10:28 AM Jan 15, 1997


Geneva 15 January (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- The head of the International Labour Organization, Michele Hansenne promised Wednesday to push for observance of basic workers' right by all the 187 ILO member-countries.

He intends to bring up before this year's International Labour Conference the entire issue of standards and core labour standards and their supervision, thus opening up a political debate within the ILO.

The 'core labour standards' are generally seen as covering the ILO conventions on forced labour, freedom to belong to a trade union, the right to organise unions, child labour, and equal rights for men and women and right to employment without discrimination.

The ILO, he said, would be seeking wider rights to monitor the observance of basic rights of workers.

Looking beyond, Hansenne hopes to get the ILO take charge of the difficult task of social dimensions of globalisation and setting and ensuring observance of internationally recognised labour standards, and for mandating the ILO to supervise the observance of these standards by countries whether or not they are parties to these conventions.

At a press conference, Hansenne envisaged the ILO moving towards adopting in 1998 a new Declaration, like the Philadelphia Declaration, vesting the ILO with jurisdiction and powers to deal with these questions, which he suggested, could no longer be ignored.

In a reference to his inability to attend and speak at the Singapore Ministerial Conference of the WTO, Hansenne said he did not know why certain States had not wanted him to be able to speak there, but that this had not stopped "the social dimensions" of international trade to be one of the most important aspects discussed there.

ILO officials had told the media in Geneva in the first week of December that originally an invitation had been sent to Hansenne to participate and speak at Singapore, but that this was withdrawn because of the objections of a few countries.

The WTO General Council had decided in July last year to restrict the right of participation and speaking at the Ministerial Conference to those international organizations who have the status of observers at the General Council.

It was decided that all other organizations that have observer status only before subordinate bodies would be allowed to attend the Singapore meeting without the right to speak. The ILO, as an observer before one of the subordinate bodies of the WTO, got such an invitation.

Later, Hansenne was apparently given to understand that he could attend the Singapore Conference and speak there -- though it has not been clear so far whether in fact such an invitation was sent to him and if so how and by whom.

Apparently, it was thought that Singapore as a host country could extend an invitation, but Singapore did not believe it could do so as a host country.

As a result, in the last days of November (when the issue of a social clause in the WTO had become a hot one), the question of inviting Hansenne to speak at Singapore Conference was brought up before a small group of WTO ambassadors and it became clear there was no consensus to make an exception for the ILO. As a result, Hansenne was advised that he would not be able to speak at Singapore.

The Ministerial Declaration adopted at the Singapore meeting of the WTO, had a paragraph on core labour standards which said:

"We renew out commitment to the observance of internationally recognized core labour standards. The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the competent body to set and deal with these standards,and we affirm our support for its work in promoting them. We believe that economic growth and development fostered by increased trade and further trade liberalization contribute to the promotion of these standards. We reject the use of labour standards for protectionist purposes, and agree that the comparative advantage of countries, particularly low-wage developing countries, must in no way be put into question. In this regard we note that the WTO and ILO Secretariats will continue their existing collaboration."

The ILO Director-General told a press conference Wednesday "whether we like it or not we cannot avoid taking up the matter. The ball is now in the court of the ILO, and I have the clear intention of taking charge of this difficult task that the international community has given us."

Hansenne warned that in the absence of a role of the multilateral system in this field of labour standards, there was the risk of rise in protectionism, boycotts by consumers, or boycotts engineered by competitors etc.

The ILO, Hansenne said, had already started a campaign (in 1995) to get countries to ratify the core conventions. Since the start of this campaign some 23 more ratifications had come in.

Hansenne noted that at Singapore, a number of countries had resisted the WTO work on trade and labour rules and had insisted the issue should be handled exclusively by the ILO. They should now prove their sincerity by ratifying the conventions, he said.

The ILO would see how serious these countries have been in making the statements they did at Singapore about the core labour standards and the ILO's role in setting and dealing with these standards.

Currently, in respect of these standards, (as of others) the ILO had the right to supervise the observance by countries of the conventions they had ratified, but not the conduct of countries which have not ratified these conventions.

The ILO has hence initiated proposals to be able to supervise the observance of these core labour standards even when the countries had not ratified the conventions.

This matter was now in the hands of governments.

Countries like Malaysia which at Singapore had insisted that the ILO, and not the WTO, was the proper forum for the debate and should be given powers to promote workers rights had the ball in their court and "we should now get the teeth," Hansenne added.

In his report to this years International Labour Conference, Hansenne said, he intended to raise the issue of the observance of these fundamental standards and core conventions, and thus start a political debate at the Conference.

Hansenne indicated that he envisaged the process to move forward, with a new Declaration, like the Philadelphia Declaration, to be adopted in 1998 at the ILO, vesting the ILO with powers to ensure observance of these core labour standards by countries, whether or not they had ratified the conventions.

The ILO head noted that for a while the debate was not very clear, but the situation was now being clarified and the debate was about the "social dimensions" of globalization.

It was in the interest of the countries of the South to have some sort of rules in this area. In the longer term they would face mounting trade problems if their labour practices were seen by public opinion as violating basic workers rights.

"Public opinion will become increasingly important over the next few years," Hansenne said. "The sanction of the market will be more important than any government or international sanctions," he added pointing to several recent instances of consumer boycotts.

A growing number of TNCs with subsidiaries in developing countries, Hansenne said, were asking the ILO to help them demonstrate that they were not exploiting workers and boosting profits by paying low wages.

There is now a rising awareness of the issue and public opinion was increasingly strong about the actions of governments or enterprises who make use of child labour to produce goods.

This rise in public opinion could lead to important commercial reactions and it is in the interests of the South countries to have an organization which would be able to tell the truth.

"At the moment there is no way for any of these countries to get the benediction of an international organization that they are working according to the rules... In the present situation no one can go to any institution to defend themselves against unfair attacks."

Public opinion around the world was increasingly being aroused and this will have more and more impact on trade, and this was an aspect that had to be taken into account, Hansenne argued.

However, in no way would we try to attack the comparative advantage of developing countries. That was why they had chosen the specific conventions (core labour conventions) and their observance would not harm the developing countries at all.

The situation in South Korea, Hansenne added, is a fair example of growing world interest and public opinion in judging national legislation. "More and more we will see that everyone will be dealing with everyone else's affairs." There had been a fierce reaction among international trade union bodies to the new labour laws in South Korea and the refusal of that government to grant recognition to a major labour grouping.

Hansenne said he did not want to comment on the new law, but he had already written to the President of South Korea over the issue of freedom of unions. He had not however received a reply so far.

"There will be no solution to the present conflict there without respect for union freedom, which is a key element in the democratic process," the ILO chief declared.

South Korea became a member of the ILO in 1991.

"It seems evident to me," Hansenne said that "the moment a country decided to join the ILO, one of its major commitments is to respect trade union freedom."

The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCFTU), which is spear-heading the campaign against the new labour law, is not recognized, and will not be until year 2000 under the new law.

Hansenne said that the strong reaction by world trade unions to the situation in South Korea showed that as the world economy became more and more closely integrated, no government would be able to escape the international consequences of its domestic measures.

Asked whether the ILO would take an initiative, similar to what it had done in Poland (over the issue of Solidarity movement), Hansenne said he could not act that way on his own and would need some guidance from the tripartite ILO Governing Body.