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Opinion: A better future for workers

Opinion: A better future for workers

The International Labour Organisation is striving to improve the lot of employees such as these striking Cambodian garment workers.

These are unsettling times across Asia and the Pacific. The economic malaise and debt crisis plaguing Europe and the high levels of unemployment and weak consumer confidence in the US – our region’s two main export markets – threaten Asia’s economic security.

The rapid growth experienced in many countries has, in some ways, unhinged our societies. Notable progress has been made in reducing poverty, but the increased prosperity reflected in GDP figures is not being shared in ways that benefit the majority of small businesses, workers and their families.

Although productivity has improved in many countries, wages have not kept pace. This is reflected in widening inequality, persistent vulnerability, gender disparities and limited social protection.

Weak (or non-existent) worker representation, including restrictions on freedom of association and collective bargaining, means the voices of the majority are  not heard, or simply ignored.

This unbalanced growth cannot continue. It’s an injustice, and one that has serious consequences. The wave of political uprisings that began in North Africa has reached many parts of the Arab world, and there have been  demonstrations in America and Europe.

The demands for change, led by frustrated, marginalised young people, demonstrates the universal need for decent jobs, basic rights and freedoms, and respect for human dignity.

We should heed this warning, and treat it not as a threat but as a call to action: an opportunity to create a more balanced and just future for  everyone.

Governments, along with employers’ and workers’ organisations, have an opportunity to do just that at the International Labour Organisation’s Asia-Pacific regional meeting, which began in Kyoto yesterday.

Delegations from more than 40 member states will discuss ways of creating a more just, sustainable future for the world of work.

If Asia and the Pacific is to sustain its impressive growth, it will need to place quality employment at the core of policy-making, rather than assuming it will follow as a by-product of economic expansion. It will also need to refocus on domestic demand, rather than export-led growth – and that means wages that reflect productivity improvements.

Another way of supporting domestic demand, and protecting the most vulnerable – including the many millions in Asia’s informal economy – is through a social-protection floor that can even out the fluctuations in income and demand.

Just as important are respect for rights at work, strong labour-market institutions and investment in human capital – skills and productivity – as well as machinery and technology.

These are all components of what we call decent work.

The region has already made progress towards these goals. Fairer wages are being paid in some countries, along with better workplace and labour-market systems, and steps to improve worker employer dialogue.

Progress has also been made in eliminating some of the worst forms of child labour, and there is growing recognition that labour migration is not a problem to be solved but a process to be better managed.

But if we are to protect our economic and social future, there’s much more to be done. In many countries, women are still under-represented in the workforce, and often underpaid. The huge informal economy means millions of people remain extremely vulnerable to shock or disruption.

The earthquake and tsunami that struck Japan and the flooding in Southeast Asia are reminders of this region’s vulnerability to natural disasters. Ensuring  people can get back to work after such crises is a vital part of planning and response.

What is also clear is that the more effectively these policies can be integrated, the more effective they will be. Cross-border issues such labour migration and human trafficking require cross-border solutions.

Asian countries also have valuable expertise to share on issues such as building stronger social safety nets, developing skills and supporting small businesses.

The ILO is working increasingly in partnership with member states to make this expertise available.

We will also be launching a campaign to increase the ratification rate of ILO conventions, particularly the core standards relating to discrimination, child and forced labour, freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Asia has the potential and dynamism to lead the world in sustainable economic recovery. There are challenges ahead, but I am very optimistic that the region can rise to them and, with the right approaches, consolidate its position as an economic and social world leader, with policies that directly support both employment and equity in other words, decent work.

In the ILO, we have a saying:  “A better world starts here.” We have the opportunity to ensure a better world for the working people of Asia, and it begins in Kyoto this week.

Sachiko Yamamoto is the Asia-Pacific regional director of the International Labour Organisation.