ILO is a specialized agency of the United Nations

86th Session
Geneva, June 1998


Reply by the Director-General to the discussion of his Report
18 June 1998

Fifty years ago, the ILO adopted the first major Convention on freedom of association and protection of the right to organize. Today, the Conference has adopted unopposed a Declaration aimed at promoting universal respect and implementation of the fundamental principles and rights of the ILO.

We were all aware of how crucial it was for the credibility and relevance of the ILO to adopt a Declaration and follow-up which would provide a guarantee, before world public opinion, that the commitments made by Members by freely joining the ILO would be respected. As President Caldera recalled, this session was held at a key point for the future of the ILO. It was high time for the ILO to give itself the means to address the social consequences of the globalization of the economy.

The adoption of the Declaration is the culmination of a prolonged and complex task begun in 1994, when the Conference reacted to the Report I had submitted, entitled Defending values, promoting change. The refusal to introduce any reference to a "social clause" in the founding document of the World Trade Organization (WTO), the reminder of the ILO's competence to set and deal with international labour standards and the rejection of their use for protectionist purposes or to call into question a country's comparative advantage, at the Ministerial Conference in Singapore in December 1996, all cleared the way for us to reflect in depth on the relevance of the ILO's standard-setting activity in a globalizing economy and -- even more importantly -- on the effectiveness of an approach based on cooperation, not confrontation or coercion.

Our efforts to identify shared values common to all Members of the ILO bore fruit at the World Summit for Social Development in Copenhagen. The Heads of State and Government declared their commitment to respect for freedom of association and collective bargaining, and to the prohibition of forced or compulsory labour, of discrimination and of child labour. This was an important achievement. It remained to be seen that these commitments were met.

These values are enshrined in our seven core Conventions, which have garnered an impressive number of ratifications. And since the promotion campaign was launched in 1995, 85 new ratifications have been registered and another 40 are expected in the coming months. But an additional 200 ratifications are needed if these instruments are to become truly universal. That is why the ILO had to take action and provide itself with the means to secure universal adherence to and respect of the values and principles enshrined in its Constitution. After examining the different alternatives in the Governing Body and the Conference, a solemn Declaration was chosen.

I believe we can all be proud of the Declaration that has been adopted. It will provide the international community with a truly global social platform based on shared values.

From now on, it will be the task of our Organization to secure respect for this global social platform, to guarantee respect of fundamental principles and rights at work, which are a set of minimum social ground rules without which there can be no sustainable development, social justice or peace. As Ms. Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights, recalled, our Declaration will enable "the persons concerned to claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity their fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate". I hope she will be satisfied with this contribution to the 50th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

This commitment will be strengthened by a follow-up which has been set forth in detail and forms an integral part of the Declaration. I would like once again to dispel the concerns expressed during the Committee's discussions and in plenary which must, I imagine, have prompted some to abstain. This follow-up is not intended to punish anyone whatsoever. It serves, on the contrary, to promote the fundamental principles and rights embodied in the Declaration. Nothing more, nothing less. The practical methods of its implementation will be determined by the Governing Body at its session in November this year, and I am committed to submitting a document to it which will faithfully reflect this spirit.

As an example of this commitment, I would recall that the informal tripartite meeting at the ministerial level to promote the ILO's International Programme on More and Better Jobs for Women was intended to attract active donor support. Born of an interdepartmental project set up in 1992, this programme is consistent with the follow-up to the Declaration the ILO has just adopted, for it is essentially aimed at promoting and implementing the core Conventions on non-discrimination. In a spirit of promoting the Declaration, I invite potential donors to manifest their will in the form of substantial contributions.

By adopting this Declaration, the ILO has proven its credibility and relevance in a changing world. By adopting it, you have given the ILO its passport to the twenty-first century. You have given it the moral authority and strength it needs if other international organizations are to share our common objectives.

As President Caldera reminded us, the world is changing and it can only be for the good. I might add: provided we want it to be.

The delegates witnessed a demonstration of this willingness to act when the Global March against Child Labour swept into this hall in a vibrant and colourful crowd. In your statements in plenary, many of you welcomed this initiative launched by non-governmental organizations in developing countries together with those in the developed world. It shows that non-governmental organizations, trade unions, employers' organizations, and associations in defence of children's rights can work together despite national, cultural, religious or other differences. This should encourage us for the future; it is to be hoped that this synergy can be sustained and extended to other practical activities. In an area such as child labour, and in the context of globalization of the economy, universal respect for a set of values increasingly requires a joint effort: legal work by decision-makers, technical cooperation and mobilizing public opinion.

More than a peaceful invasion of the Assembly Hall, the aim of the March was to make itself heard, on behalf of the tens of millions of children working in extreme conditions, by the delegates to the Conference, the members of the Committee set up to examine the conclusions concerning new instruments on the worst forms of child labour. I believe they have been heard.

The Committee on Child Labour has done an excellent job, in great depth, and made a number of improvements to the initial text. I hope this essential task will be completed at the next session of the Conference and that a strong, simple and meaningful text will be adopted, which will provide that States, in cooperation with the representatives of civil society, shall take all the necessary measures for the immediate elimination of the worst forms of child labour.

