ACFTU, ICFTU and changing ILO Conventions
By Gerard Greenfield, Asia Monitor Resource Center, 6 February 1998
In reading the Report of the Executive Board of the ICFTU (Brussels, December 17-19) on ICFTU-APRO's visit to China, my attention was drawn to the section concerning the ACFTU's view on international trade unionism, particularly section 20 on the ILO which reads:
"The ACFTU felt that there are prejudices against China at the international organization's level especially at the ILO Governing bodies due to ideological differences. The exclusion of China in the ILO Governing body is a violation of the ILO's principle of universality and non-discrimination. The ACFTU with the largest membership does not have a seat at the ILO because of differences with the ICFTU. The Chinese Labour Ministry is interested in the reform of the ILO. The Chinese feels [sic] that the ILO should give greater attention to the voices of the majority of developing nations. Only then would the ILO have greater authority and the reforms smoothly carried out."
This paragraph sheds some light on at least one of the motives behind the ACFTU agreeing to a rapid improvement in relations with the ICFTU.
1. "The ACFTU felt that there are prejudices against China at the international organization's level especially at the ILO Governing bodies due to ideological differences."
So the problem is that the ACFTU feels very strongly that it is being denied its rightful place on the governing body of the ILO.
2. "The ACFTU with the largest membership does not have a seat at the ILO because of differences with the ICFTU."
This implies that a resolution of differences with the ICFTU would pave the way for the ACFTU to gain a seat on the ILO's Governing body.
3. "The Chinese Labour Ministry is interested in the reform of the ILO."
Here is the objective. It is explicitly stated that the Ministry of Labour of the PRC wants to bring about changes within the ILO, and this can only be done if the ACFTU first resolves its differences with the ICFTU and gains greater decision-making power within the ILO.
Unfortunately we the ICFTU report does not explain what "reforms" the Ministry of Labour is seeking in the ILO. However, it is very likely that there are similarities with recent moves by the ASEAN Governments to reform the ILO.
At a meeting of its labour ministers in April 1996, ASEAN announced that it would persuade ILO to revamp "outmoded" labour conventions, some of which dated back to 1930. These included seven conventions on fundamental workers' rights, such as the conventions on forced labour (1930), freedom of association (1948) and minimum age (1973):
"Pending the review, the ministers requested the ILO to adopt a more flexible approach in applying ratified conventions with due consideration given the state of development of each member state."
The labour minister of Singapore said that the conventions needed to be revised to be "more relevant to the needs of developing countries" and that "the economic environment today is vastly different from 1930 ... and yet these conventions are being applied rigidly by the ILO."
The reform of the ILO and IL Conventions to weaken international standards on workers' rights will be discussed in the next ASEAN labour ministers meeting in Vietnam in 1998.
The importance of the ILO in the Chinese government's own strategy is reflected in their extreme defensiveness within the ILO. Anyone who has attended high-level ILO conferences knows that the PRC delegates are extremely hostile (to the point of shouting at speakers) to any criticism of China and are constantly lobbying to have negative references to the labour and trade union rights situation in China excluded from ILO meetings.
Clearly then it is very important for the Chinese government (which of course includes the ACFTU) to increase its power within the ILO to a point where it no longer allows such criticism and - more importantly - redefines the mandate and functions of the ILO in a way that renders such criticism redundant. I am not sure whether that means a direct attempt to revise or get rid of IL Convention No. 87, but whatever they do they are likely to receive significant support from ICFTU-APRO.
One the one hand the Chinese government's strategy vis-a-vis the ILO can be dismissed as irrelevant, given that most pro-worker unionists would argue that the ILO merely reflects the interests of capital anyway. But there is a contradiction in our approach to the ILO: on the one hand we dismiss it as a large, bureaucratic institution which is governed by the interests of states and capital, and which has failed miserably in its enforcement of IL Conventions. On the other hand, we continue to cite IL Conventions whenever we engage in a struggle for workers' collective rights. The IL Conventions act both as a guide to the nature of workers' fundamental rights and as proof of the universality of these rights. Whether it is in opposition to the Manpower Bill in Indonesia, the labour law amendments in South Korea, or the violation of the right to freedom of association in mainland China, we refer to IL Conventions while at the same time not truly believing that the ILO has either the capacity or the will to act upon violations of these rights.