level of international organizations and yet fail to address such issues nationally. Countries cannot demand accountability within global institutions and yet fail to work for accountability within their own national institutions. After all, international organizations are nothing but sovereign governments united for a particular purpose.

President Mkapa sees growing momentum for action as a result of the World Commission's work. Initiatives have already been launched, including the Declaration of Santa Cruz de la Sierra, in which Heads of State and Government in the Americas have reaffirmed their conviction that decent work is the most effective means of promoting better living conditions. The Extraordinary Summit on Employment and Poverty Alleviation, scheduled for September 2004, in Ouagadougou, Burkina Faso, will be another occasion for further action. He promised that both himself and President Halonen will be proactive in lobbying among their peers and with major international institutions.

The World Commission's aims

President Halonen of Finland, Co-Chair of the World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, addressing the 288th Session of the Governing Body, stated that the starting point of the Commission was that, in order to be sustainable, globalization must meet the needs of people. The Commission's ultimate goal is to help make globalization a resource to promote decent work, reduce poverty and unemployment, and foster growth and development.

Based on this goal, the Commission had developed a vision for change to strengthen the social dimensions of globalization. The current situation, she commented, is neither ethical, nor politically feasible. The economic benefits and social costs are not evenly distributed among the social groups. Ultimately, however, the results of globalization will be what the world makes of it; much depends on the way it is managed and the values which inspire its actors. The World Commission seeks to make globalization a force to increase human freedom and well-being, and bring democracy and development to the communities where people live. Globalization also needs to be in balance with the environment so that it can be a force for sustainable development.

The principles which must guide globalization, she declared, should also be reflected in national institutions, rules and political systems. The basic principles are democracy, human rights and the rule of law.

In her own country, Finland, globalization is an everyday reality, not just theory. Finland has benefited, but is well aware of the uncertainties of presentday globalization. Tax competition, relocation of businesses, unemployment, protection of foreign markets and efforts to attract foreign investments are issues with which the country deals on a daily basis.

If there were only one issue on which to concentrate, President Halonen said, it would be education. In order to fare well, a nation such as Finland needs education. Education provides for innovation and capacity for successful adjustment. Globalization is all about constant adjustment to new challenges.


Note 1 - A Fair Globalization: Creating Opportunities for All, World Commission on the Social Dimension of Globalization, International Labour Office, Geneva 2004, ISBN 92-2-115426-2.