BANGKOK (ILO News) In the face of economic turmoil and the prospect of increasing unemployment in Asia and the Pacific, the International Labour Organization (ILO) is to seek new, long-term strategies for workers, employers and governments struggling with the impact of globalization and economic uncertainty.
At the Organization's Twelfth Asian Regional Meeting in Bangkok on 9-11 December, officials of governments and organizations representing workers and employers will analyse the current economic crisis and provide tripartite guidance on future activities covering a wide range of issues. Participants have been invited from 43 States (Endnote 1) .
The meeting will be the first international forum, since the current economic crisis, in Asia and the Pacific at which governments, employers and workers can meet to discuss developments influencing labour standards, employment creation and poverty alleviation, human resource development, the situation of women workers, child labour, industrial relations, occupational safety and health and other social justice issues.
Key agenda issues
Among the key issues to be discussed are international labour standards Conventions and Recommendations covering a wide area in the social and labour field. International standards continue to be relevant, especially in today's climate of globalization, trade liberalization and economic uncertainty. As of July 1997, 181 Conventions and 188 Recommendations had been adopted by the organization's 174 member States. Ratification and implementation of these standards contribute significantly to social progress around the world.
Discussions between the ILO and its constituents governments, and employers' and workers' organizations have led to a broad consensus on the universal applicability of the principles of fundamental workers' rights and the need to link economic and social progress. In the ILO's "international labour code", these rights are covered in the seven core Conventions dealing with the right of workers to organize and bargain collectively, abolition of forced labour, equal remuneration for work of equal value, non-discrimination in employment and the abolition of child labour.
The ILO launched a campaign to achieve universal ratification of the seven core Conventions in 1995. So far, 18 of the 25 member States in Asia and the Pacific have ratified at least three of them. In the Arab States of West Asia, seven of the 11 member States have ratified at least four of them. The total stands at 76 ratifications for Asia-Pacific countries and 43 for West Asian Arab countries. Many countries are currently involved in a formal ratification procedure or have sought the ILO's advice on ratification.
The importance of these core Conventions was underlined at the United Nations World Summit for Social Development and the United Nations Fourth World Conference on Women in 1995.
Employment creation and poverty alleviation
The last decade has seen major shifts in employment in Asia and the Pacific and the situation remains volatile. Unemployment and poverty have fallen in Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand (although the fall has been less rapid in the countryside and the recent financial crisis has seen growing unemployment in Thailand and the Republic of Korea). Among less economically developed countries, such as Bangladesh and Nepal, there is still massive unemployment and poverty, especially in the countryside. Newly industrializing economies, such as Singapore and Malaysia, are also seeing labour shortages.
The recent economic downturn, in particular in South East Asia, has raised grave concerns over high unemployment. The ILO places emphasis on employment-friendly growth. It is clearly necessary to implement policies which can restrain the growth of income inequalities so that the impact of growth on the reduction of poverty is strengthened. Finally, well-targeted micro-level interventions in the form of special employment schemes can strengthen this impact.
Human resource development
Rapid globalization and liberalization, and the resulting need to enhance international competitiveness, have led to much greater emphasis on human resource development. Efforts aimed at improving education and training systems are directed towards making these systems respond more quickly to changing employment opportunities.
At the same time, policy planners in the region have recognized a need to retain a longer-term perspective, in view of the fact that the labour market may reflect an acceptance of less efficient methods of production and low-quality skills in response to lack of supply of trained workers.
The situation of women workers has improved in many countries with better education and training, and more job opportunities in large enterprises and export industries (Bangladesh, India, Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand). But most women still work in insecure and low-paid jobs, and are not covered by legislation on wages and working conditions. They suffer discrimination in pay and training, and carry the double burden of work and family responsibilities.