The adoption of these instruments, and especially universal ratification of the new Convention, should provide an additional impetus to the activities of the International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC). During the Conference, several governments announced or confirmed their voluntary contributions to the programme. I am glad to see this.

Most of the 39 speakers who took part in the special sitting to examine my report on the situation of the workers of the occupied Arab territories expressed deep concern at the difficulties that have arisen in the peace process. It was made clear in the discussions that there can be no lasting improvement in the situation of workers of the occupied territories without economic development, training for workers and managerial staff, strengthening of employers' and workers' organizations and more efficient social institutions. The ILO has its own responsibilities in every area which relate to the protection of workers in the occupied territories, thus contributing to the peace process, within its mandate.

Issues relating to employment were the subject of two debates. The Resolutions Committee adopted a text on youth employment which proposes measures to increase employment opportunities for young school-leavers while providing them with appropriate protection.

The second debate, which took place in the Committee on Job Creation in Small and Medium-sized Enterprises, led to the adoption of a Recommendation. The consequences of globalization for the operation of small and medium-sized enterprises and its social repercussions were examined at length from the standpoint of employment promotion, in both quantitative and qualitative terms.

Together with the Declaration and its follow-up, and the new instruments on child labour, these debates will enable the ILO to present important results to the special session of the United Nations General Assembly on follow-up to the World Summit for Social Development, which the Government of Switzerland has proposed should be held in Geneva in the year 2000, as mentioned by Mr. Couchepin, representing the Swiss Federal Council.

The work of the Committee on Contract Labour culminated in the adoption of a resolution concerning the possible adoption of international instruments for the protection of workers in the situations identified by the Committee. Notwithstanding the texts of the proposed conclusions, the Office was unable to achieve a precise legal definition of the phenomenon of contract labour. This is not the first time a committee failed to reach agreement on a proposed instrument, although it is a rare occurrence. Nonetheless, it reveals a certain malaise, to which I referred back to in 1996 when we discussed the instruments on home work. At the time I used the word "incident" when I expressed the wish to see it placed in a broader perspective, emphasizing that a new and thorough analysis of the ILO's standard-setting activity would have to be undertaken. It is my conviction that this is not an "incident" but a deeper problem. The Report I submitted in 1997 put forward a number of proposals in this respect, in particular concerning the choice of subjects for standard setting, which will be submitted to the Governing Body next November.

The Committee on the Application of Standards examined some 50 cases relating to freedom of association and collective bargaining, forced labour and debt bondage, the exploitation of children, equality of treatment, social security, protection of wages, and migrant workers. While the observations formulated by the Committee of Experts and the Committee on the Application of Standards pose delicate and often difficult problems for the countries concerned, the Office always stands ready to provide them with the necessary technical assistance, in particular in the context of the Active Partnership Policy and the missions of the multidisciplinary teams in the field. The Committee also commemorated the 50th anniversary of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise Convention, 1948 (No. 87). What better way to commemorate this instrument than to demonstrate its effectiveness by receiving Mr. Pakpahan, a trade union leader imprisoned for his activities, who was released a few days before the beginning of the Conference?

Some speakers in plenary, and the Committee on the Application of Standards itself, agreed on the need to continue efforts to update standards.

You will remember that last year the Conference adopted, nearly unanimously, a constitutional amendment to enable the Conference to abrogate obsolete Conventions. Once this amendment enters into force, it should make it possible to update the standards adopted by the Conference by eliminating texts which are obviously obsolete and thus enhance the visibility of the standard-setting system.

But in order to do this, the amendment must enter into force, i.e. it must be ratified. To date it has only received ten ratifications. If Members do not make an effort to ratify this amendment, any attempt to update the body of standards will be compromised.

The quality of our work during this session, the 116 Ministers who have honoured us by their presence, and the 3,501 delegates -- a record figure -- who contributed to it, have made this 86th Session of the International Labour Conference one of the great Conferences of our Organization.

I am particularly gratified because, as you know, this is my last Conference. As I take my leave, I would like to thank the speakers for their kind words during the plenary. May I thank each and every one of you for the confidence you have placed in me over the last ten years, and particularly for the immense personal gift represented by the adoption of the solemn Declaration, although unfortunately not all could join the celebration. It is sometimes difficult for the head of an international organization to see the results of the work he has initiated. When I launched the programme in 1994, I was by no means certain of a successful outcome. I thank you most sincerely for adopting this Declaration, which enables me to leave with the feeling that I have not been totally useless to our Organization and its objectives. Had that not been the case, I would have felt that I had participated in the execution of an unfinished symphony, which lends a sad note to the future.

At the close of this Conference, and as I take my leave of you, I would also like to wish my successor, Juan Somavía, every success. In mentioning the unfinished symphony, I was referring to Schubert. But now it would be appropriate to mention Haydn and the Farewell Symphony. The time has come to blow out my candle. I would like to say to you all thank you, au revoir, safe journey home; I wish you all the happiness in the world.

Updated by VC. Approved by RH. Last update: 26 January 2000.