ILO is a specialized agency of the United Nations

87th Session
1-17 June 1999


Address by Mr. Bill Clinton, President of the United States
16 June 1999

Thank you very much, Director-General Somavia, for your fine statement and your excellent work. Conference President Mumuni, Director-General Petrovsky, ladies and gentlemen of the ILO.

It is a great honour for me to be here today with, as you may have noticed, quite a large American delegation. I hope you will take it as a commitment of the United States to our shared vision, and not simply as a burning desire for us to visit this beautiful city on every possible opportunity.

I am delighted to be here with Secretary Albright and Secretary of Labor Herman; with my National Economic Advisor Gene Sperling, and my National Security Advisor Sandy Berger. We are delighted to be joined by the President of the American Federation of Labor, the AFL-CIO, John Sweeney, and several other leaders of the United States labour movement; and with Senator Tom Harkin from Iowa who is the foremost advocate in the United States for the abolition of child labour. I am grateful to all of them for coming with me and to the First Lady and our daughter for joining us on this trip. And I thank you for your warm reception of her presence here.

It is indeed an honour for me to be the first American President to speak before the ILO in Geneva. It is long overdue. There is no organization that has worked harder to bring people together around fundamental human aspirations, and no organization whose mission is more vital for today and tomorrow.

The ILO, as the Director-General said, was created in the wake of the devastation of World War I as part of a vision to provide stability to a world recovering from war, a vision put forward by our President Woodrow Wilson. He said then: "While we are fighting for freedom, we must see that labor is free." At a time when dangerous doctrines of dictatorship were increasingly appealing, the ILO was founded on the realization that injustice produces, and I quote, "unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled".

Over time the Organization was strengthened and the United States played its role, starting with President Franklin Roosevelt and following through his successors and many others in the United States Congress, down to the strong supporters today, including Senator Harkin and the distinguished senior Senator from New York, Patrick Moynihan.

For half a century, the ILO has waged a struggle of rising prosperity and widening freedom, from the shipyards of Poland to the diamond mines of South Africa. Today, as the Director-General said, you remain the only organization to bring together governments, labour unions and business, to try to unite people in common cause -- the dignity of work, the belief that honest labour, fairly compensated, gives meaning and structure to our lives; the ability of every family and all children to rise as far as their talents will take them.

In a world too often divided, this Organization has been a powerful force for unity, justice, equality and shared prosperity. For all that, I thank you. Now, at the edge of a new century, at the dawn of the information age, the ILO and its vision are more vital than ever -- for the world is becoming a much smaller and a much, much more interdependent place. Most nations are linked in a new dynamic idea-driven, technology-powered, highly competitive international economy.

The digital revolution is a profound, powerful and potentially democratizing force. It can empower people and nations, enabling the wise and far-sighted to develop more quickly and with less damage to the environment. It can enable us to work together across the world as easily as if we were working just across the hall. Competition, communications and more open markets spur stunning innovations and make their fruits available to business and workers worldwide.

Consider this: Every single day, half a million air passengers, 1.5 billion e-mail messages, and $1.5 trillion cross international borders. We also have new tools to eradicate diseases that have long plagued humanity, to remove the threat of global warming and environmental destruction, to lift billions of people into the first truly global middle class.

Yet, as the financial crisis of the last two years has shown, the global economy, with its churning hyperactivity, poses new risks, as well, of disruption, dislocation and division. A financial crisis in one country can be felt on factory floors half a world away. The world has changed, much of it for the better, but too often our response to its new challenges has not changed.

Globalization is not a proposal or a policy choice, it is a fact. But how we respond to it will make all the difference. We cannot dam up the tides of economic change any more than King Canute could still the waters. Nor can we tell our people to sink or swim on their own. We must find a third way -- a new and democratic way -- to maximize market potential and social justice, competition and community. We must put a human face on the global economy, giving working people everywhere a stake in its success, equipping them all to reap its rewards, providing for their families the basic conditions of a just society. All nations must embrace this vision, and all the great economic institutions of the world must devote their creativity and energy to this end.

Last May, I had the opportunity to come and speak to the World Trade Organization (WTO) and stress that as we fight for open markets, it must open its doors to the concerns of working people and the environment. Last November, I spoke to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank and stressed that we must build a new financial architecture as modern as today's markets, to tame the cycles of boom and bust in the global economy as we can now do in national economies; to ensure the integrity of international financial transactions; and to expand social safety nets for the most vulnerable.

