ILO - International Labour Conference report

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ILO - International Labour Conference


June 2011


This document reports on the 100th International Labour Conference (ILC) of the ILO which took place in Geneva between 31 May and 17 June 2011. The core TUC delegation consisted of Marissa Begonia (Justice for Domestic Workers/Unite the Union), Amanda Brown (NUT), Richard Exell (TUC) and Sam Gurney (TUC). The main business of the ILC took place in the four committees which met during the first two weeks of the conference: the Committee on the Application of Standards (CAS) which meets annually; Decent Work for Domestic Workers - the second and final year of the negotiations to establish a convention and supporting recommendation covering the rights of domestic workers globally; a general discussion on labour administration and inspection; and a discussion on the ILO strategic objective of social protection (social security). In addition elections were held by the worker, employer and government groups to constitute the ILO's Governing Body (GB) for the next 3 years.

Decent Work for Domestic Workers

The ILC marked the culmination of 2 years of negotiations, which themselves followed many decades of campaigning, to secure a global standard covering the rights of domestic workers. The period between the 2010 and 2011 conferences had been occupied with the circulation of an updated draft convention and recommendation, consideration of written responses from employers, governments and workers and a number of preparatory meetings.

The workers group arrived at the conference broadly supportive of the draft texts that emerged from this process and ready to defend key sections against attempts to delete or amend them from employers' representatives and some governments. In addition there were a number of areas where additional strengthening was still required.

The TUC input was again led by Marissa Begonia from Justice for Domestic Workers/Unite, supported in the committee by Diana Holland from Unite in the first week and Jenny Moss from Kalayaan in the second. Marissa was active in ensuring that the voice of domestic workers themselves was heard in the negotiations and that unions worked effectively with campaign groups and NGOs who were attending the ILC. She was also able to respond to press enquires throughout the talks and keep colleagues in the UK informed of progress.

The negotiations took place over 17 sessions and went through 263 proposed amendments. The majority of governments and employers took a more constructive approach than in 2010 and the employer threat to challenge the commitment to having both a convention and a non binding recommendation did not materialise.

Prior to the ILC, TUC representatives met regularly with the DWP and BIS officials to discuss the government's position on the draft text. They expressed reservations on three areas: potential requirements to regulate private agencies placing domestic workers, language on working hours and the possible impact of the Convention on health and safety regulations if there was a requirement to treat private dwellings as workplaces.

The TUC also discussed the issue with the CBI who did not send a representative to take part in the committee (although their Governing Body member did attend in part) but expressed stronger opposition to the draft text in advance of the conference.

Regrettably the government's attitude in the ILC negotiations was in reality far from positive and indeed quite removed from neutral. On a number of occasions they disassociated themselves from EU attempts to find consensus positions and even opposed a US government amendment which called for voluntary bilateral agreements to cover domestic workers' rights when working for diplomatic staff.

Notwithstanding this, by the end of the committee strong texts were agreed for both the convention and recommendation. The convention sets out a series of key principles including that domestic workers (including migrant domestic workers) must be treated in the same way as other categories of workers and covered by national legislation labour legislation, that they must receive written contracts, payment in money and be able to work in healthy and safe conditions.

Despite TUC lobbying and the fact that voting in favour of the convention at the conference would ensure other countries who wished to ratify at a national level had the option to so without placing any obligations on the UK, when it came to the final adoption of the Convention in the main plenary both the British government and the CBI spoke against the text (the only two negative speeches in the entire debate). The government based their opposition on the spurious grounds that the convention would 'criminalise the elderly' because health and safety regulations (which are part of the criminal law) would have to be extended to cover private homes.

The CBI, with slightly more consistency, but still with a level of parochialism, chose to vote against the convention on the basis of a possible conflict in the text with the UK interpretation of the European Working Time Directive, namely that provision should be made for payment for on call working and that domestic workers should be entitled to a rest period of 24 hours every 7 days.

Despite the British government abstention (along with only 8 other governments including Sudan) and the CBI vote against, Convention 189 was passed with much celebration, by 396 votes to 16, with 63 abstentions. The TUC will now be taking a leading role in the campaign to secure ratification and implementation of the convention in the UK and the EU.

Committee on Application of Standards (CAS)

The CAS is a standing committee of the ILC which considers the implementation of ILO conventions at national level.

