(Durban 06.04.2000 - Juhani Artto) Like ICFTU, the ILO places a strong emphasis on core labour standards. This was felt strongly this week at the Durban International Convention Centre, where the 17th ICFTU Congress is in progress.

Two years ago the ILO leadership established a new mechanism allowing the organisation to gather information in countries that have not ratified the ILO Conventions on fundamental labour rights. In March, the organisation published its first annual synthesis on the situation in countries that have ratified none of these eight Conventions.

"The report shows that our policy and the work of ICFTU have led to a series of important positive steps," says Kari Tapiola, who is Assistant General Secretary of the ILO and former Secretary for International Affairs at Finland's largest central trade union organisation, SAK.

"Information was received from 60 governments. 41 of these admitted their problems and expressed their willingness to work with the ILO to find solutions to them. This is a promising start to the new mechanism."

"The process also includes new countries now beginning to ratify the Conventions. Even so, we have a long way to go in ratification, as few countries have ratified all eight Conventions".

There are several developing countries among the newcomers as well as three European countries: Switzerland, the UK and Iceland.

The gender equality angle is also fruitful in questions of basic rights

Another benefit of the new mechanism is that the ILO itself has gained a deeper understanding of the requirements for real progress.

Kari Tapiola explains: "Legislation alone is not enough. Real progress in fundamental rights demands a broader approach and must include a development policy angle, as we have always had in the child labour issue."

"Progress will not be sustainable unless certain conditions are created and guaranteed. For instance, abolishing forced labour must be combined with proper employment programmes."

"Including the gender equality angle helps to achieve valuable results in all fundamental labour rights issues. Improving the position of women is important both when tackling the child labour issue and when establishing and reinforcing trade union rights."

More novelties are expected from the ILO led by Chilean General Secretary Juan Somavia, who took office only about a year ago.

Next Summer the ILO will publish its first report on the situation regarding the right to establish and join trade unions. The series of novelties will continue with a report on forced labour in 2001, a study on child labour in 2002 and one on discrimination in 2003. Each of these reports will be updated at four yearly intervals.

The ILO is "market compatible"

Is there not a danger that the ILO, with its new firm grip on injustices in working life, will become the target of forceful, conservative attacks as Unesco and Unctad were in the 1970s? Kari Tapiola responds:

"No such danger exists. The changes which Unesco and Unctad tried to achieve in the world lacked a sustainable basis, as they relied on the abilities of States to exert a decisive influence on the economy and information system."

"Since the fall of Berlin Wall, we have shifted into a world where there is no credible alternative to the market economy. The ILO has been able to adapt its organisation under these circumstances."

With a smile, Kari Tapiola describes the ILO as "market compatible".

"One quarter of the shares are in the hands of the international trade union movement, another quarter is managed by the business community and the rest are controlled by governments", he explains.

"Our present way of working has forestalled attacks against the ILO. Some reservations concerning fundamental rights have been expressed."

"Since the end of the Cold War a new openness has emerged. During the Cold War many States tended to hide their inadequacies and abuses. Now, it is no longer possible to hide such things."

"Similarly, it is no longer possible to defend them by explaining them as cultural phenomena. On a stage of world opinion, consumers and many other participants it is better to admit the existence of serious problems and to be credible when explaining that the problems are being tackled handled in the proper manner."

"When our child labour programme began eight years ago many States refused to admit the existence of the problem. Now, many of those States have realised that it is better for their image to admit that the problem exists and to work with the ILO to tackle it."

The ILO works on minimum standards – the ETUC seeks to harmonise EU social norms

Why is it that the trade union movement and business community can work together within the ILO, while in Europe the regional union organisation ETUC has major problems even persuading the leading employer organisation UNICE to come to the negotiating table?

"At the ILO we have a tripartite decision making structure, whereas in the European Union the labour market partners have a consultative status. At the ILO we try to reach a common understanding on minimum standards, but in Europe the aim is to harmonise social norms, which is more difficult", Kari Tapiola explains.

At the high spirited ETUC Congress in Helsinki last June, the organisation's General Secretary Emilio Gabaglio announced that the ETUC is ready to call strikes unless European employer organisations begin to negotiate seriously about the ETUC proposals. Nine months have now elapsed and barely any progress has been made in the ETUC-UNICE dialogue.

Does Emilio Gabaglio, interviewed by Trade Union News from Finland at the Durban International Convention Center, have anything to say about the situation? Is the strike option on the cards? Gabaglio responds:

"The next few weeks will be decisive. We have given the employers until the end of this month to make a positive move towards our proposals concerning fixed-term workers. Up to now UNICE has refused to negotiate about this matter".