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ILO Conference Adopts Standards on Private Employment Agencies


Press release | 19 June 1997


GENEVA (ILO News) - The 85 th International Labour Conference concluded its work today following the adoption by 347 votes in favour, 5 votes against and 30 abstentions, of a new international Convention on private employment agencies designed to allow their operation, increase the efficiency of labour markets and protect job-seekers using their services.

The Conference also adopted a US$ 481 million budget for ILO programmes in 1998-99, including four priority areas: the revitalization of ILO standard setting activities, the fight against child labour, the follow-up to the World Summit for Social Development (Copenhagen, March 1995), and to the World Conference on Women (Beijing, September 1995).

This year's session of the International Labour Conference was marked by a lively and, at times, passionate debate on the merits of proposals contained in the report on standard setting activities submitted to it by the Director-General of the International Labour Office, Mr. Michel Hansenne. The most far-reaching of these proposals aims to ensure universal respect for fundamental human rights in the work place through the adoption, in 1998, of a solemn "Declaration" complementing the ILO Constitution. This Declaration would provide for strengthened supervisory mechanisms to promote these principles and monitor compliance in all ILO member States.

A total of 11 plenary sessions were required for the debate on this item in which 314 speakers - including 117 ministers - participated.

"The discussion confirmed a broad consensus on the subject of the importance of the strengthening of fundamental rights", said Mr. Hansenne in a formal reply to the debate delivered on 18 June. "At the conclusion of the discussions, it seems to me that if a certain number of countries had expressed or made known their lack of agreement with this initiative (...), a fairly broad consensus has emerged in the Government Group as well as in the Employer and Worker Groups as to the principle of the consideration of such a text and the mechanism for promotion which will accompany it".

The ILO Governing Body will "continue its work on this subject in accordance with methods which it will discuss (on Friday, 20 June 1997). The proposals which will be submitted to the Governing Body in November on the Declaration and its implementation mechanism should provide a sufficiently consensual basis and should reflect the various sensitivities and make it possible for this vital question to be included on the agenda of the 1998 Conference".

New Convention on private employment agencies

Adopted today, the Private Employment Agencies Convention and Recommendation, 1997 is an ambitious attempt to modernize existing practices in line with the realities of today's labour markets, help ensure that labour not be regarded as a "commodity" and provide protection against abuses, discrimination and child labour.

The measure was adopted by a vote at the closing plenary. (*)

The new instrument is a revision of the Fee-Charging Employment Agencies Convention (No. 96), adopted in 1949 when nearly all employment agencies were public entities. Over the past decade, it had become clear that the previous convention required revisions, as it failed to recognize the increasingly important role played by private employment agencies - which generated a US$ 80 billion turnover in 1994 - and was unable to provide adequate protection to workers against abuses and unfair practices.

The new ILO standard draws up general parameters for the efficient operation of private employment agencies. The Recommendation recognizes the contribution of bona fide private employment agencies to a well-functioning labour market and their specific role in such a market. The new Convention will allow private employment agencies a wider scope for cooperation with public employment services, thus increasing the efficiency of the labour market and providing positive benefits for job-seekers. It underlines the role of representative employers and workers organisations in all the aspects of labour market policies covered by the Convention. It takes into account the interest of workers by ensuring that agencies operate in line with ethical codes and gives national authorities the flexibility needed to deal with private agencies in the context of their own realities and concerns.

Significantly, it will list general principles and guidance that also protect workers in employment and job seekers against poor terms and conditions of employment and provide a framework for sound industrial relations in a rapidly globalizing economy. The new Convention aims at improving the functioning and governance of labour markets through the collaboration of public and private employment services.

The new Convention also calls on member States to ensure that private employment agencies "treat workers without discrimination on the basis of race, colour, sex, religion, political opinion, national extraction, social origin, or any other form of discrimination covered by national law and practice, such as age or disability." The measure calls on ILO member States to protect migrant workers recruited or placed in their territories by private employment agencies, and calls on them to take measures against the use or supply of child labour.

Contract labour

An initial discussion on contract labour at this year's session of the International Labour Conference opened the way towards the possible adoption of a Convention and Recommendation next year.

The proposed Convention would focus on ensuring adequate protection for contract workers. Delegates struggled with the definition of the term "contract labour" and the closely related issue of the scope of the proposed instrument. While the proposed Convention would be applicable to all contract workers, it would exclude workers who have a recognized contract of employment with the user enterprise or who are employees of private employment agencies, who are made available to a user enterprise to perform contract labour.

This new legal instrument is likely to outline measures aimed at preventing accidents and injury to contract workers, providing protection in relation to meeting financial obligations towards contract workers, ensuring that rights or obligations under labour and social security laws are not denied or avoided when contract labour is used, and promoting equality of treatment between contract workers and workers with recognized employment relationships. The draft Recommendation would provide more detailed guidance in relation to these provisions. It would also address issues such as encouragement of collective bargaining in this field, compilation of statistics on contract labour and protection for contract workers from other countries.

While the employers and a few Governments remained firmly opposed to the adoption of new standards on contract labour, the workers and a majority of Governments gave their support. There was general agreement that contract labour is a growing phenomenon of considerable importance.

