Wednesday, May 13, 2009

International Labour organisation-It"s Imp.-inf. by Ashok Hindocha(M-9426201999)

The International Labour Organisation at 90

By Dinesh Weerakkody

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is a specialized agency of the United Nations funded by member states to deal with labour issues and celebrated 90 years in existence recently. The International Labour Organization is comprised of industry, government and labour representatives from 174 member countries. Originally formed in 1919, the ILO was created to "advance economic and social stability around the world by promoting human rights in the workplace; employment and job creation; and fair trade among nations through observance of basic labour standards." The ILO became a specialized, independent agency of the United Nations in 1946 and, among other activities, conducts an annual review of labour practices in countries around the world. ILO committees issue various reports documenting conditions, and a process is in place for reviewing complaints.

While the ILO itself has no enforcement power, its reports can be used by governments to determine whether or not to withhold aid based on the documented abuses. ILO critics however contend that the organization is crippled by its inability to impose legal or fiscal sanctions, but according to local sources, the organization has seen its share of successes. According to them, many governments have reformed laws or labour practices in more than 2,000 cases over the last 30 years due to ILO investigation and procedures. For example, they point out that South Korea passed legislation in December 1996 that violated some ILO conventions; however, ILO criticism spurred the government to reform the legislation to conform to the recommended ILO standards.

Capital and Labour

Supporters of the ILO in Sri Lanka observe that countries generally go that extra mile to avoid the scorn, contempt and criticism associated with non-compliance. Equally, critics say, the worst offenders only twist in their seats at major global forums and do next nothing about it. The differences in labour standards often boil down to whether the global trading community is willing to agree and adhere to the ground rules.

The first question obviously is about the ground rules. Is it clear and does it help to generate trade and employment? If one looks at the Constitution of the ILO, it appears clearly that the purpose was to achieve a balance between nations, and within ntions between capital and labour which ensured harmony and avoided conflict - a concern that was fresh from the ravages of the First World War. The preamble to the Constitution states thus: “ Whereas universal and lasting peace can only be established only if it is based upon social justice”. The preamble goes on to link the destabilization of the world and its harmony to conditions of labour! A watershed in its existence came with the conclusion of the ‘Second World War’, which resulted in the setting up of the United Nations and the famous Declaration of Philadelphia.

Between the setting up of the ILO and the Declaration of Philadelphia there were many key international standards adopted by the ILO. The core Conventions focused on the key areas which were embodied in the Constitution itself. The key areas of concern were:

•Regulation of working hours
•Regulation of labour supply.
•Prevention of unemployment.
•An adequate living wage.
•Protection of workers against disease and injury arising out of employment.
•Protection of children, young persons and women.
•Security/social protection for the old and injured.
•Migrant workers.
•Equal remuneration for work of equal value.
•Recognition of the principle of Freedom of Association.
•The organization of vocational and technical education.

The core Conventions of the ILO are now regarded as eight in number and cover four basic areas : Fundamental Right of Association and Collective Bargaining; Non Discrimination; Abolition of Child Labour; and Abolition of Forced Labour.

What has the ILO’s contribution been to improve conditions of work in relation to achieving the above goals? Perhaps it might be justifiable to conclude that the pressure from countries of the developed world by imposing basic conditions to permit exports to them have had a greater impact on improving conditions for labour than the Conventions have ever achieved. It is also a matter worth considering as to why the US which is a great advocate of human rights and worker rights in general, has still not ratified all the ten ILO Conventions?

Has the ILO failed?

What exactly is the reason for the ILO perhaps not having achieved all that it set out to do? Unlike the rest of the UN, with perhaps the exception of the WHO, there is much that the ILO could do within its mandate. Critics say that its main contribution could have been in relation to standard setting. They say the standards are voted by a tripartite forum annually and there is a long period of consultation before a vote at the Conference to adopt a standard. However, it would appear that at the end of the day, what matters is that powerful blocks determine what carries the day. It is not only the powerful countries which dominate but also their power blocks which comprise poorer countries which dare not fully express themselves. There also seems to be a lot of hypocrisy and selective examination of facts such as in the case of China in relation to freedom of association or the Middle East in relation to discrimination. What is true is that the ILO makes appropriate noises but stays clear of any controversy, which could/may anger the big donors, who are needed to sustain the organization financially.

