International labor chief says world employment `deteriorating'

Despite economic recovery, the world employment situation, ``far from improving, is actually in some ways deteriorating.'' That's the view of Francis Blanchard, director-general of the International Labor Organization (ILO), which was set up in 1919 ``to bring governments, employers, and trade unions together for united action in the cause of social justice and better living conditions everywhere.''

The French-born international civil servant sees one clear exception to this ``pretty frightening'' job scene: the United States. In that country, vigorous recovery has brought a sharp reduction in unemployment.

But in most nations of Western Europe economic expansion has not brought a drop in the number of jobless, he noted in an interview. Rather, unemployment is either stagnant or going up.

Though noting that there are variations in third-world countries, he describes the general job picture in these poorer nations as ``extremely critical.''

In these developing countries, the problem is not necessarily unemployment in the sense used in industrial nations, but underemployment and poverty, he says. Many hundreds of millions work for insufficient hours or at such meager pay that they are unable to buy adequate food and shelter.

This job problem has been worsened by famine in Africa, the economic restraint prompted by the debt crisis in Latin America, and the burgeoning populations in such nations as India, Pakistan, and Indonesia, Mr. Blanchard says.

On the other hand, some Asian nations, such as Taiwan and South Korea, are doing relatively well in employing their populations.

The ILO, with 151 member nations, is ``obsessed'' with this unemployment problem, Blanchard says, ``and working hard at making a contribution'' to its solution in three ways:

1. It conducts ``action-oriented research'' on the impact of technological change on employment and other subjects related to work.

2. It funds technological cooperation programs in 25 developing nations. These include labor-intensive public works programs in some of the most destitute countries, such as Burundi, Rwanda, Tanzania, Bangladesh, and Nepal. Hundreds of thousands of workers are hired to build roads, irrigation projects, land reclamation programs, and so on.

3. It seeks to alert other international organizations, such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, to the impact on jobs of their decisions regarding austerity programs or development loans.

Blanchard says the IMF is ``performing well'' in its role of lending money to nations with balance-of-payments troubles, often requiring as a condition for such a loan that the country adapt a program of economic austerity designed to reduce imports and encourage exports. But he maintains that the money available to the IMF to make loans is ``too limited.'' With more money, the IMF could if it chose allow slower adjustment programs.

As it is, he holds that the adjustment policies insisted on by the IMF ``have been extremely severe in terms of their consequences on the social and human side.''

It is highly unusual for the head of one international agency to sound at all critical of another such agency. So Blanchard noted how he had talked with ``my good colleague and friend,'' Jacques de Larosi'ere, managing director of the IMF, about this adjustment issue.

Blanchard continued: ``It is no secret that in certain of those [developing] countries the standard of living has gone down anything from 10 percent to, in one extreme case, something like 25 percent. Some of those policies have resulted in a further deterioration of the employment situation, which was already quite critical.''

He notes that the IMF has a ``short-term responsibility'' to help a nation return to balance-of-payments equilibrium. He would like to see some provision for medium-and long-term financial assistance to make the short-term economic adjustment more palatable. Nations, he says, need a ``breathing space'' lasting a ``substantial'' number of years to adjust their economies.

Because of this lack of longer-term money, Blanchard says, financially troubled nations in Africa or Latin America could become permanently weak. ``That's really what is at stake.''

One result of the world recession and economic crisis during much of the past decade, he says, has been a weakening of organized labor. ``The unions are, everywhere, pretty much shaken.'' He maintains that ``strong and responsible'' unions and employer organizations can form ``a partnership for social progress.''

Moreover, the number of complaints regarding abuse of labor and trade union rights filed with the ILO have almost tripled in the last three years, Blanchard noted.

``This is a worrying situation,'' he says. The ILO tries to protect the rights of workers and their trade unions by conducting investigations of alleged abuses and then issuing reports on its findings.

One such complaint, involving the rights of Solidarity, the banned Polish trade-union organization, prompted Poland late last year to announce its intention to withdraw from the ILO.

Blanchard expressed his hope that Poland and the ILO can ``review the situation in a way such that that country, which was a founding member of the ILO, will stay in the organization.''

The US left the ILO in 1977 and returned in 1980. The US had charged the ILO with being bureaucratic and with being imbalanced in its consideration of abuses of labor rights in the East and the West.

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