Select Committee on International Development Appendices to the Minutes of Evidence


Memorandum submitted by The International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR)


  While we share the general support expressed by wide sections of progressive opinion for many of the concrete reforms announced in the White Paper, ICTUR's main concern is with workers' rights and trade union freedoms.

Here the White Paper is woefully deficient and overkeen, to the point of naivety, to advance market solutions to deep seated social and economic problems. This is illustrated in para 229, and those immediately preceding it, which gives great prominence to the role of free (or freer) trade in promoting economic development while failing to adequately address some of the resultant problems (destruction of infant industries). As the White Paper concedes poverty reduction depends on wide ranging economic and social reforms. In our view it should also concede that greater trade openness has its problems but that in certain circumstances can play a positive role provided that other measures are in place (eg development of the home market and domestic industries plus income redistribution to assist the poorer sections of society).

  As a consequence of its marketised approach the White Paper totally understates the role and potential of trade unionism, appearing in places to reduce the labour movement to the same status as faith groups and externally financed NGOs in the struggle for workers' rights and economic development.


  Trade union organisation in the third world is generally weak and confined to the formal sector (which is small in comparison to the heavily industrialised countries). But outside of organised religion in many countries trade unions are by far the largest voluntary bodies. They are also schools for developing democratic and administrative skills and practices. These unions play both an economic and social role in advancing living standards (thus expanding home markets—essential to economic development) and articulating broader social demands. And third world unions belong to an international network of organisations which directly links them to workers in Britain and other developed industrial countries. Increasingly this link becomes closer as globalisation creates the conditions for the growth of giant transnational corporations investing in every corner of the world.

  In short trade unions are qualitatively different to other NGOs and could be at the centre of a development process which sought to end mass poverty and advance democratic and human rights. So, for us, the key questions are:

    —  how do governments, international bodies like the ILO and the international trade union movement work together to extend trade unionism and workers' rights?

    —  what role, in particular, can the British Government play working with the British TUC and the Commonwealth TUC in helping third world unions develop their representative and democratic capacities?

  On these questions the White Paper has very little to say.


  The White Paper appears to face in at least two opposing directions. This is best summed up in para 254 which argues the following:

    The UK Government is committed to the promotion of core labour standards worldwide, and we strongly endorse the efforts of the ILO to extend the enforcement of core labour standards in all countries (see Chapter 2). But imposing trade sanctions on poor countries that do not fully comply with all labour standards would punish countries for their poverty, and hurt the poorest most.(para 254)

  In reality, campaigners for core labour standards do not generally argue for the imposition of trade sanctions on poor countries that do not fully comply with all labour standards. Some campaigners are for sanctions and others against—the latter supporting positive incentives through negotiated GSPs rather than penalties. And most campaigners recognise the primacy of core labour standards, particularly the right of workers to organise in independent unions with collective bargaining rights, which should be immediate entitlements. Other standards such as the abolition of child labour and an end to discrimination should be introduced according to a country's economic circumstances with relevant international assistance in the time span agreed for implementation. In other words the process is by agreements, is timetabled (for example a third world country with widespread child labour may, by agreement, be given 5 years to eliminate it and be asked to make reasonable progress in each year up to the fifth year). At the same time the international community would give generous assistance with education costs, provision of family support programmes and training for adult workers.

  And the argument that trade conditionalities punish the poorest most stands reality on its head. The application of neo-liberal policies has for the last two decades pointed the world towards marketisation and stripped away important layers of social protection in the poorer countries. The current situation builds in significant disincentives particularly for Third World Countries struggling to implement policies which could strengthen democratic human rights. In their attempts to attract Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) usually from giant transnational corporations, these countries are tempted to offer all sorts of incentives from tax breaks to the absence of labour rights. This is most clearly seen in Export Processing Zones which are a feature of many countries industrial development programmes. Here we see a sort of Dutch auction developing with workers' rights being sacrificed in a desperate attempt to attract new investment. This has rightly been described as a `race to the bottom' since, without the intervention of organisations like the ILO and the application of universal standards, there are no external factors which can slow let alone halt this process. But with widespread adherence to core labour standards plus reforms of the international trading system to assist the poorer countries and increased aid to eliminate practices like child labour, then all countries would have an economic incentive to strengthen human rights.


