|Issue No 49||07 April 2000|
Workers of the World Unite
ILO Director-General Juan Somavia's keynote address to the ICFTU Congress in Durban, South Africa this week.
Truly we are living in a world of incredible change, as many speakers have said. Fifteen years ago the word globalisation had not been invented. The Internet had yet to invade our lives. The Berlin Wall was still in place. It was also the height of neo-liberal arrogance in promoting economic fundamentalism. And fifteen years ago anybody suggesting that a Chilean ILO Director-General would be addressing an ICFTU World Congress in free South Africa on globalising social justice would have been directed to the nearest psychiatrist.
But here I am and here you are now. How was this possible? Well, you and all those who came before you helped to make it happen. Truly, through your fifty years of struggle you and your predecessors have fashioned in the ICFTU a remarkable organisation, together with the national centres and the ITS. You have to be proud of your role as an institution.
Yesterday I listened with rising emotion to Deputy President Zuma and Brother Vavi talking about their struggle and how you made it your struggle too. They led the way. Struggles are always nationally led. But you stayed the course with them. You mobilised worldwide for justice in this beautiful country. I look at this audience and I see enormous energy, still ready for future struggles. I see women and men formed by lives dedicated to making their country a better place.
But I also see over a thousand global citizens sitting in this room. Your pride in your country is enlarged by your sense of belonging to the global family of free trade unionism. At no other world congress do people routinely call themselves sister and brother. You are the first family of global citizens. You have been generous to me in many ways but most of all I thank you for making me feel a member of your global family. You fight together for workers rights everywhere because you know, without even having to think about it, that your own freedom is diminished by oppression in other countries. I and my fellow Chileans owe you a lot for what you have done, and are continuing to do, to help us enlarge and secure our freedoms.
I just wish my friend Manuel Bustos who died last year could be here today. You all knew Manuel. He was a leader in the unions and a member of our Parliament, a national figure who symbolised the linkage to the international struggle. He would have wished to join me in thanking you on behalf of Chilean democrats for your unquestioning solidarity in our dark hours. But now we are here in South Africa. South Africans' struggle for freedom is indelibly linked to the city of Durban.
It was here in 1973 that over 100,000 workers went on strike in demand for decent wages and the right to belong to trade unions of their choice. This was at a time when it was illegal for black Africans to belong to trade unions and the strike led to the birth of the democratic trade union movement in this country. I want to honour the workers who participated in that action, the leaders who called that strike and those who fell in the struggle. And it was this movement that rocked and ultimately cracked the apartheid system. I am sure that the special spirit of Durban and South Africa will make this conference an overwhelming success. I also want to say how happy I am to be in Africa - a continent I love and admire. This is my third trip to Africa in my first year of office --- Windhoek, Abidjan and now Durban.
As I salute your achievements of the past, let me put before you our common challenge for the future. Globalising Social Justice. You have prepared an excellent report to guide our discussions. I commend that report and encourage you to use it widely beyond the ICFTU. The ILO can work with you on that. Globalisation as we know it today will not survive unless its benefits reach more people. It has yet to pass the test of social legitimacy. It is not working for billions of people. We cannot continue down the track of increasingly deregulated national economies toward a growing unregulated global economy.
We hear a lot that globalisation cannot be changed and is inevitable. I believe that some of its components - the revolution in information technology is only in its infancy and is here to stay. But we have to expose as a lie the idea that all we can do is adapt to globalisation. It simply is not true. Policies have also shaped globalisation and they can be changed. If the current model of globalisation does not change it will not survive. Our joint task is to shape the process so that the power and potential of the global market, the knowledge economy and the network society reaches every nation, every village every household.
In the ILO we believe that the basic test of the global economy will be its capacity to deliver decent work for all. That is my litmus test for globalisation. If it can be organised to deliver for people, it will have proved its worth. We have made a start by winning support for the decent work agenda.
This is not an intellectual idea, a mere concept, or a notion. It is the most deeply felt aspiration of people in all societies, developed and developing. It's the way ordinary women and men express their needs and judge an important part of the quality of their lives. You know better than any others that if you go out on the streets or in the fields and ask people what they want, in the midst of the new uncertainties that globalisation has brought upon all of us, the answer is, work. Work to meet the needs of their families in safety and health, educate their children, and offer them income security after retirement, work in which they are treated decently and their basic rights are respected. That is what decent work is about. And it's about reaching everyone.
Maybe Walter Reuther said it best, you cannot build an automobile economy on bicycle wages. Well according to my view, you cannot build a knowledge economy ignoring workers' rights. This is a strong simple message. Decent Work is built on the foundation of fundamental principles and rights. The ILO is a values driven organisation. The mechanism for getting action is social dialogue. We are owned by the social partners and it is mobilising the power of tripartism that is our unique contribution to the multilateral system. Our goals are more and better jobs for all women and men and effective social protection. I also have to share something with you that is very important for me. That I am the first Director-General in the ILO's eighty-year history to come from the Southern Hemisphere. However much one is committed to universal values, each of us brings our own personal experience. In my case that means that I must look at the ILO's work with a special sensitivity as to how people in developing countries will view it. That is why unemployment is so important.
