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ILO Fight On New Worldwide Labor Standards
By Richard Saunders, Mail and Guardian, 7 June 1997
ILO fights for new labour standards The International Labour Organisation met in Geneva this week to look at new options for guaranteeing worldwide minimum labour standards.
FOLLOWING the controversy over the unsuccessful attempt to introduce a social clause to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) structure last year, new options for guaranteeing worldwide minimum labour standards are being set by opponents of the clause. The latest initiatives are led by the International Labour Organisation (ILO), whose members met in Geneva this week.
Michel Hansenne, ILO director general, has proposed that the United Nations affiliate, whose mandate includes responsibility for the development, implementation and monitoring of international labour standards, consider adopting a declaration affirming basic rights of workers in all member states. This declaration would apply in countries irrespective of their ratification or compliance with existing ILO conventions, which are voluntary.
The problem has been the voluntary nature of ILO conventions and other instruments, and the difficulty in winning compliance from member countries. In Africa, for example, the seven "core" ILO conventions relating to forced labour, freedom of association and organisation, collective bargaining, non-discrimination in employment and child labour, have been ratified only by Zambia. South Africa has yet to ratify conventions on non-discrimination and child labour.
Such lack of ratification (particularly among developing countries) has helped revive the debate around trade-based restrictions on cheap labour countries.
Last year, Western governments and trade unions led the way in proposing that legally binding rules be applied in international trade, forcing participating countries to guarantee minimum labour standards at the risk of trade sanctions. Allegations were made that low-wage labour and worker exploitation throughout the developing world, and particularly in the Far East, had led to a situation of unfair competition or "social dumping". The only effective response, it was argued, was to apply pressure where it hurts most: trade sanctions.
Opponents of such moves, including employer organisations and the majority of developing-country WTO members, countered that these arguments were merely dressed-up protectionism.
By ensuring that all 173 ILO member states are signatories to a new declaration on broadly described minimum labour standards, the latest initiative is designed to defuse tension by more clearly defining the agreed-upon rules of "fair play" for producers in the future. It runs parallel to the ILO's relatively successful campaign to elicit wider ratification of and compliance with the ILO's core conventions by non-participating states.
ILO insiders now say these moves will likely be followed by new efforts aimed at making ILO membership itself conditional upon recognition of specified minimum labour standards.