by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 12 Mar 2000 -- An increasing awareness among all ILO members, about the fundamental principles and rights at work and their importance for social and economic development has been a key direct effect of the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted in 1998, a group of Expert-Advisers have said.

In presenting this view in the review of annual reports by States which have not yet ratified one or more of the ILO's seven fundamental Conventions (usually referred to as core labour standards), the expert-advisers have said that whether they had ratified the conventions or not, countries often faced the same challenges: implementing principles if they have not yet ratified the conventions, and giving effect to the provisions of the Conventions if they have.

The expert-advisers have recommended that priority for technical cooperation should be provided to countries that face difficulties in implementation, but have demonstrated their commitment to the fundamental principles and rights at work, either by ratification of the Conventions concerned or by an expression of political will to promote them where ratification is not yet possible.

The review of the reports from countries that have not yet ratified the seven core conventions is in the first set of annual reports as a Follow-up to the Declaration, published by the ILO (with full text available at the ILO website:

The seven core labour standard conventions are: Freedom of Association and Protection of Rights to Organise (No 87, with 128 ratifications out of 175 member states); Right to Organize and Collective Bargaining (No 98, with 146 ratifications); Forced Labour (No 29, with 152 ratifications); Abolition of Forced Labour (No 105, with 146 ratifications); Equal Remuneration (No 100, with 144 ratifications) and Discrimination - Employment and Occupation (No 111, with 142 ratifications); Minimum Age Convention (No 138 with 85 ratifications).

The recently adopted Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour (No.182), which will enter into force on 19 November 2000, has now been added to the seven core conventions, according to the report of the expert-advisers.

Some 59 countries have ratified all seven Conventions. Countries that ratify conventions send in reports to the ILO, which go before an Expert Committee which scrutinises these reports and published reports annually.

ILO members who have not ratified one or more of these seven conventions were asked to provide reports in terms of the Follow-up to the Declaration. The aim of the Follow-up is to encourage efforts made by Members to promote the fundamental principles and rights.

Appointed by the ILO Governing Body, the expert-advisers have been asked to examine the information compiled by the ILO on the basis of replies and comments, present an introduction to the compilation based on their reports and drawing attention to aspects that call for more in-depth discussion, and propose any adjustments to the report forms.

The review of the annual reports, the first of which is now made public, will be examined by the ILO's Governing Body at its forthcoming meeting 16-31 March. The Governing Body is to set priorities and plans of action for technical cooperation to be implemented during the 4-year reporting period.

There is also to be a global report, by the ILO Director-General to the annual conference in June of each year, covering one of the four categories of rights and principles in turn -- giving an overview of the progress made both in countries that have ratified the fundamental conventions and those that have not.

The expert-advisers have noted the complementary nature of the Declaration Follow-up to established supervisory mechanisms, and have stressed that the Follow-up should not in any way be seen as a double scrutiny, and the complimentary but distinct approach between the Follow-up and established supervisory mechanism should be maintained.

"Neither the expert-advisers nor the Office can attest to the accuracy of the information that has been provided in the reports and comments," the report adds. The established supervisory process, by a committee of juridical experts, examines country reports in respect of the conventions ratified by them.

Of the 228 reports due on the four categories of the core conventions, there were 127 reports -- 35 reports out of 52 due on freedom of association and collective bargaining, 21 out of 41 on forced labour, 47 out of 92 on child labour and 24 out of 43 on discrimination.

No reports on any of the four categories were received from 52 governments. A few provided reports on one or more, but not all topics.

Between 1 April 1999, when the ILO DG requested annual reports from members under the Declaration Follow-up, and the final preparation of the compilation, there were an additional 38 ratifications of the seven fundamental conventions received from 21 countries. These were not required to submit reports to the Follow-up in respect of the ratified conventions.

The report also notes that since the campaign for ratification of adopted conventions began in May 1995, there has been a steady increase in ratifications of the fundamental conventions, and this trend has continued since the adoption of the declaration.

A number of countries have also reported on their intentions to ratify, and the status of these.

The expert-advisers note in their report that with the burgeoning of the informal sector in many countries and new types of labour arrangements in some, questions arise about whether effective protection is in fact being guaranteed by law in relation to the fundamental principles and rights at work.

"Certain categories of employees such as domestic workers in private households, agricultural workers, and others, are often excluded from the provisions of major labour legislation; there is little information in the reports on whether and how respect for fundamental principles and rights at work is being ensured for such workers. While some countries' labour and related legislation applies to all workers, others extend protection only to those who have concluded contracts of employment."

The debate on core labour standards (and attempts to link them to trade and the WTO) have focused on the developing countries by not acceding to the core labour standards.

The first set of reports now to the Follow-up brings out that a number of industrialized countries have not ratified all the core standards (and thus escape ILO supervisory mechanism). New Zealand and the United States have not ratified the conventions on freedom of association (No 87) and effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining (No 98); Canada and the United States have not ratified the Convention on all forms of forced (No 29) or compulsory labour (No 105); Australia, Austria, Canada, Czech Republic, Japan, New Zealand, United Kingdom and the United States have not ratified the convention on the effective abolition of Child Labour (No 138); Japan, Luxembourg and the US have not ratified the Conventions (No 100 and 111) on the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation.