In parallel with the committee involved in the discussion on social protection, the first week of the CAS looked at reports from governments on the application of social security related conventions and recommendations at a national level. The conventions reviewed were the Social Security (Minimum Standards) Convention, 1952 (No. 102), the Employment Promotion and Protection against Unemployment Convention, 1988 (No. 168), the Income Security Recommendation, 1944 (No. 67) and the Medical Care Recommendation, 1944 (No. 69).

A special session was also held to review the work of the commission of inquiry established by the ILO on the use of forced labour in Burma. The session followed the usual ritual with the Burmese government claiming that there was no problem (supported by neighbouring governments) and the workers, employers and some government representatives, including the US and EU, saying they didn't believe a word of it, albeit in slightly more diplomatic language.

The second week of the CAS focused on a more in-depth analysis of 25 cases taken from the report of the ILO Committee of Experts. As noted in the last two conference reports the selection of these cases, which is supposed to be by consensus amongst the employers and workers groups, has become a battleground. The employers group continued to exercise what is in effect a veto on cases, once again blocking discussion on both Colombia and Japan (in relation to convention 29 on forced labour concerning redress for women forced into sex slavery during the Second World War).

In the end the workers group were confronted by the choice of not agreeing any list and seeing the committee collapsing or agreeing a list without Japan and Colombia, but ensuring discussion of other important cases such as Greece, Guatemala and Swaziland. At the very last moment a form of compromise was agreed with Colombia discussed in an extraordinary session which did not form part of the main committee. However the TUC has reiterated the view that a new procedure is needed as the continuation of an employer veto makes a mockery of the system.

The TUC, represented by Amanda Brown (NUT), participated in a number of the cases, contributing to debates and assisting within the workers group by coordinating presentations. The TUC delegate helped coordinate the workers group interventions on Swaziland on breach of Convention 87 (collective bargaining), Canada and Saudi Arabia. She spoke on breaches in Fiji (Convention 111 - discrimination) and on Saudi Arabia (Convention 81 - labour inspection). In both cases, the aim was to raise the failure to comply with the most fundamental ILO standards on freedom to organise and to bargain, within a discussion which technically related to breaches of other ILO standards.

In relation to Fiji, the particular lack of freedom for public sector workers has led to harassment of trade unionists, including teacher trade unionists. Felix Anthony of the Fiji TUC was present during the Conference and was able to speak from personal experience about the situation in Fiji and the arrests, beatings and persecution suffered by trade unionists. This was supported by interventions from the TUC as well as the ACTU and PSI.

The case on labour inspection in Saudi Arabia was notable for the response of the Saudi government representative. He welcomed the workers group interventions and pledged to improve the situation in Saudi Arabia, which at present is particularly difficult for migrant workers who often live and work in appalling circumstances. This response was welcomed by the workers group, as one of very few occasions on which a Gulf state case had been considered by the CAS.

The workers group view of the eventual conclusions of the committee was broadly positive. Ten resulted in recommendations for urgent ILO technical assistance, three countries will receive special missions for further investigation and Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Guatemala, Swaziland and Uzbekistan were all cited in 'special paragraphs' (the highest level of ILO criticism) in the final report. Luc Cortebeeck, worker spokesperson in the committee, presenting the final report back for the workers to the conference plenary, highlighted the cases that had not been formally discussed due to the employers group actions, including Japan and Colombia.

The CBI representative, reporting back on behalf of the employers, made a wider attack on the Committee of Experts (the ILO's independent legal experts), accusing them of attempting to set policy through their conclusions and inaccurately interpreting Conventions 87 and 98 as protecting the right to take strike action. This is an argument that will be taken up by the employers at the next governing body meeting and which the workers group will need to refute in the strongest possible terms.

Labour administration and labour inspection - general discussion

This committee looked in detail at a report produced by the ILO on the current state of labour administration and inspection globally. The discussion was divided into six sections that were intended to produce outcomes focused on:

  • identifying the new trends, challenges and future perspectives for systems of labour administration and inspection;
  • better understanding the role of employers' and workers' organisations in relation to labour administration and inspection services; and
  • providing recommendations regarding the ILO's priorities for strengthening labour administration and inspection institutions in member states with a view to realizing the objectives of the Decent Work Agenda.

The TUC's governing body representative, Sam Gurney, acted as worker spokesperson and vice chairperson of the committee. Following a series of six tripartite discussions on separate themes, an intensive set of negotiations on drafting final conclusions and a further series of tripartite meetings to discuss over 90 amendments, a strong set of conclusions were agreed by the committee and adopted by the conference as a whole.

