Mary Robinson, Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative. Speech to the High-Level Forum on "Working Out of Poverty: Decent Work Approach to Development and Growth in Africa"

Statement | Monrovia, Liberia | 14 November 2008

“Working Out of Poverty: A Decent Work Approach to Development and Growth in Africa”

Monrovia, September 8, 2008

Remarks by Mary Robinson

It is a real pleasure and an honor to be here in Liberia, and I want to thank the Government of Liberia for hosting and co-convening this meeting with the ILO and Realizing Rights. I first want to thank the staff of the Liberia Ministry of Labor and the President’s office, the team at the ILO, and my colleagues at Realizing Rights: The Ethical Globalization Initiative, who have worked so hard to take this event from a vision to a reality in just a few short months.

Although this is my first visit to Liberia, over the last two years President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and I have had the opportunity to work together and meet often, and during the last year my colleagues and I have begun to build support for specific programs in Liberia, most importantly a program on Decent Work and planning for the International Colloquium on Women’s Empowerment, Leadership Development, Peace and Security to be held in March 2009.

I have a real sense of urgency about the need to promote decent work opportunities here in Liberia and throughout Africa. That is why I see this meeting as being both timely and part of a wider strategic effort to get more priority for decent work in the context of discussions in the UN General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals.

I arrived here on Saturday, traveling from an event sponsored by the Government of Norway and The Financial Times entitled ‘Decent Work: A Key to Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation’. The focus in Oslo, under the leadership of Foreign Minister Store, was on building coherence between trade and employment opportunities. It was encouraging to hear Pascal Lamy of the WTO and Juan Somavia of the ILO use the same language, drawing on the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization. I will return to some of the ideas of the Oslo Conference, but what I really want to emphasise at the outset is that we intend to link the thinking on coherence in Oslo with the practical ideas on decent work for Liberia and other countries in Africa at this meeting, and bring both to a High Level Forum in New York which we will co-convene with the ILO on Monday 22nd September. President Ellen Johnson Sirleaf and other Heads of State and Government Juan Somavia of the ILO, leaders of corporations and union leaders will join us in emphasizing the need to promote decent work much more strongly at this halfway stage of progress on the MDGs. At the High Level Event of Heads of State and Government on 25th September, our message will be conveyed by Ela Bhatt, founder of SEWA in India. So the more innovative and practical our thinking here, the more we may be able to be strategic in giving priority to decent work in New York. The decent work road in September leads from Oslo to Monrovia to New York!

Let me emphasize that we see decent work as a core human right.

After setting up Realizing Rights in 2002 my colleagues and I wanted to find concrete ways to promote a fair globalization. We believe that in our increasingly globalized world and economies we must have common, and shared, standards and values. And human rights are, in fact, the common standards and principles that have been adopted by all governments through the Universal Declaration of Human Rights of 1948, which will be sixty years old in just three months. The principles of the Universal Declaration have been translated into international law, incorporated into national constitutions, and most recently reaffirmed in the UN Millennium Declaration.

Human rights are therefore both ends and means – desirable outcomes, and tools for change. And human rights principles emphasize empowering the individual to participate and have a stronger voice, particularly those whom are most vulnerable and voiceless.

Protecting and respecting economic and social rights is key. Poverty is almost always linked to a denial of fundamental rights to health, housing, work, and food, as well as rights concerning participation in public decisions and equal treatment before the law. This was made very clear in the report of the Commission on Legal Empowerment of the Poor, Making the Law Work for Everyone.

Article 1 of the Universal Declaration affirms, “All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights.” We must acknowledge that there is no dignity in life without the opportunity for decent work. The Universal Declaration and many ILO instruments emphasize this.

The Decent Work agenda includes four main ideas that I’m sure the ILO will go into in more detail:

- creating economic and other policies that put job creation as a central objective

- respecting ILO core labor standards such as non-discrimination and health and safety at the workplace

- promoting social protection for all, that is, creating a minimum social floor and supporting those who are ill, or providing health or old age insurance

- promoting social dialogue between the government, employers, and workers - and for us, it is very important to bring a wide range of businesses and civil society organizations into this dialogue.