All these industrialized countries have submitted reports to the Follow-up, but by not being members of the Conventions, they escape the scrutiny of the ILO supervisory body on their implementation.

In their general comments on the followup, in respect of the convention on freedom of association and collective bargaining rights, the experts underscore the fundamental difference between the situation of countries where the fundamental right is denied and those where it is not.

It is crucial to distinguish between the legal framework of a country (ratification of a convention, legislation, regulation and institutions) and effective implementation of the framework, the expert-advisers say. This, they note, becomes evident in many examples when reports from governments are examined (which often focus on the legal framework) and the reports from workers or employers which emphasize their views on the practice.

The expert-advisers note that many governments have referred to a range of labour market trends, many influenced by globalization, to illustrate changes with regard to implementation of the fundamental principles and rights at work. "Governments should take account of the growing importance of the informal sector by providing more information with regard to how the fundamental principles and rights at work are promoted, realized and respected in that sector."

On the conventions on forced or compulsory labour, the expert-advisers said the material from the reporting countries showed they spanned a spectrum - from those which saw only some modification of legislation being necessary to permit ratification of the fundamental conventions on forced or compulsory labour, to those who had embedded forced on compulsory labour as part of their political system.

"In some cases forced or compulsory labour was clearly linked to acute poverty and cultural traditions, calling for a range of economic and social policies to eliminate the practice.

"It was encouraging that some countries had recognized the problem, and they should receive a positive response in the form of technical cooperation to help them tackle it."

The expert-advisers suggest that to get a better picture of the existing of forced labour and its extent, report forms should be more specific and identify the types of indicators that could be useful.

In regard to the convention on effective abolition of child labour (the minimum age convention), the expert-advisers note that child labour has been and continues to be the subject of much concern and debate within the ILO and in other international and national arenas. The expert-advisers did not consider it to be their role to reopen this debate, but rather to focus on certain key issues arising through examination of the reports under the Follow-up.

"The fact that 90 reports were due under this category of principle, twice as many as for discrimination and for forced labour, is itself illuminating indicating that ratification of Convention No 138, amongst the core conventions, presents difficulties for by far the greatest number of States. The unanimous adoption of Convention No 182 has helped now to focus global attention to the elimination of the worst forms of child labour."

The expert-advisers noted a 'disappointing rate of response' from governments - only 52 percent turned in reports - making it difficult to draw general conclusions and recommendations. But those who did provided in general more information than for other categories of rights.

"Despite the lack of data," they add, "it seems clear that the scale of child labour remains alarming. The problem is complex and it will take time to find solutions which do not worsen poverty in the short-term and are sustainable in the long-term. This complexity cannot be held up as an excuse for not enforcing prohibition; rather it explains why it might take longer to eliminate child labour in some countries than in others.

"The causes of child labour extend way beyond legal and regulatory framework and enforcement, to complex social, cultural and economic factors. A strict application of the legal prohibition alone will not solve the problem. A whole range of complementary measures is needed to tackle the different causes of the problem, especially poverty. The expert-advisers were encouraged to see the extent and creativity of action by governments in partnership with employers' and workers' organizations, NGOs and others, and by the high degree of cooperation apparent.

"Many governments noted the link between child labour and the educational system. This connection is critical and all States are encouraged to make compulsory, relevant education a public policy priority. Yet, it is unfortunately true that the cost of providing universal education is a serious problem for poorer countries."

The expert-advisers note that the material from reporting governments under each of the core conventions is too voluminous to present in a comprehensive form in the introduction, and only some of the information was being highlighted.

The highlight under freedom of association notes that, while providing a detailed picture of the legislative framework relevant to the freedom of association and effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining, the US government had said that "there are aspects of the system that fail to fully protect these rights for all employees in all circumstances."

According to the ICFTU, the right to organise and right to strike are not adequately protected in the US labour legislation, which is unable to protect workers when the employer is determined to destroy or prevent union representation. The government has described efforts it has made to address criticisms made by some in relation to freedom of association and effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining.

Domestic workers, the report notes, is a significant category of persons not covered by or excluded from legal protection in a number of countries. In a number of other countries, non-nationals are not covered either. And in many countries there are restrictions on public employees/civil servants.

Very few of the reporting governments have provided information on workers in export processing zones (EPZs). Among those that did, Zimbabwe has said that initially it had been intended not to apply the Labour Relations Act to EPZ workers, but it had now been clarified that the Act would apply.

In India, the ICFTU reported, in practice employers obstruct workers from organizing in EPZs. The Government India has reported that enforcement efforts were under way, also involving trade union representatives in the process.

A major gap relates to the informal sector workers. (SUNS4626)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS) of which Chakravarthi Raghavan is the Chief Editor.

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