December 10, 2023 is the 75th anniversary of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and ILO Convention 87, yet we are far from achieving human dignity, freedom, and social justice for all, especially for the entire workforce. Intensified efforts to promote and protect the human and labour rights is thus imperative at this juncture when the employers and governments across the world are in favour of scuttling large number of labour rights including the “right to strike” while real wages are on the decline, quality of jobs deteriorating, and unemployment remains high since the outbreak of COVID-19 in 2020.
Only a month ago on November 10-11, a special two day session outside the ILO Governing Body meeting was held on request of 14 Employer members, who wanted to limit the scope of the Freedom of Association and Protection of the Right to Organize Convention of 1948, ie Convention 87. Such a meeting was a rare event held outside the ILO Governing Body meetings, only the fourth one in the history of ILO’s existence since 1919. The three others were held in September 1932, October 1935, and May 1970.
The two-day special session was held just after conclusion of 349th Session (October 30 – November 9), in which the ILO Governing Body members could not even defend the Convention 87, due to split of votes, and had to decide to refer the dispute to the International Court of Justice (ICJ). The 14 employer members of the ILO governing body had requested for urgent inclusion of the issue on the agenda of the 112th Session of International Labour Conference (ILC) and proposed ILC adopt a protocol to ILO Convention 87. If adopted, it would authoritatively determine the scope and limits of the right to strike, is, more broadly, industrial action. As per the request of the employer members, the dispute is to be brought in the 112th Session of the ILC to be held in June 2024.
However, the Governing Body has decided to consider appropriate follow-up action only after receiving the advisory opinion of ICJ. It should be noted that just before this decision, the Governing Body had endorsed the proposed ILO integrated strategy for the promotion and implementation of the right to collective bargaining and requested the DG ILO to take into account its guidance in implementing the strategy and submit a progress report at its 352nd Session in November 2024.
It is therefore significant that ILO Director-General Gilbert F. Houngbo has now called for intensified efforts to promote and protect these rights and collectively strive for a future grounded in human dignity, freedom, and social justice. He has said that these human rights were hard-won, and they remain essential for peace and social justice. We all have a duty to protect and support them – especially in times of conflict and insecurity, he said in a statement adding, “at the ILO we pledge to redouble our efforts to promote these rights, and so support a future based on human dignity, freedom and social justice for all.”
How far his call will be effective is uncertain, since the ILO Governing Body itself is not running smoothly. There are 56 titular members and 66 deputy members in it. Titular members included 28 governments, 14 employers, and 14 workers while deputy members included 28 governments, 19 employers and 19 workers. Ten of the titular government seats are permanently held by states, and other government members are elected by the ILC every three years. However, it is unfortunate that not election has been held since June 2014.
It is worth recalling that the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted in 1948 in the aftermath of World War II. That same year the ILO’s members adopted Convention 87, protecting freedom of association and the right to organize, safeguarding the rights of workers and employers to choose how, and by whom, they are represented. For many years until 2012, the ILO Committee of Experts on the Application of Conventions and Recommendations, consisting of independent experts responsible for monitoring the application of the ratified Conventions by member states, has taken the view that the right to strike is a corollary to the right to freedom of association, and that, as such it is reorganized and protected by the Convention 87.
In 2012, Employers’ group have started questioning the interpretation of the Experts, bringing a major institutional crisis with the ILC Committee on the Application of Standards being prevented for the first time from exercising its supervisory functions. The issue of collective bargaining came before the tripartite screening group in May 2022 that decided to place the strategy for promotion and implementation of the right to collective bargaining on the agenda of the ILO Governing Body in its meeting in March 2023.
Since trade unionism across the world is in great crisis, ILO’s call for protecting and promoting Convention 87, is important. The 75th anniversary of the Convention 87 should be an occasion to make a fresh resolve for workers and trade unions to protect themselves from exploitation and assert for their rights, especially the right to organize, right to collective bargaining for proper wages and social security coverage, and right to strike. ILC and ILO has major responsibility to protect the Convention 87 to protect workers’ rights. (IPA Service)