International Labour Organization

Statement by

Juan Somavia
Director-General of the International Labour Office

to the World Conference against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia And Related Intolerance

(2 September 2001)

Mr. Chairperson, Dear friends,

This Conference is about intolerance and prejudice. We have changed the Constitutions. We have changed the laws. We have changed the policies. We have even defeated apartheid. But racism is still there worldwide. It may be more silent, less obvious, hidden behind politically correct language. But racism is still there.

Much too often it is blatant, exacerbated by other violations of human rights, where women and children are particularly vulnerable. Whether trafficking or sexual tourism, forced labour, bonded labour and child labour or denial of rights to migrants, minorities, indigenous and tribal peoples and other workers - discrimination is still there.

This Conference is about changing all that. It is about moving beyond lip service. It is about a fundamental commitment to upgrading the moral quality of our societies. It is about being proud of shedding racist structures, racist conduct and racist attitudes. It is about being proud of multicultural, multiracial and multireligious societies, where the dignity of all human beings is respected and protected. We all know that no delegation in this room can stand up and say: My country does not face any of these problems.

Nowhere are these realities more sorely felt than in the workplace. Racism is a workplace issue. Where racism and discrimination exist, workers are faced with them constantly, day by day, as they try to earn a living. And if you are unemployed, they are formidable obstacles to getting a job.

Today I want to re-affirm the ILO's dedication to the struggle against racism. I am here leading a tripartite delegation of the Organisation - the Chairperson of our Governing Body and representatives of workers and employers. Our presence among you demonstrates the institutional commitment of the ILO - which is also your organization - to the objectives of this Conference.

We are here to say that the Decent Work Agenda of the ILO is a valuable tool in your hands to implement the conclusions of this Conference. But to allow us to do so, your conclusions must give explicit recognition to fighting discrimination in the world of work. The tools the ILO brings to this task are standard-setting and supervision backed up by technical assistance and social dialogue, with a long tradition of public and private partnerships. The 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work represents a commitment by ILO member States to respect the rights to freedom from discrimination, from forced and child labour, and to freedom of association.

Many of your objectives can be pursued through the ILO Conventions on discrimination in employment and occupation, migrant workers and indigenous and tribal peoples. These Conventions are intended to protect one hundred million migrant workers and their families, and more than three hundred million indigenous and tribal peoples around the world. They also provide protection against forms of discrimination workers suffer that are so widespread and hidden that we cannot even put a figure to them.

We will build on your conclusions to identify additional instruments to combat discrimination in the 21St century.
In fact, all the ILO's work is dedicated to the objectives of this Conference. Our Decent Work Agenda is a development agenda. It aims to ensure that all men and women can engage in productive activities with dignity, freedom and security. The expansion of decent employment opportunities for all is essential if exclusion based on race is to be eliminated.

It is also essential if we are to respond to the need for security of individuals and their families, and the need for stability of our societies.
We are active in many ways to combat discrimination in the workplace. And we will continue to work with the United Nations to promote the Secretary-General's Global Compact.

But to move forward faster, developing countries need much better development opportunities to deliver decent work and reduce poverty. It is because real equality of opportunity is not there that the present model of globalization is losing credibility.

Eleven years ago, in June 1990, just a few months after his liberation, Nelson Mandela came to the ILO Conference - as he said - to recognize the ILO's prominent role in the fight against apartheid. We honoured him and the struggle of the South African people with the longest standing ovation in the history of ILO institutions.

We are here today to reiterate that we will continue to speak out and act against discrimination, racism, xenophobia and related intolerance. It is our mandate, but above all it is our conviction.