108th Session of the International Labour Conference

Opening Address of Ms Catelene Passchier Chairperson of the Workers’ Group

Statement | 10 June 2019
President and Vice Presidents of the Conference,
Secretary General, Excellencies, Delegates, Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is an honour to address this assembly today, on behalf of the working women and men of the world, on the occasion of this historical Centenary Conference.

Let me start by congratulating the President and the three Vice-Presidents on their election.

One hundred years ago, at the end of the first devastating world conflict, the ILO was created, recognizing that universal and lasting peace can only be established if it is based upon social justice. A unique tripartite governance structure was established. And the setting and supervision of international labour standards was recognized at the core of the ILO mandate, to prevent a race to the bottom at the expense of workers’ rights, to create upward convergence and ensure a level playing field for business.

In 1944, the Conference, emerging from a second world war, adopted the Philadelphia Declaration. Fundamental principles of the Organization were reaffirmed:
  • Labour is not a commodity
  • Freedom of expression and association are essential to sustained progress
  • Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere

These fundamentals are just as relevant today.

Yes, we have seen social and economic progress, but major decent work deficits remain.
Unfettered globalization in the digital era is increasing inequality, insecurity and violation of workers’ rights.

Growing numbers of working people see the stability of their jobs, incomes and pensions in danger but at the same time soaring profits for big business.

Many regions in the world are torn apart by conflict, leading to involuntary migratory flows.

In many places, democratic space is shrinking.

The sense of insecurity caused by all this, coupled with sentiments of unfairness and lack of a positive perspective for the future, is a recipe for major unrest and recourse to nationalism, protectionism, racism and xenophobia.

Demands for closing borders and building walls are a misguided and destructive reaction, failing to address the desperation of so many who see no option but to seek haven and a decent life elsewhere.

The best recipe, as the ILO has shown over its 100 years existence, is social justice that provides protection to all and a fair sharing of the planet’s opportunities and resources.

However, these resources are currently in existential danger, with climate change causing poverty and instability, and threatening the survival of the planet. We know that there are no jobs on a dead planet. But there is too little recognition of the urgent need to take action NOW. We must heed the young people who are taking to the streets to save THEIR planet and future….. We therefore need a fundamental change of direction, challenging a business model that puts profit above people and planet.

The challenges facing the world of work are huge, and inaction is simply not an option. As the Global Commission on the Future of Work put it (and I quote): “Without decisive action we will be sleepwalking into a world that widens inequality, increases uncertainty and reinforces exclusion, with destructive political, social and economic repercussions.” 

Therefore, our Group expects the ILO constituents at this Conference to commit to a bold and ambitious Centenary Declaration with clear follow up action.

The mandate of this Organisation, set in 1919 and 1944 and re-affirmed in 2008 by the Social Justice Declaration, is still fully up to date. Social justice, decent work, and the protection of workers and their families against old and new risks in the world of work, as part of a fair model of globalisation. The fundamental rights guaranteed by the ILO are universal and must be applied universally. That is central to renewing the social contract.
Technology brings huge promises and opportunities. Yet, we must learn from the past and the initial sufferings caused by the industrial revolution. It took more than a century, with a key role for the ILO’s policies and regulations, to lay the basis for decent work, which is still not a reality everywhere in the world. Technological change does not automatically produce wellbeing and fair outcomes for all workers. Regulation is necessary to manage and master it, in order to reap its benefits.

We must ensure that the ILO’s notion of a ‘worker’ remains inclusive, covering old and new forms of work with adequate protection. And this must include the right to organise, so fundamental to this House, also for self-employed workers and workers in the informal economy, to ensure that they can collectively stand up for the improvement of their living and working conditions.

In order to create the Future of Work WE want, we need a human-in-command approach with a strong guiding and regulating role of the ILO.
We strongly support the Global Commission’s call for a fundamental - human centred - change of direction, in economic and social policies, and its call for reinvigorating the social contract. This means reaffirming tripartism, social dialogue and collective bargaining as key drivers for negotiating the terms of social and environmental just transition.

We must also deal with the ‘unfinished business’ of the Philadelphia Declaration, to ensure the leadership role for decent work and social justice of the ILO in the multilateral system.

Let me now touch on the other important items on the Conference agenda.

The Committee on the Application of Standards has an essential constitutional task which makes the ILO so unique in the UN system.
In too many countries, the realization of decent work and social justice remains jeopardized by violations of labour rights, particularly the rights to Freedom of Association and Collective Bargaining.

The debates in this Committee are therefore crucial. Ratification must imply the commitment by member states to give effect to Conventions they have voluntarily ratified, and to their obligations under the ILO Constitution.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the ILO Conference of 1919, out of around 500 registered participants, 22 were women…. 

If the world of work has seen one enormous change, it has been the massive entry of women into our labour markets and in active and leadership roles in our societies. However, we have not been able yet to deal with all its challenges. One is on the agenda of this year’s Conference: Violence and harassment in the world of work.

Hundreds of millions of women yearly across the world are known to have experienced some form of violence and harassment. Whilst women are overwhelmingly and disproportionately affected, men are not immune. And discrimination against certain groups exacerbates its incidence and impact.

Our Group is pleased to note that there is by now broad tripartite support for the adoption of a Convention supplemented by a Recommendation.
Members of that Committee have a unique opportunity to show the relevance of the ILO standard-setting function, one hundred years after the creation of the ILO, which will contribute to safer and more productive workplaces for women and men.

Let me also thank the Director General for his report on the situation of workers in the occupied Arab territories. The occupation, now already 50 years on, continues to make the living and working conditions of Palestinians ex-tremely difficult, without real perspective for improvement.


Renewed and sincere efforts to achieve a just peace are required, to end the oc-cupation and deliver peace and prosperity for all. In the meantime, we fully support any action the ILO and its tripartite constituents can take to sup-port the various stakeholders in addressing the most serious social and la-bour challenges.

To conclude:

In this centenary conference, the debate is on the future of work WE want.

This is about us becoming the drivers for a change that should be human-driven, gender-balanced and planet oriented.

This is about recognizing work as bringing value, dignity and influence to those selling their labour, and bringing social justice and stability to their economies and societies.

The ILO must seize this opportunity and show the key role it can play, also into the next century, in the necessary global governance structures to accompany this change. It can only play this role, when its tripartite constituents allow it to do so.

This requires forward looking businesses, looking beyond short term interests to the importance of long term sustainability. And it requires governments to be courageous, going beyond national and regional perspectives, to support a strong role for the ILO in tackling the challenges.

A world in turmoil requires leadership. This is what the ILO can and must offer, as it did in 1919, with social justice as its guiding principle and primary goal, to ensure lasting peace and stability.

The world of work outside is watching us with high expectations.

We better deliver!

I wish you and us all a fruitful Centenary Conference, and I thank you for your attention.