In the “UN series”: 109th Conference of the International Labour Organization (ILO), Geneva, 3-19 June 2021
In this year 2021, the International Labour Organisation – ILO holds its 109th Conference in two stages (the first stage from 03 to 19 June and the second from 25 November to 11 December) and in virtual format, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. We are experiencing the most profound health crisis in the last hundred years, with tragic economic and social consequences for all of humanity, especially in the poorest and most vulnerable parts of the world. The health, economic and social tragedy caused by the pandemic exacerbates the situations that preceded the crisis that the multilateral system is currently going through. The sum of these facts brings more clarity about the harmful effects of neoliberal, concentrated and exclusive globalisation. The lack of global governance with the capacity to coordinate the confrontation of the health crisis in a cohesive and articulated way puts the solution to the economic and social crises even further out of reach.
We know that production in global value chains has led millions of workers into precarious situations on many levels, and many of them are totally excluded from the labour markets. At the same time, automation and the unregulated use of new technologies bring new and immense challenges for the working class. The impacts of these changes are uneven, depending on the positions that countries occupy in global value chains, affecting more severely those countries where the level of development and access to new technologies is lower and where there is greater exploitation of labour, thereby generating greater poverty in peripheral countries.
Within the framework of its centenary, the ILO adopted the important Declaration regarding the Future of Work, with the objective of facing the challenges posed by the transformations in global production models and in the search for building a more inclusive, sustainable future, based on social justice. It so happens that even over 100 years after its foundation, workers in countless countries continue to have labour relationships that violate several ILO conventions, including the fundamental conventions. With the pandemic, child labour and forced labour are at risk of increasing in many countries. The lack of freedom of association is still present in many countries and collective bargaining is flouted and often, as in the case of Brazil, attacked through the imposition of individual bargaining.
Instead of strengthening the ILO – a key organisation in the search for a more just world, with peace and social justice – what has often occurred are attacks against the organisation and also against its control system for enforcing the rules. This system is composed of some bodies, such as the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, which impartially and technically assesses the implementation of international labour standards in member states, the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) which meets at annual international conferences of the ILO and where the worst cases of violations are selected to be analysed, in addition to the Committee on Freedom of Association, which analyses complaints related to violations of the principles of freedom of association and collective bargaining, regardless of whether the country has ratified or not, ILO Conventions 87, regarding Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise and 98 regarding the Right to Organise and Collective Bargaining.
A clear example of an attack by employers and some countries is the case of the Brazilian government, which, like other countries, has tried to change the organisation’s experts’ procedures and oversight powers. It is important to remember that even the issue of the right to strike has been highlighted in recent years when this legitimate right of workers has been questioned. Another clear example of an attack on the control and enforcement system was the reduction in the cases analysed by the Standards Enforcement Committee at this year’s Conference. In recent years, negotiations began with a list of the 40 worst cases of violations of ILO standards, called the long list, and ended with the 24 cases that would be analysed by the CAS, called the short list. However, exceptionally this year, only 19 cases were analysed, weakening the legislative power to follow up on compliance with standards in different countries.
Of the 19 cases, countries from Latin America which were selected as the most serious cases of violations of ILO international standards this year: Bolivia in violation of convention 131 (Setting Minimum Wages), Colombia in violation of convention 87 (Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organise), El Salvador in violation of convention 144 (Tripartite Consultations to Promote the Implementation of International Labour Standards) and Honduras regarding the violation of convention 169 (Indigenous and Tribal Peoples).
From the other regions of the world, the following countries make up the so-called ILO short list: Belarus, Cambodia, Hong Kong (China), Ethiopia, Kazakhstan, and Romania in violation of convention 87. Ghana and Republic of Kiribati were also on the list for violating convention 182 (Prohibition of the Worst Forms of Child Labour and Immediate Action for the Elimination Thereof), Iraq and Namibia for violating convention 111 (Discrimination in Employment and Profession), Maldives in violation of MLC 2006 (Maritime Labour Convention), Mozambique in violation of convention 122 (Employment Policy), Romania in violation of convention 98, Tajikistan in violation of convention 81 (Inspection of Labour in Industry and Commerce), Turkmenistan and Zimbabwe in violation of convention 105 (Abolition of Forced Labour). Most of the cases dealt with the violation of one of the most important ILO conventions, number 87.
