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Decent Work for All

Interview with Gek-Boo Ng, Regional Director of the Asia and Pacific
Regional Department of the International Labour Organization (ILO)

“Decent work for all translates to more and better jobs,” observes Regional Director of the Asia and Pacific Regional Department of the International Labour Organization (ILO). “We are in the middle of the Decent Work for All Decade and we want to make sure that everyone understands what it is and what it is for.”

Decent Work for All (DWFA) incorporates the rights of the worker not just to get a job and to be paid but to be treated with dignity and with proper rights of association and collective bargaining at the workplace. In the ASEAN region, this has often proven to be difficult to obtain. According to Mr Ng, to bring about DWFA and to support the ILO’s work in the ASEAN region, there are four main priorities.

“First concerns the area of productivity, competitiveness and jobs. We are fully engaged in the manufacturing and service sectors. So our interests centre on how to raise productivity, improve competitiveness and create more jobs.

The second is youth employment. Youth unemployment was two or three times higher than adult unemployment in the past and we are trying to address this issues, especially in countries with particularly young populations.

The third is labour migration, which is a powerful and important response to the differences in opportunities in different parts of the world. This is a response to basic labour supply and demand issues. There are also various human rights issues surrounding migration which
 must be addressed.

The fourth and final priority we have is in terms of labour market governance. This is very important and indeed central to the work of the ILO since our job is to manage labour markets and we are very much concerned with seeing how we can grow labour markets with equity and efficiency.

And one more thing, concerning the Asia Pacific region, our various laws and regulations do not reach the urban informal and rural areas. So there are governance deficits there affecting millions of workers in those sectors and we are searching for ways to reduce those deficits.”

Mr Ng is a Malaysian with a background in economics, who has received degrees from Nanyang, Manchester and Sheffield Universities. He joined the ILO in 1974 as a research economist and has worked his way up to his present eminent position. During those years, he has witnessed some significant changes in the development of ASEAN and of the states that make it up. Yet, he is convinced, ASEAN is improving its capacity as an organisation and the ILO’s co-operation within it is becoming more important and relevant:

“As far as ASEAN is concerned, our relationship has improved steadily over the years. The significant achievement in this regard was the signing of the ILO-ASEAN Framework in March, 2007, involving the Secretary General of ASEAN. This framework agreed on the various areas, modalities of co-operation and consultation and it both laid down the framework dealing with these areas as well as coming up with some concrete work items.

Notable among these was the Occupational Health and Safety Network known as OSHnet. This is aimed at helping states to comply with the ILO’s Convention No.187, which lays out occupational standards for all employers. Then there is the area of industrial relations. We are looking for progressive labour practices, with labour market reform and good progress has been made in various respects.

Migrant work is also an area in which we have been working together. At the ASEAN summit in Cebu, in February 2007, the ASEAN leaders adopted a declaration on protecting the rights of migrant workers and this comes very close to the ILO framework concerning this issue and now they are concerned with putting this into practice. Early next year, we will work with ASEAN to create the Migrant Workers Forum. We are also jointly involved in monitoring labour and social trends and similar activities.”

However, these areas of progress are not easy to achieve and are the result of often sustained and skilled negotiation. As Mr Ng observes, “In the way we work with ASEAN, there is a determination by the governments of this region to improve working conditions and they work hard to improve human resource management.

In spite of economic integration being not too fast, they have a will to bring it forward and to try to play a much more assertive role in regional and international officials. Progress is quite significant and we are ready to propose a regional agenda and enter the international stage. Everyone is trying very hard to help with each other. Ministers are always ready to provide free technical assistance to each other.

It is important to bear in mind how much cultural diversity there is in this region – “it is not like any other region in this regard. We have so many different ways of doing things and of ethnicity; it is very diversified and there is very uneven development.”

There has also been considerable variation in the willingness of governments to comply with ILO standards and, while most ASEAN states are now happy to comply and their employers recognise the competitive advantages that compliance can bring, this is not yet universal. Myanmar stands out as a problematic area in which the issue of forced labour remains the principal one. Even so, agreements have been signed with the government and hope remains that further progress can be made in the future.

Despite millions of workers remaining in poverty in ASEAN, millions more have been raised from it and millions of others have benefited from improvements in working conditions. The ILO’s daily work focuses on not just these kinds of negotiation but research, statistical analysis, improving technical capacity and co-operation among its members.

Now that Brunei has become a member of the ILO, all ten of the ASEAN states are ILO members and the organization represents an opportunity for states to help each other as well as themselves.

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