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Date: Sat, 28 Aug 1999 00:17:43 -0500 (CDT)
From: Open World Conference <owc@igc.org>
Article: 74092
Message-ID: <bulk.16058.19990829091517@chumbly.math.missouri.edu>

(c/o S.F. Labor Council, 1188 Franklin St.#203,
San Francisco, CA 94109. Tel: 415- 641-8616
Fax: 415-440-9297 Email: owc@igc.org)

Open Letter from Open World Conference in Defense of Trade Union Independence and Democratic Rights (OWC), 27 August 1999

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

The campaign to demand the ratification, implementation and enforcement of the ILO Conventions is moving full steam ahead. To date, we have gathered hundreds of signatures in support of the Open Letter to the Heads of State Attending the WTO Summit. Many of you already have signed this Open Letter, and we thank you for your support. (If you have not yet endorsed this letter, we urge you to please do so.)

In the course of promoting this effort, we have been asked numerous questions by trade unionists and activists regarding (1) the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights and Work, (2) the new ILO Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labor, and (3) the proposed revisions to ILO Convention 103.

We are sending you below a letter we have written to further motivate this campaign and to clarify some of the questions that have arisen over how best to win support for the existing ILO Conventions.

Thank you for your ongoing interest and support.

In Solidarity,

Ed Rosario and Mya Shone OWC Co-coordinators

Why Unionists and Supporters of Labor Rights Should Support the Call for the Ratification, Implementation and Enforcement of the ILO Conventions

Dear Sisters and Brothers:

At the end of November 1999, government leaders from around the world will gather in Seattle at the Third Ministerial Summit of the World Trade Organization (WTO).

Feeling the need to articulate a campaign around which the entire international labor movement could unite in its struggle to defeat the global corporate agenda, the Organizing Committee of the Open World Conference in Defense of Trade Union Independence and Democratic Rights (OWC) issued an "Open Letter to the Heads of State Attending the World Trade Organization Summit in Seattle." The Open Letter calls on government leaders to ratify, implement and enforce fully the Conventions of the International Labor Organization (ILO)."

These ILO Conventions represent a tremendous gain for the workers' movement. The binding constraints for national labor legislation in the ILO ratification procedure, in particular, make them both a reference point and a rallying point for the independent trade union movement in every country.

The new ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles

The OWC Open Letter warns that the signatories will not accept any substitutes for the ILO Conventions. They will not accept any support for hollow principles detached from concrete implementation in national labor legislation. This is a reference to the new ILO "Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work," which was adopted in June 1998.

Why this concern?

For more than seven years, the IMF and World Bank (and later the WTO) have engaged in a concerted campaign to "reform the ILO" and scuttle the ILO Conventions.

IMF Director General Michel Camdessus stated that the ILO Conventions had to be made more "flexible" and more "adapted" to the needs of the global economy in the new millennium. It was necessary, Camdessus said, to "create a less constraining framework for ensuring international labor standards."

The new ILO Declaration on Principles does just that: It makes it possible for the principles and rights to be disconnected from the ratification process. This means a country can adopt these "fundamental principles and rights at work" without ratifying any of the ILO Conventions or enacting national laws based on these conventions.

In response to various concerns raised by trade union delegates about this new Declaration and its non-compulsory ratification process, top ILO officials insisted they were not in the process of jettisoning the existing ILO Conventions. It was simply a means, they said, of gaining new adherents to the general principles of the ILO and of ensuring that more countries, down the road, could get behind the ILO Conventions.

The international labor delegates who met in Geneva at the Seventh Annual Assembly in Defense of the ILO Conventions were not convinced by this argument. They feared that the new ILO Declaration could undermine and ultimately cast by the wayside the existing ILO Conventions.

Nor were they reassured by the way the representatives of the employers and of the States interpreted this new Declaration on Fundamental Principles. The representative of the U.S. employers declared in 1998, for example:

"The [new ILO] declaration does not impose on member States the detailed obligations of Conventions that they have not freely ratified, and does not impose on countries that have not ratified the fundamental Conventions the supervisory mechanisms that apply to ratified Conventions. The principles and rights of the Declaration therefore only encompass the essence, that is, the goals, objectives and aims of the fundamental Conventions." (source: M. Potter, Employers' delegate ; Employer Vice Chairperson of the Committee on the application of Standards, 36th Session, Geneva, June 1998. Report of the Committee on the Declaration of Principles)

This is why the "Open Letter to the Heads of State Attending the WTO in Seattle" - following the lead of the trade unionists assembled in Geneva - states the following:

"We, the undersigned, state categorically. If this ILO 'Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work' is to be of any value to working people the world over, the seven corresponding Conventions of the ILO must be ratified, implemented and enforced fully by every government participating in the WTO Summit in Seattle."

Another issue of great concern to the trade union delegates assembled to defend the ILO Conventions was Paragraph 5 of the new Declaration on Fundamental Principles. This paragraph states that "the comparative advantage of any country should in no way be called into question by this Declaration and its Follow-Up."

We all know the meaning of "comparative advantage." It refers to the low costs of production in countries across the globe that pit workers in one part of the world against workers in another. The new Declaration on Fundamental Principles doesn't beat around the bush: It states explicitly that it is opposed to calling into question the cheap labor and deregulated labor conditions that permit such "comparative advantages" on the world market.

In this context it is useful to compare Paragraph 5 of the new Declaration with the Preamble of the Founding Declaration of the ILO, which states that "universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice." The Preamble goes on to explain that "any nation refusing to adopt genuinely humane labor norms is creating obstacles to the efforts of the other nations which want to better the fate of workers in their own country."