A Sri Lankan Gravy Train?

According to Trade Union sources, Sri Lanka usually sends a government-heavy delegation to the conference and will do so again in a few weeks. The government part of the delegation is huge and the participants are selected more for the purpose of giving them a much needed holiday rather than bringing back home some knowledge garnered from counterparts in other countries. Very few policy makers in the private sector, Trade Unions and public sector see the reports of the ILO conferences and debate them. On the side of the Unions, out of some 1500 unions in the country, the government selects about eight to ten leaders and it is said that in recent years the government has been more responsible in its selection and had not excluded leaders on the basis of political grounds. Trade Union sources also say that some of the leaders who are nominated do not attend the sessions and make use of the opportunity to tour Europe and see relations etc. They give the example of one prominent leader who went on from Geneva to the US and returned to Geneva only to catch his flight back!

The delegates, as we know, are funded by the taxpayers of this country. Therefore, both the ILO and the government should ensure that delegates at the end of the sessions can in some way help to improve the quality of debate in their respective countries and help to strengthen their labour market policies that can/will help to prevent job losses and create more employment. As the economy shrinks, companies from New York to Tokyo are searching for ways to avoid firing workers. Therefore, the debate should shift and centre on how job sharing, salary cuts and reduced workweeks, more than equality and decent work.

ILO Expertise

The other issue is technical assistance, which is the second area in which the ILO can play a significant role. It is often found that the quality of the ILO experts in some specialist domains do not match the expertise available in the industry. Most ofthe so-called experts are perhaps academically sound or have had experience only in a limited area which makes it difficult for them to understand the requirements of a specific location or the needs of the audience. It is interesting that a small country like Sri Lanka has produced several ILO professional staff, some of whom have shone in their respective fields. One advantage that perhaps some of them had was a sense of realizing that they came from a small multi-ethnic country. It is necessary for the ILO experts to be culturally sensitive and technically competent before attempting to work in a country to which they were assigned to advise on how labour market policies and HRD initiatives should/must be structured.

Many UN personnel import their own cultural styles with them and expect the host country to imbibe their styles. It maybe useful for the ILO in Sri Lanka to evaluate its work here and look at how much it has actually contributed to the two key areas within their mandate – the enforcement of standards and the creation of what is now called by them ‘decent work’. We have a plethora of labour laws some of them so antiquated that even the Labour Ministry has lost track of them. The ILO needs to do its part in keeping the government and the social partners apprised of best practices, for example, on collective bargaining and recognition of unions. In Sri Lanka unions compete among themselves for members on the basis that they could deliver a better deal than unions in place; new unions make a sales pitch on the basis that they could force managements to give better terms once the Unions are established etc.

Such situations ultimately kill the company and this is seen in many manufacturing and service organizations. Recognition problems come in because of the lack of proper rules regarding the manner in which Unions can poach members of other unions and their militancy - which is unconnected with the realities of a particular business. Guidance on such matters could be given by the ILO of how other countries have dealt with such situations and helped build better relations. With regard to the second area of its mandate, the ILO needs to help the country in building skills and retraining the labour force, which would attract more employment to our country and to have a business climate conducive to investment by the ‘decent employers’ of the world. The country can ill afford to have employment creation for the mere sake of creating jobs and it is agreed in principle that the emphasis must be to attract good and ethical investment.

The ILO, in my view, needs to focus on the barriers to creating such employment, such as examining laws and regulations which discourage the better investors from being attracted to Sri Lanka. In the final analysis since the financial melt down has now turned into a global economic crisis, the human cost in terms of job losses and displaced workers is today growing faster by the day. The ILO needs to move beyond their predictions and statements and work alongside some of the top employers and states to retrain workers, develop new skills and overhaul labour policies to ensure that once the recovery comes, new jobs are created in sufficient numbers to get the jobless workers back to work.

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