ILC91 Annual ILO Conference tackles new social agenda

Fighting poverty, providing seafarers with new identity documents, and a variety of measures aimed at improving the world of work were among the highlights of the 91st International Labour Conference in June. Delegates held an impassioned debate over working conditions, and adopted radical new measures designed to improve workplace security and safety.

GENEVA - In addition to the key theme of working out of poverty, the 91st International Labour Conference, held in Geneva this June, also adopted new international standards for seafarers' identity documents to improve security while guaranteeing the right of movement of seafarers, as well as world trade.

A new international standard for seafarers' identification aims both to boost international security and to ensure that the world's 1.2 million seafarers have the freedom of movement needed for their well-being and their professional activities. The measure is also seen as maintaining international commerce, a huge proportion of which moves by sea transport.

The new ILO Convention on Seafarers' Identity Documents (No. 185) replaces Convention No. 108, adopted in 1958. It establishes a more rigorous identity system for seafarers. A major feature of the new ID, on which full agreement was reached, will be a biometric template based on a fingerprint. A resolution accompanying the Convention requests the ILO Director-General to take urgent measures to develop "a global interoperable standard for the biometric, particularly in cooperation with the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO)". Ratifying states will also be required to maintain a proper database, available for international consultation by authorized officials, with due safeguards for individual rights.

The Convention provides for the facilitation of shore leave, and transit and transfer of seafarers, including the exemption from holding a visa for seafarers taking shore leave.

Other major issues tackled by the tripartite meeting of government, worker and employer representatives from the ILO's 177 member States included:

  • A new global strategy for promoting "coherent and focused" worldwide action to reduce occupational injuries and illnesses. Two million people die every year of work-related causes, 354,000 of them due to fatal accidents, according to ILO estimates. Some 80 per cent of these work-related fatalities are suffered by men, who - with the exception of agriculture - make up the majority of workers in the world's most hazardous sectors and occupations. The majority of women agricultural workers - one of the most hazardous sectors - are in developing countries. These women are often assigned the most hazardous tasks, such as applying harmful pesticides. In addition, 270 million occupational accidents and 160 million occupational diseases hit workers every year. A new global strategy was recommended, based on two pillars:

    • A "preventative safety and health culture", entailing the agreement of the ILO social partners to a system of defined rights, responsibilities and duties - with prevention as the highest priority.
    • An integrated ILO occupational safety and health "tool box". This should include a promotional instrument designed to put safety and health higher on the agenda of member States, and a structured use of technical assistance and cooperation, focused on the establishment and implementation of national programmes by governments in close cooperation with employers and workers.

  • The ILO was asked to prepare a Recommendation on the employment relationship. This would focus on "disguised" employment relationships (i.e., workers who are in fact employees but their status is disguised or hidden. ILO data show that the concentration of women in such unprotected situations can be high). The recommendation would also focus on the need for mechanisms to ensure that persons with an employment relationship have access to the protection they are due at the national level. At the same time, the future Recommendation "should not interfere with genuine commercial and independent contracting arrangements".
  • The situation of workers in the occupied Arab territories was discussed in a special plenary session, during which speakers stressed the need for furthering ILO technical cooperation assistance to stimulate employment, combat poverty, and strengthen capacities of the social partners and the Ministry of Labour of the Palestinian Authority. They also expressed the hope that the so-called "road map" peace proposal would give an impetus to political efforts aimed at bringing about peace in the region. The debate also highlighted the role of the ILO in promoting a dialogue which will help in building confidence among all the parties in the region. Many speakers confirmed their support of the ILO initiative in creating "The Palestinian Fund for Employment and Social Protection".
  • Human resources development was the subject of a first discussion on a new international labour standard. This is expected to replace ILO Recommendation No. 150, dating from 1975. The conference committee on this issue recognized human resources development as a key component of the response needed to facilitate lifelong learning and employability. It called for the involvement of the social partners and a renewed commitment by governments, the private sector and individuals, to education, training and lifelong learning.
  • A programme and budget for 2004-2005, worth over US$529.6 million, was adopted.
  • A Global Campaign on Social Security and Coverage for All was launched to build a broad partnership involving governments, employers, labour, international organizations, donor countries, social security institutions and civil society organizations. The campaign will seek their support for efforts to help countries develop and expand social security systems through experimentation and social dialogue. It will also intensify efforts already underway in 40 countries to extend social security. A special campaign is now online at
  • The ILO global report Time for Equality at Work was discussed in depth under the follow-up to the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. Despite decades of effort, women, different races and ethnic minorities are still far from enjoying equality of opportunity and treatment. Many delegates noted that discrimination is a major cause of poverty, and that new forms of discrimination are emerging, based on age, sexual orientation, HIV/AIDS status and disability. They highlighted the need for legal underpinning in the fight against discrimination. The importance of workplace equality to communities, business and other sectors was emphasized.
The resources exist within the world economy and society to achieve the objective of the eradication of poverty, globally." That is what South Africa's President Thabo Mbeki told the International Labour Conference. And he asked why it is not being done.

