South Asia Labour Conference 2014: Fostering regional cooperation for Decent Work

ILO Islamabad provided technical support to the Government of Punjab, Labour & Human Resource Department in organizing a 3-day ‘South Asia Labour Conference’. Purpose of the conference is to strengthen regional cooperation for promoting Decent Work in South Asia. The conference discussed seven thematic areas of common interest for South Asian countries. More than 300 delegates from Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Maldives, India, Pakistan and Afghanistan participated in the conference.

A three day long South Asia Labour Conference ended on April 26 in Lahore, Pakistan with a joint declaration, a set of recommendations and the way forward. The conference proposed SAARC Secretariat to include labour and labour related issues in its mandate and called upon both the SAARC Secretariat and the International Labour Organization (ILO) for technical support in enhancing regional cooperation to develop a plan of action to implement the Joint Statement.

While the conference was inaugurated by the Chief Minister of Punjab, Pakistan’s largest province, President of Pakistan Mr Mamnoon Hussain participated in the concluding ceremony. The Punjab Chief Minister while inaugurating the conference stressed upon a joint strategy for capacity building of workers, enhancing production capacity and finding job opportunities for South Asian labourers in the international market. He emphasized the importance of the elimination of child labour, forced labour and exploitation of women workers. During his address, he urged SAARC member countries to work together to fight poverty, ignorance, social injustice and intolerance. He suggested that South Asia Labour Conference should be held in member states turn by turn every year to enable the regional countries to benefit from the experiences of one another and promote decent work for all in their societies.

While addressing the conference, Ms Tine Staermose, Director, ILO Decent Work Team for South Asia, said, “The ILO, a normative standard setting organization, promotes the ratification and application of Labour Standards, especially the Core Labour Standards on addressing discrimination, ending child and bonded labour and promoting collective bargaining and freedom of association.” She said that the evidence based research had shown that if countries increased their compliance with core labour standards, opportunities for employment generation, social protection, improved productivity and competitiveness were greater.

During working sessions on first and the second day, participants analysed and prepared recommendations on seven thematic areas of the conference including labour migration, labour market information, vulnerable workers, labour laws and occupational safety and health. On the last day of the conference, representatives of South Asian states suggested a way forward and issued a joint declaration.

The recommendations of the working group, were presented in the concluding session by Mr Francesco d’Ovidio, Country Director ILO Pakistan. The recommendations included regional level researches to fill knowledge gaps, knowledge sharing and capacity building on key Labour issues, continuing dialogue on the relationship between working conditions, productivity and competitiveness and holding periodic thematic consultations in South Asia – to review challenges and progress.

As part of the way forward, presented by the Secretary, Department of Labour, Punjab, suggested the establishment of tripartite SAARC labour forum, labour information exchange centres, regional body to coordinate and promote dialogue, research, policy and sharing of best practices and establishment of working groups for follow-up and implementation of the recommendations. The way forward also recommended evidence-based advocacy on best labour practices in South-Asia, call on bilateral and multilateral partners to support Regional efforts for harmonization of labour issues, to explore collaborations with key regional bodies to move forward on the recommendations.

In the declaration of the conference, the delegates from the eight South Asian states vowed to work in close coordination and develop a regional cooperation strategy with the aim to expand coverage of labour laws according to International Labour Standards [ILS], gradually; to improve working conditions, enhancing productivity and competitiveness of the working communities in South-Asia; to institute robust and comprehensive Labour Market Information [LMI]Systems for purposes of evidence-based policy making; to have a common platform collectively to endeavour and bargain for better working conditions for ‘South-Asian Migrant Workers’ with the labour-hosting countries and provide better working conditions to migrant workers within the South Asian Countries; to improve Occupational Safety & Health systems; to enhance relevance, quality and outreach of ‘Social Protection Systems’; to eliminate exploitative labour practices and to protect and support vulnerable workers including women, workers with disabilities, migrant workers, and informal economy workers; and to propose to constitute a South Asia Labour Forum to facilitate regional cooperation on Labour issues with the consent of South Asian Countries. The South Asian Countries agreed to meet regularly to follow-up on the joint statement.