Thursday, June 25, 2009

Word of the Month: Tripartite

"It is in times of crisis that the world most needs a strong International Labor Organization."

It was Gibran Khalil Gibran who brilliantly described joy and sorrow as "inseparable" in his flawless work, The Prophet. Khalil writes: "When one [joy or sorrow] sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed." Surely enough, the International Labor Organization's 90th anniversary, a supposed time of joy, is no exception. Sprawled through the main corridor is a magnificent red carpet with dates etched on it in white, starting with 1919, 1920, 1921 all the way up to 2009... an exquisite gift from the Chinese delegation honoring the Organization's 90 years. But as we enter the first meeting of the International Organization for Employers, there are no balloons or cake in sight. Instead, the mood is somber as the following words permeate the hall: "This is the most severe crisis we have experienced yet, since nobody here was in business during the Great Depression of the 1930s." As if the Global Financial Crisis isn't enough of a buzz kill for any celebration, our "daily bulletins" are marked in bold font with a daunting Swine Flu alert: "H1N1 VIRUS: If you experience any flu-like symptoms, such as fever, cough or sore throat, you should excuse yourself from the conference immediately and stay in your home, hotel, or residence."

As I take a swig of my vitamin-enriched water, an employer from Venezuela raises her hand. Her voice is frantic. "I am concerned about free enterprise in my country," she begins. "Property is being CONFISCATED by the government!!! Or nationalized, depending on what word you use," she adds sarcastically. "Venezuela is a dictatorial regime that has concentrated all power in its hands. Housing and personal goods may be next. There is no talk of new elections. And Venezuela has threatened to pull out of the ILO. This may be the last time that we attend this conference. I urge you to look into our matter and put it on the agenda."

My eyes open wide, this is serious stuff. How can she talk so openly without fear of reprisal from the government she represents? It is then and there that I understand the meaning - and value- of the term TRIPARTITE. The International Labor Organization prides itself on being a tripartite United Nations agency, meaning that it brings together representatives of 3 parties from each of its member states: governments, employers, and workers that all have an equal voice in the Organization's proceedings. For a long time, Saudi Arabia was not welcomed into the ILO because the government did not recognize labor unions, thereby violating the tripartite principle. The Venezuelan woman who was speaking out against her government was officially sent here from Venezuela. But she is an employer, representing the private sector. The government has no control over what she says within these walls.

Finally, I start to feel less like a freshman who has entered a graduate seminar without have completed the assigned readings. The system starts becoming clearer and perhaps Dr. Abdullah notices. "You can say whatever you like here," he explains. We represent the employers of Saudi Arabia and the Chambers of Commerce. We are separate from the government delegates."
Hmmmmm...... I think back to my time at the Jeddah Chamber of Commerce. Although the Jeddah Chamber is the official business club for employers and the only real non-government organization in Saudi Arabia- or so I was told on my first day of work- in actuality, it felt like a funny mix of all three parties. Although it catered to the private sector, it continued to annoyingly resist the efficient productive nature of business enterprises. At the businesswomen center, we operated like an NGO but still sugar-coated our arguments with government lingo.

I can't imagine how to begin working uniquely from an employer's perspective. Governments aside, the rift between employers and workers here is larger than I imagined. Given the financial crisis, the workers' unions have been talking about the need for a "new international economic order." On the other side are the employers. Their response to the workers is embodied in the following words "It's 2009, not 1970. This isn't the first crisis we fix. The workers' bench has forgotten that crises are cyclical. This is not the end of the free market or capitalism."

Dr. Abdullah slips me a piece of paper and asks me to choose a Committee to participate in during the next 2 weeks. These are specialized sessions to set labour standards and develop policies dealing with topics that have been singled out as particularly important for this year. HIV/AIDS in the workplace, the Application of Standards, the Financial Crisis, and.... my heart skips a beat...

Gender Equality at the Heart of Decent Work.

The stars are aligned for Dr. Lama and me. This is the FIRST time since 1985 (I was hardly a year old!) that gender is on the agenda! With joy sorrow and with sorrow joy. This is pure joy! The first meeting begins at 11:30AM.

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IT began as a field diary for my summer in Jizan (2006) under the title "Watch Out Bubba Gump." Now I'm not sure what it is... but I do know it's time for me to start writing again.