People's Democracy

(Weekly Organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist)


No. 26

July 01, 2012



Pious Wishes,

Failure to See Contradictions


K Hemalata


THE 101st session of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) was held on May 30 to June 14, 2012 in Geneva, with the various events related to the annual conference of the tripartite body taking place in the UN and ILO headquarters in the city. A total of 4,395 representatives, including delegates and advisors, from all its three constituents (governments, employers and workers), and from 170 countries, came to participate in the conference. The Indian contingent included nine-member teams each of workers and employers in addition to the government representatives and was led by the union minister for labour and employment, Mallikharjuna Kharge. Representatives from the BMS, INTUC, AITUC, HMS, CITU, AIUTUC and LPF constituted the workers’ contingent. The CITU was represented by its national secretary, K Hemalata.


Out of the total participants, women comprised 26.2 per cent, down from 27.9 per cent in the last conference. Women’s participation declined despite a specific direction from the ILO headquarters for inclusion of more women in delegations, as per a resolution adopted way back in 1991. What was even more regrettable was that women’s participation was the lowest among the workers’ group.


In addition to the regular items in the agenda, like the report of the director general, programme implementation, budget, the report on the application of ILO conventions and recommendations etc, three other subjects were also discussed in the conference; these were Youth Employment Crisis, the proposed ILO Recommendation on Social Protection Floors, and Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. These issues are of great importance to the working people, particularly in the context of increasing job losses and increasing attacks on the basic rights of workers on the pretext of a global economic crisis and the austerity measures being resorted to by many governments. The 101st ILO session adopted the reports of the committees that discussed the three issues mentioned above. The proposed recommendation on social protection floors was adopted almost unanimously --- with no opposition and only one abstention.




The discussion on the proposed recommendation on Social Protection Floors was taken up as per a resolution adopted in the last ILO session in 2011. In his address to the opening session of the 101st session, ILO director general Juan Somavia said that establishing social protection floors was “about promoting human dignity. It is a basic contribution to reducing poverty, to empowering people, but also to expanding aggregate demand; it has an economic effect. It is a commitment to a decent society, a platform that enables hundreds of millions of women, men and children to progress on a sure footing. That is why the notion of a floor is so important – not a safety net which you cannot stand on, a floor which you can stand on.” He also said experiences in different countries showed that providing social security was affordable even in poor societies.


The recommendation adopted by the conference asserted that it was the “overall and primary responsibility of the state to give effect to the recommendation” and called upon members to provide social security benefits on the basis of certain principles that include universality, adequacy, predictability, non-discrimination, social inclusion, respect for the rights and dignity of people covered by the social security guarantees etc. It also recommended that social security benefits should be provided as ‘legal entitlements’ which should be realised progressively by setting targets and time frames. In accordance with the national circumstances, the social protection floors should comprise minimum benefits like access to essential healthcare including maternity care, to nutrition, education, care etc to all children, to basic social security guarantees to persons in active age who are unable to earn sufficient income, particularly due to sickness, unemployment, maternity, disability etc, and to basic income security to the older persons.


The ILO director general also announced that the ILO, the UN system, the IMF and World Bank would set up a “social protection inter-agency board” to promote social protection. It is well known that the IMF and World Bank are staunch advocates of privatisation and public private partnership which in effect means utilisation of public resources for private profits. Hence, their involvement in the exercise raises big doubts about the principle of “guaranteed benefits” to be put into practice. Despite all the talk about “floors on which you can stand on,” there is every possibility that schemes like Swavalamban in India, which do not guarantee contribution by the government and wherein the poor’s money is sought to be collected for pumping into the share markets without providing any guaranteed pension for the poor in their old age, would be promoted.




There was broad consensus for the provisions in the draft recommendation on social protection floors. However, it was strange to see the government of India that claimed credit and glory for enacting social security measures like the Unorganised Workers’ Social Security Act, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the yet-to-be-introduced Food Security Bill, proposing amendments meant to limit or restrict the social security benefits. It strongly argued against “progressively ensuring higher levels of social security to all” on the pretext of lack of resources. It was even opposed to “setting targets for time bound realisation” of social protection floors and went to the extent of insisting for a vote even when it was quite obvious that it was in a clear minority, with the employers and many governments supporting the formulation proposed by the workers’ group through an amendment.


