The ILO MNEs Declaration: Interview with Anna Biondi

The Bureau for workers’ activities (ACTRAV) has published a guide on the ILO Declaration on Multinational Enterprises for workers. At this occasion, the Deputy Director of ACTRAV, Anna Biondi gave somes explanations...

Press release | 15 February 2011

ACTRAV INFO: You are ACTRAV’s coordinator for the work involved in the publication of a guide on the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. Why did you choose this theme?

Anna Biondi: The work around multinationals and the global supply chains has always been central for trade unions worldwide. Unfortunately, lately in the ILO this area had been neglected. It was therefore important that in 2008 the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization referred to the key role of these actors in the global economy. In following up to such a mandate, in June 2010 the International Labour Conference specifically asked to set in place new ways of promoting the ILO authoritative document in this domain, the Tripartite Declaration on Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy (MNE Declaration), adopted in 1977.A tripartite ad hoc working group was established by the Governing Body, and we will hopefully see its positive results at the end of this year. In the meantime, ACTRAV has decided to issue this booklet in order to start making the MNE Declaration more known in trade union circles and beyond. It is also important that better communication and coordinated action take place between national Confederal centres and Sectoral Unions, in order to tackle the supply chain with a unified strategy. ACTRAV stands ready to support all unions in this endeavour. Finally, we believe that the MNE Declaration can also be used by shop stewards and workers in general, which is why we enclose a possibly useful list of audit questions, which will help workers to reflect on what the conditions of work are and what they could be.

ACTRAV INFO: There are also other international documents on multinational enterprises, such as the guiding principles of the OECD or the UN’s Global Compact. What characterizes the MNE Declaration of the ILO?

Anna BIONDI: As mentioned before, the MNE Declaration was adopted in 1977 on a tripartite basis. Its evident strength, compared to the other texts, is that it’s the only instrument that has actually and formally been endorsed by governments, employers’ organizations and trade unions. The second reason for its strength is that its principles derive from international labour standards (see the Annex and its rich content). With this, we certainly don’t want to deny the importance of other texts. For example, ACTRAV works very closely with the Trade Union Advisory Committee to the OECD (TUAC) on the review of the OECD guidelines, as well as, of course, with International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) and the Global Union Federations (GUFs) in reference to their involvement in the UN Global Compacts. Nevertheless, the fact that our text is still considered as good now as when it was adopted by all three ILO constituents, the added value of the international labour standards’ reference and the adoption on a tripartite basis are all elements which make the ILO MNE Declaration outstandingly important. With this I am not denying its weakness, which has been its lack of practical use for companies until now. It is therefore high time to make it operational.

ACTRAV INFO: In this guide, several issues are discussed including employment protection, freedom of association, and collective bargaining rights for workers. With globalization and outsourcing by multinationals worldwide, are the objectives of the MNE Declaration realistic?

Anna Biondi: If the ILO does not translate the principles of the MNE Declaration into a reality for the workers of the supply chains, it will have failed not only them but its mandate at large. The MNE Declaration has very clear language on subjects such as employment protection, freedom of association, collective bargaining, etc. Its different parts convey unequivocal guidance for the companies willing to use them. The difference between now and 1977, when the text was adopted, is that MNEs are not shaped anymore as a single entity, but shaped as supply chain operators. The text though remains fully valid, whatever the shape or size of the companies. Workers can and should be granted the basic rights and principles that derive from this text in all its different parts (employment, working conditions, industrial relations, skills, termination of employment, etc.), in both host and receiving countries. We believe that companies willing to apply them can use this text as a comprehensive package and therefore the MNE Declaration could become the guide for this process.

ACTRAV INFO: In your opinion, how can we encourage governments and employers to implement the contents of this MNE Declaration?

Anna Biondi: As I said, we truly hope that the MNE Declaration becomes the “social bench mark” for multinationals and their contractors. You will see that in the booklet there are a certain number of audit points which point the way forward. They are not made only for unions, but can easily be used also by employers and governments too (not in the sense, of course, to replace legislation, but as a way of building up industrial relations or labour regulations when the legislative framework is not sufficient or not applied). These are basic questions linked to what happens in the company and in the factory. Eventually, afterwards, it is of course the political will that is necessary from all the parties involved: unions and employers and their associations at the factory or sectoral level to establish mature industrial relations or tripartite interactions at the sectoral or national level, involving the government in order to realize these principles in the Declaration.

ACTRAV INFO: Finally, can this guide enhance corporate social responsibility for the betterment of workers?

Anna Biondi: Private companies have now a power in the global economy that is unprecedented. It is, therefore, high time for the ILO to provide a credible alternative to corporate unilateral CSR. Corporate social responsibility has been, in fact, too often associated with unworthy public relations exercises or as a way to curtail industrial relations and union power through unverified generic statements. While there will always be some unscrupulous employers seeking to use these shortcuts to gain more profit, I am convinced that we can prove that the majority of employers see the advantages that derive from a universal threshold and their association with the ILO and its MNE Declaration. Promotional avenues can be established for trade unions and employers and their organizations as well as for governments on the basis of these universal principles. If a tripartite agreement is reached on a meaningful follow-up (although I repeat, as established at the Conference, of a promotional nature), I am truly convinced that the MNE Declaration has the potential to become a major tool in contributing to the improvement of the world of work.

For more information, contact:

Anna BIONDI

Deputy Director (ACTRAV)

Responsible for MNEs

Phone: +41 22 799 76 61

E-mail: biondi[at]ilo[dot]org