ILO Declaration promotional, not for protectionist use

by Someshwar Singh

Geneva, 17 June -- The ILO Director-General, Juan Somavia attempted Thursday to calm the fears of developing countries that the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work may be used as a protectionist measure in international trade.

The Declaration was adopted last year.

In the debate at the Conference this year, many delegations, including the Labour Minister from India and the President of the Conference in his opening remarks made specific references to the fears that the labour standards Declaration would be used as a protectionist instrument in international trade.

Replying to the discussion on his report on Decent Work, Somavia said Thursday: "When the Conference adopted the Declaration on Fundamental principles and Rights at Work last year, it managed to form a consensus around a major tenet: that the Declaration should not be used for protectionist purposes."

"That tenet," Somavia said, "has been reiterated this year by industrialized and developing countries alike. The Declaration is a promotional instrument, and there can be no conditionality attached to it."

Somavia noted that the unanimous support for the Declaration last year needed to be reflected in followup actions. But there was agreement both in the ILO Committee on Application of Standards and in the plenary that the follow-up to the declaration was distinct from and complementary to the regular standard-setting and supervisory procedures. This meant that appropriate procedures would have to be devised to promote the Declaration and assist constituents in making the follow-up mechanism work.

Where one or more of the fundamental conventions have not been ratified, an urgent question for those governments, in consultation with employers and workers organizations, would be to provide the first annual reports required.

Somavia also underlined the ILO had to make a major effort in the field of employment and, as many speakers had said in the debate, reach out to the informal sector workforce and respond to needs of all workers without exception. "Social protection must not be restricted to a few. Decent work cannot be confined to a minority of workers, but must be an objective for society as a whole."

There had been from various quarters sometimes contradictory concerns about the relationship between international labour standards and trade. Such concerns had been present throughout the ILO history and the legitimate desire for generally agreed social norms was a natural reflection of teh perennial tensions at the national level between markets and society. These have been intensified by the social dislocations resulting from globalization and will surface in all organizations concerned with global governance. As a centre for normative policy in the world at work, the ILO would be inevitably exposed to this reality.

Reiterating the view at the Conference this year that the Declaration was a promotional instrument, with no conditionality attached to it, Somavia said the critical issue was the link between labour standards and functioning of the global economy as a whole - not just trade.

The way forward lay not in restricting trade, but in making labour standards powerful instruments for achieving competitiveness as a socially sound foundation. New ways had to be found to strengthen mutual reinforcement of social standards on the one hand, and effective and dynamic participation in global markets on the other, "integrating social justice and economic growth into global governance." (SUNS4458)

The above article first appeared in the South-North Development Monitor (SUNS).

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