The workers group's objectives for the discussion were largely achieved, with the conclusions unequivocally stating that labour administration and inspection services had to cover all workers including those in the formal and informal economy, in rural and agricultural employment, home workers and domestic workers, workers in disguised and triangular employment relations, workers in the public sector, migrant workers and those posted across borders, and workers in extended global supply chains, including in Economic Processing Zones.

The committee conclusions also reaffirmed that labour administration and inspection were and must remain public functions, that labour and employment ministries must be at the heart of policy development at a national level to ensure coherent government approaches that could deliver job-rich growth and decent work and that genuine social dialogue and tripartite working is essential to ensure effective operation. Finally it was noted that notwithstanding the crisis, and indeed in part because of it, more resources were required for these services

Some of the toughest negotiating was over the content of the work-plan for ILO to take forward the committee's conclusions, but in the end a satisfactory work-plan was agreed, including a high-level expert meeting to look at the threats posed by the proliferation of private inspection and auditing schemes, research strategies on extending the coverage of labour inspection systems to those groups of workers not currently covered and the creation of a database to share best practice on labour administration inspection systems.

Recurrent discussion on the strategic objective of social protection (social security)

The TUC was represented in this committee by Richard Exell, who also took part in a preparatory meeting in Geneva in April. Discussion was based on a report prepared by the ILO: Social Security for Social Justice and a Fair Globalization. The report set out the global state of play in relation to social security and identified areas of work for the ILO, including provision of technical support and a target of extending the coverage of the key social security Convention (No. 102) to 70 countries, representing a third of global population, by 2015.

The central item for discussion in the committee was the Social Protection Floor initiative, which develops the ILO Decent Work Agenda, focusing on social security as a key pillar. The Social Protection Floor would seek to guarantee universal access to health care, conditional child allowance, basic pensions and disability benefits and basic income replacement for people of working age who cannot earn a living.

The workers group have been strongly supportive of this initiative because the ILO promoting universal access to a set of basic social rights is especially important in the many countries where the majority of workers have no access to any health care or social security and because ILO involvement alongside other UN agencies ensures direct union involvement in formulating the details of the Social Protection Floor. A key position on the workers side was that the principle of a minimum floor should not be used to downgrade existing social protection conventions and national provision, but as a stepping stone to the global adoption of more comprehensive social security provision.

The workers group, chaired by Helen Kelly of NZCTU, was solid in supporting the Social Protection Floor. The UK government objected when Ms Kelly referred to low pension levels in the UK, but otherwise its interventions tended to be sceptical, rather than overtly hostile.

The Conference concluded with a Resolution on Social Protection that gave a strong commitment to the Social Protection Floor without any downgrading of existing conventions. The 2012 ILC is now mandated to discuss a standard-setting recommendation (the ILO is currently consulting on its contents) that will, if adopted, allow the ILO to work with countries to implement the Social Protection Floor in accordance with national conditions.

International Labour Conference plenary

In addition to receiving, discussing and adopting reports from the four committees and voting to adopt Convention 189 and the Recommendation on Domestic Workers, the plenary heard from a series of key note speakers and high-level panels, adopted the ILO budget and elected the governing body for the next three year period.


The Director General opened the ILC with an attack on global inequality, highlighting the fact that this crisis had existed before the current global economic crisis. He noted the absurdity of 3500 individual billionaires having the same income as over 61 million people in developing countries. Focusing on the role of youth unemployment in triggering revolt in the Middle East and beyond he was blunt in his assessment that if we did not succeed in rebalancing the global system we would have to watch it collapse.

President Bambang Yudhoyono of Indonesia stressed that for democracy to survive it had to have the full participation of workers and outlined the polices in Indonesia designed to ensure genuine implementation of labour standards, before ending his intervention with a strong call for support for the domestic workers convention. Presidents Putin of Russia, Kitwete of Tanzania and Calmy-Rey of Switzerland all stressed the importance of job creation and the wider decent work agenda in preventing future economic crisis.

Chancellor Merkel, in a powerful speech, stated that the ILO's fundamental purpose was to secure the conditions for universal peace, citing the German experience of the growth of fascism following the economic crisis of the 1920s and 30s before moving to highlight the vital importance of union and employer involvement in social dialogue in enabling Germany to weather the most recent economic storms. She stated that this type of inclusive response was needed on a global scale via the G20 which must work with the ILO, the rest of the UN and international finance institutions to build a peaceful, equitable and fair globalisation.


