Ratify international labor conventions

IT is one of the ironies of present-day global politics that the United States -- a country that upholds workers' rights, free trade unions, and fair labor practices -- has ratified only seven out of the approximately 160 conventions promulgated by the International Labor Organization (ILO). Six out of these seven pertain to maritime matters, while the other one is a purely technical convention. On the other hand, the Soviet Union -- a country that totally disregards workers' rights, suppresses free trade unions, and arrests their leaders for ``anti-Soviet behavior'' -- has ratified 43 ILO conventions. In essence, we abide by the spirit of conventions although we have not ratified them, while the Soviets have ratified a number of them, but they do not live up to them.

Although it is not generally front-page news in the United States, the ILO is an extremely important international body. The purpose of the ILO, which was established in 1919, is to raise labor standards and promote workers' rights throughout the world by adopting, ratifying, and monitoring compliance with international labor standards, or conventions. ILO conventions -- which carry the force of international treaties -- cover such issues as freedom of association and the right to collective bargaining.

Those countries whose labor laws and practices do not conform to ILO standards are subject to criticism, condemnation in a public forum, or both. For instance, the ILO focused worldwide attention on the Polish government's suppression of the free trade union movement by inviting Solidarity leader Lech Walesa to its 1982 conference. This was the first and only time that a representative of an independent labor union from a communist-ruled country has participated in an international conference.

Unique among UN organizations, the ILO is a tripartite body. It is the only international body where labor, employer, and government representatives participate on an equal basis to solve the fundamental socioeconomic problems of our day. As Secretary of Labor William Brock said recently in his testimony before the Senate Committee on Labor and Human Resources which I chair, ``Tripartism is the very heart and soul of the ILO.''

Not surprisingly, the Soviets and their allies have launched a major campaign to subvert the ILO's human rights supervisory machinery, weaken its standard-setting procedures, and dismantle its unique tripartite system. Thwarting this Soviet attack will be a major US international labor objective for some time to come.

Unfortunately, however, our dismal nonratification record undercuts our credibility at the ILO. Of the countries with comparable years of ILO membership, only one (El Salvador) has fewer ratifications than the United States. By contrast, the Western European members of the European Economic Community have ratified an average of 70 conventions; France and Spain have ratified more than one hundred. The United States has not even seriously considered ratifying any ILO conventions for more than 30 years. Th is puts us on shaky moral ground when we question the alleged violations of other countries because, technically speaking, we are not subject to the ILO's machinery to the same extent as other nations. Even some of our allies have charged that our defense of the ILO machinery is ``hypocritical.'' As a practical matter, we are disbarred by the ILO constitution from bringing complaints against those who violate their obligations. AFL-CIO president Lane Kirkland summed up the situation when he said, ``Our fail ure to ratify such conventions as those on tripartism, freedom of association, collective bargaining, forced labor, and slavery (which we helped to draft!) has weakened our position, not only in the ILO, but throughout the world.''

There is also an inconsistency between our failure to consider ratification of ILO conventions and the growing tendency in Congress to refer to internationally recognized worker rights standards regarding freedom of association and forced labor in US trade and aid legislation.

The traditional argument against the US ratifying additional ILO conventions is that they conflict with US labor law and would disrupt our federal legal system. According to one study conducted by Paul Potter of the law firm of McGuiness & Williams, the scope of Conventions 87 and 98 -- the two ``cornerstone'' conventions on the right to organize and bargain collectively -- is substantially broader than US labor law.

I agree with Secretary of State George Shultz that it is time to reopen the ledger on possible ratification of ILO conventions, considering each convention on its individual merits without making a priori judgments that only maritime conventions are suitable for the US to ratify. This is not to say that after 30 years of inactivity on the ILO conventions we should suddenly ratify all 160 en bloc without carefully considering the ramifications. I have asked Mr. Shultz and Mr. Brock to divide the conventions into three categories: those that pose no potential conflicts with US labor law and can therefore be ratified posthaste, those that need to be investigated further to determine their impact, and those that pose substantial difficulties. This constructive approach should enable the Tripartite Advisory Panel on International Labor standards -- a subgroup of the President's Committee on the ILO -- to focus on this important question.

As a member of the ILO, we have a moral obligation to make a good-faith effort to review more systematically and vigorously those conventions that we can ratify without contravening US labor law. This is critical in order for the US to strengthen its hand at the ILO and bolster Western defenses against the Soviet-bloc attack on the ILO's machinery and tripartite system. It is difficult to chastise the Soviets for breaking the spirit of the conventions when we do not subscribe to the letter of the conven tions.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch is a Republican from Utah.

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