Mr. Lee Swepston
Developed countries need more workers to maintain their economies, and developing countries need their high population of workers to emigrate – but migrants continue to be under-protected and abused by both countries of origin and destination, discloses Lee Swepston, Sr. Adviser on Human Rights.
Mr. Lee Swepston is Senior Adviser on Human Rights of the International Labour Office in Geneva. In his four-decade-long career in Human Rights, he has written books and articles on various aspects of human rights and ILO standards, child labour, freedom of association, discrimination, migrant workers and indigenous and tribal people.
Q. What is the good, the bad and the ugly about the labour policies worldwide?
A. The good is that in many cases, especially in smaller countries, the problem of adopting and applying human rights at work is more manageable than it is in very large countries. There is an awareness that the labour laws inherited from the former colonial countries need to be revised, or even adopted for the first time, and there are not so many bad habits to be unlearned. The main problem encountered is the lack of resources, human and financial. Implementing rights at work is another problem in developing nations. There is often lack of awareness on how to go about law enforcement, combined with a lack of resources for labour inspection, provision of advice to enterprises and workers, and even fundamental things as how to form a trade union that can protect workers’ interests. The ugly is often corruption, greed and unwillingness of both employers and sometimes monopoly trade unions to look after the good of the working people. It is also lack of interest national authorities often show in labour questions. For some reason, I have never really figured out why, in almost every developing country the Labour ministry is least influential.
Q. How employee-friendly are HR policies in government and private organisations?
A. Government policies are often quite good as concerns ordinary working relationships, such as decent working conditions, promotions and salaries. On the other hand, there is a persistent idea among governments that their own employees should not have the same rights as those in the private sector, especially when it comes to industrial relations, the right to organise and the right to strike. It seems that any non-governmental organisation believes that its employees are there for love rather than to make a living, and this can get very bad. But private employers have every incentive to treat their workers well, and to their credit many realise this.
Q. How helpful are policies in giving socio-economic security to AIDS or HIV+ people?
A. This is important for several reasons. First, most HIV-positive persons in the world are of working age. The situation has changed fundamentally with the introduction of drug and prevention therapies that ensure they can live long and productive lives. It is important to deal with HIV and AIDS in the workplace because in many parts the workplace is the main connection of most people with society. On a global level, there is a growing influence for employment policy and law in providing security to them. For instance, the list of countries that prohibit discrimination on the basis of HIV status is growing fast, and the number of countries that no longer permit compulsory testing for HIV is also expanding quickly. The adoption in 2010 by the ILO of the HIV and AIDS in the World of Work Recommendation (No. 200) was a solid advance in ensuring that the human rights-based approach will continue to be the basis for new national policies.
Q. Your thoughts on job reservation for the disabled?
A. India is the only country that applies job reservation so assiduously, but one has to question how effective it has been. It is important to ensure that disabled persons have access to jobs which they can actually perform, that they have the training necessary to perform those jobs, and that employers – and this includes government departments – do not feel the disabled persons are a burden. It may be more productive to set targets for the employment of the disabled, or other targeted minorities, and to allow companies to find their own ways of ensuring that they either meet these targets or understand why it has been impossible to do so – and then adapt their policies to be able to hire more.
Q. How women friendly are global policies on HR?
A. I wish I could say that the rights of women were well protected anywhere. Women continue to be discriminated against, have difficulty in gaining access to work, be excluded from decent working conditions, and to be paid significantly less than their male counterparts. In both the US and the EU, women make less money than men, for jobs of equal value and even for the same jobs. However, there has been some progress through the adoption of legislation, policies, and a militant attitude by women to claim equal rights. The old attitudes of patronising women and sexual harassment are slowly becoming unacceptable. In Southeast Asia, parts of Africa and the Arab world the situation is radically different. I’ll never forget the comment by a colleague on a first visit to a more traditional country, to the effect that any society that required women to use one hand to hide their faces whenever in public was automatically sacrificing a very large percentage of possible productivity. Any thinking person knows that these attitudes are nonsense, but restrictions remain in place when the problem is cultural, and even more when it is based on religion. These attitudes are harming women’s rights and holding back economic development. In many developing countries women are getting much higher number of advanced degrees, but they are unable to find decent jobs. What a waste!
Q. Workplace issues that need the ILO’s immediate intervention?
A. The question of migration continues to be one of the hardest issues to deal with. The ILO, the UN and various other bodies have attempted to adopt rules to regulate migration, but these have been a failure across the board. ASEAN is now debating a regional instrument on migration that is not making progress. The failure is not in the adoption of rules at international level, but governments simply will not commit themselves to following them. Migration and pressure for migration are growing. Developed countries need more workers to maintain their economies, and developing nations need their high population of workers to emigrate – but migrants continue to be under-protected and abused by countries of origin and destination. This problem will only get worse.
Q. Ways to spread awareness about rights at workplace?
A. This subject should be taken more seriously by governments, and incorporated in basic school curricula. But education won’t help if governments do not enforce the laws they adopt.