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LETTER:Continuing importance of the ILO as upholder of rights

From Professor Lord Wedderburn

Sir: Alan Duncan, MP, asserts that the ideals of the International Labour Organisation "have turned to dust" (Another View, 8 June). This tripartite agency of the United Nations, he concludes, "has outlived its usefulness" and the UK could better achieve the same aims "through the European Community". All this because the ILO has dared to apply to Britain the principles of the convention on freedom of association when a group of civil servants was denied the right to join an independent trade union.

European positive law does not yet support all the fundamental values at work which are upheld by the ILO. The machinery of the ILO - at which Mr Duncan sneers as a self-perpetuating body requiring us to "finance union freebies" - has long sustained worldwide pressure against child labour, bonded employment, suppression of trade unions and (with the International Maritime Organisation) the use of coffin ships that still take seafarers' lives and pollute the world's environment.

Its tripartite structure puts the ILO in a unique position for this work. As its director-general, Michel Hansenne, pointed out in his 1994 report, it can try to "mobilise and directly involve the non-governmental actors in so far as it is the only body that provides an institutional framework for their full participation". Its programmes combine the objects of civilised standards and job creation in a world where there is a growing need to addresses, as British ministers put it in 1919, "unfair competition based on oppressive conditions".

Yet all of this Mr Duncan would have the UK government jettison. He would have us stand four square with the one state which rejects the ILO - North Korea - so that international markets are freed from restraint in exploitation of workers, no matter how young or vulnerable. To take this course and leave the British seats in the ILO vacant because of the GCHQ affair would not be intelligent diplomacy. It would be, to adopt Aneurin Bevan's phrase, an emotional spasm.

Yours sincerely,


London, N6

9 June