On 21-22 March, we witnessed a disappointing chapter in the history of the ILO which left many of us wondering what tripartism means, and how far the ILO can live to its principles. We saw one of the wings of our precious governance mechanism cave in to the pressure of a small group of governments, with the argument of a three-level, contradictory responsibility to the ILO. Frankly, it left us demoralized.
What exactly happened? The answer lies in the numbers.
At the beginning of the PFA segment discussion on the International Civil Service Commission (ICSC) decision to reduce the pay of professional staff in Geneva, on the heels of several pay cuts in Bangkok, Tokyo and others. The Office paper recognized that the decision was plagued with defects and the follow-up with bad faith, but the points for decision included instructions for the Office to implement this illegal decision. In the first round of comments, it was evident that the opposition to such a decision was majoritarian, with the two social partners and the African group against it, while Industrialized Market Economy Countries (IMEC), Asia and Pacific Group (ASPAG) and Europe plus two member states of the Group of Latin America and the Caribbean (GRULAC) were in support. Four GRULAC member states were completely silent, partly because of the lack of knowledge that UN General Assembly resolutions are NOT binding on the ILO. This means:
In favour of pay cut
|Against pay cut
The two social partners proposed different amendments. One would delete the instruction to implement; the other one would have blocked the pay cuts altogether. It was a matter of them coming to an agreement on which proposal was better, which required another round of discussion.
However, before the groups were able to react to the proposal to block the pay cut, the floor was given to the Office—which promptly declared that the proposal to block the pay cut did not have enough support! This was followed by the Office’s surprise declaration that it would implement the decision. The cryptic explanation: that it was better for all involved, including the staff (who were never informed). As industrial relations specialists know, surprises are not the best practice that the ILO preaches worldwide.
That was the turning point in the discussion, caused by the untimely intervention by the Office. The debate turned acrimonious after that point, and by the time the next round of discussion was over, the support for each proposal stood as follows:
In favour of pay cut
|Against pay cut
At that point, one of the Vice-Chairs submitted a motion to submit the proposals to a vote. This motion was summarily denied because the Chair declare that there was a clear majority in the room. The “Compendium of rules applicable to the Governing Body of the International Labour Office” states that “[i]t is for the person chairing the sitting, in agreement with the spokespersons of the respective groups to note the existence of a consensus.” Since the motion came from one of the Vice-Chairs, there was clearly not such an agreement. That’s when we went on strike for a day and a half, which we explain in another article.
After ten days, the Office held a “dialogue” session with the staff. On that occasion, for the first time the staff were informed that fourteen Member States which contribute 72% of the ILO’s budget had warned of severe consequences if we did not accept this arbitrary and perhaps fraudulent decision. In the statement that was broadcast on 10 April, our Chairperson expressed the staff’s regret for the lack of dialogue that preceded and followed the GB.
Once again, let’s do the math:
Total Member States
|Threatening Member States
|% of Member States involved
|Total weight in ILO tripartite system
In other words:
Total voting rights
|Increase in decision-making power
This is a slippery slope. When a tiny minority of constituents manage to exercise majority power, they have veto power. We don’t know when they will exercise it next, but we do know that they can. Are they able to block Conventions or lines of work with threats? Are the social partners still able to exercise their independence, which is the bedrock of tripartism?
Those in management who read this will realize that the staff is demoralized, unable to believe that the centenary governance system has failed under the pressure of an ideology of austerity. Or is it a revival of, please forgive me for using the forbidden word, colonialism? Whichever it is, the ILO has combatted it vigorously and it is in retreat in most of the world. But it has a new life in the ICSC. Is the UN the last hiding place for those who espouse it?