Poverty,Inequality and Women

In June I went to Geneva to attend 106th session of the ILO Conference. The ILO, the International Labour Organisation is the oldest specialised agency of the United Nations. It was founded in 1919 in the aftermath of the First World War. It is unique because its meetings are three-partite: workers, employers and governments, as equals. It prepares Conventions, finally concluded by governments, Declarations and Recommendations.

In short, it sets standards for the labour relations. And for social justice.

I was inscribed in the wrong commission, the one on the recurrent discussion on the principles and fundamental rights at work in the context of the Declaration on social justice for an equitable mondialisation, 2008. There are four principles and rights- the freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining, the elimination of any form of forced or compulsary labour, the effective aboliton of child labour, the elimination of discrimination in employment and profession.

I was in the workers section of the commission, and frankly, I didn’t understand half of what was said, except that the right to collective bargaining seemed to be somewhat threatened.

I had gone to the ILO Conference, as convener of the Human Rights Commission,  because I wanted to know how they would make the link between all these labour principles and rights and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). The SDGs have as first goal an end to poverty ( less than 1,25$ pp per day), goal 5 is Equality and the empowerment of all women and girls, goal 8 Decent work and economic growth, and goal  10: Reduced inequalities within and between countries.

All these can be furthered by applying the ILO conventions and Recommendations. First I attended a side event on ´Labour inspection as an instrument to protect workers in

First I attended a side event on ´Labour inspection as an instrument to protect workers in informal economy.´ Already in 1919 there was the recommendation for all countries to have a public service to protect workers.

There is a convention of 1947 about Labour Inspection, and one about labour inspection in Agriculture from 1969. The ILO stresses the necessity of labour inspection and regards it as an essential part of shaping a responsible and sustainable employment policy, as it is currently discussed in the initiative ´Future of Work’ and the Agenda 2030.

So in theory it looks promising; for the moment, in spite of the idea that labour inspection is a task of the state, certification by private agencies seems to be slightly more effective. Non-binding instruments like the the OECD Guidelines for Multinational Enterprises and the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights are useful but cannot replace public labour inspection. (Based on ´ Labour Inspection in a Globalised World’, a position paper by the German Commission for Justice and Peace and the German Confederation of Trade Unions DGB).

An effective way to diminish poverty and inequality and empower women is described in ´Basic Income: and how we can Make it Happen’ by Guy Standing, Penguin Random House UK, 2017. I acquire a signed copy at another side event. Mr Standing is one of the founders of the Basic Income European Network (BIEN) established in 1986 to promote debate about the issue. BIEN means ´well’ in French, and so is a word for what a basic income would provide. Michel Rocard, former French Prime Minister and Bishop Desmond Tutu belong to the few people who saw the potential of Basic Income. Now with austerity policy and robotisation, interest is growing.

Basic income is a right, paid in cash(or equivalent) to all individuals regardless of age, gender, marital status, work status and work history.

And the main rationales for it are justice, freedom and security, and there is an economic perspective.

A basic income should be paid to all individuals in a certain community who have a legal right to be there. It should be unconditional, that is to say, there would be no strings attached, it should be non refundable, paid at regular intervals, so that people would feel secure. They would have the security, for instance, to leave or refuse an unpleasant job, to study, to leave a relationship that has turned sour, to care for friends or relatives, to pay for child care so they could take a job, to take part in social movements.

The most common claim to favour a basic income is that it would be the most effective way to reduce poverty. Most systems to relieve poverty are means tested. To get a benefit people have to go through all kinds of administrative unpleasantness, they have to try to get a job with the risk of losing the benefits either because they have lost the job or because they do not( in the eyes of the administration) try hard enough to get one. Many people see being ´on welfare’ as a social stigma. A basic income paid as a right would remove the worst ‘poverty trap’, and social stigma.

Basic income paid to every individual would surely enhance the freedom of women, they would not have to wait for handouts from the head of the household. It would also reduce inequality. If everyone would get the same amount on top of the usual one, it can be argued that inequality would stay the same. But to people on low incomes, the same sum would mean much more than to high earners.

Basic income would help economic growth because people would have more to spend.

Would a basic income be affordable? This of course depends on the hight of the basic income and what it would replace. It is not a calculated means of dismantling the welfare state. It could be paid out of raising taxes, or value added tax, out of saved administrative costs. It mainly depends on political will to do that.

To help this political will basic income should not be framed as a means of tackling poverty, rather as a matter of social justice, freedom and basic security. Another rhetorical justification might be strategic preparedness for possible large-scale disruption of jobs and employment. It would be like disaster preparedness or measures to mitigate climate change, or military defence policy.

Being in the ‘wrong committee’ made me think that my travel and hotel costs were spent in vain. However, a better understanding of what the value of all the ILO Conventions and Recommendations could be, and the side events with those dedicated people and interesting perspectives made my time and money worth while.

PS IAW should keep promoting Recommendation 202 on social protection floors, that we made a resolution about in our last Congress.