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OSEC Congressional Testimony

Testimony Prepared for United States Secretar of Labor Robert B. Reich Committee on Foreign Relations United States Senate [09/20/94]

Mr. Chairman and Members of the Committee:

Thank you for the opportunity to testify before you on the important matter of the ratification of ILO Convention 150 concerning labor administration. As you know, it obligates us to organize, coordinate and effectively operate our labor law and labor policy administration activities. Consultation, cooperation and negotiation with employer and worker representatives are key elements in the effective operation of a labor administration system. It is the view of this Administration that the United States is in full compliance with the terms and conditions of Convention 150, and we urge your advice and consent to ratification.

As you know, I chair the President's Committee on the ILO which includes the Secretaries of State and Commerce, the President's National Security Advisor, and the Presidents of the AFL-CIO and United States Council for International Business.

The Tripartite Advisory Panel on International Labor Standards (TAPILS), chaired by the Solicitor of Labor, is the legal subcommittee of the President's Committee. The other members of TAPILS are the chief legal advisers of the Departments of State and Commerce and legal counsel for the AFL-CIO and the U.S. Council for International Business. TAPILS undertook an extensive review of Convention 150 including a detailed examination of the precise meaning and obligations of the Convention and consistency of U.S. law and practice with its provisions. TAPILS found that the system of labor administration in the United States is properly organized and coordinated and effectively operated to be in full compliance with Convention 150. After review of this legal report, the President's Committee unanimously agreed to recommend to the President that he seek the Senate's advice and consent to ratification.

Chairman Moynihan, let me take this opportunity to recognize your leadership on ILO matters. Because of your long-standing interest in the ILO, and your singular role in seeing to it that the Senate gives renewed attention to ILO issues; in 1988, the United States began once again to ratify ILO Conventions after a 35 year hiatus.

I am proud to say that this Administration is firmly pledged to pursuing the ratification of ILO Conventions, and this Committee's continuing support will be a tremendous boost to our efforts to press for improved respect for labor standards in the international community. The next time I appear before you to support ratification of an ILO Convention I expect it will be on Convention 111, a major human rights convention concerning the prohibition of discrimination in employment.

This year marks not just the ILO's 75th year of service, but also the 50th anniversary of the ILO's Declaration of Philadelphia, perhaps the most ambitious attempt so far to articulate an international position on labor standards. The ILO is the only member of the United Nations system where governments meet with workers and employers as equal and autonomous partners. This political structure reinforces the linkage between democracy and a free economy, between democratic values, independent trade unions and free enterprise. Preserving this tripartism and the integrity of the ILO's standard setting and supervisory processes is crucial to American interests. As the Constitution of the ILO so aptly states, "the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labor is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries."

American workers are aware, sometimes painfully aware, of the relevance of those words from 1919, as they labor in today's global economy. Far more ideas, goods and services, capital, and workers flow into and out of almost every country than they did 50 years ago. And they do so far more rapidly. Ours is an age of instant international communication and mobility which heightens the importance of international consensus on worker rights.

Over the past months I have become even more aware that international attention is focused on the role of labor standards in economic development. I travelled with the President to Europe in June and as part of that trip chaired the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development's discussions on its major unemployment study. From there, I went to Geneva to address the annual Conference of the ILO. In both of these international organizations the relationship between labor standards and employment is very much on the agenda. Mr. Chairman, I would like to take a few minutes to offer some views on how we might proceed on these matters.

Fortunately, we have advanced beyond the Cold War and the conceptual gridlock that plagued the international community for so long. Few are willing to argue openly that labor standards are strictly internal affairs. Nor, today are there many who would argue that standards must be identical in every nation to those attained in the most advanced economies. As we map the middle ground, there are, however, some fundamental standards to which every country is expected to conform. Some labor practices simply place countries outside the community of civilized nations. Certainly any such list would include goods produced by forced labor, and some forms of child labor. Nor is poverty a valid pretext for restricting freedom of association and organization or the rights of employers and workers to bargain collectively.

Clearly, the international community cannot attempt to dictate levels of working hours, minimum wages, benefits or health and safety standards uniformly matching those of the United States and other industrialized countries; the view that developing countries must grow richer in order to improve living and working conditions, and that they must trade if they are to grow richer, has merit. Implicit in this belief is the acknowledgement that standards should not be static, that a country's ability to offer its citizens better working lives rises with development, and that international expectations may properly rise as well. It is, therefore, appropriate to expect labor standards to improve as economies develop. Countries with rising mass living standards offer growing markets for other countries' exports and thus all countries have an economic stake in broadly shared prosperity abroad. Free trade is a means, not an end. The end is rising living standards worldwide. More jobs, and better jobs.

If the world can legitimately expect rising labor standards to accompany development, then what criteria beyond those core norms provide guidance for where the international community should focus its attention?

Labor conditions are determined by both economic and political factors, and it is difficult to disentangle the effects of each. But the existence of democratic institutions multiple parties, freedom of speech and press, clean elections does give cause for confidence that labor conditions reflect what the country can afford, given its level of development. The less democratic the country, the greater the grounds for suspicion or concern that labor standards are being suppressed in order to serve narrow or misguided interests.

What response should the international community make to policies that affront the set of standards it articulates?

First, any response ought be authorized and implemented multilaterally, in order to increase the odds that the intervention will be effective.

Second, there should be a menu of potential responses to labor standard abuses, varying in both the nature and severity of their effects. This range could include technical assistance to clear the path to improvement, so-called "sunshine" provisions in order to highlight abuses, perhaps ineligibility for international grant and loan programs, and targeted trade measures.

Obviously, the purpose of any intervention must be to bring about change in the offending nations. We must be pragmatic, and must not lose sight of the fact that trade itself by opening an economy to external influences and empowering a wider range of internal interests can be a catalyst for progressive change.

Developing a detailed program for advancing international labor conditions will occupy us for many years. And the Administration is very much concerned that it work with you, Mr. Chairman, and other members of this Congress as we proceed in this regard. Meanwhile, we should continue to give practical force and effect to the ILO's core mission of setting and adopting international labor standards. Convention 150 sets the framework for the development of effective national labor policies.

We understand it to be a non-self executing treaty. As a non-self executing treaty, Convention 150 would not, if ratified, become directly enforceable as U.S. law in U.S. courts. The language of the Convention does not give specific rights to individuals. Existing legislation brings the United States into full compliance and no new legislation would be required if the Convention is ratified.

While Convention 150 sets precise obligations, it is written so as to allow for maximum flexibility in recognition of differing systems of government among the ILO's member states. In the United States there is no central, unitary body responsible for coordinating all labor activities or running the system of labor administration. While the Department of Labor has primary responsibility, the system includes numerous administrative and independent agencies, the quasi-judicial bodies of the Federal Government as well as the functions of various state and local level agencies. The Convention requires coordination of labor administration activities among all these bodies as well as consultation, cooperation and negotiation with employers and workers. The thorough TAPILS review concluded that the U.S. system is appropriate to national conditions and is properly organized and coordinated and effectively operated.

In summary, Mr. Chairman, the Administration requests the Senate's advice and consent to ratification of ILO Convention 150 not only to demonstrate our support for the important technical goals of this Convention, but also to enhance our own standing and influence in the ILO that unique tripartite international organization dedicated to protecting and raising living standards worldwide.

Thank you Mr. Chairman.

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