Speech by the ILO Director-General - 'Debate on the future of work is perhaps one of the most important debates of our time'

The ILO Director-General addresses the Conference on the Future of Work organized by the European Economic and Social Committee and the ILO.

News | 15 November 2016
Thank you for being here this morning and for engaging in what is perhaps one of the most important debates of our time, the debate on the future of work.

Georges¹, thank you for your kind words about my re-election last week. Not least because I am conscious that events in other parts of the world may have overshadowed the media coverage that I might have got! And everything that has happened in the world, particularly in recent times should focus our minds on a basic proposition, a proposition which comes from the beginnings of the International Labour Organization.

I detect that in the last ten years there's been a sort of a chain reaction in our societies, as the economic collapse of 2008 has generated social consequences and social dissatisfaction that we’ve been incapable of responding to effectively and that is now feeding into our political lives.

And we see very concretely the consequences of that rather dangerous chain reaction – a time when the institutions of public life, the actors of public life, national, regional and international are all being questioned. We’ve been asked about our legitimacy, we’ve been asked about our capacity to give credible, effective answers to the great problems of our time.

And I hope that it is not a reflex of egocentricity to believe that the future of work is a fundamentally central part to constructing our response to these challenges. Now, we witness two extraordinarily important trends in the world of work at the moment.

The first is the feeling that we are witness to a process and a period of transformative change in the world of work of a speed, a scale and profundity that we have probably not witnessed before. We’re currently thinking and talking in terms of "the internet of things", of "the platform economy", using terms you would probably not have been familiar with ten or five years ago.

So very rapid, profound change; with people having the sentiment that they are not in a position to control that process, that they are spectators, that they are passive recipients of the effects of these changes, and not in a position to shape the direction they are taking.

And linked to that – and this is the second tendency that I detect – is the growing feeling of injustice with the outcomes of processes in the world of work. Yes: we are witnesses to growing inequity, growing inequality, growing injustice and anybody who reads the newspapers, looks at an election result in recent times, will surely understand that these are trends, these are dangers, to which it is urgent for us to formulate responses.

Perhaps I can say that there are few better places than the European Economic and Social Committee to try to formulate those responses. Because of its composition, because of its role, because of its expertise. Now the ILO has decided – on the event of its centenary – to make it the occasion to play its role in picking up the debate and the challenges of the future of work.

The ILO centenary comes up in 2019. The first stage in our centenary initiative on the future of work consists of national dialogues which are now taking place in more than 130 of our Member States across the world. Tripartite dialogues from every region – from countries of every level of development – will inform us of what they consider to be the major challenges of our moment in the world of work.

And then in the course of next year, we will be establishing a high level global commission to digest the outcome of these dialogues, reporting to our centenary conference in 2019 when the option is open for us to adopt a centenary declaration which I would hope would enable our organization to prepare itself to play its role in addressing the challenges of which I am talking.

Now we’ve tried to give some structure to what is undoubtedly a very broad and a very complex and formidable array of issues, based around four conversations taking place. Your conference is also structured around those four same conversations, so let me very telegraphically tell you what are, from my perspective at least, some of the key issues are that we have to address.

The first conversation is one which is absolutely key to what we are trying to do – a conversation about the place of work in society. It is often the forgotten conversation. And yet it seems to me absolutely essential that we all consider what the social function of work is in our societies.

The background paper that has been prepared for this meeting which talks about work being the glue that keeps societies together is right. Freud said that work is individuals’ connection to reality. And I think we understand the social value of work when it is denied. The effects on the individual – the feelings of exclusion, demoralization, and worthlessness that comes from exclusion and unemployment, that much at least is clear to us.

But work – at least in the originating text of the ILO – is not simply about material provision, it’s not only about providing food, shelter, and material wellbeing although that, of course, is essential. The ILO’s founding text talks about self-realization, about work being an act of self-fulfilment, the sentiment of doing something which is bigger than the individual. It is indeed the glue that binds us together, it is what connects us to reality.

So here is the first question I think that we need to ask ourselves: not only the challenges of exclusion and unemployment which have to be foremost in our minds, but as we see work transformed, as we see the diversification of work forms, as we see the advent of precarious work situations, as we see the advent of the platform economy, what does it say about the socializing effects of work? Many observers worry about the atomisation of our societies, and increasing individualization not as a personal choice but as a condition imposed upon us by our circumstances.

These are things that really matter, issues that we certainly have to begin our conversation talking about. And let's be clear, we have a problem. 57% of young Europeans, according to a recent Euro barometer survey, say that they feel excluded from economic and social life due to their poor labour market status.
That’s a starting point: what we want from work in our societies. And then we have to move on to the second conversation which tries to respond to what at least in my experience is the most frequently asked question about the future of work. Where are the jobs of tomorrow coming from?

We all know that the United Nations adopted a 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda last September which commits the international community to full employment and decent work for all. It means that we have to create 600 million jobs in the next 15 years. Think about that!

