by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 31 Mar 2000 -- The International Labour Organization's (ILO) Governing Body, which concluded its 277th session here Friday, has decided to rechristen an existing working-party to examine the social fall-out from 'globalisation' instead of just trade liberalization.

The broadening of the working-party mandate comes under the new title of "Working Party on the Social Dimensions of Globalization." In its earlier form, set up in 1994, the working group was seen to be looking at "Social Dimensions of Liberalization of International Trade."

Addressing a press conference, the Director General of the ILO, Juan Somavia, said the name change and the expansion of the mandate of the working party acknowledged the need to adjust and fine-tune the globalization process. This was necessary, he said, because the benefits of globalization were not being equitably shared.

While certain elements of the globalisation process, like technological change - particularly in the area of information and communication - were irreversible, the impact of the process as a whole on people should not be seen as 'inevitable,.' he said. "We can adjust the process."

The working party would invite important reflections on the process, Somavia said. Otherwise, the whole process of globalisation "could enter into a crisis," he cautioned.

When asked what specific form of cooperation he envisioned with one of the international fora - the WTO - Somavia outlined the institutional framework under which the two organizations collaborated. He said the WTO had an Observer status in the ILO, and was represented in the Conference, Governing Body, and the Working Party.

But it was a one-way relationship - with the ILO not having a similar representative status in the World Trade Organization. That meant that each time the WTO had an important meeting, the ILO would have to be invited.

Asked whether there were attempts to change this one-way relationship, Somavia said the issue had been brought up at times but there was no progress on this front. ILO spokespersons later added that the question of a two-way street between the ILO and the WTO had to be taken up, if at all, by the members of the Governing Body or the Conference - and that clearly wasn't the case up to now.

Delegations attending the Governing Body meetings, however, said that discussions leading up to the new mandate of the working party involved considerable debate. Besides the interests of private sector and labour being juxtaposed, there were also concerns that polarised in terms of the interests of the developed versus developing countries.

Right from the start of the first group, in 1994, developing countries have been opposing a scrutiny of just core labour standards and their link with international trade. Any specific link between labour and trade was thus, shelved by them.

The previous working party completed country studies of six countries, including Bangladesh, Korea and South Africa. Such country studies are likely to continue, perhaps with a revised format.

While globalization is now certainly supposed to include trade and liberalization issues, the expanded 'social' dimensions are expected to include not just labour standards but such issues as poverty reduction, income distribution, and employment generation.

In that sense, the newly named working group can be seen as a compromise between the interests of both the developed and the developing countries.

In its oral report to the Governing Body, the Chairperson of the former working party had the following to say:

"Regarding collaboration with the WTO, the Worker Vice-Chairperson supported this idea, which should be encouraged along the lines already put forward in the Singapore Declaration. The Working Party's appropriateness as a forum for discussion on the links between trade and core labour standards within a globalized economy was emphasized, even if a degree of opposition on this issue was expressed (emphasis added).

"Regarding collaboration with the Bretton Woods institutions, some delegates highlighted the encouraging change of attitude and policy developments undergone by those organizations since the establishment of the Working Party. The move for strengthened collaboration was echoed by many speakers. The possibility of asking other international organizations, including the WTO and the Bretton Woods institutions, how they view the Declarations on Fundamental Principles and Rights and Work, was also put forward. Finally, support was given to strengthening collaboration with UNCTAD and examining how the Bangkok Declaration and Plan of Action could be better included in the integrated approach."

The ILO Governing Body is expected to beef up its research capacity on these issues via the ILO's newly established wing called International Policy Group (IPG). This group itself will have a study unit, as well as an Advisory Committee on International Policy Issues (ACIP).

The report of the former working party chairperson also notes that "some asked, however, for further information, and clarification, about the role of the IPG, its mandate, its resources, its relationship with the Working Party and with external players, and also about the objectives and activities of the ACIP and the study unit established within the IPG."

Among other issues, the Governing Body voiced unanimous support for a reinforcement of ILO technical cooperation in favour of workers in the occupied Arab territories. It also endorsed the report of an ILO multi-disciplinary mission to the West Bank and Gaza, which outlined 19 projects with a goal of strengthening the job and income-generating capacity of small and micro-enterprises.

Mr. Somavia said the ILO was in touch with potential donors to raise the necessary funds for technical cooperation projects, defined jointly with the Palestinian Authority. He admitted that in the past, previous efforts in this direction did not develop the way they should have.

The ILO Committee on Freedom of Association reached interim conclusions on complaints involving Australia, Bangladesh, Bulgaria, Canada, Cuba, the Republic of Korea and Zimbabwe.

A special symposium on Decent Work for Women highlighted the challenge of eliminating gender-based discrimination in the workplace and paved the way for the ILO's participation in the upcoming UN conference on Women 2000: Gender equality, Development and Peace for the Twenty-first Century. (SUNS4639)

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

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