Report on the International Commission for Labour Rights (ICLR) meeting, held October 16th, 2002 in Pasadena, California

October 16, 2002 


Cynthia Watson and I attended the meeting organized by the International Commission on Labour Rights in Pasadena, California on October 16, 2002. 

The agenda of the meeting is attached to this memo. I agreed to briefly report my summary of the highlights of the session as well as a few observations about the organization.


The session began with an introduction to the idea behind the International Commission on Labour Rights (“ICLR”). The ICLR was created by individuals active with the International Centre for Trade Union Rights and the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, both based in London. 

The aim of the organization is to bring together international labour law experts to do the following work:

  1. To investigate and prepare reports in areas where international labour standards are being systematically violated. These reports would detail particular violations, national labour laws and practices as well as economic and social standards. The ICLR hopes to provide critical assistance by investigating and reporting on international labour issues to governments and NGO's.

  2. The ICLR also intends to provide training for lawyers in international labour rights law. To that end, the ICLR has already begun to put together a training manual for lawyers on international labour rights issues.

  3. Lastly, the organization seeks to provide primary assistance to unions and other groups who may want to pursue international labour claims. This assistance can take the form of fact gathering and the preparation of materials such as witness statements.

The organization held its first full session in Geneva in January 2002. Approximately 30 people attended the 3-day session at which a constitution was adopted and the purpose and plans of the ICLR were developed. Several working groups were established:

a. An internal steering committee
b. A training manual committee
c. A public service group
d. A working group to examine jailed union leader in South Korea
e. A working group on union rights in Indonesia
f. A working group on Colombia

The ICLR is in the process of formally incorporating in New York so that it can begin to raise money in North America.

The founders of the ICLR have met with and received the support of the IMF and ICEM. The ILO is also said to be very supportive of the idea.

Full information on the ICLR can be found on the web site


Following background comments on the ICLR, the remainder of the morning was devoted to brief presentations on the currently existing forums for the pursuit of the international labour rights issues. i. The ILO The session began with a presentation on the ILO mechanisms. In essence, while the ILO provides a useful reference point in that ILO conventions set out all of the key labour rights, the enforcement mechanisms themselves leave much to be desired.

As you know, a complaint or representation can be brought by any worker or employer organization. The ILO determines the receivability of the representation. If the complaint is received, a tri-partite committee is set up to investigate and issue a determination. The findings are not necessarily published. 

After investigation, the ILO may issue its own complaint. However, this is rare. Out of approximately 800 representations received by the ILO since it was created, only 30 complaints have ever been issued by the ILO. 

Ultimately, the ILO has very little ability to enforce its findings. In the 45-year history of the organization, sanctions have only been issued once - against Burma.

Moreover, while a substantial number of countries have ratified many of the ILO’s key conventions, many of those same countries do not comply with the conventions. 

ii. The NAALC

Following the ILO presentation, Arturo Alcalde and myself gave a presentation on the North America Agreement on Labour Cooperation (the NAALC). I gave a short summary of the content of the NAALC, the complaint mechanisms and an overview of the complaints filed to date.

Arturo added his own comments from the Mexican perspective. Both of us agreed that the NAALC has proven to be a great disappointment. None of the 24 complaints filed under the NAALC have led to anything other than largely meaningless Ministerial Consultations. While it is true that NAALC complaints have served to highlight some labour issues and bring together tri-national coalitions to work in common cause, the actual benefits of the agreement in terms of progress on labour issues have proven to be negligible.

iii. Alien Tort Claims Act

Following the discussion on the NAALC, Dan Kovalik from the Steelworkers’ Pittsburgh legal department spoke on U.S. Alien Tort Claims Actions against Coca-Cola and Drummond Mining. Beginning in the mid 90’s, U.S. public interest groups began suing multinational corporations for actions taken outside the borders of the U.S. These actions were filed pursuant to a little known American statute which dates from the late eighteenth century, the Alien Tort Claims Act. An American Appellate Court has recently upheld a cause of action under this Act against an American corporation for foreign human rights violations.

The Steelworkers, in collaboration with the International Labour Rights Fund, has launched two suits under the Act. Both arise out of incidents that have taken place in Colombia. 

The first suit is against Drummond, a U.S. coal mining company. The suit involves the murder of the local union president of the Colombian mining union and the torture of the vice president by Colombian paramilitaries during collective bargaining. A subsequent local union president has also been murdered by paramilitaries.

