In een globaliserende wereld is het meer dan ooit van belang dat de rechten van de vakbonden internationaal worden beschermd. In deze slechte economische tijden zien werkgevers kun kans schoon verworven rechten, zoals het recht op staken, te ondermijnen. Tijdens mijn speech op The Hague Summit on International Law & Human Rights in het Vredespaleis in Den Haag pleit ik vandaag voor een krachtige rol van de ILO, de Internationale Arbeidsorganisatie van de VN. Zie hier mijn speech:
Labour standards in a world of change
Ladies and Gentlemen, Distinguished guests,
It is my honour to stand here today, in this building that symbolises the heart of international law, and to speak about the issue closest to my heart: universal dignity through fair standards and protection of worker’s rights and the importance of international labour standards.
The disposition of workers around the world, is always one of dependency and inequality compared to the employer. Having worked for the Dutch labour unions for over 25 years, I have seen how important it is for governments, employers, and unions to work closely together for international protection. As you all know, they come together in the International Labour Organisation – the ILO.
I have personally witnessed the importance of the work of ILO, among other instances, in Zimbabwe. Plantation workers received training about core ILO principles and their rights at work. It shows the power of information and education and is why I can only commend the tremendous work that is being done.
However, the world around us is rapidly changing. It is becoming more and more interconnected through a web of trade agreements. The rules of economic playing fields are being set in stone, while social rights are not adapting accordingly – or even worse – are in some cases deteriorating.
Due to the economic crisis, in Europe we have seen workers being weakened by the crisis, social dialogue is under pressure and unions are increasingly seen as part of the problem – rather than the solution. This trend continues all the way to the ILO…. but more about this later.
When discussing labour standards in a world of change, I see three main challenges which urgently need to be taken into account:
- How can we guarantee fundamental social rights in a
global economic playing field?
- How can we better ensure that labour rights are being integrated in trade policies?
- How can we strengthen the rights of workers – of those who are in a dependant position – to stand up for themselves?
To start off with the first one,
- How can we guarantee fundamental social rights in a global economic playing field?
The age of globalisation and liberalisation of the market may have brought many investors and multinational companies success. But the aim to produce the cheapest possible product has shown its dark side.
A shiny new product on our supermarket shelves may have been through a journey over the world. It may have witnessed exploitation, risky and informal work, and even forced labour. It has become clear that for developing countries becoming member of the WTO it does not mean that an increase of prosperity will automatically lead to better standards and human rights compliance.
Social regulation is the only way to correct the imbalances created by the market system. Trade alone does not bring decent labour standards, intervention is necessary.
Let me begin by stating that we have to make sure never to compromise on four core principles:
– the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining
– the prohibition of child labour
– the elimination of discrimination in employment and
– the prohibition of slavery and forced labour.
These principles form the backbone for international labour protection and universal dignity.
However in order to ensure these core principles, there is an urgent need for better sanctioning mechanisms in case states violate international agreements.
When the ILO observes a breach of the ILO Conventions in law and practice, it finds itself limited in its actions. It can monitor and write reports, but it lacks means for enforcement of its recommendations.
Social supervision, in practice the naming and shaming of a state, can be effective as we have seen from the work of the Committee on the Freedom of Association. Yet, a clear set of real legal sanctions would have more impact.
Inherent to laying fundamental social rights for a global economic playing field, is to ensure that labour rights are being integrated in trade agreements and policies.
While trade and development policies should go hand in hand for a sustainable global economy, trade interests unfortunately too often overrule the human factor. Just to name a few examples…
Some of the largest Western economies, as for instance the US, could have a much better track record in ratifying basic ILO conventions like the freedom of association and collective bargaining.
We also know that in China trade union rights are highly restricted and child labour and forced labour still exist.
While China refuses to ratify basic ILO conventions, it should keep its commitments under the WTO umbrella and in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
And to get back to the US, some progress on this issue finally seems to be possible now that President Obama has mentioned in his State of the Union that “the US needs laws that strengthen, rather than weaken Unions and give American workers a voice.”
Then again, action is not only required from the side of countries that fail to implement international labour laws: also the importing countries have the responsibility to take determined measures to push for change.
In this regard, an essential opportunity is the anchoring of labour standards in trade agreements. These agreements usually include general labour standards, but often fail to be more explicit for the specific relations.
The particular concerns that need to be addressed in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).
Such trade regulations also offer opportunities for real sanctioning mechanisms. The US for example does not shy away to include arbitration mechanisms in its trade agreements, and to actually use them.
The EU seems to prefer working groups and dialogue – yet I think we all agree a hefty fine dollar would be slightly more effective.
In light of TTIP, it would be a major step forward if the US would ratify the ILO conventions and the EU accepts enforceable arbitration: a win-win for all, because it will end the double standards at home in the US.
This brings me to the third challenge:
How can we strengthen the rights of workers – of those
who are in a dependant position – to stand up for themselves?
You might already be aware of the recent developments within the ILO regarding the right to strike.
After decades of accepted jurisprudence, employer’s representatives have surprisingly challenged the fact that right to strike is part of the ILO convention on the freedom of association. This position undermines the foundation of the ILO as a whole.
The right to bargain collectively is the primary instrument of workers to have leverage against powerful employers. It includes by nature the right to strike. Without it, unions could merely file polite requests.
The diminishing of the right to strike and the hollowing out of the right to collective bargaining brings along the imminent risk of the ILO being seen as a toothless tiger. This should be avoided at all costs.
This month’s Tripartite meeting of Experts will hopefully see a decision on this crisis.
While standing right here in this Court, I want to express my hopes that the case will be referred and clear and sound interpretation – based on decades of jurisprudence – will be given to this matter.
To emphasise the urgency of this matter, there will be a day of global action in defence of the right to strike on the 18th of February.
Because, collective bargaining without the right to strike is collective begging.
Ladies and gentlemen, to conclude…
It is clear that the challenges in the field of international labour standards are still manyfold. In particular, we need to strive for more effective sanctioning mechanisms and a stronger integration of labour rights in trade policy, through trade agreements and the WTO.
Moreover, we should do everything to secure the right to strike, since the freedom of association and collective bargaining forms the foundation for creating decent working conditions around the world.
I believe we can tackle these issues by aiming for enforcing the role of the ILO: strong social regulation and continued dialogue with the triangle of employers, unions and governments.
The case of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh shows that multinational companies are willing to take responsibility if there is enough political pressure to do so.
In order to prevent such tragedies from happening, we need to make sure that there is political pressure on countries to implement and abide ILO conventions as well as political tools to deal with abuses.
Workers around the world are looking at us, and are expecting support for their legitimate claim to decent work.