A clear consensus emerged as to the applicability of fundamental rights to contract workers. The Committee unanimously agreed that all workers, regardless of employment status, should receive the same protection with regard to the right to organize and bargain collectively, freedom from discrimination, and minimum age.

Helping SMEs create new jobs

Faced with continuing concern over employment, especially in light of the impact of globalization on jobs, the 85 th International Labour Conference called for adoption in 1998 of an instrument on general conditions to stimulate job creation in small and medium-sized enterprises. The Conference noted that such small and medium-sized enterprises generate more than 80 per cent of new jobs in the world today.

The Committee on Job Creation in Small and medium-sized Enterprises suggested that the instrument should take the form of a Recommendation, or a non-binding, international benchmark for activities. It is also recognized that SMEs provide the potential for women and other traditionally disadvantaged groups to gain improved access to productive and high quality jobs.

The Recommendation should promote respect for core conventions of the ILO related to freedom of association, collective bargaining, the right to organize, forced labour and discrimination, in order to enhance the creation of quality employment in SMEs and respond to the concerns of Members with respect to child labour. The Recommendation would provide guidance for member States alongside other ILO initiatives to promote the role of SMEs.

In order to create a business environment conducive to the growth and development of SMEs, the Committee recommended that member States should adopt policies to promote a stable economic environment, as regards inflation, interest and exchange rates, taxation and employment and social stability, remove constraints to the development and growth of SMEs, include specific measures aimed at assisting and upgrading the informal sector to become part of the organized sector, ensure the extension of social protection to workers in SMEs and compliance with social security regulations. It also called on member States to adopt measures in consultation with representatives of employers and workers, to create and strengthen an "enterprise culture" favouring initiative, enterprise creation, productivity, environmental consciousness, quality, good labour and industrial relations. The Committee also called for consideration to be given to the availability of a range of direct and indirect support services to enhance the growth, job-creation potential and competitiveness of the SME sector.

Abrogation of standards

The delegates also amended article 19 of the ILO Constitution to facilitate the updating of international labour standards. Henceforth, on a proposal of the Governing Body, the Conference, by a two-thirds majority, may abrogate a Convention "if it appears that the Convention has lost its purpose or that it no longer makes a useful contribution to attaining the objectives of the Organization." The amendment will come into force once it has been ratified in accordance with article 36 of the Constitution. For the withdrawal of Conventions which are not in force and of obsolete Recommendations, this procedure will be applicable immediately.

At its November 1996 session, the ILO Governing Body had identified eight Conventions as candidates for abrogation or withdrawal; No. 28 (1929) - Protection against accidents (dockers) Convention; No. 31 (1931) - Hours of work (coal mines) Convention; No. 46 (1935) - Hours of work (coal mines) Convention (revised); No. 51 (1936) - Reduction of hours of work (public works) Convention; No. 60 (1937) - Minimum age (non-industrial employment) Convention (revised); No. 61 (1937) - Reduction of hours of work (textiles) Convention; No. 66 (1939) - Migration for employment Convention; No. 67 (1939) - Hours of work and rest periods (road transport) Convention.

The Governing Body will reexamine the abrogation or withdrawal of these Conventions in the course of forthcoming sessions.

Programme and Budget

The 85 th International Labour Conference adopted the ILO's 1998-99 Programme and Budget of US$ 481,050,000 at a budget rate of exchange of 1.46 Swiss francs to the US dollar. The corresponding income budget amounts to Swiss francs 702,333,000.

The Programme and Budget adopted today represents a reduction of some 98 million dollars over the previous exercise, or approximately 17 per cent. Programme reductions accounted for 5.6 per cent of this decrease, the remainder being the result of exchange rate adjustments because of the stronger dollar.

* * *

The 85 th International Labour Conference was honoured by the visit of His Majesty King Hussein of Jordan, who addressed the Conference in a special sitting on 13 June.

Another distinguished guest, Mr. James Wolfensohn, President of the World Bank, addressed the plenary on 12 June. This was followed by a discussion with ministers of labour and employers' and workers' delegates to discuss the theme "Social progress: Common concerns and strategies in a globalizing world".

2,025 government, employer and worker delegates from 158 member States took part in the session. A record 143 delegations were led by Ministers.

The Conference President was Mrs. Olga Keltosová, Minister of Labour, Social Affairs and Family of the Slovak Republic. The three Vice-Presidents of the Conference were Mr. Ali Khalil, Minister of Labour and Social Affairs (Syrian Arab Republic) representing governments; Mrs L. Sasso-Mazzufferi (Italy) representing employers and Mr. F. Ramírez-León (Venezuela) representing workers.

* * *

The International Labour Conference meets annually. It provides an international forum for discussion of world labour and social problems and sets minimum international labour standards and broad policies of the Organization. Every two years, the Conference adopts the ILO's biennial work programme and budget, which is financed by its 174 member States.

Each member country has the right to send four delegates to the Conference: two from the government and one each representing workers and employers, each of whom may speak and vote independently.


(*) Vote on the Convention: Yes - 347; No - 5; Abstentions - 30
Vote on the Recommendation: Yes - 314; No - 13; Abstentions - 67