Thus, the early members of the ILO established that international trade should be organized in such a way as to forbid corporations and economic groups from making use of countries that would refuse to include in their laws the right for workers to protect themselves from poverty and arbitrary action by the governments and employers.

This is a far cry from the new Declaration of Principles, which sanctifies the notion of "comparative advantages."

New Convention Against the "Worst Forms of Child Labor"

The Open Letter also warns that the signatories will not accept any watered-down agreements. This is a reference to the new ILO Convention (adopted in June 1999) opposing the "worst forms of child labor" - a document which Clinton supported and vowed to take to the U.S. Congress for ratification.

By "worst forms of child labor," the ILO Convention refers to all forms of slavery or practices similar to slavery, such as the sale and trafficking of children, debt bondage and serfdom and forced or compulsory labor, including forced or compulsory recruitment of children for use in armed conflict. It also refers to the use, procuring or offering of children for prostitution, for the production of pornography or for pornographic performances.

It is necessary to point out that these atrocious practices are dealt with already by criminal laws in most countries of the world, and in the great majority of cases they are regarded as criminal offenses that must be dealt with by penal law and the courts - and not by labor laws.

These practices, moreover, have been dealt with already in other ILO Conventions, which rightly prohibit them not merely for children but for all human beings (eg., ILO Convention 29 of 1930 on forced labor, and that of 1956 on the prohibition of forced labor).

There is therefore no need to proscribe in a new ILO Convention these "worst forms of child labor."

Defenders of this new ILO Convention argue that it is a "bridge" to increased support for - and ratification of - ILO Convention 138, which bans child labor altogether. This is not what the employers and the governments are saying.

Take the declaration of the representative of the U.S. government, who stated that the United States "opposes any mention of a total prohibition of child labor. Even if this expression is drawn from the foreword to Convention 138, it is useless, because it is not the aim of the (new) convention to prohibit totally child labor." (Report 1V[2A], Child Labor, Fourth Question on the agenda of the 87th session of the ILO, Geneva, June 1999)

In a word, this new ILO Convention would do nothing to protect young children who today across the United States and around the world are obligated to work in agriculture and manufacturing sweatshops.

For the U.S. government, as for all the G8 governments, the new Convention is not a bridge to ILO Convention 138; it is meant to be an insurmountable obstacle in its path. It is a means to undermine and finally scuttle a Convention they all have considered "too rigid."

Another important point must be made in this regard: It is a fact that ILO Convention 138 has not been abrogated. But it is also a fact - verified by experience - that when two norms deal with the same subject, it is the least constraining one which in reality becomes the point of reference for labor standards and legislation - especially in the case of labor norms that are facing the assault of deregulation by governments and employers.

ILO Convention 103 Is Under Attack

Another ILO Convention that is under attack is ILO Convention 103, which deals with maternity leave for working women.

The substance of the problem is presented quite clearly by the Public Services International (PSI), one of the most important trade union bodies in the world. The PSI writes:

"ILO Maternity Protection Convention Under Threat

"The ILO is now reviewing the Maternity Protection Convention (MPC). At the end of February 1999, the ILO Secretariat released its recommendations for changes to MPC. PSI was shocked to find that the recommendations would significantly weaken the current convention. Some of the proposals would include :

  • Providing mechanisms for wide ranging exemptions from coverage;
  • Removing the obligation to pay women on maternity leave a minimum of two thirds of their salary by providing an option for unspecified flat rate payment;
  • Removing the requirement for six weeks compulsory leave after the birth of a child;
  • Removing additional leave when a child is born after the due date;
  • Removing the right to nursing breaks;
  • Removing the requirements for women to have maternity services delivered by qualified staff."
(Women, PSI Newsletter, April 1999. <http://www.world-psi.org/women/news/womenet.html>http://www.world-psi.org/ women/news/womenet.html)

The draft of the new proposed Convention, moreover, specifies that "the [maternity] leave should include a compulsory leave whose length and moment should be decided in each country."

There is a fundamental difference between the two conventions. Once ratified by countries, ILO conventions constitute labor laws around the world. All trade unions - big or small - can rely on them to demand the implementation of the labor rights which they embody. On the contrary, revised draft Convention 103 gives each government the authority to define what labor rights should be implemented and what labor rights should not. It questions the very notion of ILO conventions.

It has been stated that ILO Convention 103 is not being undermined; it is simply being "updated." Is this the case?

Convention 103 protecting maternity rights was one of the first conventions adopted by the ILO when it was created in 1919. The text of the Convention was then modified in 1952 to take into account the evolution of laws, especially those concerning Social Security systems, which allow a greater protection for the majority of women workers. It can be said that in 1952 this Convention was genuinely updated.

The fundamental and juridical principles of the ILO stipulate that an ILO convention should be revised when the modifications proposed increase the degree of protection to workers included in the Convention concerned. This is not what is being proposed with the new recommendations. The modifications proposed to Convention 103 - as the PSI statement points out - aim at undermining Convention 103 and lessening the degree of protection granted to women workers.

The question that must be asked and discussed widely within the labor movement is the following: Do these two proposed changes regarding child labor and maternity leave foreshadow how the 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work is to be implemented? It is a burning question that must be discussed by all unionists and activists involved in the struggle to defend and expand international labor rights.

For all the reasons expressed above, we are convinced that an international campaign demanding the ratification, implementation and enforcement of the ILO Conventions is a vital necessity for the labor movement. In our view, this is a campaign that should be embraced by the labor movement the world over.

In Solidarity,

Ed Rosario and Mya Shone,
Co-Coordinators OWC