Appeal from Ed Rosario: Defend the ILO conventions!
By Ed Rosario, Coordinator, WHC Continuations Committee, 15 May 1998
Dear Sisters and Brothers:
I have been invited to present the opening keynote address to the Fifth Annual Independent Trade Union Forum in Defense of the Conventions and Norms of the International Labor Organization (ILO). This one-day forum will take place in Geneva, Switzerland, on June 7 -- on the eve of the 86th yearly session of the ILO. It is sponsored by 17 general secretaries of trade union federations in Africa as well as top leaders of union federations throughout the Americas, Asia and Europe. It has been supported by the Workers' International Liaison Committee (ILC), a broad-based coalition of unions, community organizations and trade unionists that actively built support for last November's Western Hemisphere Workers' Conference Against NAFTA and Privatizations.
The aim of this Forum is to promote a thorough discussion within the international labor movement of the impending assault on the conventions and norms of the ILO and to chart a united campaign to demand that all governments strictly adhere to, and fully enforce, all these ILO conventions.
Last June, as some of you may recall, I participated in the Fourth Annual Independent Trade Union Forum in Geneva. The main issue taken up at the forum was the threat to the international trade union movement posed by the Multilateral Agreement on Investments (MAI). That gathering issued an urgent appeal to unions worldwide to educate about, and mobilize against, the MAI. The call was heeded widely and contributed to the numerous initiatives against the MAI over the past year.
[Copies of my report on last year's meeting in Geneva -- including the final appeal adopted by the 120 trade union delegates from 39 countries -- were distributed to all the delegates attending the WHC last November. If you did not get a copy but wish to obtain one, please drop me a note at the above address.]
"Reforming" the ILO
This year, in the name of carrying out a wholesale "reform" of the ILO, the 150 labor conventions of the ILO are under attack.
The World Trade Organization (WTO), which has spearheaded the international drive toward "free trade" and deregulation, has long demanded a "reform" of the ILO to make it more adapted to the current needs of "economic globalization" and "competitive deregulation."
For the WTO, those countries that have ratified the ILO conventions and thereby made them the law of their land, are in a "comparative disadvantage" on the world market in relation to other countries where production costs are lower and labor laws are more "flexible." The ban on child labor and forced labor, the legal limitations to laying off workers, the very existence of independent unions and collective- bargaining agreements -- all these, according to the WTO, are intolerable restrictions on the "normal functioning of open markets." They are considered "barriers to free trade."
The goal of the WTO -- as stipulated in a proposal adopted by the 1997 WTO Summit in Singapour -- is to bring the ILO under its umbrella, thereby making it totally subservient to the needs of global capital. In fact, the WTO has organized a series of roundtable "discussions" with trade unions across the globe to promote the concept of "social pacts" between labor and management, which they themselves describe as "corporatist." This is a very chilling perspective that would spell the end of trade unions as the independent voice of working people. The most recent example of corporatism is Mussolini's Italy. That is where global capital wishes to take our trade union movement.
The ILO was set up in 1919. Though a tripartite body of government, management and unions, the ILO -- under the pressure of the sustained actions of workers' and their organizations -- has adopted 150 labor conventions that have codified the gains made by the international trade union movement through bitter struggle. These represent an international point of reference for labor codes and labor laws in all countries. Between 1995 and 1998 alone, the seven core conventions of the ILO were ratified by 80 countries.
These core conventions are the following:
A devious mechanism to sidestep the ILO conventions
y The mechanism employed today to sidestep and ultimately do away with the ILO conventions is devious -- reflecting the fear by the multinational corporations and the governments in their service of the workers' reaction.
A year ago, just prior to the 85th annual assembly of the ILO, preparations were under way to amend the ILO Constitution so as to introduce a clause that would outright repeal the current ILO conventions. New, less-restrictive conventions were to be introduced.
For example, there was discussion of replacing ILO Convention 138 with a convention that would condemn "the most intolerable forms of child labor." Thus, instead of a ban on child labor, we simply would have a ban on its "most intolerable forms." This would have represented the acceptance of child labor under its "tolerable" forms. WTO representatives stated openly this could include reducing a 60-hour workweek for children to 50 hours a week!
Once they learned of this threat, trade unionists worldwide -- following the lead of the conveners of the Fourth Annual Independent Trade Forum in Defense of the Norms and Conventions of the ILO -- sounded the alarm and forced the WTO and bosses' representatives on the ILO to beat a quick retreat.
This year's "reform" proposal is no less dangerous -- though it has been packaged in such a way as to elicit support from unwary unionists and supporters of labor rights.
The Administrative Committee of the ILO is proposing that a "Declaration of Workers' Fundamental Rights" be submitted for discussion at this 86th ILO assembly, with the goal of adopting it by 2001. A draft declaration has been published and circulated among the delegates to the upcoming ILO assembly. It's a document that embodies the "principles" of the seven fundamental ILO conventions I referred to earlier.
The problem, however, is that countries will be allowed to sign this Declaration of Rights without actually ratifying the seven core ILO conventions. And unlike the ILO conventions, which must become the law of the land when ratified, this Declaration is not binding in any way.
It is a statement of intent to respect certain principles, nothing more.
It has no teeth, no mechanisms of enforcement. In the hands of governments that are pushing the WTO/IMF corporate agenda, this Declaration would be worth little more than the paper it is printed on.
This is why adoption of such a Declaration of Rights is simply a PR maneuver devised by top functionaries in the WTO to mask the drive to marginalize and ultimately get rid of the ILO conventions. (The United States, for example, which has only ratified two of these seven core ILO conventions, could sign this Declaration and parade as a champion of labor rights -- at the very moment it is pushing "free trade," deregulation, union-busting and privatization both at home and abroad.)
We who have set out to promote Global Unionism have a fundamental responsibility to defend international labor laws that have registered our gains and permitted us to fight back against the bosses and the governments in their service.
An example of how important these ILO conventions are comes from the Liverpool dockers. John Hendy, a British labor lawyer, has submitted an application/complaint to the ILO's Committee of Experts on behalf of 500 dismissed Liverpool dockers who waged a heroic, two-year battle to defend their union and their jobs.
Hendy argues that all the labor laws enacted in Britain under Margaret Thatcher are in violation of the core ILO conventions ratified by the British government, and that Britain must repeal all of Thatcher's anti- labor laws.
The Liverpool dockers are submitting this appeal to the 86th session of the ILO and will be participating in the Fifth Annual Independent Trade Union Forum. On March 28, they brought together 676 delegates, representing 3/4 million unionists, at a rally in London to launch this "Reclaim Our Rights Campaign."
Defense of these ILO Conventions is at the heart of Global Unionism. It is one of its central battle cries.
That is why I feel it is a great honor for the organizers of the Fifth Annual Independent Trade Union Forum in Geneva to have asked me to present the keynote speech to the gathering. It is a recognition of the important work we have accomplished in the Western Hemisphere in support of Global Unionism.
And this is where you -- supporters of labor and human rights -- come in. I am requesting your endorsement of the June 7 Forum in Geneva.
Please send your endorsement by email to Theorganizer@igc.org or email@example.com. List your name and the name of your organization (for identification only, if necessary).
Thanks for your support to international labor rights.