ILO Director-General backs away from "social label" proposal

by Chakravarthi Raghavan

GENEVA: ILO Director-General Michael Hansenne backed away on 18 June, from his very controversial proposal for a global "Social Label" to be awarded by ILO and used on all exports of a country, but pushed ahead for an ILO Declaration on core labour standards and a mechanism to follow its implementation.

Hansenne was responding to the debate in the Labour Conference, where his annual report on Standard Setting and Globalization focused on his proposals for an ILO Conference Declaration (to be adopted next year) and a mechanism for follow-up of implementation.

ILO officials however, suggested that the "social label" idea, which he had floated (as a trial balloon, as one ILO official called it) and has seemingly abandoned, was just peripheral to the main ILO thrust for the idea of an ILO Declaration on core standards and some follow-up mechanism.

A lively debate

Replying to the debate at the Conference, Hansenne said the discussions had raised the profile of the Conference and had given the ILO greater visibility. None of the 314 speakers had opposed continuation of work on these issues and Hansenne hoped this would be taken up at the Governing Body and it could lead to a compromise. A failure would be disastrous, he said.

There had been a lively debate, he noted, on the issue of fundamental human rights underlying the core labour standards, and a broad consensus on strengthening of ILO role in observance of these standards, so that economic progress in countries should be accompanied by social progress. There was need for further work to explore ways in which this could be brought about. But universal ratification of the seven core labour conventions and the adoption of a strong declaration on fundamental labour states were not mutually exclusive.

The drive launched at the ILO in 1995, to promote ratification of the Conventions, Hansenne noted, has been bearing fruit and more than 60 ratifications had been received and 20 more were on the way. It was extremely encouraging that many developing countries had ratified.

The Governing Body, he noted, had been examining the question of social dimensions of trade liberalisation and had reached some broad conclusions: the liberalisation of trade and removing obstacles to international trade provided the raw material for social progress in countries; at the same time, this liberalisation and uncontrolled competition hampered efforts of countries to improve standards.

The ILO, and through its standard setting activities, brings harmony between social progress and economic progress through trade liberalisation.

Hansenne suggested that governments at the ILC had not been adequately informed of the results of this debate in the Governing Body, and the Secretariat would take measures to remove this gap in communications.

The member-countries of the ILO would need to examine carefully in the Governing Body, the reluctance of member- countries to the idea of a declaration and bring about a broad consensus.

The attempts to promote observance of core labour standards through a declaration could in no way impose obligations on countries against their will, but would merely reaffirm their commitments underlying the membership of the ILO.

What would be the consequences of such a declaration would need to be further explored, Hansenne said. But there should be no misunderstanding that it would involve some sanctions through judicial procedures (of the supervisory system). However, even if a country has not ratified the core conventions, nevertheless it should respect the spirit of these conventions, the ILO head argued.

There were many ways of dealing with these problems, but any mechanism that would emerge would need as broad a consensus as possible. The proposals to be submitted by the International Labour Office (secretariat) in November to the Governing Body, he hoped, would provide a consensual basis, respecting the various sensitivities, to enable this issue to be considered for inclusion on the agenda of the 1998 ILO Conference.

By becoming a member of the ILO, Hansenne contended, each country was in fact undertaking a commitment to social progress, to enable its workers to actively participate in the benefits of economic progress, and his idea of ILO reports on social progress was aimed at providing information and exchange of experiences.

Negative reactions to "social label" proposal

The idea of "social labels", proposed in the report, Hansenne noted, had given rise to considerable agitation and negative reactions. But the proposal was mainly aimed at initiating a debate towards a multilaterally-based voluntary scheme, and it was far removed from any effort to promote a social clause in trade. Any such proposal could not move forward without a consensus, which was now lacking. But the proposal was for the benefit of developing countries who are now faced with unilateral labelling schemes, Hansenne said, adding that it was for the Governing Body to consider how to discuss this question.

But if Hansenne's "trial balloon", as one ILO official described it, had been put forward to "help" developing countries against unilateral labelling by consumer lobbies in the developed world, the debate shows that he has not managed to convince the governments of the developing world, but the proposals were enthusiastically embraced by the Northern- dominated international secretariats of workers.

A reading of the speeches of several of the key developing countries suggest that the suspicions over Hansenne's moves on the social label has affected their views on the idea of a declaration and follow-up.

The Egyptian Minister for Manpower and Immigration, Mr. Ahmed El Amawy, put it unequivocally in his speech: the ILO had to promote the universal value of its fundamental conventions, but only through a ratification process could a member undertake an obligation. Attempts to create an obligation via a Declaration would be a violation of the Vienna Law of Treaties, and a supervisory mechanism over the declaration would constitute a "serious and unconstitutional precedent" and thus not acceptable.

El Amawy also insisted on "guarantees of objectivity, impartiality and transparency in the initiatives of the International Labour Office", words that seemed aimed at Hansenne and his initiatives in this area since taking office. The proposal for an "overall social label", the Egyptian Minister declared, was "nothing but a retroversion of what had been rejected by the International Labour Conference since 1994 and an attempt to raise again the issue of linking labour standards and trade liberalization." If the ILO wants to increase its credibility, it should pay more attention to promotion of employment, combat of poverty and elimination of marginalization.

Interestingly, the representative of workers from India (where organizations enjoy, and exercise, constitutional freedoms to speak against their government) also had some hard things to say both on the suspicions aroused by moves of Northern governments, as well as of international workers' organizations.

Social labelling may give rise to protectionism

Indian worker delegate, M. Venugopal of the Bharatiya Mazdoor Sabha (a central organization linked to a principal opposition party), said "rightly or wrongly, workers and peoples of Southern countries have become apprehensive about the ulterior motives of international financial corporations and governments of the developed countries supporting such corporations. They are apprehensive that the new moves brought forth by the Northern countries are only a pretext to impose their economic imperialism on the Southern countries for purposes of strengthening their own economies. We think no further progress is possible unless this distrust is first removed." The ILO is the only international organization that can seriously address this task, and workers from the South would cooperate with the ILO for implementing any scheme "that can initiate a new era without eroding the independence and sovereignty of our countries."

Venugopal said that "on the whole, the ILO's stand on social labelling, product labelling and so on, may give rise to protectionism, and this is going to be a unilateral decision... We are opposed to the system of 'global social label' to be awarded to 'countries which show comprehensive respect for fundamental rights and principles, and agree to submit to reliable and legally autonomous international inspections.'... This system will in future subject the developing countries to fall under pressure from countries which control the WTO" he said.

The Indian worker representative also complained about several ILO standards "becoming unrealistic in conditions prevailing in developing countries, while the system of monitoring already adopted by the ILO supervisory body is unduly legalistic and rigid in approach. There is undue pressure by certain over-enthusiastic international organizations of trade unions through complaints of infringement of freedom of association and non-observance of labour standards, without taking into consideration the relevance, the state of economic development of the country.... it should be left to the central trade unions of such countries to bring pressure on governments to ratify conventions as and when necessary..." (TWE No.164, 1-15 July 1997)

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