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During that time he was director of labour market policies, coordinated technical work in eastern Europe following the collapse of the Berlin wall and was director of the ILO's Socio-Economic Security Program. In 1998-99, he served as a member of the transition team of the new Director General Juan Somavia. It would be fair to say that he knows the ILO inside out. Now Professor of Economic Security at the University of Bath in the UK, he is well placed to reflect on the organization's potential and failings. (Standing)
Focus of the ILO
The roots of the ILO's current problems began in the 1970s, according to Standing, with the rise of economic philosophies that tended to view any kind of regulation as a 'market distortion'. It was not long before the ILO was seen as a symbol of an antiquated way of thinking. The U.S.A. actually pulled out from 1977 to 1980. This precipitated a crisis and ever since then, particularly after the fall of communism, the ILO has been struggling to redefine itself. (Standing)
The ILO still sets labour standards, of course," says Standing, "but it made a historic mistake in putting its faith in a new Declaration in 1998 establishing core standards to which all its members had to subscribe. Not bad, you might think. The problem was that this tended to marginalize all the other Conventions and it was not legally binding. Meanwhile, the ILO has tried to take on a role of a development agency, providing technical assistance to governments, and it has tried to become a global provider of knowledge and expertise. It has lost its focus, and cannot stretch to all three roles successfully. The roles are all subject to internal pressures. This has resulted in a gradual shift towards vague terms and a reluctance to deal in objective measurement. There's a tacit understanding that these things just lead to trouble." (Standing)
Standing says that in 1999, the ILO adopted the vague notion of "social dialogue," a term it borrowed from the OECD. Taking shelter behind vagueness was becoming a general strategy. Another example was the Declaration in 1998, which enshrined "core" labour standards. These are all worthy standards: banning forced labour, gender discrimination, the worst forms of child labour, and calling for an end to restrictions on the freedom of association. However they are matters of common and civil law, rather than part a global strategy or progressive agenda.
Again, it is all part of a drift towards imprecision and soft labour law," says Standing, "as opposed to binding regulation. Over recent decades the ILO has stopped addressing inequality and replaced this with calls for employment equity." (Standing)
The tripartite structure is what gives the ILO its legitimacy on the global stage. It does not take much imagination to guess what would happen if these three groups started taking control of the key positions. Rather than a genuine discussion over fact-based policy, presented by competent authorities, we would soon have capture or deadlock. Sadly, this is what happened. Some of the key management positions have been filled by Employer or Worker reps, and this has ushered in a regime of horse-trading. The ILO is at an impasse. Just a time when the world needs effective global rules, the organization has allowed itself to become marginalized. It needs to be rescued, or something else created to fill a void. (Standing)
Role of the ILO
The failure to move from old-style labourism means that the ILO is not in any position to play a major role. Endless empty statements about decent jobs are no substitute for a really progressive strategy. Whisper it... But globalization is dead. Now is the time for real friends of workers across the world to work for a new strategy for equality and freedom. The New Unionism movement must embrace that strategy, for it is as important now as at any time in history that we have strong associations to represent all of us in our work and in our dealings with the state. (Standing)
Some critics have cited as one of ILO's greatest shortcomings a longstanding resistance to coalition building with constituents outside of its tripartite focus (e.g., with a broader range of NGOs, such as consumer groups, religious institutions, media organizations, etc.). There is some indication that the ILO is improving in this respect as the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor, which is based within the group, does involve a diversity of organizations representing more viewpoints than those found in the traditional tripartite construct. (Noah)
Observers emphasize improved coalition building with outside groups as essential for the ILO if the organization is going to play an important role within the debates on globalization. These commentators think it may be unrealistic for any single institution to represent the concerns of all workers within today's economies. (Noah)
Inability to Enforce Conventions
Still others emphasize the weakness of the ILO as an organization (e.g., it cannot impose trade sanctions on member States) as a shortcoming in its efforts to protect the rights of all stakeholders equally - i.e., including those of workers. These critics point to the fact that as the situation is for all other multilateral agreements, governments adopt ILO Conventions on a voluntary basis, and as of now, not all governments have adopted all Conventions or enforced them adequately. (Noah)
As a result of a perception of the ILO being weak and/or ineffectual, labor advocates and policy makers have increasingly attempted to incorporate labor provisions into NAFTA and the WTO. In 1997, the WTO finally addressed the link between trade and labor conditions but then officially handed over responsibility for the issues to the ILO. (Noah)
Problems with Tripartite Representation
The very strength of the ILO, the tripartite representation of interests, foreseen in the ILO ever since its foundation, faces serious problems where many - or sometimes even most - working people in the world are not to be found in the formal economy (where associations of workers and employers really exist) but rather in the informal economy. (Senghaas-Knobloch)
Failed States & Dictatorships
In addition to this ILO has the problem to face heterogeneous state structures, even of failed states, and of governments with a very low administrative capacity in the area of labour policy, and ILO has to cope with dictatorships. (Senghaas-Knobloch)
At its General Council meeting in Geneva on May 27, 2008 the International Organization of Employers (IOE)was presented with an "Employers' vision for the ILO" a statement which sets out the key employer policy priorities. In speaking at the presentation of the Statement, IOE President Ambassador Abraham Katz stressed that the key role of the private sector in terms of national economic and social development was now internationally recognized by all social actors and that this recognition reinforced the important role employers have in assisting the ILO to achieve its objectives.
To facilitate that participation however, the employers needed an ILO equipped and focused on the policies that impact on labour markets and workplaces in a globalizing world" he said.
The ILO has a comparative advantage in such policy areas and we need to help the ILO avoid the temptation of spreading itself too widely and in too many areas" he added. "This means an ILO that focuses on the strength of its unique tripartism, that promotes entrepreneurship and enterprise creation, the two means by which work can be created and sustained, and that helps workers be more employable and productive, through education, skills development and training. Productive participation in the labour market is key to alleviating poverty and social disadvantage" he stressed.
We face many challenges in the world of work today, but we are serious in our belief that an ILO that puts work back in the centre of its priorities is an ILO that can make the most positive contribution to the labour and social policy concerns we all have" he said. "We look forward to working with the ILO Director-General and his Office over the coming months in order to realize this vision in the work of the ILO and by doing so helping to improve the positive impact of the ILO on the lives of real people at work" he concluded.
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