The British government led the opposition to the ILO budget at the ILO governing body meeting in March, calling for the proposed standstill budget (an increase of 4.2% to allow for inflation) to be replaced by a cut of 3%. Following a speech in which they stated that they did not wish their continued opposition to be seen as lack of support for the ILO - a point which the TUC has advised successive governments to emphasise - they voted against the proposed increase. However the budget was adopted by a vote of 431 in favour to 16 against (with 14 abstentions).


This conference marked an election year for the ILO Governing Body. Each constituency votes for its own representatives. Under the constitution 12 'states of chief industrial importance' (including the UK) are automatically granted government positions and so don't take part in voting.

The ITUC puts forward a slate to fill the 14 titular positions, 19 deputy posts (which with the exception of voting rights in the election for Director General have the same constitutional standing as titular members) and 19 substitute positions of the workers group. Representation is designed to give a mix of regional representation and gender balance and ensure that key countries are represented.

In line with the policy of the ITUC (firmly supported by the TUC) to secure a stronger and more effective workers group which can align its work in the ILO more effectively with global unions strategy there were substantial changes in the list of ITUC nominations. Nine of the 33 titular and deputy members were entirely new while 7 members who had replaced others during the previous three year cycle (including Sam Gurney from the TUC) were formally elected for the first time.

There was a marked improvement in the gender balance with 14 women and 19 men in the new group. The other significant change was standing one less member for the titular positions which allowed Guanping Jiang of the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) to move from the deputy to the titular position. Three other non-ITUC endorsed candidates stood but received derisory votes.

After many years on the Governing Body and 6 years as workers group chair, Sir Leroy Trotman of Barbados stepped down to be replaced by Luc Cortebeeck of Belgium.

Progress in the composition of the workers group however needs to be set against some disappointing developments in the government representation on the ILO governing body where South Africa (normally a useful ally to the workers group) were not re-elected and where Sudan have been nominated to chair the governing body (a position decided by governments on a regionally rotating basis). A number of other governments with poor records on workers' rights have also been elected including Iran and Zimbabwe.

The ILC marked the retirement of the UK government's Governing Body representative, Steve Richards from the DWP, and his replacement as UK representative by Annette Warrick, also from the DWP. Andrew Moore of the CBI also stepped down to be replaced by Chris Syder, a partner in the employment law firm of Davis Arnold Cooper.

side events and bilateral meetings

The Commonwealth Trade Union Meeting and TUC-hosted lunch was one of the best attended for a number of years and featured a productive discussion on union participation in the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting which will take place in October in Western Australia. Bilateral meetings were held with colleagues from a number of countries including; China, Ghana, Nigeria and Singapore.


The TUC delegation played a very active part in all four committees, despite being reduced in number from 5 to 4 representatives (due in part to DWP budget reductions).

The adoption of Convention 189 and Recommendation marks a historic step forward both in the campaign for full rights for 100 million domestic workers globally and in showing that the ILO standard setting machinery is able to cover workers outside of the traditional areas of formal sector employment that it was created to deal with. Given the position taken by the UK government and employers it is clear however that we face a major battle to get the Convention adopted in the UK. During the course of the conference and subsequently the TUC has been working with NGOs and others to focus attention on the government's position, including support for an adjournment debate in Parliament in July.

The government's position, when looked at in conjunction with the withdrawal of additional funding provided by DFID and the attempt to secure a real terms cut in the regular budget contribution provided by Britain, is indicative of a wider hardening of their attitude to the ILO.

The employers are also taking a more active stance in seeking to roll back ILO jurisprudence defending the right to take industrial action under Conventions 87 and 98, in opposing the standard setting work of the organisation more generally and in attempting to block discussion of issues of key concern to workers though committees such as the CAS.

All of this points to the need for the workers group in the ILO to be better organised and more strategic in its work, linked to the wider agenda of the ITUC and global union movement. There were positive indications that this is happening through the refreshing of group membership and increasingly effective coordination of work as seen in the securing of a commitment to negotiate a recommendation on a global Social Protection Floor as the outcome of the recurrent discussion on social security.

The TUC will continue to play an active part in this process and in seeking to reform both ILO and ILC procedures so that the organisation and its constituents work more effectively to deliver on the Decent Work Agenda.

Finally thanks are as always due to the UK worker delegates for their tireless work, commitment and enthusiasm during the ILC.

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