We’ve dealt with quite a few surprising questions at the ILO Helpdesk for Business since it was launched four years ago for company managers and employees who want to know how best to implement International Labour Standards (ILS) in their work.
But probably the strangest involved a bank, a fish farm, prison labourers and blankets in a tropical climate.
It may sound like the start of a bad joke by a stand-up comic – “A man walks into a bank…” – but this is serious business and for those involved, our answers are critical since they relate to the practical application of the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.
In this particular case, the question was posed by a bank that was lending money for an investment in a fish farm. The idea was that the fish farm would hire prison labour to help them transition to life in the outside world. The problem was that because of prison rules, inmates could only be paid in blankets, not money.
That encroached on the arena of forced labour.
According to ILS, prisoners should not be a cheap source of labour, so our team of experts advised the bank to that effect and the proposal was changed in a way that helped all parties.
Other questions we’ve had to deal with have involved health and safety, bonded labour, the rights of home-workers and many more. The answers aren’t always simple – in fact they are becoming more complex and often bring together conflicting interests.
For instance, we had a case of a company that found out that children were working in the operations of a supplier. The children were taken out, with the aim of placing them in educational or vocational training – only to discover that there were no schooling or vocational opportunities nearby. So what are the best interests of children in such a situation? How do you get the right balance between combating child labour and promoting youth employment?
In other cases, the questions are politically sensitive: Before the political changes in Myanmar, we would sometimes be asked if it were acceptable to source from there.
But our work on the helpdesk is not just a one-way street. We learn a lot from our helpdesk clients.
The questions companies pose help us, in the ILO secretariat, understand better the challenges facing many enterprises when trying to adhere to International Labour Standards.
These standards are directed at governments, not companies, so the implications on enterprises of particular ILS provisions are often not obvious.
We see from many of the questions, that companies often struggle with how to contribute to social development without assuming the role of government – which it cannot and should not attempt to replace.
We hear from company managers who are under pressure to square the circle, to do the right thing while not affecting profits. Sometimes they already know the answer to the questions they pose but they just need an independent and respected body to help them make the case to their senior management or board of directors.
The helpdesk gives us a sense of what’s going on out there. It’s a small window into their challenges – insights which we share with colleagues, so that the ILO can improve its effectiveness in engaging with business.