Jun 3, 1988


GENEVA JUNE 1 (IFDA/CHAKRAVARTHI RAGHAVAN) -- The Director-General of the International Labour Organisation, Francis Blanchard, has expressed reserve over the idea of creating new mechanisms in GATT for protecting workers’ rights and ensuring fair labour standards.

The United States has been pressing for this in GATT, and the idea of incorporating provisions in bilateral and multilateral trade agreements has been supported by powerful trade unions in industrial countries who present it to their compeers in the third world as a way of improving their own leverage in collective bargaining.

At a press conference on the eve of the opening of the session Blanchard was doubtful about the possibilities of using the GATT machinery to enforce labour standards.

Blanchard has also dealt with the issue at length in his report to the conference.

Mere divergence from basic labour standards might not justify modification in trade relations, particularly when the important trading partners themselves have not ratified the conventions concerned, Blanchard has noted.

This was a reference to the United States which, according to the annual status report on conventions to the conference, has ratified only seven out of the 166 Conventions adopted by the International Labour Conference.

Most of the seven ratified relate to sea-farers’.

But fundamental ILO Conventions, which the U.S. is citing for fair labour standards in trade, have not been adhered to by the United States. These include those on freedom of association and the right to organise, the right to organise and bargain collectively, hours of work, minimum age of employment (in industry, agriculture and mines), maximum hours of work, minimum wage, abolition of forced labour.

In his report Blanchard has noted that over the years, both in the ILO and in International Bodies concerned with trade matters, there have been repeated suggestions that trade agreements should provide for observance by parties of "fair or minimum labour standards".

The underlying purposes of the suggestion, he noted, had varied from preventing unfair competition to ensuring benefits of trade liberalisation measures in favour of third world countries were fairly distributed.

Noting various recommendations in this behalf both in the ILO, the World Employment Conference, and the Brandt Commission Report, Blanchard said there have been recently suggestions for actions on this in the ILO and in the GATT.

While ILO was not the only international agency concerned, it had the competence to act on it, he noted.

Under its constitution, the ILO had the responsibility to consider "all international economic and financial policies and measures in the light of the fundamental objective of ensuring the material well-being and spiritual development of all human beings".

It would also be technically feasible, he said, to identify a set of standards whose observance might be regarded as corresponding to "fair labour conditions".

However the various discussions in the ILO and elsewhere had revealed a number of difficulties, both of principle and of a practical nature.

While the ILO founders had recognised the importance of concerted efforts by all nations to improve labour conditions, the method chosen was adoption of international instruments that were subject to acceptance "by the free decision of each state".

This had led to a broad body of international labour standards and a network of obligations flowing from over 5.300 ratifications.

The ILO obligations too were subject to supervision, and in the case of conventions it was well developed.

While the original ILO constitution had envisaged possibility of securing compliance with conventions through "measures of an economic character", namely sanctions, the present ILO constitution only envisaged the possibility of "action ... deemed wise and expedient to secure compliance".

Action of this kind, he noted, had not so far been considered. Rather reliance had been placed on various forms of persuasion and moral pressure, with emphasis on ILO assistance in overcoming difficulties in implementing the standards.

"In general", Blanchard noted, "rather than resorting to sanctions, specialised international organisations have given preference to measures involving conciliation and a pragmatic approach to upholding the organisations’ rules".

Blanchard then noted that shortcomings in implementation of international labour standards could be very diverse in nature and gravity, and attributable to varied causes.

Adverse economic conditions, he noted, might make it more difficult for governments to correct deficiencies in observance of ratified conventions.

He cited in this regard the case of the Dominican Republic where a catastrophic fall in sugar prices on world markets, due in part to policies and practices in certain industrialised countries, had brought a serious obstacle in bringing about desired improvements in conditions of employment in the plantations.

The ILO inquiry had brought out that the imposition of restrictions on the already limited possibilities of disposing of the country’s main export commodity would have exacerbated these difficulties.

Citing also the case of India, Blanchard pointed out that ILO supervisory bodies had noted problems in securing the observance in that country of the laws for abolition of bonded labour and concerned child labour.

"In both instances", the ILO Director-General added in his report, "what is at stake is not the absence of legislative standards or the pursuit of policies at variance with the relevant conventions, but difficulties in implementation stemming from deeply rooted social and economic causes".

"Moreover, problems in the observance of particular standards may occur primarily outside export-producing sectors or affect only some of those sectors.

"It is thus apparent that the mere existence of divergence even from basic labour standards may not in itself justify a modification in trade relations. That conclusion has all the more force where – as is frequently the case – the trading partners have themselves not ratified the conventions concerned".

Blanchard agreed that even allowing for local conditions or difficulties, there might be situations where employment practices in export industries were considered exploitative or policies might be pursued by governments to depress labour standards and to restrict trade union action with a view to gaining competititve advantage.

Interventions in such cases by the ILO might seem desirable, and in such cases various means of action already existed, he noted.

If observance of ratified conventions were at stake, the matter could be raised within the framework of routine supervision or by recourse to constitutional procedures of representation and complaint.

If trade union rights were affected, whether or not the relevant conventions had been ratified, the matter could be brought up before the committee on freedom of association.

If the issue concerned policies or practices of TNCS, it might be subject of a request for interpretation of the 1977 Tripartite Declaration.

In addition there might also be scope for a more general function on fact-finding and conciliation by the ILO with a view to clarifying disputed situations and seeking generally acceptable solutions. On several occasions such action by the ILO had led to settlement of cases.

There had also been instances in which the ILO had been invited to investigate labour conditions with a view to resolving disputes and in which ILO conventions, whether ratified or not, had served as standards of comparison and a source of guidance to remedial measures.

The idea of ILO playing a role in disputes concerning labour standards in relation to trade was also not new, and had been envisaged by the previous Director-General, Wilfred Jenks, who had suggested recourse to conciliation rather than complaints to enable parties to agree on facts and seek remedial action to resolve differences.

"The capacity of the ILO to undertake fact finding and conciliation already exists. Its application to questions concerning labour standards in relation to trade would require creation of no new mechanisms ... it would have the advantage of not tying the outcome to a purely mechanistic evaluation of compliance with stated standards, but would open the way to a global consideration of conditions and the search for reasonable and fair solutions".

"Further involvement of ILO in the question of fair labour standards in relation to trade may, in sum, depend on making governments, employers and workers aware of an existing capacity for action rather on the adoption of any new substantive rules or mechanisms", Blanchard added.