Today I say to you that the ILO, too, must be ready for the twenty-first century, along the lines that Director-General Somavia has outlined.

Let me begin by stating my firm belief that open trade is not contrary to the interest of working people. Competition and integration lead to stronger growth, more and better jobs, more widely shared gains. Renewed protectionism in any of our nations would lead to a spiral of retaliation that would diminish the standard of living for working people everywhere. Moreover, a failure to expand trade further could choke off innovation and diminish the very possibilities of the information economy. No, we need more trade, not less.

Unfortunately, working people the world over do not believe this. Even in the United States, with the lowest unemployment rate in a generation, where exports accounted for 30 per cent of our growth until the financial crisis hit Asia, working people strongly resist new market-opening measures. There are many reasons. In advanced countries the benefits of open trade outweigh the burdens. But they are widely spread, while the dislocations of open trade are painfully concentrated.

In all countries, the premium the modern economy places on skills leaves too many hardworking people behind. In poor countries, the gains seem too often to go to the already wealthy and powerful, with little or no rise in the general standard of living. And the international organizations charged with monitoring and providing for rules of fair trade, and enforcement of them, seem to take a very long time to work their way to the right decision, often too late to affect the people who have been disadvantaged.

So as we press for more open trade, we must do more to ensure that all our people are lifted by the global economy. As we prepare to launch a new global round of trade talks in Seattle in November, it is vital that the WTO and the ILO work together to advance that common goal.

We clearly see that a thriving global economy will grow out of the skills, the ideas, the education of millions of individuals. In each of our nations and as a community of nations, we must invest in our people and lift them to their full potential. If we allow the ups and downs of financial crises to divert us from investing in our people, it is not only those citizens or nations that will suffer -- the entire world will suffer from their lost potential.

It is clear that when nations face financial crisis, they need the commitment and the expertise not only of the international financial institutions; they need the ILO as well. The IMF, the World Bank, and the WTO, themselves, should work more closely with the ILO and this Organization must be willing and able to assume more responsibility.

The lesson of the past two years is plain: Those nations with strong social safety nets are better able to weather the storms. Those strong safety nets do not just include financial assistance and emergency aid for the poorest people, they also call for the empowerment of the poorest people.

This weekend in Cologne, I will join my partners in the G-8 in calling for a new focus on stronger safety nets within nations and within the international community. We will also urge improved cooperation between the ILO in the international financial institutions in promoting social protections and core labour standards. And we should press forward to lift the debt burden that is crushing many of the poorest nations.

We are working to forge a bold agreement to more than triple debt relief for the world's poorest nations and to target those savings to education, health care, child survival and fighting poverty. I pledge to work to find the resources so we can do our part and contribute our share towards an expanded trust fund for debt relief.

Yet, as important as our efforts to strengthen safety nets and relieve debt burdens are, for citizens throughout the world to feel that they truly have a hand in shaping their future they must know the dignity and respect of basic rights in the workplace.

You have taken a vital step towards lifting the lives of working people by adopting the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work last year. The document is a blueprint for the global economy that honours our values -- the dignity of work, an end to discrimination, an end to forced labour, freedom of association, the right of people to organize and bargain in a civil and peaceful way. These are not just labour rights, they are human rights. They are a charter for a truly modern economy. We must make them an everyday reality all across the world.

We advance these rights first by standing up to those who abuse them. Today, one member State, Burma, stands in defiance of the ILO's most fundamental values and most serious findings. The Director-General has just reported to us that the flagrant violation of human rights persists, and I urge the ILO Governing Body to take definite steps. For Burma is out of step with the standards of the world community and the aspirations of its people. Until people have the right to shape their destiny, we must stand by them and keep up the pressure for change.

We also advance core labour rights by standing with those who seek to make them a reality in the workplace. Many countries need extra assistance to meet these standards. Whether it is rewriting inadequate labour laws, or helping fight discrimination against women and minorities in the workplace, the ILO must be able to help.

That is why in the balanced budget I submitted to our Congress this year I have asked for $25 million to help create a new arm of the ILO, to work with developing countries to put in place basic labour standards -- protections, safe workplaces, the right to organize. I ask other governments to join us. I have also asked for $10 million from our Congress to strengthen United States bilateral support for governments seeking to raise such core labour standards.

