by Chakravarthi Raghavan

Geneva, 5 June 2000 -- Unless the growing disenchantment with the present forms of globalization are tackled, the visible and vocal backlash on the streets and the silent backlash in the home would continue, the Director-general of the International Labour Organization warned Monday.

Speaking at the plenary of the 88th International Labour Conference, the ILO Director-General Juan Somavia called for radically new solutions to the global problems of poverty and working poor.

The Conference which began last week kicked off a general debate Monday with a speech from Somavia. Among the items on the agenda of the conference is consideration and adoption of a revised convention and recommendations on maternity protection -- an issue where the need of attracting many more adherents is being posed by many employers and some governments as one needing 'flexibility' of standards.

Somavia appealed to the conference to strengthen maternity protection for women workers and said this issue provided "a perfect example of how gender equality is at the heart of decent work."

A woman worker should be able to bear a child safely and to nurture the child for some after birth without fear of losing her job, income or career, Somavia said in stressing the importance of this issue before the Conference.

The response to a woman in that situation, the ILO head added, "cannot be just a business or a market decision. It is a societal decision. It is about family stability and family values and about how we share the responsibilities and costs."

The ILO, Somavia said, should be at the forefront of forging a global coalition for decent work. There was a need for strengthened tripartism, involving governments, workers and employers, but also a need for "new enterprises, new cooperatives, new initiatives, new international agreements and new global networks that respond to unmet human needs -- to maximise not just profit but also social impact."

The concept of decent work, Somavia said, expressed the overall goal of the ILO in ordinary, everyday language and corresponded to reasonable expectations of workers in the global economy.

"What people are asking for is work on which they can educate their children, build a stable family life and security, including a pension," Somavia said. "Decent work is an ambitious goal. But people have a right to be ambitious about themselves and their families."

Given the diversity of circumstances and aspirations, decent work cannot take the form of "a one-size fits all solution."

"On the contrary," insisted Somavia, "it is a way of treating in a coherent and dynamic way, the diverse aspirations and goals of different individuals, different cultures, different societies.

"The question is how to make it real. We all understand that the possibilities for decent work evolve with social and economic progress, and the goals can and should rise over time."

The current approach, with increasingly informal and precarious work growing worldwide, "is not working," Somavia declared. There is widespread downgrading in wages and working conditions caused by informalization of the economy and work. "I believe that you have to build the wider aspirations of people into their work right from the start. If you don't, you end up with child labour, with discrimination, highly dangerous jobs, intolerable practices of all sorts and outright exploitation."

"The decent work vision is the compass that will guide us all" in combating these ills. It will take time to achieve decent work for everyone, but it needs to be responsibility of society as a whole.

The next major challenge for the decent work agenda, the ILO head said, is to make it operational at the national level - by building on the social floor established by the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

"Couldn't we post the message of this Declaration in every workplace of the world?" asked Somavia.

The ILO head said that as a result of the intensive campaign by the office to get ratifications of the Convention on the Worst Forms of Child Labour, more than 30 countries had ratified the convention, and further ratifications were in the pipeline.

The elimination of the worst forms of child labour was "a moral obligation" and the next step was "to work with countries to set a time-based programme" for such elimination.

Referring to globalization, Somavia said: "The hard reality is that the benefits of globalization are not reach enough people. We know that the global economy is not creating enough jobs, and especially not enough jobs or sustainable livelihods that meet people's aspirations for a decent life.

"Unless we tackle the growing disenchantment with the present forms of globalization, the backlash will continue -- the visible backlash on the streets and the silent backlash in the home."

The information and communication revolution that is the driving force behind the globalization of production is surely irreversible, Somavia said. He insisted however that "there is nothing inevitable about the policies that accompany globalization: macro-economic, financial, trade, social development policies."

The criterion for the success of the global economy "is not only growth or financial returns, but whether the global economy has been meeting people's needs."

It was the responsibility of the ILO and the multilateral system "to get to grips with the social aspects of globalization in a way that they have not managed so far."

"More socially sensitive policies are required," Somavia declared. "But also (required) is a more integrated approach by the multilateral system whose organizations need to stop behaving like independent actors and start playing as a team towards the same goal."

The ILO head appealed to the 175-member states (and their tripartite delegations) to continue to invest in finding solutions true to the ILO values that were relevant in the modern world and the common interests of the constituents. "By prioritizing the task of making decent work operation at the country level, I am committing the ILO to working with such countries in the concerted effort required to take decent work out of the Conference halls of General to the fields and factories and offices of the countries," Somavia concluded. (SUNS4681)

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

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