It is important to underline the conclusions of two specific cases in the Latin American region. One is the case of Colombia, which is currently experiencing a scenario of very serious violations, with repression, threats and murders of trade unionists and other leaders. The conclusion points out that “The Commission welcomes the efforts made by the Government to enforce the Convention in law and in practice. The Commission also favourably welcomed the positive measures and statements that the Government has adopted to address the situation of violence in the country and encouraged the Government to continue taking measures to ensure a climate free from violence”. In recent months alone, during the demonstrations that took to the streets in Colombia, 51 people were murdered, almost 2,400 cases of police violence were recorded, in addition to 18 victims of sexual violence by police forces and 33 victims of eye injuries. In Colombia, there was no guarantee of the right to peaceful protest, but violence and murder, and even today, the persecution of union leaders with threats to their lives continues in the country.
In the case of Bolivia, the conclusions mention that “The Committee requests that the Government make use of technical assistance from the ILO without delay, in order to guarantee compliance with the Convention in law and in practice. The Commission further requests that the Government, in consultation with the interlocutors, provide the Committee of Experts with additional information regarding the implementation of the Convention in advance of its 2021 meeting. The Commission, once again, urges the Government to accept a mission of direct ILO contacts before the next meeting of the International Labour Conference, to be held in 2022”. We clearly see much harsher conclusions in the case of Bolivia than in the case of Colombia, which, in our assessment, constitutes the most serious case of violations in the region today. According to the 2021 Global Rights Index of the International Trade Union Confederation – ITUC 2021, there were improvements in Bolivia this year when compared to last year.
In Brazil, the pandemic caused by COVID-19 resulted in further violations of ILO standards. Violations of conventions 98 and 154 have intensified over the last two years and the conclusions approved by the CAS in 2018 and 2019, when Brazil was on the short list, were completely disrespected. Also, according to the ITUC 2021 Global Rights Index, Brazil remains one of the 10 worst countries in the world for workers. In addition to assassinations and the repression of strikes, during the pandemic, the so-called Provisional Measures 927, 936 and 1045 were published by the Brazilian government to enable, without any consultation with the unions, collective agreements and conventions to be derogated at the discretion of employers, as well as to permit reductions in wages and working hours and suspensions of the employment contract were carried out by individual agreements. Social dialogue remains absent from the country. Even so, Brazil was left off the 2021 short list.
The participation of delegations in this Conference, despite the virtual environment, was more restricted and limited, compared to face-to-face conferences. The reduced participation entailed representatives of workers (and employers) having less of a voice in the elaboration of ILO deliberations.
With the profound changes in the world of work, in particular the increased precariousness also caused by large companies of the so-called platform economy, where workers are subjected to work without any regulation or guarantee of rights and social protection, the challenges of the ILO become bigger and bigger. The exponential growth of informality is another immense challenge facing the Organisation. And for this, it is urgent to implement policies that guarantee protection for workers, regardless of the form of employment.
We recognise and warmly welcome the creation of the last two ILO conventions, numbers 189 and 190, which deal specifically with the protection of domestic workers and the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work, respectively. On top of this, we recognise and welcome recommendation 204, which deals with the transition from the informal to the formal economy.
The approval during this International Conference of a resolution making a global call for a way out of the COVID-19 crisis in an inclusive, sustainable and resilient way was, without a doubt, a call for a way out of the crisis with a less unfair world. However, what we have been monitoring is that the production and distribution of vaccines has been conducted unevenly, prioritising the rich countries of the global north over a more equitable distribution across the entire planet. For that to happen, it will be necessary to release patents and offer technologies so that more countries can produce vaccines and face the pandemic. There will be no inclusive, sustainable and resilient way out of the crisis without vaccines for all of humanity.
Finally, it is necessary to strengthen and put into practice one of the founding principles of the only global tripartite organisation that gives a voice to workers, that work is not a commodity, as established by the 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia. The Declaration also established other fundamental principles, such as freedom of expression and association as a condition for progress, as well as the elimination of poverty, considering that the existence of poverty anywhere becomes a danger to progress anywhere. And finally, the participation of representatives of employers and workers together with governments with freedom and democracy in promoting the common good.
Workers have been bravely defending the ILO as the central body for the construction of a world of peace and social justice. Defending the Organisation, however, also means permanently defending its founding principles, expressed in the Declaration of Philadelphia and not accepting blackmail from prophets of neoliberalism and the market.
Antonio de Lisboa Amâncio Vale, professor of geography and history, Secretary of International Relations at CUT Nacional, Brazil