We have asked for millions of dollars also to build on our voluntary anti-sweatshop initiative to encourage the many innovative programmes that are being developed to eliminate sweatshops and raise consumer awareness of the conditions in which the clothes they wear and the toys they buy for their children are made.

But we must go further, to give life to our dream of an economy that lifts all our people. To do that, we must wipe from the earth the most vicious forms of abusive child labour. Every single day tens of millions of children work in conditions that shock the conscience. There are children chained to often risky machines; children handling dangerous chemicals; children forced to work when they should be in school, preparing themselves and their countries for a better tomorrow. Each of our nations must take responsibility.

Last week, at the inspiration of Senator Tom Harkin, who is here with me today, I directed all agencies of the United States Government to make absolutely sure they are not buying any products made with abusive child labour.

But we must also act together. Today, the time has come to build on the growing world consensus to ban the most abusive forms of child labour -- to join together and to say there are some things we cannot and will not tolerate.

We will not tolerate children being used in pornography and prostitution. We will not tolerate children in slavery or bondage. We will not tolerate children being forcibly recruited to serve in armed conflicts. We will not tolerate young children risking their health and breaking their bodies in hazardous and dangerous working conditions for hours unconscionably long -- regardless of country, regardless of circumstance. These are not some archaic practices out of a Charles Dickens novel. These are things that happen in too many places today.

I am proud of what is being done at your meeting. In January, I said to our Congress and the American people in the State of the Union address, that we would work with the ILO on a new initiative to raise labour standards and to conclude a treaty to ban abusive child labour everywhere in the world. I am proud to say that the United States will support your Convention. After I return home I will send it to the United States Senate for ratification, and I ask all other countries to ratify it as well.

We thank you for achieving a true breakthrough for the children of the world. We thank the nations here represented who have made genuine progress in dealing with this issue in their own nations. You have written an important new chapter in our effort to honour our values and protect our children.

Passing this Convention alone, however, will not solve the problem. We must also work aggressively to enforce it. And we must address root causes, the tangled pathology of poverty and hopelessness that leads to abusive child labour. Where that still exists it is simply not enough to close the factories where the worst child labour practices occur. We must also ensure that children then have access to schools and their parents have jobs. Otherwise, we may find children in even more abusive circumstances.

That is why the work of the International Programme for the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) is so important. With the support of the United States, it is working in places around the world to get children out of the business of making fireworks, to help children move from their jobs as domestic servants, to take children from factories to schools.

Let me cite just one example of the success being achieved -- the work being done to eliminate child labour from the soccer ball industry in Pakistan. Two years ago, thousands of children under the age of 14 worked for 50 companies stitching soccer balls full time. The industry, the ILO and UNICEF joined together to remove children from the production of soccer balls and give them a chance to go to school, and to monitor the results.

Today, the work has been taken up by women in 80 poor villages in Pakistan, given them new employment and their families new stabilities. Meanwhile, the children have started to go to school, so that when they come of age, they will be able to do better jobs raising the standard of living of their families, their villages and their nation. I thank all who were involved in this endeavour and ask others to follow their lead.

I am pleased that our administration has increased our support for IPEC by tenfold. I ask you to think what could be achieved by a full and focused international effort to eliminate the worst forms of child labour. Think of the children who would go to school, whose lives would open up, whose very health would flower, freed of the crushing burden of dangerous and demeaning work, given back those irreplaceable hours of childhood for learning and playing and living.

By giving life to core labour standards, by acting effectively to lift the burden of debt, by putting a more human face on the world trading system in the global economy, by ending the worst forms of child labour, we will be giving our children the twenty-first century they deserve.

These are hopeful times. Previous generations sought to redeem the rights of labour in a time of world war and organized tyranny. We have a chance to build a world more prosperous, more united, more humane than ever before. In so doing, we can fulfil the dreams of the ILO's founders and redeem the struggles of those who fought and organized, who sacrificed, and, yes, died -- for freedom, equality and justice in the workplace.

It is our great good fortune that in our time we have been given the golden opportunity to make the twenty-first century a period of abundance and achievement for all. Because we can do that, we must. It is a gift to our children worthy of the millennium.

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