For the better part of the past two years, I have had the great
privilege of heading the Department of Labor's Bureau of
International Affairs. Simply put, it's the agency that carries out
the international responsibilities of the Department of
One of my major responsibilities has been representing the
Department of Labor--and, indeed, the United States government--in
international organizations that deal with labor and
employment issues. And, of course, the major international
organization I have worked with is the International Labor
My bureau works closely with the ILO on a number of
- We oversee labor programs funded by the State Department and
implemented by the ILO in the Middle East and Latin America.
- We oversee numerous projects that are implemented by the
ILO's International Program for the Elimination of Child Labor
(IPEC). Over the past decade, the U.S. has funded nearly $370
million worth of programs in over 75 countries. As a result of
these programs, we have rescued more than a million children from
exploitive child labor.
On a regular, ongoing basis, we also represent the United States
government at the ILO's annual conference and at its Governing
Body meetings. We do this along with the AFL-CIO, which represents
American workers, and the U.S. Council for International
Business, which represents U.S. employers. Both of these
partners, I should add, have been helpful and dedicated to
making the ILO a strong and effective voice for democracy and
I think this is an opportune time, with the current
economic challenges, to talk about the ILO itself: to give you my
perspective on what it does well, what concerns the U.S. government
has had, and what we at my Bureau see as the road ahead.
The Mission of the ILO
When I worked here at The Heritage Foundation, I would look
up every day at the words in gold letters on the wall in the foyer
that read: "The Heritage Foundation is committed to building
an America where freedom, opportunity, prosperity and civil
society flourish." Those words certainly have guided my work
at the State Department and the Labor Department over these past
I recall once, shortly before leaving Heritage to move over to
State, that I had suggested at a strategy meeting on foreign
policy priorities that we needed to change just two words so that
the vision would be, "Building a world where freedom,
opportunity, prosperity and civil society flourish." So it's
appropriate for me to ask: How does the ILO fit into that
The International Labor Organization was created in 1919,
in the wake of World War I, with the purpose of creating an
international institution that could bring governments, employers,
and workers together to improve living and working conditions and
help preserve social stability in the new post- World War I order.
As the sole remaining component of the League of Nations, and
as a member of the present-day U.N. system, the ILO has been a
strong voice for worker rights, for helping to build democracy in
Poland and South Africa, and building strong, open-market
systems in Eastern Europe after the collapse of the Soviet
The ILO continues to be a beacon in promoting freedom in some
critical places across the globe. For example:
- In Burma, the ILO is the sole U.N. agency that plays a useful
role on the ground. It has been directly responsible for enabling
victims of forced labor to report on their treatment without fear
of reprisal. The ILO's special adviser in Burma has helped people
get out of jail, has helped rescue child soldiers, and has actually
engaged the military in dialogue on forced labor.
- In Belarus, the ILO's Governing Body has been in perfect sync
with the Bush Administration's goal of pushing for democracy, both
by condemning Belarus for its lack of freedom of
association and by at the same time offering to work with the
government to move forward.
- In Zimbabwe, thanks to the workers and employers--and with
no thanks to countries like South Africa or China--the ILO
has been in the forefront of criticizing the atrocities of the
Mugabe regime. In the labor area, this includes the systematic
arrest, detention, and harassment of trade unionists. At its
last session, the Governing Body decided to send to Zimbabwe a
Commission of Inquiry, one of the highest-level investigatory
- In regard to Iran, the ILO has regularly condemned the
Iranian government for arresting and imprisoning independent trade
union leaders and for its record on discrimination in the
- And in Colombia, the ILO--largely at the behest of the United
States--has established an office on the ground to help address key
labor Issues, including violence against trade union officials. The
Colombian government, the business community, and the labor
unions themselves supported the establishment of the
In addition to the tremendous work on child labor, forced labor,
and trafficking, the ILO also supports U.S. efforts to bring about
democratic reform in the Middle East, assisting the Department of
Labor with State/Middle East Partnership Initiative-funded
projects in Bahrain, Oman, Morocco, and Egypt, and work mandated by
Congress that supports the CAFTA-DR trade agreement. And in
collaboration with the ILO, we've recently launched new projects in
Tanzania and Haiti.
