ILO urges a "new era of social justice"

Privately employed domestic workers in Switzerland should earn at least SFr18.20 ($17.40) per hour, as part of new standard employment contract. Keystone

The 100th International Labour Organisation (ILO) conference opens in Geneva on Wednesday against a backdrop of worldwide high youth unemployment and social unrest.

This content was published on June 1, 2011 - 08:10
Simon Bradley in Geneva,

Among the many issues under consideration, states are expected to approve a new international legal instrument to radically improve the global protection of domestic workers.

Speaking to media earlier in the week, ILO Deputy Director General Guy Ryder described the jubilee as “a historic moment for our organisation which is reflected in the number of invited guests”.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin are among the 5,000 representatives of governments, employers and workers attending the annual meeting, which runs until June 17. Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey will give a speech on June 15.

They are due to use the platform to discuss the “major social changes” unfolding in parts of the Middle East and North Africa just as the world continues to face ongoing challenges such as the global economic and jobs crisis, the ILO noted.

In the ILO’s latest report on the state of the world of work, “A new era of social justice”, Director General Juan Somavia decried the continued growth in inequalities and unsustainable social and development imbalances.

“Income inequality has risen in most countries, with incomes at the top running away from average incomes. In developed economies income inequalities have translated into wealth inequalities and may undermine social mobility in the coming years,” he warned.

Unemployed and unequal

Globally, 80 per cent of the world’s population shares 30 per cent of the world’s wealth, with 70 per cent accruing to the top 20 per cent.

According to recent statistics, since 2009 global unemployment has risen to record levels. In 2010 there were 205 million people out of work and 2011 does not look any better, especially in industrialised nations, hit by sluggish growth.

Young people – 80 million are unemployed - are the worst hit by the current growth model that no longer works, says the ILO.

Ryder says the ILO is urging “fundamental changes to globalisation”, while acknowledging that it needs a “political locomotive” to push through the idea of “effective and socially responsible growth”, where the financial interests are replaced by “the needs of both entrepreneurs and workers from the real economy”.

“This situation is a time bomb, as recent events in the Arab world have highlighted. It is our collective responsibility to prevent a social crisis,” said Somavia.

The economic crisis has given new legitimacy to the Geneva-based organisation, whose “social” discourse was often ignored and later adopted by other international organisations.

International treaty

During the two-week meeting ILO member states will consider whether to adopt a new legal instrument - a convention accompanied by a recommendation - on decent work conditions for domestic workers.

Ryder said the convention reflected the ILO’s willingness to focus on one of the “most excluded, least visible and most exploited” of workforces.

He told that some states and employers were still hesitant about approving the treaty, but “I don’t see any major blocs of opposition or obstacles”.

The remaining problems are purely technical and there is wide-ranging support for the initiative, which was negotiated in Geneva last year, he added.


Giangiorgio Gargantini, a specialist on domestic workers at the Geneva-based Interprofessional Workers’ Union, also said he was optimistic that a treaty would be adopted at the meeting.

“It should pass but it won’t have an immediate influence as it will then still need to be ratified by states,” he noted.

There are currently around 50,000 unregistered domestic workers in Switzerland but this may be half the real figure, say experts.

As of January 1, 2011 privately employed domestic workers in Switzerland should earn at least SFr18.20 ($17.40) per hour, as part of new standard national employment contract.

All cantons are required to adopt the minimum wage regulations by December 31, 2013, with the exception of canton Geneva, which has already put minimum wage guidelines into place.

ILO conference 2011

The International Labour Organization will hold its 100th International Labour Conference in Geneva, Switzerland, from June 1 to June 17.

This year’s highlights include the presentation of the director-general's report on the need for a new era of social justice; the publication of a report on the situation of workers in the Occupied Territories; and a new report on hazardous forms of child labor. A vote is expected on an international legal instrument to ensure decent work for domestic workers worldwide.

Participants expected to attend include German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, Tanzanian President Jakaya Kikwete and Swiss President Micheline Calmy-Rey.

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