The Indian government, along with the employers’ group and the European Union governments, firmly supported “diversity of methods and approaches, including of financing mechanisms and delivery systems” as a principle of the recommendation, which the workers strongly objected to because it would open the door to privatisation of social protection.


Flouting its firm commitment to neo-liberal globalisation, the Indian government strongly opposed the promotion of “formal employment.” Wherever there were references to promotion of formal employment or “reduction of informal employment,” India along with Bangladesh registered their opposition quite vocally as “change to formal employment was not going to happen for years to come.” The anti-worker stance of the Indian government was also exposed when its representative opposed the proposal for providing “effective, simple, rapid, accessible” complaint and appeals procedures “free of charge,” asking “whether the applicants have to be provided transport charges too, if one had to go to far off places to lodge a complaint?” They had to be clarified that ‘accessible’ means that places to lodge complaints and appeals should be nearby.


Reflecting a pro-labour attitude, on the other hand, the Left and progressive governments in several Latin American countries like Brazil, Argentina, Uruguay, Venezuela and Bolivia introduced several amendments to enable extension of social protection guarantees and opposed their restrictions on the plea of lack of financial resources. They strongly argued for the benefits of social security measures in promoting growth of the economy. They were in general supportive of the positions of the workers’ group.




The Committee on Youth Employment Crisis discussed the serious issue under five themes --- employment and economic policies; employability; labour market policies; entrepreneurship; and rights for young people. The report titled Youth Employment Crisis: A Call for Action, adopted by the conference, noted that around 7.5 crore young people all over the world are out of work today. This is in addition to the 60 lakh who stopped looking for work as a futile exercise. More than 2 crore young workers who did manage to find a job earn meagre wages of less than two US dollars a day. An overwhelming proportion of the young workers of today are employed in the informal sector, in jobs without any job security, income security or social protection. The ILO adopted a Global Jobs Pact in 2009 but the situation has further worsened since. It is strange that while the Philadelphia Declaration of ILO, adopted in 1944 and annexed to its constitution, affirms as its fundamental principle that “labour is not a commodity,” all ILO documents talk of “labour market”!


Adopting the resolution placed by the Committee on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the conference reaffirmed “the universal and immutable nature of fundamental principles and rights at work.”  It is to be remembered that the ILO adopted in 1998 a Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work; and then a decade later, in 2008, it adopted a Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalisation --- oblivious to the fact that globalisation in its present form can never be fair or just. It is strange that while attacks are mounting on workers all over the world, employers in one country after another are, with active collaboration of their governments, trying to wriggle out of the global crisis by attacking the basic rights of the workers, the ILO feels “important progress has been made since 1998 towards the universal application of fundamental principles and rights at work..…” At the same time, it also noted that violations of fundamental principles and rights at work mostly affect adults and children in the informal economy though they are not limited to it alone. In almost all the countries, including the advanced capitalist countries, the informal sector and flexible forms of employment have been increasing. In fact, the director general himself talked of more youth today working in part time jobs out of compulsion; in Australia the proportion of workers in informal sector is reported to have reached 50 per cent. Where does the ILO see “progress”?


In 99.9 per cent of cases if not 100 per cent, it is the employers who violate the fundamental principles and rights at work. But the ILO does not acknowledge this fact. On the pretext of all its constituents having equal rights and responsibilities, the ILO resolution on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work says that both the employers’ and workers’ organisations “should commit to respect fundamental principles and rights at work.” The major flaw in this approach is that it does not recognise the basic contradiction between the interests of the employers who seek to maximise their profits and of the workers who seek to improve their working and living conditions, and the fact that employers exercise control over the production process and exploit the workers.


This is the reason why these resolutions, reports and recommendations remain mere expressions of pious desires, as shown by the experience of all ILO conventions and recommendations adopted so far. The ILO, which will be celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2019, has so far passed 189 conventions and 202 recommendations, but most of the governments are not keen to implement them; these include the governments that have ratified these conventions. It has also been observed that the rate of ratifications has slowed down considerably during the last one decade or so --- the period during which imperialist globalisation has been wreaking havoc with the working people’s life over the world. Further, being a tripartite body, its principles, policies, objectives, conclusions etc have to be so formulated and drafted as to satisfy all three constituents – governments, employers and workers. But governments in many countries are today, in the era of imperialist globalisation, either openly championing the interests of the rich and the corporates or are compelled to take stand in their favour for fear of losing the much sought after investments. The result is that the ILO documents are often too general and vague to inspire the workers or be of much use to them, particularly those in the unorganised or informal sector who are left outside the purview of any statutory rights or protections.