  The attempts to build a fairer international economic system which puts the struggle to tackle poverty at its heart appear to be supported by the White Paper. But this will be no easy task and will be opposed by powerful vested interests. To overcome these interests it is necessary to build a broad based alliance of forces which must include the labour movements in the developed industrial countries. Workers will not take kindly to trade liberalisation policies which directly affect their jobs and living standards.

  And they will be bitterly opposed to processes which open up markets to goods produced by child labour in inhuman conditions. There is here a common interest shared by working people both in the developed industrial countries and the Third World and socially aware consumers to raise labour standards to those agreed by governments, unions and employers at the ILO. This is not protectionism in the economic sense but it does protect human rights and the dignity of work. With this framework and governments prepared to intervene so that change is managed and not imposed by market forces, then it will be possible to build a progressive alliance in favour of fairer trade. This will of course need increased international help for poorer countries and national governments prepared to assist threatened industries and regions adapt to changing conditions.


  The White Paper (see Box 10) presents the growth of women's employment in the neo-liberal world economy as on almost unproblematic benefit. On the downside it can only see a number of deep seated social problems (sexism in particular). And yet report after report has stressed the appalling conditions to which women workers in newly industrialised countries are exposed (see in particular ILO "Labour and Social Issues relating to Export Processing Zones, 1998 ISBN—92-2-111357-4).


  19th Century industrialisation in Britain and Europe was a painful process which provided the basis for rapidly rising material and cultural standards. Many free market economists seem determined to expose the newly industrialising countries to cut throat competition, open markets as the only possible and internationally acceptable path to successful economic development. ICTUR rejects this approach and calls on the British Government to support international attempts to promote trade union freedoms and worker's rights at the level of the company (not least in British based multinationals), the country, and the trading bloc (eg the European Union). Such an approach can assist in the struggle against world poverty by empowering workers and the rural poor and by curtailing those activities of governments, international financial institutions and giant multinational companies which put profit before the needs of people.

  In particular we call on the British Government to better support the activities of the International Labour Office and to bring British employment law fully into line with ILO Conventions and jurisprudence (particularly the right to strike and collective bargaining rights). Britain cannot effectively campaign internationally for the rule of law and for human rights if its own laws fail to meet the standards set by Conventions to which it is a signatory.

    —  ensure that the OECD guidelines on multinational enterprises are implemented by British companies and to include within the National Contact Point a full trade union input perhaps through a tripartite structure;

    —  insist that all trade, investment and aid arrangements are linked to the labour rights requirements of Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining, including the right to strike;

    —  encourage the implementation of other core labour standards internationally through the bi-lateral and multilateral agreements;

    —  give enthusiastic support to the European Union's social dimension with particular emphasis to improving worker's rights; and

    —  incorporate as far as is possible within British law international trade union rights outlined in the enclosed appendix.


  What is proposed here cuts with the grain of existing developments. It reflects the need for worker protection in the global economy. Workers should not be expected to perform on the global stage in a legal straitjacket, devoid of the essential human rights which are necessary to promote dignity at work. ICTUR believes that there are two overriding objectives to be secured in promoting workers' rights to freedom of association: the first is the modernisation of the standards, and the second is diversity in their supervision and enforcement. Modernisation in the sense that the Conventions should reflect the reality of the current standards as understood by the ILO supervisory bodies. And diversity in the sense that more strategic steps should be taken to ensure compliance with standards.

