Opening Remarks to the IIRA 4th Asian Regional Congress

by Mr Yasuyuki Nodera, Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific

Statement | Manila | 20 November 2001

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is both a privilege and a pleasure to join you here today, and I thank you for inviting me. I would also like to thank you for the invitation to address themes that are at the heart of the ILO’s work globally, and in Asia. This Fourth Regional Asian Regional Congress has an impressive and thought provoking programme. Discussion strands focus on many of the most pressing issues on the ILO’s agenda in this region and beyond. This congress promises to uphold and further the reputation for excellence that the International Industrial Relations Association has established since its inception in 1966. Your organization’s mission - fostering and promoting the development and the exchange of knowledge in the field of industrial relations – is vital. The existence of the IIRA has made industrial relations a richer sphere.

You have asked me to speak about decency and fairness, and about changes in work and employment relations in today’s globalizing Asia. For the ILO, the quest for decency in the world of work has always been a central aim. When we look back at the social and economic circumstances that prevailed when the ILO was founded in 1919 – we can see that there has been enormous progress. And yet often, today, we feel that we have more to do than ever before. We live in an age in which change is truly a constant. Both challenges and opportunities seem to multiply as fast as we can count. Both are becoming increasingly complex. We face a daunting prospect. The ILO is urging a new way of looking. It urges policy makers to look through the eyes of ordinary people. Because for ordinary people, it is work – decent work – that is the single most meaningful measure of whether the global economy is a success or a failure.

How do we ensure success rather than failure? First, we need to create work, with policies and structures that encourage the growth of enterprises that produce jobs. But that alone is not enough. The work that we create must be decent. If it is not, we have still failed. How do we define what is decent? To begin, decent work upholds the principles enshrined in the ILO’s Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. This Declaration was, of course, the end result of a process begun in 1995 at the World Summit for Social Development and before. It offers a social floor for the global economy. The Declaration obliges all of the ILO’s member States to respect these fundamental principles – the right to freedom of association and collective bargaining, and the elimination of forced labour, child labour and discrimination. Decent work is carried out in conditions of freedom, equity, security and human dignity. Less formally, it means a job that allows people to lead a reasonable life. Decent work provides an income that lets people meet their own and their family’s basic needs. It means people can afford to feed their families; as well as housing, clothing and health care. It means being able to send their children to school, instead of work, and building up some kind of a cushion against hardship and old age. Decent work provides people with a sense of personal security, and that is a fundamental part of a functioning society.

And yet, as our Director General Juan Somavia has pointed out repeatedly, there is a rising sense of insecurity in today’s globalizing world. And there is a staggering deficit of decent work. At the end of 2000 the ILO estimated that open unemployment stood at 160 million. The working poor add another dimension to the picture – as much as one-third of the world labour force of 3 billion people are either unemployed, under-employed, or earn less than they need to keep their families out of poverty. Inequality is rising. Over the past 30 years, the global economy has grown at 2.3 per cent each year, but over that same period, the gap between the richest and the poorest countries has widened by a factor of 10. It is tempting to blame globalization. And yet we know that this is not the real answer. Globalization has in fact brought benefits. Countries that have been able to integrate with the global economy and attract foreign investment have achieved higher growth. In poor countries, studies show that growth and poverty reduction are closely matched, with a one per cent increase in GDP bringing a matching increase in the incomes of the poorest 20 per cent of the population. And yet – we cannot be complacent. Almost half the world’s people live on less than $2 a day; 1.2 billion people have less than $1 a day. Looking forward, recent projections for the numbers of people on $2 a day show that by 2015, these could more than halve in East Asia. And yet the same projections point to a much smaller decline in South Asia, a region with great needs.

The challenge that we face is to make globalization work better, for more people. The ILO is dedicated to meeting this challenge. Doing just that, our Director-General Juan Somavia earlier this month presided over the first ever Global Employment Forum in Geneva. This three-day event brought together leading minds from around the world, among them, heads of state and government, ministers, employers and workers – and two Nobel laureates: United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan; and economist Joseph Stiglitz. Opening the forum, Mr Somavia made a telling point. Globalization and values, he said, were two key concepts that had to be considered together. Globalization was non negotiable, but values were not. Leaders had a responsibility to put forward clear ideas and values. Market economics must wear a human face.

I believe that we must keep that human face at the forefront of our minds as we wrestle with globalization’s inequities. The groups, the organizations and the countries that are succeeding in the global economy have been forging ahead. Those who are not, such as the least developed countries, are falling further and further behind. We don’t want to narrow these gulfs by weighting the feet of the successful. Instead, we need to examine some of the strategies they have used – and find ways to put them to work for others.

The new knowledge economy runs on thought. It runs on inventiveness. It runs on change and on productivity. And perhaps most importantly, it runs on the free exchange of knowledge. We have seen the rise of information and communication technology over the past 20 years. This has helped make globalization possible. And yet it is only part of the whole. The technology is only the bridge that lets information cross. The information itself comes from the players in the working world - from workers and employers. It is not machines that are interactive – but the people who use them. A recent ILO regional meeting focusing on high performance enterprises and their strategies showed one thing very clearly. These thriving undertakings all recognize very clearly that people and their knowledge and skills are their greatest resource. They recognize that knowledge, skills and information must be shared and exchanged – and work hard to make that happen. These are the principles that underpin successful employment relations systems, too. Employment relations are an exchange, in which the currency is human thought. Those involved in the exchange will, of course, often have different aims. And yet – many of those aims will be shared. The overall health of an enterprise, for example, is an objective shared by both employers and workers. Both have valuable contributions to make. Effective dialogue makes sure that those contributions are delivered. Strong social dialogue is one of the most important keys to success in the global economy. It is vital that its importance is recognized, and that its growth is vigorously promoted, every where, and at every level.

The challenges that we face are enormous, and enormously complex. But progress is both possible and imperative. The ILO has always maintained that peace and social justice are intertwined. We are convinced that decent work is the only way in which we will achieve social justice for all. In Asia, and globally, we are doing that with national decent work plans, drawn up through dialogue with our constituents, and with civil society at large. We are fully engaged in a crucial dialogue – stressing the centrality of decent work. We are striving to achieve this common goal. We will know that we have succeeded when a decent job is a reality, and not a dream, for the men and women of our region.