President of Workers’ Group speaks on Right to Strike at ILO 323rd Session of the ILO GB

323rd session of the ILO Governing Body

Luc Cortebeeck, President of the Workers’ Group: “The right to strike has been recognized and the ILO supervisory mechanism is back in operation”
The 323rd session of the ILO Governing Body has just finished in Geneva. In this interview, President of the Workers’ Group Luc Cortebeeck discusses the outcomes achieved at this session, in particular on the issue of the right to strike. He also talks about the solutions the trade unions have in mind for the protection of vulnerable workers and the expectations of the Workers’ Group for the forthcoming discussions on transitioning from the informal to the formal economy due to take place at the International Labour Conference in June 2015.
ACTRAV INFO: The 323rd session of the ILO Governing Body has just finished. What’s your interpretation of the results of this session at the level of the Workers’ Group?

Luc Cortebeeck: I think that this 323rd session of the Governing Body was a success compared to where we were in November 2014, for several reasons. Firstly, we made a lot of progress on the issue of the right to strike in particular and the ILO supervisory mechanism is operational once again. This is the result of multiple negotiations with employers and governments, which eventually fostered an atmosphere favourable to the operation of the ILO mechanism for supervision of the application of international labour standards. Today, tripartism is stronger.

Then another success was the signature of a tripartite agreement between the government, the employers, and workers of Fiji. The purpose of the agreement is to establish the application of freedom of association and other international labour standards in the laws and practices of that country, which for years has posed a real problem for the workers and their trade unions. This unanticipated agreement allowed the government to avoid application of the most severe article of the ILO Constitution, article 26 , which provides for the establishment of a Commission of Inquiry into violations of labour standards. We congratulate our worker colleague Félix Anthony, leader of the Fiji Trade Union Congress (FTUC), and hope that this tripartite agreement, which was signed under the supervision of the ILO Director-General, will be put into practice. We will have an initial evaluation of the application of this agreement on Fiji in June, and in November 2015 at the Governing Body.

So far as the Programme and Budget is concerned, the Office found a balance that takes account of the goals set by the workers for the next two years. Although the Programme and Budget was attacked by the employers, agreement was eventually reached, with unanimity. This constitutes a success for the Office and for the Director-General.

We also welcome the conclusions of the Meeting of Experts on Non-Standard Forms of Employment; this was also a success for ILO.

However, there were some difficult issues tackled at this session. For example, the case of Qatar, where 1.7 million migrant workers are being subjected to conditions of slavery, with the complicity of recruitment agencies. These migrant workers have neither contracts nor salaries. They work and live in inhumane conditions far from their families. The Employers’ Group and the Workers’ Group proposed sending a high-level tripartite mission, but this was rejected by the government. To date, for purportedly “economic” reasons, the Government of Qatar is supported by several governments, including but not limited to the governments of the countries that are sending workers there in the hope of earning money. This situation is unacceptable. At the level of the Workers’ Group, we would like to send a mission that, taking the reality on the ground as a starting point, could propose measures for the government to take and technical assistance to come to the aid of migrant workers in Qatar. The government could also prove its commitment by ratifying the protocol of 2014 to the ILO Convention on Forced Labour, No. 29 , on the elimination of contemporary forms of slavery.

ACTRAV INFO: The question of the right to strike was on the agenda again at this session. How to do you evaluate the results of the discussions on the right to strike?

We have discussed this many times before without finding a solution. Remember that last November, faced with an impasse on the right to strike, the Workers’ Group proposed that the issue be referred to the International Court of Justice. Almost half of the Governing Body was in favour of this option but the impasse persisted…that’s why we made contact with governments and employers to try to find a solution. For us workers, the right to strike is a part of ILO Convention No. 87 . Remember that for years employers had always respected the advice pertaining to the jurisprudence of the Committee of Experts; since 2012, they have no longer accepted it and we have made several attempts at negotiation. Finally, shortly before the preparatory meeting on the right to strike organized by the Office in February 2015, we reached an agreement with the employers, who recognized the right to strike on a case by case basis. The governments, for their part, recognized the right to strike as being a part of freedom of association and necessarily related to collective bargaining. And indeed the Freedom of Association Committee did once again accept some unanimous conclusions on several right to strike cases. Naturally, with this development, we are also relying on the Standards Committee examining a list of cases at the next session of the International Labour Conference. I believe that there is a shared political will by governments, employers and workers to extricate ILO from this impasse on the right to strike.

These are the new perspectives that are emerging, which do bring risks, certainly, but I think that for the future of ILO, this is a chance – an opportunity – that we have before us here.

ACTRAV INFO: The protection of vulnerable workers was mentioned at this session – at the level of the Workers’ Group, what solutions do you have in mind for the protection of vulnerable workers?

There is growing inequality throughout the world today, and this is a phenomenon that can be seen in both developed and developing countries.

In order to ensure the protection of vulnerable workers, they must be represented by trade unions with the right to negotiate. These workers must have a work contract and a decent salary, without any discrimination. A minimum wage high enough to live on and social security are some solutions that would allow vulnerable workers to live with decency. We also hope that ILO’s action to protect vulnerable workers will form part of a synergy of actions by the United Nations under the post-2015 development agenda.

ACTRAV INFO: Transitioning from the informal to the formal economy will be on the agenda at the next session of the International Labour Conference in June 2015. What are your expectations for these tripartite discussions?

This will be the second time that the International Labour Conference has tackled this issue. We remain optimistic. The Workers’ Group has already made contact with the employers in order to negotiate progress on this issue. In some countries today, more than 80% of workers are in the informal economy. I think that for many governments, the formalization of the informal economy is something they would welcome.

And for employers, informal work signifies unfair competition because, as it is not organized by genuine employers, they do not negotiate in the usual way with workers of the informal economy.

At the ILO level, it’s possible that there might be a recommendation to try to regulate the transition from the informal to the formal economy. We would really like to see that recommendation come to pass, because it is an important first step towards supporting the workers of the informal economy.