The Debate

The International Labor Conference Turns Its Back on Taiwan – and Its Own Principles

Recent Features

The Debate

The International Labor Conference Turns Its Back on Taiwan – and Its Own Principles

How can the International Labor Organisation promote social justice while cozying up to political forces?

The International Labor Conference Turns Its Back on Taiwan – and Its Own Principles
Credit: Flickr/ Connie Ma

The people in Taiwan have just witnessed how the World Health Organization (WHO) chose to be a vassal of Beijing’s “one China” policy. The WHO denied Taiwan’s Ministry of Health and Welfare officials the right to observe this year’s World Health Assembly (WHA), which runs contrary to the WHO’s constitutional decree that “enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health is one of the fundamental rights of every human being.” Coming up next, on June 5, is the International Labor Conference, which claims to be the United Nation’s social conscience.

Established in 1919, the mandate of the International Labor Organization (ILO) is to defend social justice, to emphasize that labor is not a commodity, and to oppose unfair globalization. Based on the principle of voluntary ratification by member states, the ILO formulates International Labor Conventions and policies by collaborating with tripartite representatives from the government, labor groups, and employer groups. Applying a social dialogue mechanism based on equal participation and democracy, the governments, laborers, and employers work together to draw up Conventions and monitor how the Conventions are implemented in each member nation. Through technical cooperation, the ILO offers member states consulting service and assistance, both to develop labor and social policies and to provide labor rights education to labor groups and employers alike. In recent years the ILO has adopted “decent work for all” as its principal policy, and offers advice to employer groups about sustainable enterprises and social economic development as well as social protection.

Several unions in Taiwan belong to the Global Unions Federations, including the Taiwan Petroleum Workers’ Union, the Chunghwa Postal Workers’ Union, the Taiwan Power Labor Union, the Taiwan Railway Labor Union, and the National Chinese Seamen’s Union. There is also the Chinese National Federation of Industries, which belongs to the International Organization of Employers (IOE). As social partners, all unions mentioned above have the right to participate in all types of international labor conferences and meetings based on the unique tripartism enshrined in the ILO constitution almost a century ago. The situation has changed drastically this year, however, due to China’s influence on the United Nations and the UN’s specialized agencies. The ILO, a Nobel peace prize award winner which touts itself as a social justice promoter, has buckled under the UN’s illogical and discriminatory requirement for conference participant status.

In the past, Taiwan union representatives have served as “observers” at the International Labor Conference. Recently, in response to a routine inquiry by the Taiwan Petroleum Workers’ Union regarding the identification documents needed to obtain observers’ status, the ILO’s legal office replied as follows:

“The United Nations have informed that, in accordance with a policy that has been in effect already for a number of years, it will not permit access to the UN premises for persons who hold only an identity document issued by an entity not recognized by the United Nations. Reinforced identity controls will be in place this year at the entrance of the Palais des Nations. For reasons of coherence, the ILO will apply the same principles in regulating access to ILO premises. Therefore, persons who only hold a passport issued by the authorities of Taiwan, China, may not be able to gain access to the meetings of the International Labor Conference this year.”

The reply clearly violates the ILO’s constitution, which speaks of its core values and Conventions for freedom of association and the right to organize. The statement also raises several questions.

First, if this is a policy that has been in place for many years, why the sudden announcement to implement it this year?  And why does the policy only target passports issued by the Republic of China government in Taiwan? Is the ILO yielding to pressure from the Chinese government?

Second, the use of an obscure legal policy claimed by the United Nations will damage the ILO’s constitutional tripartite governance structure and operational mechanism, which includes not only governments but also laborers and employers. The measure is not only a serious departure from the ILO’s spirit of ensuring fair participation by worker and employer groups in the pursuit of social justice, it is also against the ILO’s Convention of freedom of association and the right to organize. According to the regulation cite above, Taiwan’s worker and employer groups will lose all opportunities in the future to participate fairly in any ILO meetings.

The ILO’s universal values should be extended and the ILO’s annual conference should welcome more participation from non-member nations or political entities. Due to the ILO’s tripartite structure and purpose, crafted especially to protect labor movements from government oppression and to defend equal labor rights and freedom from discrimination, in the past the ILO has won the applause of many for its actions. The group has now been afraid to stand up to political pressure in the past. For example, the South African government once withdrew from the ILO after it was condemned by the organization for its apartheid policies. The ILO also defended the basic labor rights of people in the occupied Palestinian territories. The United States and Israel became infuriated and the United States withdrew from the ILO as a warning.

In fact, the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO) is not a United Nations member any more than Taiwan is. However, to highlight the plight of persecuted PLO workers, the ILO promoted its policy of “decent work for all” through its regional office and conducted a report on the Palestinian occupation area via its tripartite commission. The ILO also offers an occupation zone labor report annually, to demand justice for Palestinians. The move has won applause around the globe.

A similar example was the initiative during the Kosovo civil war between 1998 and 1999, when the ILO proactively helped the region develop “decent work” and social dialogue. At the time, Kosovo had not reached independence, and was not a United Nations member. Based on the spirit of the ILO Constitution, however, the ILO proactively offered assistance to the government, unions, and employer groups.  Every year during the ILO annual conference, Kosovo workers and employers were able to join the assembly as observers and enter the ILO conference hall; they were also permitted to speak during the conference. Such actions called on everyone to value the importance of labor rights for people in occupied regions. That was the true spirit of the ILO: when it defied the powerful in pursuit of social justice.

In 2019, the ILO is expected to celebrate its 100th anniversary and create a plan for future work, a blueprint to emphasize its determination to defend international labor standards in pursuit of social justice. Before then, please retrieve the ILO spirit and honor the ILO’s values and principles. Open the doors wide to welcome all the world’s oppressed, so that they can enjoy the protections granted by the ILO constitution and international labor standards – regardless of UN status, all people around the world deserve sincere support from the ILO.

Li-chuan Liuhuang is an Assistant Professor at the Department of Labor Relations, National Chung Cheng University and an advisor to the Taiwan Petroleum Labor Union.