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Shopsteward Volume 27: Special Bulletin

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Media Centre  |  COSATU Speeches

Address by Mbhazima Shilowa, COSATU General Secretary at an ILO plenary session in Geneva

12 June 1997

Chairperson, allow me to congratulate you on your election as chair as well as salute the Director General who have put together a report which takes account of the debate about the challenges faced by the ILO together with specific measures likely to guarantee that standard setting action of the ILO becomes more relevant in the ensuing period.

At the Social Summit held in Copenhagen, Heads of Governments agreed to promote core conventions of the ILO. They went on to list those as the ones pertaining to freedom of association, collective bargaining, the prohibition of forced and child labour, equality of treatment and non discrimination and minimum age of employment. The challenge facing the ILO is how best to take this forward. It is with this in mind that we welcome the report of the Director General.

In particular we welcome the fact that he calls on those who are the main proponents of globalisation to state their equal commitment to the respect for worker rights. This will enhance a positive perception of globalisation among workers. Failure to do so reinforces a perception that globalisation equals denial of worker rights.

The call for political will by governments on not only ratification, but to pass legislation suited to their domestic conditions within the frame work of the convention is important. Otherwise ratification will simply be done as a way of gaining acceptance by the ILO without any meaningful gains by workers.

I listened very carefully, to the speech by Mister Wolfensohn, of the World Bank. I am one of those who are very sceptical of the destructive role played by the IMF and the World bank, particularly in Africa. I however concur with what he said on the fact that for sound economic policies to succeed, we need to pay attention to social policies, respect for individual rights and social justice.

What appears to him to be statistics on inequalities in wealth and incomes are a daily occurrence to most workers from developing countries. I hope that governments and employers have taken note of his views and will incorporate them in their inputs and proposals. I know that he may have said them today because of the composition of the audience. We should however as workers hold him to his words.

While it may be true that he does not force countries to adopt his proposals, what he does advice them is that if they want to prosper, they have no alternative but to accept his advice. His advice to all countries appears to be the same regardless of levels of economic development and social conditions. It is a case of the same prescription for every patient regardless of the nature of illness. When his policies fail, he would still proclaim success. It is a case of : "The operation was successful unfortunately the patient is dead".

Those who are opposed to social justice, have called for the rejection of the report because it will reinforce rigidities. I fail to see how a call for targeted standard setting, greater recourse to recommendations and an overall evaluation mechanism can reinforce rigidities. The same countries that oppose the DG`s report are the same ones who in Singapore were saying that the ILO is the mechanism to deal with issues of core standards. Yet they would want to remove any teeth it may have. It is time for us to question their precise motive. They seem more willing to satisfy the demands of unelected institutions without any due regard to the electorate. This we reject. I am aware of the fact that some do not even hold elections.

The past two years have seen a new tactic by employers who either threaten to walk out, or simply refuse to participate. This we condemn, particularly by employers who in their own countries have repeatedly called for dialogue as the only way to resolve differences.

I am sure that our Minister of Labour will outline steps that South Africa is taking on the same issues raised by the DG. I want to place it on record that while there exist differences in approach on certain issues, there is also overwhelming support by the Labour movement for the overall strategic approach being pursued by the government on labour issues whose aim is to foster social justice, economic development and job creation. We even have an agreement on how to approach the vexing question of social dimension to trade.

In conclusion let me state the following: The battle cry of those who want to demonise the trade union movement as a destructive economic force, and remove any role for the state in enacting legislation which protects workers, particularly the vulnerable and the unorganised is: "we need greater labour market flexibility". This coded attempt to turn the clock back, and remove basic rights and protection of workers (in the name of `flexibility`) will precisely lead to the exploitation of workers, no respect for worker rights including ILO conventions as well as entrench the notion that global competitiveness can only be achieved through the use of child labour and suppression of worker rights. This type of "flexibility" (licence to exploit), will lead, not to dynamism, innovation, and the unleashing of the productive potential, but to stagnation, and destruction of human and natural resources.

The concept of flexibility / rigidity needs to be closely scrutinised to ensure that it is not achieving the opposite of what is intended. Employers tend to confuse government intervention and regulation with rigidities, and deregulation with flexibility. For South African workers, the reality is that, effective targeted intervention is needed to overcome many of the inherited rigidities which retard the economic development, and introduce dynamism where there is now stagnation. Failure to do this will lead to an economy being trapped within the same structural constraints.

Whatever its good intentions may have been, labour market flexibility has become discredited among workers. We see it as a euphemism for very little or no regulations at all, make it easy for employers to hire and fire, pay whatever level of wages, make no investment in people, deny workers a say in decision making and have no protection for workers. I therefore call on governments and employers to accept the basic thrust of the DG`s report. Where they have genuine reservations this can be accommodated. We have to rise to the challenge of the 21st century by combining economic development with stakeholder rights.