Citing the European Union's internal resource transfers "to ensure the even and balanced development of all communities within the Union", he argued for similar measures at the world level. There are, he said, "certain challenges of poverty and underdevelopment that can only be addressed through a conscious process of resource transfers from the rich to the poor, globally".

"The International Labour Conference and the ILO occupy an important place among the global forces that have to join, and are part of, the war on poverty," President Mbeki stressed. He welcomed having the ILO "as comrades-in-arms in the struggle to eradicate poverty in our country, in the rest of Africa and throughout the world".

World day against child labour

The world must "join hands" to fight against child trafficking, a billion-dollar industry which virtually enslaves millions of children. That was the message from Queen Rania of the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan when she addressed the International Labour Conference on 12 June, the World Day Against Child Labour. "First and foremost, the business of human trafficking is fuelled by human poverty," Queen Rania pointed out - but the trafficked children are sent to "every corner of the globe". Governments must "prevent, protect and prosecute", she urged. Child trafficking is "an assault on human dignity and an affront to our common values", said ILO Director-General Juan Somavia. The ILO estimates that 1.2 million children fall victim to traffickers every year.

War on want is war against violence

The "war on want" must be won in order to "heal the divisions and despair that feed global violence," King Abdullah II of Jordan told the International Labour Conference.

A new global partnership would require "hard choices", he said, including "improved market access, the removal of trade barriers and predictable trade policies". Developed countries "must increase the level of direct assistance, encourage foreign direct investment and technology transfer, and reduce the debt burden". Developing countries "must commit to sound economic policies, coupled with the right safety nets, good governance and the rule of law".

Declaring "work and working people are at the heart of global prosperity", King Abdullah called for "sustainable socioeconomic development, development that enables all people to live in dignity. Such development is an important tool in the battle against extremism - as is a just resolution of the Arab-Israeli conflict and the question of Palestine." There is an "urgent need to rebuild and stabilize the Middle East region", which is currently at "a critical crossroads", he insisted. "Now is the time to work together, to put our full force behind the process that will lead to the hand-over of Iraq to a credible Iraqi government, representing all Iraqis."

Deeds, not words

Industrialized countries are failing to reconcile "words and deeds", Brazil's President Luíz Inácio da Silva ("Lula") told the ILO on the eve of the International Labour Conference. Long known as a resolute trade union campaigner, the new Brazilian President chose the ILO for his first speech to a UN body.

He warned of a growing worldwide "deficit" as regards "solidarity and economic cooperation, protection of the environment, promotion of justice and peace building". A renewal of the international system is needed, he said, including "reform of the [UN] Security Council", and "more powers to the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations (ECOSOC)".

"All of us must help to preserve and improve multilateralism, independently of our economic, financial or military power," he added. "For this to happen, we have to reduce the enormous gap between international treaties and their effective implementation."

During his visit, the Brazilian President and ILO Director-General Juan Somavia signed an understanding on a cooperation programme between Brazil and the ILO to promote a "decent work" agenda. This is to include employment generation, microcredit, youth jobs, improved social security systems, tripartism and social dialogue, in addition to the fight against child labour, the sexual exploitation of children, forced labour and workplace discrimination.

A patriot and a gentleman

Michael Christopher Wamalwa, Vice-President of Kenya since 2002 and President of the 91st International Labour Conference in June of this year, died aged 58 on August 23 in London. Described as a "patriot and a gentleman" by Kenyan President Kibaki, Mr. Wamalwa was praised by ILO Director General Juan Somavia for his "great stewardship" at the Conference. The Vice-President had enjoyed a varied and distinguished academic and working life, studying international law at the London School of Economics and criminology at Cambridge. He is the author of several publications on international law.