  But in promoting initiatives of this kind, it is important that ILO standards should be the focus of the different forms of support, encouragement and pressure. The task of enforcement and compliance is to ensure a measure of co-ordination, so that the same standards are enforced and applied by all the agencies committed to the process of advancing minimum labour standards. Otherwise we face the prospect of confusion and the dilution of standards, with one agency demanding something different than another. The same applies to initiatives to be taken by multinational companies to ensure that they meet their social responsibilities: these initiatives should be rooted in ILO standards. But in focusing on ILO standards, it is important also to emphasise the need for new rights for international trade unions.


  The need here is to ensure that the standards reflect the jurisprudence which has developed at a considerable pace and with a considerable degree of sophistication since the introduction of Convention 87 in 1948 and Convention 98 in the following year. If ILO standards on freedom of association are to be the cornerstone of co-ordinated and concerted action by a range of agencies, governments and institutions, they need to be well known. There are strong arguments from transparency, human rights and globalisation for the robust and powerful restatement of trade union rights in a more advanced modern form.

  In light of the foregoing, as a minimum, a new international code on freedom of association should include the following:

The right to Trade Union membership, participation and representation

    —  the right of workers to belong to an independent trade union for the protection of their interests;

    —  the right of workers to take part in the activities of a trade union outside working hours and during working hours with the consent of the employer; and

    —  the right of workers to be represented by a trade union in all matters relating to their employment.

The right to Trade Union autonomy

    —  the right of trade unions to organise their internal affairs free from State interference, and free from interference by employers;

    —  the right of trade unions to determine their own membership rules and procedures free from State interference; and

    —  the right of trade unions to elect their own officials and develop their own programmes free from State interference.

The right to Trade Union recognition

    —  the right of trade union access to an employer's premises at the request of workers employed there;

    —  the right of a trade union to be recognised for the purposes of collective bargaining on all matters relating to the contract of employment; and

    —  the right of a trade union to facilities for the purposes of collective bargaining, including the disclosure of information.

The right to strike

    —  the right of a trade union to organise strike or other industrial action in order to promote the social and economic interests of its members;

    —  the right of workers to take part in a strike or other industrial action to protect and promote their social and economic interests without being discriminated against or dismissed; and

    —  the right of trade unions and workers to take strike or other industrial action in support of other trade unions and workers in dispute with an employer.

The rights of Trade Union representatives

    —  the right of trade union representatives elected or nominated by a trade union to be recognised as such by an employer;

    —  the right of trade union representatives to protection from dismissal or other disadvantage by reason of their trade union activities; and

    —  the right of the trade union representative to access to workers and to facilities at the workplace to enable them to carry out their duties.

The right of International Trade Union Federations

    —  the right to be consulted by and bargain with multinationals on transnational employment matters;

    —  the right to be consulted by and bargain with multinationals on the application and observance of core labour standards throughout the corporate structure, and throughout the supply chain; and

    —  the right to organise industrial action against multinational enterprises, and the right of workers to take part in such action.


  In terms of the foregoing, the most novel proposal relates to the last category, which deals with rights for international trade unions. This must be a focal point of any future strategy. There is a need for a countervailing force to match that of global capital. Trade unions must have the right not just to be in association with trade unions from other countries, but also to act together in association. Although trade unions internationally may never have adequate resources for this purpose, they must have the opportunity to engage meaningfully with business. To this end they should be empowered to initiate discussions with a view to reaching what are referred to as Labour Standards Agreements with multinational companies. The essential features of these agreements are as follows:

    —  the Labour Standards Agreement would be detailed, just as production instructions are detailed. As a minimum they would include a commitment to the core freedom of association conventions, as well as a prohibition on the use of child labour and forced labour, no discrimination, and a safe and healthy workplace;

    —  the Labour Standards Agreement would not be governed by a commitment to observe `local laws and conditions' or some similar formula where these set a standard lower than the ILO core Conventions;

    —  the Labour Standards Agreement would be `central to all the company's activities with every employee from President to the most junior being responsible for making it operative. It would be incorporated into all contracts between the company, its contractors, and sub-contractors;

    —  the Labour Standards Agreement would be monitored by a `Compliance Council' on which trade unions would be represented and which would also include independent members. Any interested party should be free to complain to the Council, and any complaints should be independently investigated by it; and

    —  the Labour Standards Agreement would provide for practices among contractors and sub-contractors to be regularly inspected by independent inspectors. This process of inspection would take place in addition to and independently of any complaints procedure.

