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7.27 pm

The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Work and Pensions (Malcolm Wicks): I congratulate my hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore (Huw Irranca-Davies) on securing this most important debate and bringing its international theme to the House's attention. I congratulate him also, and most sincerely, on his very well researched speech. It was laced with much compassion and eloquence, and I look forward to hearing other contributions from my new and hon. Friend in the months and years to come.

I was struck by the way in which my hon. Friend reminded us of our history, as no Member of this House must ever take for granted the rights that we enjoy in a democratic society. He also spoke passionately, as a true internationalist. He reminded us that our ethics, democratic values and rights do not end at the white cliffs of Dover, but that we need to spread them across the earth.

The Government strongly condemn international violation of the rights of trade unions, their members, and their members' families. We fully support the work of the International Labour Organisation, which is the UN specialist agency with specific responsibility for protecting and promoting workers' rights worldwide.

The ILO was founded in 1919, at an important point in our history. It is no coincidence that that happened at the end of the first world war, and the ILO's goal was to promote peace through social justice, and to recognise internationally human rights and labour rights. Its tripartite structure, which enables workers' and employers' organisations to participate equally with Governments, is unique in the UN system.

In 1948—shortly after another world war, and again I think that that is no coincidence—a convention on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise was launched. The UK was the first country to ratify the convention, and we are proud of that. The right to organise is fundamental to democracy, yet my hon. Friend reminded us that even in the 21st century trade union rights are being violated around the world. As my hon. Friend noted, the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions 2001 survey reported a rise in the number of murdered or so-called disappeared trade unionists, and 223 is my statistic for that year.

Some 140 countries have now ratified the ILO convention on freedom of association and protection of the right to organise. In 1998, more than 50 years after adopting that convention, all 175 member states of the ILO signed up to a declaration of rights and fundamental principles at work. All those member states agreed to respect, promote and realise the ILO core labour standards, regardless of their level of economic development and—crucially—whether or not they had ratified the relevant ILO conventions.

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The ILO's core labour standards cover freedom of association, promotion of collective bargaining, abolition of forced and child labour and the elimination of discrimination in employment. The United Kingdom played a leading role in securing the 1998 declaration, and we continue to support the follow-up process to the declaration.

The Government provide substantial financial support to the ILO. Equally importantly, we also work closely with the organisation to ensure that the international framework to combat abuses of workers' rights throughout the world is in place and effective. The recent annual survey of the International Confederation of Free Trade Unions shows that there can be no grounds for complacency on trade union rights' violations. Indeed, some of it makes disturbing reading.

The UK has continually supported the ILO's work in defending trade union rights. We have ratified all the ILO core conventions, including those relating to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and we encourage other countries to do so. When looking at international labour rights, however, we clearly need to keep in mind the complexity of the issues involved and not underestimate the concerted effort that is needed by the whole international community to bring about change. Such change will not happen overnight. Against that background, the ILO declaration that I referred to earlier, which was adopted only four years ago, and its follow-up system of global reports are already making an extremely valuable contribution to effecting change.

The very first global report was published in 2000 and covered freedom of association and collective bargaining. The report underscored the crucial role of those rights in today's globalising world, highlighted the fact that violations still occur and set out priorities for technical co-operation aimed at reinforcing those rights. As might be expected, many of those countries criticised by the report were also highlighted by the ILO global report.

As a result of that report, an action plan to promote rights to freedom of association and collective bargaining has been agreed and is being implemented. Quite apart from the many activities that the ILO is undertaking in this area—meetings, publications, advisory services and ongoing projects—more than 20 ILO co-operative programmes have been launched. These involve many of the countries highlighted in the survey.

The ILO, more than any other body, has kept up pressure on the Burmese Government to stop their horrendous and inhumane practices of forced labour and suppression of the trade union movement. The UK has been at the forefront of the international community's efforts to bring about national reconciliation, respect for human rights and democracy in Burma. It is only through the return of the rule of law and democracy in Burma that substantive progress will be made.

