former Deputy Director-General of the ILO
ACTRAV INFO: Why did you write this book?
It stemmed from a discussion I had with the Director of ACTRAV Maria Helena André, when it became clear that initial preventive measures would soon be followed by an economic and employment crisis. In principle, the nascent problems were the same ones the ILO had been dealing with since its first Conference in 1919 and the first labour standards on unemployment. It was immediately clear that the response to Covid-19 would have to be based on the experience of the 1920s and 1930s recessions and the reconstruction after the Second World War. It seemed important to explain how the ILO’s standards and policies have been used over the past century to cope with both employment and health crises.
ACTRAV INFO: What key lessons can be learned from the ILO’s history to mitigate the effects of employment and social crisis?
Large-scale crisis management methods have been constantly adapted, but their basic drive remains the same. Unemployment insurance is a necessary first aid, but reconstruction requires investments which can produce employment and economic activity. There has always been a debate on the extent to which this can be considered state economic intervention or support for the private sector.
Today’s consensus is that sustainable enterprises are the main agent for providing full, productive and freely chosen employment. However, this also presumes that social dialogue and fundamental standards – including the right to collective bargaining – are respected.
Most employment is in the informal economy, and micro- and small and medium enterprises are essential for providing jobs and incomes. We have to ensure that the work they provide is decent.
Another lesson is that the occupational safety and health measures developed by the ILO in the face of viruses such as HIV/AIDS, SARS and Ebola are applicable to COVID-19, too. This acquired knowledge must be used. We do not have to re-invent the wheel, but we need to continuously improve on it.
When I learned to drive, cars did not have safety belts. Protective equipment and procedures for workers were much less developed. Environmental concerns at and around workplaces were neglected. There were no safety checks at airports. Fifteen years ago you could enter most public buildings like the ILO in Geneva without being controlled. With every crisis we have increased personal and collective safety. Most of this is directly linked to the world of work.
ACTRAV INFO: What are your expectations vis-à-vis the ILO and its constituents to build the post coronavirus world?In a number of countries and industries, the quite appropriate reaction has been to involve employers and trade unions in the design and carrying out of anti-crisis measures. Where this has happened, the joint effort must continue because the healing process will be long. “Front-line workers” have now earned greater appreciation, but this should lead to a permanent re-evaluation of their position in society. In addition to large numbers of women, this particularly concerns migrants, whose inadequate working and living conditions have contributed to the pandemic.
Where authoritarian policy measures have prevailed, more space should be given to both the social partners and the scientific community in managing the consequences of the crisis and the reconstruction process. Local initiatives are also important. Much more attention has to be focused on the ravaging effects of COVID-19 in the developing world. A concentrated effort to improve working and living conditions and counter the growing inequalities in all societies is the only way to diminish the risk of these kinds of health, environmental and economic disasters.