The Other Side of the Story
There's also another side to this story. Go to the ILO Web site
or look at the Director-General's speeches over the past few years.
You won't find very many references to all of the good work I've
just described. What you will find are articles and speeches that
deal with the ILO's role in:
- Climate change and energy policy,
- Reforming the international monetary system,
- Changing the rules of the international trade system,
- Addressing international investment Issues,
- Addressing the global food crisis,
- Mandating social policy for individual countries, and
- Suggesting that the ILO take the lead in addressing global
social policy in the current economic crisis.
Here's an example: Speaking at the Vatican on Human Rights Day
in December, ILO Director-General Juan Somavia said, "We have
a multilateral system that is underperforming. It is not
delivering the type of policy coherence we need today. There is a
profound need...for a new form of global governance...a global
community of multiple actors including, but going beyond
Here's another example: In November, the officers of the
Governing Body issued a statement calling for six steps to be taken
to address the financial crisis. I won't enumerate them, but among
- Ensuring the flow of credit to consumption, trade, and
- Supporting productive, profitable, and sustainable
enterprises, together with a strong social economy and a viable
public sector, so as to maximize employment and decent work;
- Maintaining development aid as a minimum at current levels and
providing additional credit lines and support to enable low-income
countries to cushion the crisis.
I would note that in the discussion of the crisis at that
Governing Body in Geneva, only one party noted the importance
of the ILO working to ensure that basic workers' rights would not
be lost in the shuffle: It wasn't the workers' group or the
European Union--it was the United States.
In short, the key problem is that the ILO is seeking to
become the world's lead institution in addressing the social
consequences of globalization. This is not a conspiracy theory;
rather, it's a point made regularly by the Director-General. The
world of work, a challenging field unto itself, suddenly loses
importance and instead becomes a platform for launching all sorts
of social projects.
That's why we have been very concerned about a new instrument
that was adopted by the organization's conference just this
past June, called the ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair
Globalization. The title alone suggests exactly what is
wrong with the ILO at this time. What is worrisome is that it opens
the door to efforts to attribute universal applicability to
conventions that heretofore would be relevant only if a country
formally ratified them. That means, for example, that select
conventions on employment and social protection could
conceivably take on the status of agreed international
principles without our consent.
Now we, of course, would not honor this. Suffice it to say, it
would be appalling, both morally and in terms of economic
efficiency, if an international organization were to determine the
"right" balance between employment and social protection.
How well are these resources managed? In short, not well. The
ILO fails to ensure adequate impact analysis of its programs. We
receive reports from them on what they did and how they managed
programs, but we can't get answers to questions like, "What do
we get for the $10 million spent on Project X?"
When our Secretary of Labor raised this with the
Director-General, he replied, "You have to realize that it's
sometimes very difficult for the ILO to measure the impact of
what we do. After all, we don't sell shoes. We hold seminars. We
give advice. And how do you measure the impact of advice?"
Perhaps there is something to be said for that question, but for
an organization that spends almost one-half billion dollars per
year, that's not enough.
The ILO is the only tripartite organization in the U.N.
system--that is, the only organization in which each country is
represented three ways: by representatives of the government,
employers, and workers. In my view, this tripartite nature is both
the strength and the weakness of the organization. The good part is
that it includes the private sector and civil society. But there
are two difficult issues.
- First, the ILO is disproportionately run by
workers--and, to be exact, by trade unions. Workers see the ILO as
their organization, but if its outputs are going to be
useful, governments and employers have to see it as their
organization too. This drove the International
Organization of Employers earlier this year to stand up and
demand that the ILO ensure "that employer priorities, objectives
and resources are treated on an equal basis with those of the
workers." This might not be easy: Just a year ago, during a
discussion on "sustainable enterprise," the representatives of
workers objected to any inclusion of the word
- Second, governments are being marginalized. If workers
and employers agree on an issue, the views of the governments--the
funders of the Organization--become irrelevant because the
worker-plus-employer majority is declared to be "consensus."
