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Intervention by Barbara Byers to the ILO 17th American Regional Meeting

Presented by Barbara Byers on Thursday, 16 December 2010

(Check Against Delivery)

Thank you. Merci. Gracias. Obrigada.

And I want to extend a special greeting to our Chilean hosts for their warm hospitality.

This the first time I have been able to attend the Americas Regional meeting.

As a member of the ILO Governing Body for 8 years, I came here with the expectation that this meeting would be the place to discuss how to strengthen the decisions of the ILO Governing Body and Conference and how to implement those decisions for the benefit of workers in the Americas.

Regional gatherings should never be the place to bargain away the decisions made by the ILO. Those decisions have already been made through negotiation and compromises from workers, employers and governments.

This is the place to strengthen tripartism, collective bargaining and freedom of association – especially in this time of an economic and employment crisis.

Strong labour standards and unions promote greater economic equality and fairness at work. Labour standards improve the economic growth and efficiency of labour markets.

The globalization and liberalization of trade and investment flows has brought severe downward pressures on labour standards and contributed to the erosion of worker and trade union bargaining powers throughout the Americas and indeed throughout the global economy.

Other key components of the current growth model, such as privatization, deregulation of domestic markets and the deliberate “flexibilization” of the labour market, have further contributed to the weakening of bargaining rights, minimum wages, and social protection such as unemployment benefits and labour standards.

To reverse this trend, the governments of the Americas must reject this Neo-liberal labour market model, and adopt strategies and policies to re-balance the distribution of wealth both within and among countries.

This is the place to commit to strengthen the decent work agenda through support for the ratification and implementation of ILO conventions on collective bargaining, tripartism, minimum wages, labour standards and social protection.

And this is the place to acknowledge the link between labour standards and international trade, investment and finance and the impact they have on our lives, our families, our communities and our region.

Free trade deals are not written for the purpose of protecting and promoting workers’ rights. They are intended to protect the rights of investors seeking to benefit from low labour standards and wages, and weak environmental standards. They have led to a race to the bottom, even lower labour standards and the loss of citizen rights as investments flow to sites of ever lower competitive standards. This process leads to the destruction of decent jobs rather than creating them.

The so-called ‘investor state’ clause allows foreign corporations to bypass Canadian courts and challenge health, environmental and resource policies before private trade panels. This clause has had a devastating effect on workers, their families and communities.

Canada has paid out over $150 million to private investors under this process to compensate them for “lost profits” when government action or legislation has affected their decisions.

That is $150 million that could have been invested in programs for young workers, women, new Canadians and Canada’s first peoples – all of which have been the hardest hit by the economic and employment crisis and whose work future continues to look very precarious.

The dollars paid to investors are dollars from Canadian taxpayers that could have been invested in their communities in social infrastructure projects to create decent jobs in health, social services, education and childcare – services that benefit families and their communities.

Those are tax dollars that could have been used instead to help unemployed workers who lost their jobs through no fault of their own, through no lack of productivity but because of greed in corporate boardrooms.

It is true the government’s stimulus spending in response to the financial and employment crisis helped thousands of Canadian families dealing with unemployment, but the government needs to recommit resources to continue unemployment and training support given continued high rates of unemployment, which has not improved substantially from the depths of the “Great Recession”. These extensions should not be ‘pilot projects’. They need to be programs to meet the long term needs of unemployed workers in Canada. Unemployment is not a ‘pilot project’ for unemployed workers!

It has been very instructive to hear of the employment conditions and serious problems facing workers is all of the countries of Latin America and the Caribbean. We know that thousands of workers try to migrate as the only way they can earn a living and support their families and that our government has developed temporary worker programs offering some benefits to legal migrant workers, especially in the agricultural, construction and hospitality sectors. Often, labour standards, workers compensation, health and safety, collective bargaining and other rights enjoyed by Canadian workers are not extended to migrant or temporary foreign workers. This situation has been reported to the Committee of Experts and the Committee on Freedom of Association. The Canadian trade union movement will not rest until all workplace rights are extended to all workers in Canada, regardless of their migration status.

Here at this Regional meeting it is my hope that our worker, employer and government delegations can find sufficient points of consensus to strengthen and build on the work of the ILO. We will accept nothing less. Our task is to strengthen labour standards and collective bargaining and to strengthen freedom of association, the major building blocks of strong unions and a strong union movement in all of our countries. Where unions are weak, democracy and social justice suffer.

Our challenge is to move forward together to ensure strong unions – the lives of millions of workers in this region are depending on each of us.

Thank you. Merci.