1st ASEM (the Asia-Europe Meeting) Social Partners Forum

Brussels, 30/06-01/07/2008

Bali and beyond – strengthening EU-Asia strategic cooperation on global market issues and decent work}}}

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I would first like to thank the European Commission, the Indonesian Government, and the two EU Presidencies which have straddled this two-day conference for helping to bring into effect the decisions of the Helsinki Summit concerning the promotion of social dialogue in the ASEM context.

The trade union Movement has pressed consistently for a strong social dimension to accompany market development. This helps progress and growth, and makes change easier.

In Europe, we are facing ‘tunnel vision’ interpretations of the European Court of Justice in four recent legal cases that elevate free market provision above fundamental rights.

Tomorrow’s Social Agenda to be published by the Commission must start to put right the Court’s interpretations, introduce stronger European Works Councils and give fresh heart to those of us who want a strong social dimension integrated into all trade, political and economic relationships.

The EU needs to lead the world by example in our quest to civilise globalisation and place decent work squarely at the centre of the labour market issues that we are discussing today.

The European Commission itself, in a report to be published formally tomorrow as part of the Social Agenda, makes the point that ratifying and applying ILO conventions is an important element for the EU’s credibility in promoting decent work throughout the world.

Workers’ unease about globalisation must be understood and acted upon, to counteract the pressures towards a retreat into protectionist economic nationalism. But we are for openness. Europe invented globalisation and gained from it. We should not deny benefits to others and not return to the pre World-War II approaches.

Social Dialogue is part of the European Social Model’s DNA, and we are glad that its role is being recognised wider afield, notably now in ASEM. In many countries, of course, this does need to be built and reinforced and we look forwards to cooperating with that aim.

This conference is billed as the first ASEM Social Partners Forum, and so we naturally look forward to this process being repeated regularly and, we expect, deepened and fully integrated in the ASEM relationship.

Our deliberations need to be followed-up. In particular, as an immediate first step, we would emphasise the importance of holding a joint social partners consultation with the ASEM Labour Ministers’ meeting in Bali next October.

It may be too early this time for joint social partners’ positions formally to be adopted and presented. We look forwards to this developing in the future. But in any event we must both be heard and have equal status.

The ETUC, together with our colleagues in the International Trade Union Confederation, has been campaigning for the promotion of decent work throughout the world. A high point of that campaign will be the International Day of Action on 7 October, when we hope to make our voice heard by the European Institutions here in Brussels, as well as in Paris in the context of the French EU Presidency. That will be part of a European contribution to a world-wide movement

Both our regions are facing growing inequalities. Between rich and poor, men and women, and between workers with secure employment compared to those with precarious work and poverty wages. Migrant workers often bear the brunt, and it is clear that reinforced action to protect migrant workers’ rights is necessary across the ASEM area.

From the discussions here, it is also clear that the notion of ‘flexicurity’ is creating a world-wide debate, although we do come to it from sometimes very different starting points. But, wherever they are, vulnerable workers must not be made the victims of current global conditions. We must aim for universal social protection so as to fight poverty and inequality. ASEM can play an important role by coordinating international support, with the participation of the social partners, for the design and implementation of social security concepts.

Social dialogue can help the process of change. And we do need change to deal with a stuttering world economy; financial capital domination that challenges our governance; and speculation that is affecting the very basics of civilised life: housing, fuel, food.

We need a new approach, to strengthen corporate governance.

We need to invest in employment and quality of work as part of an integrated approach covering productive and freely chosen work; rights at work including full respect of ILO conventions; social protection; social dialogue; and the inclusion of the gender dimension. That is what decent work is about.

It is incumbent on the European Union to use all the tools available to it, through aid and through trade, bilaterally and multilaterally, to advance the decent work agenda in a coherent manner. We welcome its stated intention to include sustainable development chapters – including labour standards as well as environmental protection objectives - in all the partnership, cooperation and trade agreements it is negotiating. A number of those negotiations are with countries or sub-regions that are components of ASEM. We would insist that the dynamic frameworks for cooperation and dialogue, the strong monitoring mechanisms and the transparency provisions that are envisaged be backed up with enforcement mechanisms that provide real incentives for their application.

Decent work is unachievable without peace and democracy. We believe it is also incumbent on the EU, and on everyone else, to work to advance human rights and democracy everywhere. As a meeting such as this, it would be remiss of me not to mention the plight of the people of Burma / Myanmar, our support for them and our condemnation of the callous regime that would let tens of thousands of their people die rather than open up to aid from the international community.

Such flagrant violations must be part of the ASEM agenda too. We do bear a joint responsibility.

ASEM provides a unique forum for dialogue between our two regions. We would wish to see its institutions strengthened and its remit broadened so that we can together make a really significant contribution to the good governance and the welfare of all our people.