In the North, however hard the experience of unemployment, there is generally some safety net. In the South lose your job and you are out. Our task is to marry the historical ILO agenda of rights and social protection with the development and jobs dimension.
That will give us our global rationale. Unemployment is one of the biggest enemies of workers rights. It is also the major cause of poverty. That is why we put a great deal of emphasis on small business promotion because as we all know that is where the new jobs start. But it is also where we find some of the worst working conditions: hence our priority on social protection through safework and the establishment and expansion of social security systems.
Today we are facing the simultaneous but diverging expansion of the informal economy on the one hand and the knowledge economy on the other. This is the fundamental product of globalisation and we have to build bridges between the two. I believe they must be based upon small enterprises. But they are also the least organised. In my recent visit to India, for example, I was asked what are we going to do for the 92% of workers who are not organised. This is the potential we have to unlock.
I share with you the conviction that without respect for workers rights there can be no decent work in the world economy. Open economies and open societies are good provided they deliver the goods for ordinary working families. Saying no to the race to the bottom is saying yes to equity and fairness. This means looking at globalisation through the eyes of people. I know and understand the position of the ICFTU on trade and labour standards.
Your achievement has been to move this question right to the top of the international policy agenda making it the everyday staple of newspaper articles and editorials across the world. When people say the trade and labour debate is not going to go away they are essentially saying that the ICFTU, ITSs and national unions has made a strong and coherent case that requires response. At the same time, it would be a disservice to your members, and to the ILO as an institution, to put on hold the ILO's constitutional duty to promote fundamental workers' rights world-wide, with all the means at its disposal, until results emerge from the WTO or any other place. As I have said repeatedly, I am committed to taking whatever may eventually emerge from the WTO in relation to the ILO to our Governing Body for decision and action. But in the meantime we must press ahead with the ILO agenda. But above all we must continue working together and being a part of those who make society change.
After all the ILO is the only organisation of the international system in which organised labour has a seat at the decision-making table. The ICFTU and the ITS have created conditions for major progress in the ILO. The work of the ICFTU and your members on the Governing Body has helped us to spotlight violations of union rights and improve our ability to remedy them and stop them occurring in the first place. I want to underline my own particular responsibility for the security of trade union leaders world-wide. I want you to know that whenever a life is threatened or one of your colleagues is imprisoned I intervene. There are different ways of doing it, picking up a phone, making a public statement. This is my personal responsibility and I want you to hold me to it.
The ICFTU contributed decisively to the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work adopted in 1998. This was an historic commitment by all member states to respect workers rights in all circumstances. It contains important follow-up mechanisms, which enable us to monitor how they are living up to that commitment. Just two weeks ago we published the first annual synthesis report on the situation in countries that have not ratified the fundamental rights Conventions. It brought out a number of issues and a wealth of practical information which, without that procedure would have remained hidden. It was a good start, and we must build on it.
You all, national centres, ITS and the ICFTU as a family, will get out of it what you put in. You have a right to comment on government replies. This is a new mechanism. It is in your hands, and I appeal to you to work with the ILO to make it a success. And at this year's Conference, you will have the first global report on freedom of association. It will take a cold hard look at trends in the observance of trade union rights around the world, and the reasons for violations, and what must be done by the ILO and others to stop them. Stopping violations before they happen is after all the main goal. The new Declaration is deliberately designed to add that promotional dimension to the ILO's rights agenda. Of the more than sixty governments who submitted annual reports, forty one said yes we have problems and asked for ILO technical assistance to tackle them.
We must not give up on those who ask for help. In the context of freedom of association, I see three priorities:
- Ensuring that all workers are able to form and join a trade union without fear of intimidation or reprisal;
- Encouraging an open and constructive attitude by business and public employers to the freely chosen representation of employees through a trade union, as well as the development of agreed methods of bargaining and other forms of co-operation concerning conditions of work;
- Recognition by public authorities and business that the good governance of the labour market, based on respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, makes a major contribution to economic, political and social development.
It must be a foundation of international economic integration, the enlargement of democracy and the fight against poverty. At the same time we have to make the point that good labour relations are good for enterprise performance and good for social stability. At the same time your colleagues in the Workers' Group of the ILO Governing Body are using long-established procedures to good effect. Even since I have been here, several delegates have told me of the significance of last week's Committee on Freedom of Association decision on Australia and of the recent mission to Colombia.
But it is to the case of Burma that I particularly want to draw your attention. All of you know of the horror of forced labour in that country. Indeed it was the ICFTU that launched the original complaint about it at the ILO, leading to a Commission of Enquiry investigation. It was the Burmese government's, Myanmar's, refusal to apply the recommendations of the Commission's findings that last week led the Governing Body of the ILO for the first time in its 80 year history to invoke Article 33 of its Constitution. Basically Article 33 permits the Conference to decide on "such action as it may deem wise and expedient to secure compliance" with the Commission's recommendations.
