January 22, 2009 | Lecture on International Organizations
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 Labor.
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 Organization.
My bureau works closely with the ILO on a number of projects.
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 rights.
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 seven years.
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 vision?
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 Union.
The ILO continues to be a beacon in promoting freedom in some critical places across the globe. For example:
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:
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 governments."
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 them were:
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.
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:
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 Rights.
Central America-Dominican Republic-United States Free Trade
Agreement, signed on August 5, 2004; text available at http://www.ustr.gov/Trade_Agreements/Bilateral/CAFTA/CAFTA-
International Labor Organization, "ILO Director-General calls on
G20 to Address the Social Implications of the Global Economic
Crisis," press release, December 10, 2008, at http://www.ilo.org/global/About_the_ILO/Media_and_public_
Adopted June 10, 2008; text available at http://www.ilo.org/public/e