The Coca-Cola suit involves the murder of union activists in the plant itself. Other union activists have been threatened and told that if they do not abandon the union, they will suffer the same fate.

These suits have been filed in Miami and Alabama. Both suits are serving to highlight the life and death issues faced by Colombian trade unionists.

iv. Generalized Systems Of Preferences

Finally, Jeff Vogt from the International Labour Rights Fund in Washington spoke about another strategy that has had some limited success in the United States. The U.S. typically negotiates so-called Generalized Systems of Preferences with other countries. These are preferential tariff agreements negotiated with trading partners. In certain circumstances, the U.S. has insisted that basic labour rights be one of the requirements for such trade agreements.

Not surprisingly, however, such agreements have been used more as foreign policy instruments than labour rights instruments. Hence, regardless of the labour rights abuses of some countries, the U.S. will not suspend trade with a significant trading partner (for example in Indonesia). However, the U.S. will insist on labour rights agreements with very small trading partners (such Byelorussia), if it has no impact on the U.S.


During the afternoon, we heard about the labour situation in two specific countries, India and Colombia.

Colombia is, obviously of particular significance. We heard from Reynaldo Villalba, a Colombian human right activist. The plight of unionists in Colombia has been well documented. Nevertheless, the numbers are staggering. Colombia has a total workforce of approximately 19 million. Seven percent of that workforce is unionized. From 1991 to 2001, 1741 trade unionists have been murdered by paramilitary death squads. Despite international attention, the situation is not getting any better. In the last three years, the number of murdered trade unionists is as follows:

Year 2000- 112 trade unionists murdered
Year 2001-192 trade unionists murdered
Year 2002-114 trade unionists murdered (up to mid October)

Ninety percent of the trade unionists murdered in the world are murdered in Colombia. Virtually none of these murders are prosecuted.

This situation is, obviously, tied to a repressive regime in Colombia which has been committed to a right wing economic agenda spurred on by the IMF and the World Bank. This agenda has led to privatization, massive inflation and enormous unemployment.

Villalba had a large number of suggestions as to how to tackle the situation confronting unionists in Columbia. Included in his suggestions were trade sanctions, pressure on MNCs who operate in Colombia, international prosecution of the criminals responsible for the violence and, finally, excluding Colombia from FTAA discussions until the crisis is addressed. Mostly, however, Villalba felt it was essential that organizations work to bring attention to the situation in Colombia and that international pressure on the Colombian Government be maintained. It is interesting to note that the ILO has been asked to send a formal commission of inquiry but the ILO refused.


The last several hours of the session were spent discussing ideas regarding the growth and future direction of the ICLR. Out of those discussions, the group reached the following conclusions:

1. Funding: after having incorporated in New York State, the organization will seek funding from various foundations in North America

2. Colombia: the ICLR agreed to send an initial small group to Colombia to meet with Colombian trade unionists in order to begin to map out a strategy and establish the most productive use for the resources and expertise of the ICLR

3. Work continues on the training manual. The ultimate goal would be to train about 100 experts who could perform and fulfil the mandate of the ICLR.

The other work of the ICLR will continue.


I think, in general, the ICLR could become a useful organization. Given the general dissatisfaction with virtually all of the current instruments available for the enforcement of international labour rights, I think it is logical and potentially productive for experts to try and form an organization which will highlight and address the issues that are not being addressed by other existing organizations.

It is unclear whether the ICLR will ever have sufficient resources to fulfil its ambitious mandate. Moreover, the key to the eventual success of the ICLR will be whether it can actually fulfill a role which is not presently being served by other organizations. For example, there is no shortage of organizations that are currently writing about the situation in Columbia.

However, if the ICLR can provide resources, training, information and useful reports which highlight labour rights issues, it may ultimately serve a useful purpose. 

We had some discussion about conducting a training session immediately prior to the next CALL conference in Ottawa. However, in my view, a full-fledged training session is unlikely to happen next spring at the CALL conference. First, the training materials may not be ready. Second, it’s not clear to me that the organization is at the stage where it could conduct such a session.

However, I think it does make sense to invite someone from the ICLR to speak to CALL on the international affairs panel about the organization. I would also recommend that we invite someone to speak on the Panel about the situation in Colombia.

Cynthia and I will, of course, maintain contact with the organization and I will let you know if I think there are future opportunities for collaboration between the ICLR and ourselves.

Regards to all,

Mark Rowlinson