President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the official launch of the Global Commission on the Future of Work at the ILO in Geneva, Switzerland in January 2019. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE / GCIS
President Cyril Ramaphosa addresses the official launch of the Global Commission on the Future of Work at the ILO in Geneva, Switzerland in January 2019. Picture: ELMOND JIYANE / GCIS

The International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN agency that sets global labour standards, has become the latest institution to cancel a conference due to Covid-19.

With ILO, this will be the first time it cancelled a conference in its 101 years of existence. 

The decision was taken on Friday as the number of people infected by the coronavirus globally surged to over 1.1-million and resulted in about 64,000 deaths worldwide.

On Friday, in an e-mail to ILO governing body members, the secretariat stated that 87 members had voted in favour of a recommendation to defer the 109th session of the ILO conference until June 2021. The conference was scheduled to take place in Geneva, Switzerland, from May 25 to June 5.

On Sunday, Mthunzi Mdwaba, International Organisation of Employers (IOE) vice-president to the ILO, told Business Day that the decision to cancel the ILC was taken by “the director-general Guy Ryder, in consultation with Catelene Passchier, the worker leader and vice-chair of the governing body; myself (Mdwaba) as employer leader and vice-chair of the governing body, and current governing body chair Refiloe Litjobo, the ambassador of Lesotho to Geneva”.

The decision was then sent to the governing body members “to endorse via vote”.

He said to cancel the ILC four weeks ago would have cost 273,000 Swiss Francs (R5.3m), cancelling the ILC after consultations cost 475,000 Swiss Francs, while cancelling within 30 days of the ILC would have cost 3,900,000 Swiss Francs in cancellation fees.

Mdwaba said it was clear that they would have to cancel eventually.

Employment & labour minister Thulas Nxesi commended the ILO for taking a “very responsible stance” in cancelling the conference, which brings together about 6,000 delegates from various countries around the globe.

“It would thus have been impossible to control the social distancing situation but also with the travel bans, [it would have been impossible] to even travel there,” said Nxesi. 

He said the ILO is using the time to advise member states on measures to migitate Covid-19’s impact to support workers in the public and private sectors and the informal economy.

Cosatu general secretary Bheki Ntshalintshali said: “In the circumstances we are in, there is no alternative but to support [the call] that all meetings that have the potential of spreading Covid-19 should be avoided.”

Ntshalintshali, who sits in the ILO’s subcommittees, said the conference is one of the forums where “thousands of people attend” and “we support the cancellation or postponement”.

National Council of Trade Unions (Nactu) president Pat Mphela said: “I agree with the recommendation to cancel based on the fact that the world is still dealing with the pandemic. Even if we were to find a cure today we would still have to adjust to the after effects and impact thereof.”

Federation of Unions of SA (Fedusa) acting general secretary Riefdah Ajam said the recommendation to postpone the ILC “remains a difficult, but necessary and responsible pronouncement” that they supported.

“This decision will certainly ensure the containment and spread prevention of the virus, considering the European epicentres that are within close proximity to Switzerland,” said Ajam.

“With a global convergence of business, labour and government leaders, an alternate recommendation may well be a catastrophe in waiting.”

In June 2019, the department of employment & labour & employment spent R3.2m to send a 62-member delegation to the ILO conference in Geneva.

The delegation, led by President Cyril Ramaphosa, was considered the largest delegation from any country and included officials from the department and other stakeholders, such as trade unions and the business fraternity.

Ramaphosa was appointed in 2018 as the co-chair of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work alongside Swedish Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.

mkentanel@businesslive.co.za