Decent Work for Liberia will be both a positive outcome, and a means to bring sustainable development and growth, only if it can be meaningful across economic sectors. The question is how we are going to implement this concept, taking into account that most of Liberia’s workforce is in the informal economy, including a great number in agriculture. Decent Work must provide a useful framework not only to long-standing problems like discrimination, but to emerging and escalating problems like the food crisis. And I think that it can. We know that the food crisis is not simply about the amount of food available – it is about the purchasing power of the poor.

A Decent Work framework must help us support unionized workers in formal jobs. For that reason I was very pleased to learn of the strong leadership given by the government of Liberia – and in particular Minister Kofi Woods – in encouraging Firestone to forge a new relationship with it workers, and encouraging the collective bargaining power of the union. This progress was recognized by the President when she visited last Saturday.

Decent Work must also be relevant to waged and casual employees working on roads or building ports or running micro enterprises; self-employed market women and street hawkers; workers in mines; and farmers. It must bring tangible benefits to working women, and it must bring more opportunities to youth. This is a big challenge, but one that I think Liberia’s enlightened leadership and donor community is capable of achieving. On my way from the airport I stopped to view the Paynesville City Market, renovated by funds from the Sirleaf Market Women’s Fund of which I am Honorary Co-Chair.

Article 23 of the Universal Declaration calls for ‘just and favorable remuneration’ and ‘just and favorable conditions of work’ – we must progressively realize these rights for all who work.

Our organization, Realizing Rights, has worked for several years not only on encouraging a rights approach in government policy-making, but also on improving trade and investment for the poor, and on business and human rights. At the Oslo meeting the Norwegian Foreign Minister told us that strong links between the government and social partners (employers and trade unions) were essential for Norway’s successful development, indeed to their competitiveness in the international economy. I would say the same about the modern Ireland. The Head of the International Conference of Employers told us that they believe that the Decent Work framework is good for people and good for business. But he added that strong and profitable businesses depend on strong and capable government – to implement a legal framework to create wealth, to support social dialogue, and to enforce labor regulations.

Pascal Lamy of the WTO reaffirmed that the benefits of international trade do not flow evenly, and also that violation of fundamental principles and rights at work cannot be invoked as a legitimate comparative advantage in international trade. Kwasi Abu-Amankwah of the African Trade Union Confederation said, “Let’s make the market our servant, not our master, as Norway has.” And a representative of multinational company The Gap said we must work far harder to support the most vulnerable part of global supply chains – labor – where it is all too easy to cut wages and benefits.

Liberia is in a position today to avoid what too many African countries have experienced - jobless economic growth. We know that even when GDP or aggregate exports are increasing due to more exports in the extractives industry, which too often does not translate into more jobs, meaning the impact on poverty reduction is nil.

I firmly believe that if we had taken on the Decent Work Agenda a decade ago - in aid policies, in the MDGs and in trade policy – had we made decent job creation central to these policies - there would be more jobs now for our youth. This workshop is about learning, sharing challenges, hearing about successes in other African countries, and crafting something together, and I think what Liberia can contribute is significant. As I said earlier, we need good practical ideas to bring to the meeting on Decent Work in New York on September 22nd.

The strategic focus on Decent Work in September if part of a wider campaign that we are supporting this year to mark the anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and to encourage a recommitment to human rights around the world. The Elders – a group formed last year by the inspiration and example of Nelson Mandela - have launched the Every Human Has Rights campaign with a range of partner organizations. This month the campaign focuses on Decent Work. This workshop, and the events I mentioned in Oslo and New York, are our contribution to the Decent Work theme highlighted this month. We hope our campaign, and the work of the Decent Work Decent Life campaign represented here, will help build broader public support for working people everywhere.

Thank you.