Skip to page content
Office of the Secretary
Bookmark and Share

The Honorable Alexis M. Herman

Statement of U.S. Labor Secretary Alexis M. Herman

International Labor Conference

Geneva, Switzerland

June 9, 1998

Mr. President, I offer you congratulations on your service not only to this most historic conference, but also for your decades of commitment to the employer delegations to the International Labor Organization--and, indeed, to its entire tripartite membership.

Just like we meet in Geneva, over half a century ago leaders not unlike ourselves met to adopt the Declaration of Philadelphia in response to the cataclysmic circumstances of World War II. That Declaration set out a clear international position on labor standards and their relationship with social justice.

And we were honored today to hear from President Caldera of Venezuela who recalled to us the critical historical significance of this document and the continuing lessons that it holds for us. It has been the guiding touchstone of our work in the second half of the 20th century. With only the addition of a declaration in denunciation of apartheid--the Declaration of Philadelphia has stood alone since.

Fifty years later, we stand at the brink of a new century and a rare opportunity in the history of this organization. But times of opportunity are also times of challenge and responsibility--and we must not lightly consider the responsibility that such a moment imposes upon us. I refer, of course, to whether we will adopt a new declaration on fundamental rights and its follow-up mechanism.

I believe how we decide to resolve this matter will determine the relevancy and role of this organization for, at least, the next half century.

In 1998, we are being asked to decide whether the ILO will provide a new and necessary reference point for a world looking for our response to the process of economic globalization--a development that contains the greatest potential promise, but which by itself cannot guarantee that its benefits will be shared with the greatest possible number.

It is our solemn mandate to make more clear how to best secure the benefits of globalization for the world’s workers in whose name we pursue economic growth through greater international trade and investment.

That, after all, is the very purpose of a declaration -- to make clear what we know to be true -- and to thereby deepen our will to act in that knowledge. And we need a credible and meaningful follow-up mechanism to assure that our declaration will be a living document for the 21st century.

We know that the fundamental rights of workers -- the freedom of association, the right of collective bargaining, non-discrimination in employment, the prohibitions on forced labor and exploitative child labor -- ought be implemented by all nations, and certainly by all who would claim to be members in good standing of this organization. These rights are justified on at least three grounds.

First, they are good economics. We know that global economic growth is more likely to be broadly shared if we respect these basic rights.

Second, they are based on sound political principles. These rights are the political path to reassure and indeed to make real, the opportunity for the greatest number of workers to have a positive stake in the economic globalization process.

Third, they are rooted in core values. It is a moral imperative to do what we can to best assure that all of the world’s workers labor in the basic dignity that is bound wholly together with the respect of these rights.

Only two weeks ago President Clinton spoke to the World Trade Organization. In that speech, he urged a new mandate for trade negotiations and he urged that the ILO act to adopt the declaration and follow-up mechanism. He did this in the understanding and conviction that greater trade and securing the rights of workers are mutually-reinforcing--not mutually exclusive.

I hope we might conclude our negotiations with the broadest possible consensus on this point.

Let me also note, Mr. President, the great value the United States places on the work of the International Program on the Elimination of Child Labor -- IPEC -- and our intention to increase by ten-fold our contribution to this program. The exploitation of children at work is a direct challenge to the credibility of the ILO--and we must renew our fight to eliminate it.

President Clinton has made this a priority. In his State of the Union address earlier this year, the President singled out the United States commitment to fighting abusive child labor. And I come to Geneva with clear instructions directly from the President: to underline the United States strong support for the negotiation of a new convention on the worst forms of child labor.

I am going to participate in the drafting committee while I am here--and President Clinton will continue to press this issue on the world stage throughout the next year. We will work with world leaders and do all we can to see that this convention is targeted, well focused and can be both widely ratified and effective in its purpose.

There is only one word for forced and indentured by children in hazardous conditions...or work by very young children--and that is intolerable. As we enter the dawn of the 21st century, we must leave the darkness of abusive child labor behind.

And the United States intends to lead by example.

This morning, I am announcing that we will work closely with U.S. Senator Tom Harkin and others to modernize the United States domestic child labor laws. We have made tremendous progress, but in parts of my country, and parts of our economy, exploitation persists. So we are stepping up our efforts to root out it out. One child working under oppressive conditions is one too many.

As I conclude, let me acknowledge the fine and inspired leadership that our Director-General has given us for the last decade. I believe he will be leaving this organization stronger in its mission and clearer in its international role than he found it. And that is the greatest mark of a leader.

Over 50 years ago in Philadelphia, another great leader--my predecessor as U.S. Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins--addressed the ILO as war was raging across the globe.

She said at the time the ILO “is an assembly of those who are charged in the midst of war to lay one of the foundation stones of the great peace--the stone of social justice--on which human hope and human life can be rebuilt.”

That remains the noble mission of this institution. And I look forward to working with you as we continue to build--better lives for workers...higher living standards for families...and a brighter future for all.

Thank you.

History Home Page

In-Depth Research

Annals of the Department

History eSources

Departmental Timeline

Historical Office

 Century of Service  

Wirtz Labor Library