Increasing "flexibility" of the labour market has meant that many more women are in casual, temporary or home-based jobs. They are often found in vulnerable occupations and may be subjected to varieties of abuse. Women form the large majority of those in non-standard forms of employment, such as part-time work (they represent 72.5 per cent of part-time workers in Australia). Conditions are often less favourable than in full-time work.
The ILO's programmes in Asia aim to create more high-quality jobs for women, and capacity building on gender issues, centring on women's rights and equality of opportunity and treatment. Two of the ILO's core Conventions cover non-discrimination in employment, and equal pay for work of equal value.
Some two-thirds of the world's working children live in Asia. About one child in five is estimated to be working, some of them in intolerable forms of child labour. In fact, the picture is mixed: while child labour appears to be declining in South-East Asia owing to smaller families, better education and rising incomes, in some newly developing economies, it is actually increasing (because of deteriorating infrastructure, higher education costs for parents and growing adult unemployment).
The ILO's International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour (IPEC) is active in nine countries (Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Indonesia, Nepal, Pakistan, the Philippines, Sri Lanka, Thailand) and preparatory activities are well under way in China and Mongolia.
The 40-country International Conference on Child Labour held in Oslo in October 1997 adopted a global Agenda for Action urging nations to help develop a proposed ILO Convention on intolerable forms of child labour (slave labour and debt bondage, prostitution, pornography, the drug trade and other kinds of hazardous work), which is to be discussed at the International Labour Conference in 1998.
Many Asian countries have seen a decline in the number of full-time jobs, and an increase in part-time, temporary, casual and subcontracted work. Most new jobs fall into this category, and often are outside the influence of labour legislation. This growing incidence of unregulated work often goes hand in hand with poor wages and working conditions, and inadequate safety and health in the workplace. Workers are particularly vulnerable in times of labour contraction and industrial restructuring.
According to the ILO's recently published World Labour Report 1997-1998, overall, trade union membership is on the decline around the world. Many Asian countries registered a sharp fall (Japan, Singapore), although others (Bangladesh, the Philippines, Republic of Korea) showed an increase. Some industries (and export-processing zones in certain countries) discourage or even ban trade unions. The fastest-growing sectors in Asia (textiles, footwear, electronics) have limited union presence or are "union-free". Not all employers meet their employment obligations. Workers themselves sometimes show less interest in joining a union because of rising wages or because of restrictions on bargaining with their employers. However, the report also showed that in many areas, unions had maintained their influence and even consolidated their strength.
Measures that can be taken to improve industrial relations could include assistance in settling industrial disputes; establishment by employers of more appropriate management styles and strategies; and, increased activity by unions in the areas of improving enterprise competitiveness and the quality of working life. Above all, there is a need to develop modern management practices and modern industrial relations institutions based on free association of employers and workers. Enterprise efficiency will be enhanced by a well-trained, well-managed and highly motivated workforce.
Workers' protection and occupational safety and health
Rapid industrialization especially in the fast-growing economies of East and South-East Asia has meant an improvement in minimum standards of workers' protection for many, especially in large firms. But in some countries, laws and regulations are very weak or not applied at all. And in small enterprises and the informal sector many millions are working in substandard or even dangerous conditions, often for excessively long hours.
The speeding up of globalization and liberalization has had a positive effect on the quantity of jobs in Asia, but not always on the quality. To attract foreign investment and increase competitiveness, employers sometimes skimp on working conditions and health and safety. Some export-processing zones are even exempt from laws and regulations.
Although many large companies offer good working conditions and a safe working environment, many groups of workers have been left behind. Basic awareness of safety and health at work is still absent among most workers and employers in the region. The number of accidents at work is very high. In 1995 in Thailand 216,000 work accidents were reported, and in Malaysia 114,000. In China in the same year 20,000 fatal accidents were reported at work. Many major industrial accidents have killed dozens of workers. Thousands die from diseases caused by industrial pollutants and processes, e.g. pneumoconiosis. A safe and healthy working environment will not only benefit workers but will contribute to increased enterprise efficiency and competitiveness.
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