This June, the Conference will have within its power to call upon member states and international organisations to do whatever it takes to end forced labour in Burma... I will not belabour the point further. At your last Congress you essentially called on the ILO to punch its weight in the multilateral system. I very much agreed with you at the time and I have made it a priority since taking office as Director-General just over a year ago. I have said repeatedly that the multilateral system is grossly underperforming in meeting the challenges of globalisation.
It is as if each international organisation is stuck in its narrow bureaucratic box with little reference to what the others are doing. This has to be replaced by integrated thinking and coherent action. I want the ILO to be a leading player on a strong team. We have already made a good start in that direction. Our Working Party on the Social Dimension of Globalisation is the only multilateral forum for discussion in this area. It can become the focal point for this debate. It met last week and agreed an ambitious programme of work. And most importantly for the first time, it heard presentations from representatives of other key agencies like the IMF, World Bank and the WTO.
This is a dialogue we will develop in the future. We have also contributed strongly to the preparations for the Social Summit plus 5 Special Session of the UN General Assembly. We are tooling up the international system to do the job ahead; working together to end Africa's debt bondage, to avert repetitions of the Asian crisis and to put poverty reduction at the heart of multilateral action. But any superstructure of global governance will founder without strong foundations in grass root organisation. And organising is your speciality and your priority here at Congress. The foundations of the hundreds of organisations you represent are millions of workplaces where women and men have found a shared interest in getting together to better their everyday lives and those of their families and communities. And those workplaces are changing at a pace never seen before. With it, communities are in turmoil. Family life is changing. And people are changing. So your organisations have to change too, as described in the Congress Report. It is not easy.
We all know change is not easy. It took enormous effort and sacrifice to build your movement. You have had to defend it on numerous occasions from fierce attack, and are still having to defend it today. But as you know better than me, the structures and methods of the twentieth century will not work in the twenty first century. In the twentieth century, you fought the battle for existence, recognition and influence. In the twenty-first century, you will face the challenge of growth and continuing relevance in the eyes of society.
Your inheritance, in most countries, was strong male dominated unions in the large factories, offices, mines and plantations of a mass production economy. Your future is in the booming knowledge networks and in the sprawling informal economy. Like it or not that is where the work is going and the women and men in those sectors need representation. The fight for equality is one of your most powerful organising motors. If unions can show that they are truly committed to that cause, and practice what they preach, maybe you could eventually double your membership.
Equal opportunity means women occupying leadership posts everywhere --- at the top of the ILO, I have asked our government, employers and trade unions, to make a major effort to increase the representation of women on our Governing Body -- and the ICFTU, all organisations. I profoundly believe in the equality agenda in our organisations and in all the work that we do. It is about the future of our societies and democratising work.
This is not just words or political correctness it is much more. It is about reaching people. When I travel I make a point of visiting ILO projects. Recently in India I went to one where we were working to have street children make the transition into school, while generating income opportunities for their mothers. Talking to those mothers they told me what really mattered in their lives. Securing food and education for their children. But they also told me that when income came into the family through women it went directly to meeting these basic needs. When it came through men some how some of it always got lost. And in that simple truth I saw all cultures, I saw Latin America. This is no joke, its reality. And let me show you this pin. It is for a march on Wednesday against violence and discrimination against women.
Unfortunately I will not be able to join it, I leave this afternoon, but I urge you all to join tomorrow's equality march. I see the ILO's job as being to help unions in their organising work. We need to learn how to innovate, together. Taking your existing members through the maelstrom of globalisation is a massive challenge to you. I would like the ILO to accompany you on this journey, with a massive programme of capacity building and training for union organisers. I said that your structures and methods will have to change. But do not change your values. They are enduring and they are universal. They have made you what you are. And they are the key to rethinking structures and methods. They will guide you in addressing the challenges of the twenty-first century. And by the way, innovative initiatives are underway.
Take Washtech, an affiliate of the Communication Workers of America, which is organising well paid hi-tech workers employed in Seattle. Or SEWA in India, organising self-employed women. You are the first to know that organising makes you strong and generates respect and dignity in society. As I said to you four years ago in Brussels - and thank you for inviting me both in 1996 and 2000, you honour by this -- you can draw strength too from alliances with others in civil society who share your goals. I know the controversies. Reaching out has risks attached. But there is tremendous potential there, and a certain responsibility to make it happen. You are unparalleled in your representativeness and that confers extraordinary legitimacy.
You represent 125 million people and you are democratically elected to do so. That does not exist anywhere else. It gives you a responsibility to reach out to others and their aspirations. Let me end by saying that the cynics are always there. I know because I keep meeting them and they keep telling me that what I am trying to do won't work. But do not listen to them, it's a waste of time. They were the ones who said slavery could not be abolished, that women would never win the right to vote, that colonialism could not be ended, that the Berlin Wall would never fall and that apartheid would not be defeated. According to them trade unions would never exist.
But we have chosen to make society better. That means swimming against the current, taking the difficult road. It is our sureness of purpose and self-belief in representing working women and men that sustains us. Let us refuse the indifference of these days. Let me end by reiterating my firm conviction that the ICFTU can take a leading role in a massive worldwide campaign for globalising social justice
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