In the ILO, we have worked together with the Trades Union Congress, the Confederation of British Industry and European partners in our efforts to compel Burma to comply with its obligations to end forced labour. The European Union common position on Burma is designed to bring pressure to bear for positive change. It contains an arms embargo, a visa ban, an assets freeze, a ban on high-level visits, a ban on the sale of items that could be used for torture and a ban on non-humanitarian aid. The European Commission suspended Burma's generalised

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system of preferences trading privileges in 1997 in response to concerns over forced labour. In addition, we do not encourage trade, investment or tourism with Burma. All these measures remain in place.

The release from house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi on 6 May is, of course, a positive step forward. I know that all of us in this House have the highest regard for this remarkable woman who, in the most difficult circumstances, including family circumstances, has kept alight the flame of freedom in Burma. However, her release is only one of the many steps that will be required. We have called on the Burmese authorities to move ahead at an ever-faster speed to bring about substantive change in Burma.

Similarly, we remain extremely concerned about the degree of violence against all human rights defenders, including trade unionists, in Colombia. We have raised the issue with the Colombian Government and noted the concerns expressed, most recently by the TUC on a visit to Colombia in February, on the situation of trade union members in that country. We continue, bilaterally and in partnership with EU countries, to urge the Colombian Government to take effective measures to protect the lives of all human rights defenders. The Government contributed generously to the UN human rights office in Bogota, giving more than £250,000 during the past year.

Both the Burma and Colombia cases were discussed at this year's international labour conference by the ILO's committee on the application of standards—as were many other cases of trade union repression highlighted in the report to which I referred.

Rob Marris (Wolverhampton, South-West): I am sure that my hon. Friend will have noted that only Labour Members are present for this debate—a telling point. He has referred to the pressure rightly brought to bear by the EU in respect of trade union and human rights throughout the world. Turkey is an applicant member of the EU and the United Kingdom Government has a veto on such applications, so can the Minister assure the House that Turkey's record on trade union and human rights will be borne in mind by the Government when they make their assessment of Turkey's application for admission to the European Union?

Malcolm Wicks: Although I cannot discuss tonight individual applications from would-be members of the EU, I remind the House that the strength of the EU is that it is a collective of democratic states which take seriously the rights of all their citizens, including trade unionists.

It is important to realise that the ILO's approach is not sanction-based in the main, although I have mentioned Burma in that regard; it is based on awareness raising, promotion, peer pressure, consensus and technical co-operation. Such an approach is both transparent and highly effective. We should not forget that one of the first acts of the Labour Government was to honour the pledge to restore trade union rights at Government communications headquarters, Cheltenham—a more recent episode in our history. That was in conformity with our ILO obligations, following ILO criticism of previous UK Government policy.

We must realise that the ILO core labour standards are inter-related. Strong trade unions can help to combat discrimination in employment and end forced labour.

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We actively support the ILO in its work to promote other core labour standards, such as the elimination of child labour which is a great stain on the world economy. We support the efforts of developing countries to strengthen their democratic institutions—for example, through the electoral process, parliaments and civil society—so that all people have effective representation and participation.

My hon. Friend the Member for Ogmore mentioned globalisation and its implications. Although there is not enough time to discuss those important issues, I certainly acknowledge them. Most of us would agree that the answer is not to call for protectionism or the tearing down of international institutions—indeed, my hon. Friend wants them to be strengthened and the Government share that view. It is not a question of being for or against globalisation, as he knows.

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Perhaps the wisest words on this issue have come most recently from Kofi Annan, who said that our challenge is

We need to think through the implications of that.

In summing up, I congratulate my hon. Friend again on raising a most important issue. It is difficult to think of an issue that has a more important impact on human beings in peril. I want to assure the House that the Government will continue to work actively and constructively with our partners in all international forums to promote the implementation of all ILO core labour standards and to bring an end to the violations and abuses of the rights of our fellow human beings.

Question put and agreed to.

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