7:03 AM Nov 17, 1995


Geneva 16 Nov (Chakravarthi Raghavan) -- The Governing Body of the International Labour Organization has put off to its session in March 1996 the question whether Working Party on Social Dimensions of Liberalisation of International Trade is to be continued, and if so with what mandate.

After a prolonged, essentially procedural, discussion at the resumed meeting of the working party and of the governing body, the decision was put off to the March session.

The working party was set up in June 1994, at what is normally the organizational meeting of the Governing Body after the Conference which last year discussed the trade-social standards linkages in terms of the trade liberalisation process under way.

Though the conference records show considerable differences among governments, between governments, workers and employers groups, and within the groups themselves, the ILO Director-General claimed a consensus of sorts to pursue the issue and got the governing body to look at it in a working party.

The working party met in November 1994, and then in March-April 1995, when the ILO document itself about the linkages and proposals, came under sharp criticism from a number of developing countries, led by India.

The working party held an extensive debate on the issue, which showed some very sharp division of opinions. The Chairperson of the working party, Ms. M.Hartwell, the UK government representative, in April 1995 produced an oral report, which instead of resulting in a consensus, triggered off a further debate.

In the debate the conclusions in the oral report of the Chair about a consensus for continuing the working party were challenged -- with several governments and employers group making clear that they would not countenance efforts to establish a trade-social standards linkage or continued consideration of the issue by the working party, with the prospects of trade sanctions being held out.

Some of them appeared to indicate that they would consider some process or mechanism within the ILO governing body for encouraging governments to adhere to ILO standards and ratify them and for supervisory processes on this -- issues which however are already dealt with.

But the workers group were not ready to give up their threat to raise the trade sanctions issue at the ILO or elsewhere -- an issue that the US government seemed anxious to keep alive.

The ILO Director-General at one stage (before the oral report summing up the debate by Ms. Hartwell) had suggested that the working party might continue to study the issues of child labour; analysis of the links between economic growth and social progress within the context of the globalization of the world economy and liberalisation of trade to enable States to establish a positive relationship between these two facets of development; and the study of possibilities of extending certain core Conventions on the complaints procedure respecting violations of freedom of association.

Ms Hartwell in her oral summing up (the text of which became available only at the next meeting in March) suggested the working party continue work on three topics: on the basis of 'shared values' to provide a political direction to the endeavours of the Working Party; on ILO's role in achieving social development through economic growth, in the new context of globalization of the economy, liberalisation of international trade and investments, restructuring and other factors; and a discussion on different ways to strengthen and further improve effectiveness of ILO standards supervisory system.

While showing interest in study of these questions, the employers however noted that these subjects could as well be studied by the ILO Committee on Legal Issues and International Labour Standards, the Committee on Sectoral and Technical Meetings and Related Issues, and the Committee on Employment and Social Policy.

While the employers and some governments thought the issues of social development through economic growth in a globalizing and liberalizing world economy could as well be studied in the Governing Body as a follow up to the Copenhagen Social Summit, Hansenne seemed to be opposed to it.

As the report of that meeting drawn up by the ILO office puts it, Hansenne felt that two pitfalls to be avoided in the continued discussion was for the "topics selected by the Working Party", becoming "lost" in the followup to the Social Summit -- a curious way of dealing with the recommendations and followups that the Heads of Governments decided at Copenhagen. Hansenne also cautioned against the pitfall of the topics selected being lost in a discussion on the role of the ILO in general.

The ILO report of the meeting in recording the lack of consensus, suggested that a majority of the government members were in favour of continuing the Working Party, but on the understanding that it would concentrate on specific and defined topics agreed to by consensus and would not deal with question of trade sanctions.

Since then, the NAM countries, at their New Delhi meeting have come out strongly against trade-labour standards linkages or trade sanctions.

At the governing body, and earlier at the Working Party, India and Egypt renewed their objections to continuing the working party. When the objections were sought to be pushed aside with the view that a large majority wanted its continuance, the Japanese government delegate intervened to suggest that the Indian objections could not be ignored.

The Indian government representative had earlier stressed that the child labour question (which Hansenne had said could be a focus of the working committee) had been extensively discussed in the Committee on Employment and Social policy. The issue of revision of standards and promoting adherence had been discussed in the Committee on Legal Issues and Labour Standards. The structure of the ILO supervision machinery was being discussed by the Governing Body itself.

"India," Mr. S. Gopalan, the permanent official heading the labour ministry said was quite willing to discuss these issues at the ILO, but not in terms of any linkages with trade. The way to encourage countries to observe standards and ratify conventions was through technical cooperation, but not trade linkages or sanctions.

In other actions, the Governing Body approved the view about the ILO's concerns about fundamental human rights relate tothe conventions on child labour, freedom of association, forced labour and prevention of discrimination, and encouraged the ILO office to continue its effort to encourage ratifications and step-up the requests for information from non-ratifying states. The ILO office was also asked to step up its technical cooperation efforts in this regard.

But the proposal of the ILO office for new supervisory powers to examine complaints over human rights, even when Governments had not ratified the Conventions, was virtually killed. The ILO Committee on Legal Issues and International Labour Standards was asked to further study the issue.