That the employers this year chose to use the platform of ILO conference for attacking the workers’ rights, became obvious when, on the basis of some technicalities they blocked the discussions in the Committee on Application of Standards. This is the committee that discusses the most serious cases of violations of standards included in the report of the ILO’s Committee of Experts comprising of eminent international jurists. The employers’ group objected to the Expert Group’s interpretation of the workers’ right to strike in relation to Convention 87. They argued that the Expert Group had no mandate to interpret the convention.




It is interesting to note the different ways in which two major international trade union organisations reacted to the pressure tactics of the employers.


The World Federation of Trade Unions (WFTU), the only class based international trade union organisation with more than 80 million members in 120 countries, did not hesitate to call a spade a spade; it strongly and unequivocally condemned the attitude of the employers as “provocative and irresponsible.” The WFTU secretariat’s statement said this attitude of employers was a “part of the historic confrontation and polarisation between capital and labour” that was taking place “under the current growing suppression of labour and trade union rights.” It reiterated its position that “the right to strike is part of the freedom of association,” that it “is a legitimate fundamental tool for workers to promote, defend and demand our economic, social and labour interests” and that “it is a non negotiable inalienable right which was conquered with the struggles of millions of workers who suffered repression, persecution..…” Charging the employers’ representatives with “trying to impose the force and blackmail of the big capital over the ILO,” the WFTU made it clear that “what happened in the Standards Committee proves that the economic powers in complicity with the governments serving the big capital have been using the ILO in accordance with their interests, a process that has been going on for over two decades following the imposition of neo-liberal policies.” Expressing its solidarity with all the workers in their struggles to defend their rights, the WFTU declared that “we will defend it, as always, with the united actions of struggle.”


On the other hand, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), representing 175 million workers in 153 countries, merely said that employers were “trying to keep the worst abuses under wraps and avoid the international scrutiny.” It has also tried to show that there were differences between the employers and their organisations saying that “Employers’ organisations are playing a dangerous political game at the ILO, even as some individual companies are themselves increasingly prepared to discuss workers’ rights openly and frankly.” Leave alone criticising the exploitative capitalist system, the ITUC was not even prepared to criticise the process of imperialist globalisation and the measures being adopted by the employers with the open support from the governments, particularly in the wake of the global economic crisis, for the increasing attacks on the working class, which was reflected in the stand of the employers’ organisations in the ILO conference.


Despite its championing of equality and opposing discrimination on any account including political discrimination, ILO gives little space to WFTU. Till today it has not taken any steps to ensure that the IFTU is given its due share in the ILO’s work which, considering its membership, should be at least a third of space within the workers’ groups. Given its tripartite character and the denial to see any contradictions between the interests of the employers and workers, it is probably more comfortable with the ITUC, which plays a visibly dominant role in the ILO’s functioning.


Following the changed political situation in Myanmar, the ILO conference decided to lift or suspend the key restrictions on its work in Myanmar. These restrictions were imposed on the Myanmar government after a commission of inquiry found that the use of forced labour was widespread in the country and that the government there was not implementing ILO recommendations on the matter. The icon of the fight for democracy in Myanmar, Aung San Suu Kyi, who addressed the plenary of the ILO conference and the workers’ group, expressed cautious optimism over the developments in her country. She appealed for “foreign direct investment that results in job creation.” She said investors should adhere to codes of best practices. Track records in regards to internationally recognised labour standards and environmental responsibility should be examined.


The latest ILO session was preceded by an election to the director general’s post. Though Juan Somavia’s term was scheduled to end only in 2014, he chose to be relieved prematurely. There were nine contenders for the post. Guy Rider, former secretary general of ITUC, was elected as the new director general. He is credited for success in ensuring the merger of two reformist international trade union federations, ICFTU and WCL, into the ITUC. In his address to the workers’ group, he thanked the workers for his present position and said that as director general he would represent not only the workers but also the employers and the governments. What efforts he would make to ensure that the ILO reflects all the different streams of thought prevailing among the workers all over the world, without any discrimination on whatever basis, and how he would steer the ILO to protect the workers’ interests in the present global economic crisis, will be keenly observed around the globe.