Andrew Bibby



Andrew Bibby is a professional writer and journalist, working as an independent consultant for a number of international and national organisations, and as a regular contributor to British national newspapers and magazines. He is also the author of a number of books.

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ILO holds Posts and Telecoms sectoral conference

This article by Andrew Bibby, in a slightly different form, was first published in World of Work, 2002

A time of massive change — that’s been the story in both the telecoms and postal sectors in recent years. Few other industries have witnessed quite the same processes of technological change, deregulation and market liberalisation which have seen what were previously public services transformed in many countries into competing private or quasi-private companies.

These transformations have had a significant effect on overall employment levels, on working conditions, and on labour relations. But have the changes overall been for the better or for the worse? How in a time of change can the ILO’s call for decent work best be carried forward in these sectors?

This was the background to the debates in Geneva in May (2002) as delegates from governments, employers’ and workers’ representatives from about forty countries met at the ILO’s head office for a week-long tripartite meeting focusing on post and telecoms. The event, held as part of the ILO’s sectoral activities programme, was the first for four years to look specifically at these industries. The meeting considered in particular the implications for employment, for employability and for equal opportunities of the changes taking place in the sectors.

The picture is, as the participants acknowledged in the conclusions to the meeting which they jointly agreed at the end of the week, a complex one. There have been both profound negative and positive effects on employment in these sectors, with employment creation in some areas accompanied by job losses elsewhere. Telecoms, in particular, has encountered in the four years since the last ILO sectoral meeting both a time of boom and, more recently, of sharp recession, as enthusiasm for third-generation mobile telephony and e-commerce has waned. In this climate, attempts to create meaningful new quality jobs can be a challenge. The delegates, however, agreed that the best way of managing the process of change is likely to be through appropriate strategic planning and effective social dialogue.

The background paper to the meeting, prepared by the ILO’s Sectoral Activities Programme, offers detailed research evidence to reinforce the view that, in terms of employment opportunities, the current situation is a mixed one. In the telecoms sector, privatisation and liberalisation have generally resulted in job losses for the previously public telecoms giants, but recent years have seen new jobs created elsewhere. The end result is confused: countries such as Austria, Finland, the United Kingdom, China, Malawi and UAE are all reported as having seen significant increases in full-time telecoms services staff in the five years from 1995-99. By contrast, the net balance is firmly negative elsewhere, in such countries as Italy, Spain, the Philippines, South Africa and Tanzania. Jobs particularly at risk are those in areas such as construction, installation, repair, and maintenance of switching equipment.

It is a similar picture for the postal sector. Some countries have reported considerable net job losses in recent years; this has been the story, for example, in Kenya , Argentina, Uruguay, Cambodia and the Russian Federation. Conversely, other countries (such as Switzerland, Egypt, Cameroon and Chile) have seen net job growth.

However, the very rapid pace of development makes it difficult to find very accurate employment statistics. Frustratingly, as the delegates put it in their conclusions, ‘it is difficult to assess whether the creation of employment opportunities in new postal and telecommunications services has compensated for job losses’.

Easy generalisations, therefore, should be avoided. Nevertheless, as the delegates also pointed out, employment statistics hide the experiences of real people and their families. The loss of a job can be devastating for the individuals concerned, particularly if they find that their existing skills are rapidly becoming obsolete. There was agreement, therefore, that governments, employers and workers share a responsibility in ensuring that the workforce is equipped with significant future-orientated skills.

Lifelong learning, it was argued, offers benefits for all. Not only is it the key to improving job opportunities and job satisfaction, it also can help avoid skills shortages and improve the quality of service which companies are able to offer their customers. Governments and employers should commit themselves to ensuring adequate funding, but workers also needed to take responsibility for their own skills development, the delegates resolved.

In this respect, the ILO’s background report to the meeting identified several examples of good practice from around the world. The Swedish postal operator Posten AB, for example, has developed a programme called Futurum, offering job search advice and assistance to staff whose jobs are being phased out, Deutsche Post has developed a computer-assisted training programme, whilst Spain’s Correos y Telégrafos has launched a programme on quality awareness, specifically tailored at temporary staff.

In the telecoms sector, fifteen major European telecoms companies have collaborated with trade union representatives from Union Network International in the joint Lisbon statement, which identifies among other priorities the need for ICT training for all employees, for proper certification of ICT training, and for the use of the internet for training purposes. The ILO report also highlights innovative social partnership between telecoms companies and trade unions in the United States to develop employability initiatives. One of the most influential has been the Alliance for Employee Growth and Development, a partnership between AT&T, Lucent Technologies and the Communications Workers of America. Also in the US, the National Coalition for Telecommunications Education and Learning (on which several companies and two unions are represented) has developed an innovative degree programme, taught primarily over the internet. Other examples of good practice identified by the ILO report include the sectoral education and training authorities (SETAs), established by the South African government, with the support of the social partners.

Education and training — in particular ‘second-chance’ education — can also be of special importance in terms of working for equal opportunities in the post and telecoms sectors. The delegates at the May meeting called for new steps to be taken to open up career development opportunities for women and disadvantaged groups, arguing that flexible working arrangements may help provide access for people trying to enter or re-enter the workforce. As the meeting’s conclusions put it, "The achievement of equal opportunities is a goal for which we should strive constantly. Progress has been made on equal opportunities in the postal and telecommunications sectors, but there is still a need for greater equality of opportunity in career advancement and equality of treatment in pay and benefit structures".

The ability of government, employers’ and workers’ representative groups to agree a common statement of conclusions at the end of the sectoral meeting offers the hope for healthy social dialogue in these two sectors, despite the sometimes rapid pace of change. Delegates drew attention to the global framework agreements already signed between Telefónica (Spain) and OTE (Greece) and trade union representatives as examples of arrangements which can facilitate social partnership. But they also called on the ILO to study developments in the sectors further, and to promote the ILO Tripartite Declaration of principles concerning multinational enterprises and social policy, and the Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work and its follow-up. More specifically, the ILO was asked to work with the Universal Postal Union, the International Telecommunication Union and the World Bank to arrange regional tripartite seminars for the post and telecoms sectors for Africa, Latin America and the Caribbean.

The report accompanying the sectoral meeting, Employment, employability and equal opportunities in the postal and telecommunications services is available on the ILO website, (English version). French and Spanish versions are also available. The conclusions of the meeting have not been examined by the ILO’s Governing Body and are therefore not yet definitive.

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