A View of Labor Ministries in Other Nations

Article excerpt

Differing political and economic climates have shaped a variety of agencies to deal with labor issues in industrial, developing, and Communist countries The U.S. Department of Labor, now marking its 75th anniversary, has counterparts in more than 150 countries. But the scope and nature of these labor ministries differ substantially from those of the U.S. agency that was established in 1913. This article looks at labor agencies in various economic and political settings and compares them with the U.S. Labor Department.

What labor ministries do

As used here, the term "labor ministry" refers to the agencies of government (only infrequently called "departments") which deal with the bundle of functions related most directly to the interests of workers as producers.

In most industrial countries, as in the United States, one of the earliest manifestations of government involvement has been in the area of labor statistics, both because governments see the need to monitor events that are the basis for determining policies and because reformers who act on behalf of the disadvantaged demand factfinding from government.

Another labor issue of prime interest to government is employment, including job planning, estimating labor supply and demand, alleviating unemployment and underemployment, assisting employers and workers to adapt to fluctuations in job requirements through appropriate apprenticeship, training, migration, and relocation policies, and helping disadvantaged groups such as minorities and the physically handicapped.

Governments also are drawn into the labor standards area, where they formulate and enforce conditions of pay and working hours, regulate child labor, and enforce standards in such areas as occupational safety and health and workers' compensation, It is in this area that the responsibility most frequently requires inspection and investigation.

Although the extent of social insurance programs varies greatly, most governments either enact laws or at least oversee practices governing old age insurance, unemployment benefits, preventive medicine, and health insurance.

Finally, industrial relations must come to the attention of governments, at least to the extent of ensuring the degree of industrial peace needed for the smooth operation of the economy. Depending on general political and economic conditions, and on the power of labor and employer groups, governments may reach beyond mediation and conciliation functions. Except for Great Britain and the United States, most countries also regulate the actual outcome of collective bargaining. The scope of legislation in recent years frequently included encouraging and assisting labor-management cooperation programs.'

To carry out these functions, most governments go beyond their immediate staffs and consult advisory groups and experts from industry and academia, as well as other technical specialists. And, when controversial questions arise, governments frequently call on tripartite agencies to make the decisions. The decisions are carefully monitored by interest groups, which-when dissatisfied-sometimes seek to return to governments the decisionmaking authority granted to the tripartite agencies.

Political and economic environment

Labor ministries are instruments of government, and are created in response to pressures on governments. In the United States, a history of effort by social reformers and trade unionists led to the establishment, first of the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and then the Department o Labor. From its very beginning, the Labor Department's functions, although quite limited, were protective o working people.

Political, economic, and social conditions differed sharply in other countries which had more limits on voting rights, greater poverty, a more rigid class structure, and lacked an open frontier. The trade unions and their associated labor and Socialist parties were relatively more powerful in Europe and often battled for total political power, rather than simply the creation of a "ministry. …