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ILO Asked to Speak Up on Asia's Ills
By Johanna Son, IPS, 15 March 1998
MANILA, Mar 15 (IPS) - The International Labour Organisation (ILO) should be more assertive of its role as the "social conscience of development", starting with making its voice heard in Asia's economic meltdown, says the Philippine candidate for the ILO's top post.
Nieves Confesor, a former Philippine labour secretary and now adviser on international labour issues to President Fidel Ramos, is vying for the position of ILO director general along with Juan Somavia, Chile's permanent representative to the United Nations.
The ILO election will be held in its Geneva headquaters on Mar. 23, and the winner will succeed the current ILO chief, Michel Hansenne of Belgium.
Confesor says the ILO's input into social policy for dealing with the impact of globalisation - such as in the Asian crisis - should carry the same weight as economic policy pursued by governments and multilateral institutions.
So far, the Asian crisis has been much more focused on money and policy prescriptions given out by the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank, she said in an interview.
Only as an afterthought are "safety nets" being discussed, she added, as social unrest begins to spread. But in fact, the macroeconomic and financial aspects and social considerations should go hand in hand.
"The ILO should actually part of the first team that goes into a country, along with the IMF," she explained.
After all, the ILO has within itself the "wisdom of many countries it helped during their structural adjustment programmes and so can help minimise mistakes", Confesor added.
"Stabilisation policies have not been very kind to the workers in any country that has been placed under such regimes," she said, citing the ILO's experience in Eastern Europe, for instance.
She said she would like to see "a strong and competent ILO capable of asserting its role in the international sphere as the primary authority on social policy in global governance as called upon by the IMF, WB and similar institutions to provide the social dimension of trade and financial regimes and structural adjustment programmes".
Confesor is the consensus candidate of Asia, and is supported by Africa and other developing countries. If she wins, Confesor would be the first Asian and first woman head of the ILO in its 79- year history. The ILO now has 172 member states.
Asian diplomats say Somavia, who headed the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC) in 1993-94, has the backing of Latin America and the United States, among others. Somavia also led the preparatory council of the World Summit on Social Development in Denmark in 1995.
Oficials here say the ILO race is also being defined along issues such as the linkage between trade and labour standards and how to humanise the process of globalisation.
Confesor says how to assure that the social dimensions of development are not shunted aside in the race toward economic growth is a "more relevant" challenge than industrialised nations' desire to link trade and labour standards.
This controversial debate has split developed and developing countries. Industrialised nations say certain "core labour standards" should be universal and accepted as valid conditions for trade, but the South argues that this linkage is just a disguise for trade protectionism.
At the last round of trade talks leading to the creation of the World Trade Organisation, the international community agreed that trade-labour linkages were better discussed in an organisation like the ILO.
Analysts are keen to see how this debate progresses under the new ILO leadership in the coming years.
The Philippines on its own does not have that much of a problem dealing with labour-related trade issues owing to its democratic reputation, but is taking the developing-world position on the matter.
As Asian candidate, Manila is well aware of the fact that it also has to speak for countries like China and Indonesia, which often come under fire by western critics for poor records on labour rights.
For instance, child labour is often cited as a standard that all countries must eradicate, but Confesor says the international community is often too preoccupied with police-type approaches to the problem rather than addressing its socio-economic roots. "It's nice to raid the sweatshops and all that, but you don't address the root of the problem, which is often poverty,"she said.
She cited her experience in the Philippines, where children freed from hard labour had been sent home by the government but were later found to have gone back, not least because of lack of accessible schools and family income. "Regulations and laws cannot eliminate child labour," Confesor added.
She also says the ILO should focus on protecting the worker, especially women labourers, in a globalised economy that may be more efficient in economic terms but may hurt workers' interests and wages.
Finally, Confesor says she would like to see a "culture of consensus and dialogue" within the ILO and its member states, since the job of the ILO director general is "not to prescribe and impose solutions".
[c] 1998, InterPress Third World News Agency (IPS)
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