Bernard Thibault (ILO): “Multinationals Must Be More Transparent On the Way They Protect the Social Rights of Workers”

published on 14 May 2019
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Bernard Thibault, OIt, Work, Protecting the social rights of workers
On the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the International Labour Organization (ILO) and the conference organized by AFD and the ILO on May 24 of this year, Bernard Thibault, the former head of the CGT (General Confederation of Labor) trade union, reviews the progress made over the past hundred years in the field of social rights and lists the major unfinished projects for guaranteeing decent work for all.
What is decent work?

Bernard Thibault: First of all, it must ensure that the fundamental rights of workers are respected; this includes a decent salary, guaranteed access to a social protection system (78% of the world’s population does not have access to protection), as well as the right of association. These criteria may seem very broad, but, in reality, we are very far from meeting them because on a global scale, 60% of jobs undertaken in the informal economy.

How do you evaluate the progress accomplished over the last few decades?

Without a doubt, we have pushed back on extreme poverty; certain pandemics have also been eradicated. At the same time, what that calls my attention is the extreme instability of the relationship to work. The right to employment is far from being attained: the ILO estimates that 190 million jobs must be created to absorb worldwide unemployment, without counting the 344 million jobs needed by 2030 to go with the demographic evolutions.

Beyond concerns for the insufficient number of jobs, we should ask ourselves about the quality of the work. A real trend toward more and more precarious employment and the growth of “McJobs” that also destabilize the notion of decent work, because decent work cannot exist without a certain amount of security.

This is a global trend. Of course, certain parts of the world are particularly affected, where employment is mostly informal (68% in the Asia-Pacific region, for example). In these parts of the world, precariousness is a fact of life because there is no labor code, but even in countries considered to be “developed,” instability and precariousness are gaining a foothold.

To what extent does the right to decent work determine all the other rights?

When employment is a condition for the recognition of workers' dignity, as the ILO affirms, it is closely tied to citizenship. You just have to look at world geography to see that the areas where most workers are in an extremely precarious situation are also the areas where democracy is making no progress.

We can observe the same phenomenon with gender equality: the areas where women's access to employment is restricted coincide with those where other freedoms are not progressing. Access to decent work brings independence and security to women and therefore determines all other rights. Once again, employment guarantees access to social protection, which is also fundamental to people's dignity.

What role can companies, and in particular multinationals, play in reinforcing the social rights of workers?

We are currently within a configuration where the global economy is more impacted by the decisions of a few large multinationals than by the decisions of governments. But international social rights rest exclusively on the ability of governments to implement them. It’s a real paradox.

The idea is to round-out government action with a system designed on an international scale—for instance within the ILO—that can control and provide assistance and advice to companies. This would be much more effective than current systems of corporate social responsibility that function on a voluntary basis!

How can multinationals be convinced that they must be more involved in defending social rights?

It’s high time to implement the idea of sanctioning multinationals that do not follow the ILO Charter in their value chain. We have passed laws without a system of sanctions, which makes no sense. Currently, multinationals are in a very comfortable position; they participate in elaborating international law but are in no way accountable for implementing it.

The conditions of a public environment that constrains them to evolve must be created. Based on criteria other than the ones prevailing today, companies must be transparent on the way in which they protect the social rights of workers. The combat risks being complicated since the majority of ILO member countries are not ready to consider it. 

With the law on Due Diligence passed in 2017, France set the example, but this is not enough if other countries do not play along, especially since the companies themselves are gradually becoming aware of the need to shed more light on their practices throughout the subcontracting chain to preserve their reputation. The global impact of the Rana Plaza tragedy proved this.

We have created a countless number of rules to provide a framework for international trade but none of them focus on its social dimension. I believe that pressure from consumers could bring about a change in this.

What intermediate solutions could be implemented?

If I were able to legislate on an international scale, I would establish a worldwide label entrusted to the ILO that would let consumers know under what sort of social conditions a product had been developed, manufactured, transported and distributed. This would allow consumers to judge a company’s trade and distribution behavior with respect to its products.

Next, the workers’ right to associate must be guaranteed in a better way. Lots of other rights stem from this one: in a country where workers are silenced, they are unable to intervene on any topic. Recognizing the right of workers to associate and express themselves as a group determines many things.

Further reading: South Africa Sets First Ever Minimum Wage

Finally, companies must be more transparent on the way they protect—or don’t protect—the social rights of workers by establishing regulations that are actually restrictive.

Are you optimistic in spite of everything?

Currently, I am scarcely optimistic about the ability of governments to come up with other approaches and other choices, about their ability to defend a shared vision of the world and a shared future built on social justice. Politically, the trend is toward the development of narrow and dangerous nationalisms. The number of countries that think only of their particular interests is growing; there is a real questioning of multilateralism! As an example: within the ILO since the latest presidential elections in Brazil, the voice of this country—which carries a lot of weight—is no longer the same. 

But I remain hopeful because trade union commitment is based on optimism and, above all, because it’s a question of choice. This situation didn’t just fall from the sky; it is the product of revisable choices.

Further reading:

Choose Africa—the French Initiative to Accelerate Growth for Small Businesses in Africa

5 Challenges for Employment in Developing Countries