Are we serious, or is it just something that we say on a good day in New York? I think it is something we have to be serious about. I sometimes regret – but must acknowledge – that the debate about future jobs very often reduces itself to a discussion about the impact of technology on labour markets and, Georges, you’ve addressed these questions. You’ve gone back to the critical reference point, Schumpeter and his notion of creative destruction. If it’s true – and most people seem to think it is – that we are on the cusp of a fourth industrial revolution then the question is: are we going to come out ahead, as apparently we have in the three previous industrial revolutions, that is to say that after the turbulence of transition, technological innovation will create more jobs than it has destroyed?

That’s a lesson of history, but there is also a strong current of opinion that this time it is different. That this time, the technologies that are coming towards us are going to destroy very many more jobs than they will create. Now the first thing to say about this discussion is that we should not fall victim to what I call “techno-determinism”, a view that our future will be decided by technology and that we have no capacity, no possibility to intervene.

It has always been the case that technology has within it the capacity for human emancipation, to free us of drudgery and dangerous work, to increase our standards of living, to free us up for better things. The question is not whether or not the technology coming this time is any different – it is not. But this is a policy discussion: it depends upon our determination to manage technological innovation in ways that correspond to our social objectives.

If that is beyond us, it is not the fault of technology, it’s the fault of people like us - policy makers who are simply not up to the challenges of the day. By the way, there are many other issues that are involved so I don't want you to think that I am, despite what I’ve said, entirely obsessed by the technological dimensions.

Colleagues, the third discussion that we have is about the organization of work and production. I have said that I think it is wrong to reduce the discussion about technological innovation to this Schumpeterian equation of jobs created/jobs destroyed.

What is definitely new is that the technologies that we are now seeing the advent of have the capacity to transform the manner in which work is done. If we look at the qualitative nature of work, let me illustrate what I’m trying to say by two examples. The first is the advent of supply chains, the fragmentation of work processes and productive processes that is such today because of technology, because of financial liberalization, because of all the underpinnings of globalization. It is now possible to fragment production and to organize it across national frontiers.

And we have a very serious discussion, which is new, about how we must manage this fragmentation of production processes, what we need to do to ensure that global supply chains are, as they can be, a vector of improvement in the world of work rather than the opposite.

This type of debate is very closely linked to the notion of due diligence, to the questions that are being discussed in the business and human rights field, but it is certainly one area of the transformative nature of work that we have to get to grips with.

The second illustration has to do with extreme cases of a platform economy, but the broader question is the nature of the employment relationship. We’re seeing – and again technology is one of the drivers of this phenomenon – a growing diversification of work forms. Yesterday, the ILO published a report which I urge you to look at because it is quite important – about the growth of non-standard forms of employment, the growing prevalence of contracts of part-time work of the platform economy.

And the question which is posed is whether this growing diversification of work forms is a secular erosion of traditional employment forms of employer/employee relationships, and if that is the case - if one considers it to be an inevitable part of labour market modernity - what we need to do about it, and what the consequences for policy makers must be. It also poses very basic questions about the future of the enterprise.

These questions are fundamentally important because if we are moving towards the diversification of work which represents a rupture with what we have known over the last 50 or 60 years, it seems to me to follow that we need to re-examine the institutions, the regulations, the processes by which we regulate the world of work.

This may take us – whether we like it or not – into unexplored and uncomfortable territory. And that brings me to the fourth and last of the conversations in our centenary initiative which is - and it’s the essential debate - about the governance of work.

The ILO centenary initiative is not an innocent exercise. It has a very clear objective and that is to try to work out together how we organize the world of work: how we govern the world of work so that it does respond to the values for which the ILO stands. And our values are the values of social justice. And for the reasons that I outlined at the beginning of my remarks, it seems to me that the pursuit of social justice is today more than ever the key imperative working upon democratic politicians and decision makers in every part of the world.

So we have to work out whether, in the light of all of the things that I’ve tried to talk about this morning, the policy instruments of the past, the institutions of the past - in the case of the International Labour Organization, the international labour standards that we have put together over nearly one hundred years of our history - are capable and appropriate for the task of ensuring that the world of work is a place where social justice is promoted enough in the future.

And I don’t think that we should back off these rather existential debates; we have to take them on. And the one thing in a discussion which contains many insecurities and uncertainties that I am absolutely convinced of, and Georges you’ve spoken of it, is that to get this right, we are going to need to involve and combine the efforts of all of the parties of the world of work, the tripartite actors, governments, workers and employers and all other stakeholders with an interest in world of work issues.

I worry that in the general disillusionment that the public institutions are subject to, in the growing doubt of citizens about our capacity to bring credible results to the injustices that people are too frequently living, the notion of tripartism and the value of social dialogue will become victim to the doubts of our age.

And all we can do – and all we must do – in those circumstances, I believe, is to recommit to social dialogue. Of course, each one is here to defend legitimate sectorial interests. But we need to unite our efforts to finding the way forward. It’s difficult to think of a time when these issues have had greater importance in our societies or when the responsibilities weighing upon our shoulders have been greater.

So thank you for being here because I think you’re all doing a job that needs to be done. The ILO will be attentive to the results of your work here. Georges, I want to say that we regard our partnership with this committee as fundamentally important; Commissioner Thyssen, we regard our partnership and friendship with the European Union as fundamentally important; so I thank you for your support, I thank you for your engagement and I wish you good luck in this conference.

Thank you very much.

¹Mr Georges Dassis, President of the European Economic and Social Committee.