Something must be done to address this issue.
At some point, the ILO's tripartite structure must be evaluated.
Is it right that the 10 percent of workers in this country who
are unionized should be allowed to speak for the entire American
workforce? The same holds true for many other countries.
There are many times when the interests of organized labor
and the interests of other employees may differ significantly.
Perhaps thought should be given to including other worker
groups--maybe professional associations or entrepreneurs or
non-governmental organizations--to better represent the real
workforce. I don't have an easy answer to this, but it's something
we will surely have to deal with in the future.
What Should the ILO Be Doing?
What should the ILO be doing? Here's what I would suggest. It
may not be glamorous, but we think the ILO could--and should--focus
its activities on helping countries improve their capabilities
in these areas:
- Labor Law and Implementation. The United States strongly
supports the principles underlying the ILO's core conventions
in the areas of freedom of association, collective bargaining,
forced labor, child labor, and discrimination. These principles are
included in our trade laws and are regularly taken into account in
making many important foreign policy decisions. I believe that the
ILO can and should promote worker rights and democratic labor
But the balance between drafting standards and implementing laws
and policies must be redressed on a very large scale. Much
attention is given to the adoption of new instruments, but
implementation, which is what affects most people, receives much
less attention. Syria and Iran have ratified numerous ILO
conventions, but it is the United States that is taken to task by
the workers for its low record of ratification of ILO conventions.
The ILO should shift its focus away from endless legislating toward
more real-life implementation.
- Building Capacity. Open-market systems work well when
there is an infrastructure that supports well-operating
workplaces and well-trained workers. The ILO runs quality programs
that promote training, skills development, and entrepreneurship
development. It helps developing countries build their labor
administrations, including their programs for addressing working
conditions, inspection systems, and the oversight of occupational
safety and health. Unfortunately, none of this is of much interest
currently to the leadership in Geneva.
- Child Labor, Forced Labor, and Trafficking. The U.S.
funds most of the ILO's efforts in these areas. They do a great
job. The ILO gave a lot of publicity to these programs when they
started but very little now. These are core ILO Issues and should
receive the appropriate attention.
- Fewer International Meetings, More Work in the Field.
The ILO tends to view international meetings as the ultimate step
in addressing issues. They divert tens of millions of dollars that
could be better spent on country programs. Conferences are
glamorous and field work is not, but focusing on the delivery of
services and programs brings about real results for real
- Corporate Social Responsibility. One other area the ILO
might focus more on is corporate social responsibility (CSR).
Public-private partnerships are increasingly becoming the way
of the future. The ILO should do more in this area--not by becoming
a rule-making operation (i.e., corporate codes of conduct),
but by more directly furnishing advice, information, and guidance
to enterprises that are genuinely committed to strengthening
compliance with appropriate international standards. Many
companies already do this, but the ILO could be of great help
to those that need assistance.
As we look at the problems and the potential of the ILO, it's
worth asking the question, "If the ILO disappeared tomorrow, would
we need to replace it?" Or, as I said in the blurb for this
meeting, "Can the ILO be saved from itself?"
The short answer is yes; the ILO could be a very useful tool in
addressing many of the Issues the world faces in the era of
globalization. Both the United States worker and employer
representatives agree on this.
Unfortunately, the ILO is veering further from, rather than
closer to, being in a useful position. I hope that the new
Administration, which has given much attention to labor Issues,
will use its influence to push the ILO to do its real job: to
create better opportunities and better workplaces for working
people, to promote job creation, to help provide businesses with
the skilled workers they need, and to help boost economic
development and prosperity around the world.
Charlotte M. Ponticelli, at the time of this lecture, served
as Deputy Under Secretary for International Affairs at the U.S.
Department of Labor. She has also served in the U.S. Department of
State as Senior Coordinator for International Women's Issues
and Senior Advisor to the Assistant Secretary for Population,
Refugees and Migration, and on the U.S. Commission on Civil