Renew committment to the realization of workers’ human rights

Ms Dagmar Walter, Director ILO DWT/CO-New Delhi provided welcome address at the inaugural session of UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights.

Statement | New Delhi, India | 17 March 2021
Esteemed Government, Employer, Worker Representatives,

Civil Society,

UN Colleagues,

Ladies and Gentlemen,

A very warm good day to you all!

It is an honour for me to join Surya Deva and Sudipto Mukherjee in the opening session of this 2nd UN Forum on Business and Human Rights.

I already had the pleasure of participating in the 2019 Inaugural UN South Asia Forum on Business and Human Rights, held in New Delhi, India. That event brought together over 200 participants representing over 90 organisations from 16 countries for a fruitful discussion on what governments, employers, workers, civil society and other actors could or should do to enhance observance and respect for human rights and labour rights in business operations in the region, in line with the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights (UNGPs); and in accord with the principles contained in International Labour Standards and other ILO instruments, such as the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy. The latter directly speaks to businesses about what they can do to protect labour-related human rights. Its 2017 revision has provisions for due diligence in alignment with the UN Guiding Principles and has specific focus on meaningful consultation with potentially affected groups and other relevant stakeholders including workers’ organizations, and promotion of freedom of association and collective bargaining.

Building on the success of that Inaugural UN South Asia Forum, we are now co-organizing this 2nd virtual edition. It is held against the backdrop of tremendous challenges that COVID-19 has placed on countries all over the world. The crisis has affected Foreign Direct Investment and trade worldwide, and continues to impact negatively on enterprises of all sizes and on workers and their families.

South Asia, as a major supply chain hub, has been especially hard hit. Factory closures, falling customer demand and supply chain bottlenecks, continue to have “ripple effects”. Numerous Multi National Enterprises have had disruptions, and many are exploring ways to consolidate supply chains and/or re-shore production, with significant implications for the region. The crisis has exposed especially those in the lower tiers where Micro- and Small- Enterprises and informal workers are concentrated.
The crisis also put the spotlight on persisting decent work deficits in the region. Inadequate social protection left many displaced workers without any income support.

Women are disproportionately affected in multiple ways. The impact of the pandemic threatens to undo some of the recent, although modest, progress towards gender equality. Young workers, who often work in sectors most impacted by the crisis, have been hardly affected as well, with a share in employment loss 3 to 18 times higher than their share in total employment.
Migrant workers have faced issues in several countries, including: being pushed to take unpaid leave, early termination of contracts, non-payment of work produced, personal documents kept by employer, inadequate safety and health measures, higher levels of harassment and violence.

In order to tackle the economic and social impacts of the COVID-19 crisis, the ILO proposed a Policy Framework with four pillars: (i) stimulating the economy and employment; (ii) supporting enterprises, jobs and incomes; (iii) protecting workers in the workplace; and (iv) engaging in social dialogue to jointly develop and implement solutions (ILO, 2020i).

This framework is underpinned by international labour standards, which have been elaborated and adopted by the ILO tripartite constituents – governments, employers and workers together – and which form part of human rights. They remain important benchmarks for companies seeking to respect workers’ human rights and are instrumental as countries seek to recover and rebuild.

Translation of the UN Guiding Principles into action in business operations and relations, regardless of size, ownership, sector or country of operation, is essential for realizing and safeguarding the human rights of workers in South Asia. Principle 12 refers to the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, which encompasses eight ILO core conventions regarding freedom of association and right to collective bargaining; non-discrimination and equal pay for equal work; elimination of forced and child labour, taken forward through Alliance 8.7.

This calls for a collective – not a one sided government or worker or business response alone - but a COLLECTIVE national and global response.

Strong labour market and governance institutions are essential and a key responsibility of governments. Informed interventions by workers organisations are critical enablers. And the role of businesses is of utmost importance, considering that their management practises have a direct impact on the fundamental rights of the workers, as well as those in their supply chains. But the question is how do we drive stakeholders to internalise and promote fundamental rights at work?

Enforcement of national labour legislation and compliance with international standards is one element. A complementary and reinforcing element is recognition of the business case for human rights, specifically labour rights. ILO’s work with businesses, in particular in South Asia, shows a strong correlation between productivity and working conditions. Our interventions in for example India, Bangladesh and Pakistan have proved this point.
Of particular relevance to company managers and workers, the ILO Helpdesk for Business, provides guidance on how to better align business operations with international labour standards and build good industrial relations. It includes a section on COVID-19, which gathers practical ILO resources and tools, webinars and relevant normative guidance.

The ILO also provides on-site coaching services to support the businesses, especially, micro and small enterprises to improve management practises and adopt employee-centric approaches. It specifically supported more than 10,000 MSMEs with business continuity without compromising on working conditions or opting for retrenchment, which has benefitted some 2,000,000 workers in South Asia.

Home-based production dominates some sectors in South Asia; and the informal economy is especially present in the lower tiers of supply chains in the region. They were the most affected due to COVID and the ILO, in partnership with workers and employers organisations, reached out to them through capacity building programmes to improve their access to social protection, training on COVID preventive measures, wage determination and collective bargaining mechanisms.

The South Asia region has a high dependence on migrant labour, within country, intra- and inter-region. ILO has been advocating for safe and informed labour migration and is working closely with recruitment agencies and employers to address the protection of migrant workers.

Further, social dialogue and dispute resolution mechanisms are key to address labour rights. For example, the ILO has facilitated the Accord on Fire and Building Safety in Bangladesh, which was a five-year legally binding agreement between brands and trade unions to ensure a safe working environment in the Bangladeshi RMG industry.

Similarly, in India, ILO is providing technical assistance to its constituents who are engaged in the development of the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights.

In Nepal, discussions are also in place on Human Rights Guidelines and a National Focal Point on Business and Human Rights would be established soon.

Further, developing skills and supporting countries to adapt to the digital economy and pathways for a just green transition will also be important for sustainability.

Labour provisions in trade agreements, particularly amidst the impact of COVID-19 on workers in the region, can be an important tool, as part of an integrated approach in which trade policies promote decent work, as called for in the ILO Centenary Declaration.

It is my hope that, despite the setbacks that the Pandemic has brought about, governments and businesses remain committed to the realization of workers’ human rights, and I feel that this Forum is a timely opportunity to gather all actors for a constructive discussion to redouble our efforts. I am convinced that both speakers and participants will no doubt inspire and energize us all to keep up the good work!

Ladies and Gentlemen, I look forward to the continued deliberations and thank you for your kind attention.