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Eight blocks for building better working lives

ILO - April 27, 2012. May 1st is Labour Day, an opportunity to reflect on the near-universal experience of work, its quality and quantity. One ILO initiative is seeking to achieve 100 per cent ratification of the eight ILO Conventions covering fundamental labour standards by 2015. The ILO’s Specialist on Labour Standard explains why these instruments are important and how they are linked to relieving poverty and improving lives.

"Eight blocks for building better working lives

By Tim De Meyer, Senior Specialist on International Labour Standards and Labour Law, ILO Decent Work Team,

As the world approaches 2015, promoting the ratification – and, of course, application – of fundamental labour standards is coming in sharper focus. Time, then, to remind ourselves what these ratification efforts are all about.
Consider the following scenario. An 11-year old girl drops out of primary school. After a few years of hand-to-mouth existence, she accepts a job offer abroad. The loan she has to take out to pay the recruiter and make the journey is huge and the interest steep, but the wages offered should enable her to repay the debt fairly quickly. However, when she arrives at the overseas factory producing screen parts for a famous global brand, she is paid barely half the wages promised. This leaves her no choice but to stay with the employer for a few years longer than initially planned – and to accept occasional abuse in the process. The supervisor keeps her passport and tells her that she will lose her job if she does not pass the pregnancy and HIV/AIDS tests. Not that workers’ health appears to be a major concern, otherwise. The girl begins to experience regular bouts of dizziness and numbness in her fingers due to the chemicals used in making the screens. She is only 16 and the law of her host country prohibits the use of these chemicals by workers under 18 years of age. However when she convinces a number of fellow workers to confront the management with its obligations under the law, they all get fired.
The above scenario illustrates one (or more) violations of each of the ILO’s four fundamental labour standards: the right of the worker not to be subject to forced labour (including debt bondage and trafficking for labour exploitation); the right not to be subject to discrimination based on sex or health status; the right not to be subject to child labour (including the right to special health protection until the age of 18); and the right to organize and to bargain collectively for the defence of workers’ rights and interests. Above all, the violations add up to extremely bleak prospects for the economic advancement of the young woman and her family, not to mention the real risks of losing future income-generating capacity.
These rights are considered fundamental to human dignity, to economic and social development, and to the long-term political stability of sovereign nations. They provide workers with labour market leverage, and hence are often referred to as “enabling rights”. As such, they lay the foundation for the technical labour standards that govern labour markets in which labour is not treated as a commodity. For example, significant investment in skills development (promoted as an important technical labour standard) risks fuelling inequality in society if a significant portion of the workforce never acquired the basic literacy skills needed to benefit from skills development programmes, because they had to toil as child labourers or were excluded from basic education on discriminatory grounds.
Fundamental standards obviously matter to peoples in Asia and the Pacific as human dignity is not the sole prerogative of citizens of fully industrialized nations. East Asia in particular has managed to lift impressive numbers of people out of poverty. However, that social progress and the economic growth that fuels it must be further consolidated with a political commitment to reduce the ranks of the “working poor” – hence the ratification of fundamental ILO standards is a performance indicator
for Millennium Development Goal (MDG) Goal One on reducing poverty and hunger. Asia and the
Pacific continues to embrace globalization, but will be expected to play its part in ensuring that the
wealth dividend of open markets is fairly shared. This is reflected in the increasing reference to
fundamental standards in bilateral or regional trade agreements. In its own interests, Asia and the
Pacific should muster the political will and ratify now: ageing societies need their gradually shrinking
workforces to rapidly produce more value. Crucially, that means restructuring for innovation, better
targeting of human resources, and incentives for long-term cooperation between capital and labour.
The ratification record of fundamental ILO Conventions in Asia and the Pacific suggests hesitation in
making the necessary political commitments: two out of three ratifications of fundamental
Conventions still needed to reach the target of universal ratification by 2015 will have to come from
ILO member States in Asia and the Pacific. That includes, for example, all except one of the
remaining 20 ratifications of the ILO forced labour Conventions. Some countries in the region with
large populations have not yet ratified the Conventions providing the basic safeguards for workers to
collectively defend and further their rights and interests, including through voluntary negotiations
over terms and conditions of employment with employers.
Such reluctance may be due to the fact that democracy is young in many parts of Asia and the
Pacific, and that the rule of law is not yet as well entrenched as it is in some other regions of the
world. Shortcomings in either democracy or the rule of law undoubtedly complicate the full
realization of fundamental ILO standards as required by the Conventions concerned. At the same
time, fundamental standards invariably feature among the earliest expressions and targets of
discontent when governments fail to heed popular calls for more human conditions of work – as
happened on 1 May 1886, when thousands of workers in the United States walked off the job in
support for a shorter working day, hence 1 May was formally recognized as Labour or International
Workers Day In 1891.
It is for this reason that all ILO member States in Asia and the Pacific have embedded fundamental standards in their national constitutions. Ratification of fundamental Conventions ensures that such standards will be realized and will improve the lives of peoples. In today’s world, with an increasingly global economy, fair, socially responsible and ultimately stable markets and supply chains will give a competitive edge to countries. The strong emerging markets in Asia and the Pacific need to assure that these standards will be protected, for the interest of their own citizens and nations.!


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