A small group of employer representatives at this month’s International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference have thrown a massive hissy fit and prevented the UN body from publicly highlighting – and condemning – gross abuses of workers’ rights in countries like Colombia, Fiji, Guatemala and Swaziland.
These employers’ representatives, led by the British lawyer Chris Syder who is the CBI representative on the ILO Governing Body, have done workers in those countries enormous harm, making them more vulnerable to harassment, arbitrary arrest and violent assault. And they have done it because they wanted to pick and choose which fundamental human rights could be examined.
The ITUC has condemned the employers’ actions, and drawn attention to the fact that this is not the approach which major multinational companies are taking in discussion with global unions, but then the employers’ representatives at the ILO are less and less likely to have experience of running companies or employing anyone, still less of negotiating agreements. The conflictual approach of hired lawyers like Chris Syder is hardly in the tradition of collective bargaining between employers and unions that the ILO embodies.
Every year, employers and unions draw up – by agreement – a list of violations of fundamental rights for the International Labour Conference to discuss in a ‘Committee on the Application of Standards’ (CAS), selected from hundreds of cases dealt with by the eminent independent judges and lawyers on the ILO Committee of Experts. These experts comsider all the cases submitted from around the world, assess the evidence and identify breaches of specific ILO conventions (especially the core conventions which guarantee freedom of association and collective bargaining, and prohibit forced and child labour and discrimination in the workplace).
The CAS, which is made up of employers, unions and governments, then reviews the most important cases (not always the worst violations, but a mixture which reflects a representative range of issues) and shines the international spotlight on the governments responsible, ideally so that remedial action can be taken.
Employer representatives have refused to agree any list that includes cases which involve the right of workers to withdraw their labour – a key element of freedom of association and free collective bargaining – as part of an ideological challenge to the right to strike. In doing so they have also stopped consideration of cases where employers’ freedom of association has been restricted, for example in Malawi and Uzbekistan. Their actions have been condemned by global union federations such as the BWI, EI and IMF.