  But a multinational should not have the opportunity to avoid its social responsibilities by the failure to reach an agreement with an international union. In the absence of an agreement there ought to be a procedure whereby an international or national trade union organisation can refer a complaint to the ILO Freedom of Association Committee alleging a breach of Conventions 87 or 98 by a multinational corporation in respect of its conduct in a third country. The right to complain should apply in respect of the conduct of the company, its subsidiaries, its suppliers, and any other body in the supply chain. Otherwise international trade unions should have the right recognised by international law to organise industrial action against a multinational enterprise: that is to say the right to strike and the right to take international solidarity action. There is considerable doubt about the legality of such action in the domestic law of a number of prominent members of the ILO.


  Turning finally to the need for a range of strategies for enforcement and compliance with freedom of association principles, it is anticipated that international trade union action of the kind proposed here would have a valuable role to play. Labour Standards Agreements would help promote trade union rights are observed through the deep roots of the multinational supply chain, in a manner which would be based on a process of supervision in which trade unions would be closely involved. The right of trade unions to complain to the Freedom of Association Committee would also help—particularly to expose and highlight corporate malpractice and irresponsibility. But of course this would not be enough. It is not only multinationals which bear the responsibility for the violation of trade union rights. Governments also play a major part: indeed it is on States that the obligation to implement and comply with conventions principally lies. It for this reason that a range of devices is necessary to encourage and promote compliance.

  So what else can be done? In the first place, there is the potential provided by international agencies such as the IMF and the World Bank: both are part of the UN family; both should be required to follow and apply ILO Conventions in their relationships with national governments. There are various ways by which these organisations could use their economic powers as a means of ensuring compliance with core conventions, including Convention 87: compliance could be a condition of aid; and at local level compliance by contractors could be a condition of a public works contract. Secondly there is the WTO and the Social Clause. Although there are problems associated with this initiative, it needs to be re-examined after the concerns of trade unionists in the developing world have been fully addressed. It is one of a range of responses or strategies: it is not necessarily a panacea. Initiatives linking trade with union rights—such as those taken recently by the EU—should also be encouraged.


  Trade unions and trade unionists face two related threats: one from hostile governments; and the other from predatory global corporations. The challenge for the millennium is to renew the case for strong and vigorous independent trade unions, and to develop effective strategies at international level to enable trade unionism to flourish. Trade unions are essential institutions which help create the conditions to enable democracy to flourish: they help ensure the accountability of governments as well as the accountability of corporations. But they are also the means for ensuring that workers are treated fairly and that their voice is heard by the employer. There is an overwhelming case in the new global economy for ensuring that trade union rights are more effectively protected by international law, and for responding to changing economic circumstances by facilitating and promoting global action by the international trade union movement.

  But as we contemplate the need for change; the revision and enforcement of standards; and the need for flexibility and diversity in the process of supervision and enforcement, we should not lose sight of the need to recognise that compliance with international labour standards is a problem of truly global proportions. It is sad to reflect in the ruins of Seattle that compliance with international standards appears to be as great a challenge for the developed nations as it is for others. The USA has not ratified the core freedom of association conventions of the ILO; several G7 nations have been in breach in recent years and continue to be in breach; and the same is true of the member states of the EU. This is a depressing message to send to the rest of the world. The campaign for ensuring proper compliance with international standards must begin in the countries of prosperity (and poverty), of growth (and greed). Only by setting an example will the governments of these countries have the moral authority to promote the observance of standards with which they themselves have yet fully to comply.

The International Centre for Trade Union Rights (ICTUR)

January 2001

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