Future of Work

Social dialogue delivers results

ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, underlined the importance of social dialogue at a Centenary conference on ‘The Future of Work’ in Belgium.

Statement | Brussels | 07 May 2019
Minister Peeters,
Members of the ILO Governing Body, Mr Cortebeeck and Mr Mdwaba,
Many friends in the room, ladies and gentlemen,

It is my great pleasure to address this Belgian conference on “The future of work”.

2019 is a unique year for the International Labour Organization as we turn 100 years and look backward a little – but mainly we are looking forward, because we have decided to place the Future of Work, rather than our own history, at the centre of our celebrations; although some echoes of the past inevitably intrude upon the present and the future.

So I very much look forward to the discussions today, and I have no doubt that they will be an important contribution to the ILO’s work as we navigate the challenges of the world of work in the 21st Century.

We all know and frequently repeat that technological advances, globalization, demographic trends and climate change are provoking profound changes in the world of work, the workplace and in the ways that we all work. These transformations present themselves at an unprecedented speed and scale. As well as opportunity they create a lot of uncertainty and put pressure on our societies. People ask themselves and they ask us if their job will exist tomorrow, if their skills will be relevant throughout their working lives, or if they will receive a decent pension at the end of it. People are asking policy makers, social partners and international organizations if they have credible answers to these questions, and the authority and will to turn them into action.

I look forward to hearing your views on these important issues. The fact of the matter is that the future of work is not pre-determined. I think it is essential that we bear in mind that together, we can shape a future that delivers economic security, equal opportunity and social justice for all; and more than the opportunity, we share a responsibility to do just that.

Dear colleagues,
Few countries have engaged as actively as Belgium in the ILO’s initiative on the future of work. And that’s unsurprising, as Belgium has played a special role from the beginning as a founding member of the International Labour Organization and a consistent supporter of our mandate and our normative system. One of your major contributions – indeed, perhaps the most important - to our organization is as an example, as a practitioner of the ILO’s values and methods.

Social dialogue, collective bargaining and social protection have produced extraordinary results in Belgium, results that should not be underestimated, even if there is a tendency in some quarters to do just that.

To name just one example, your country seems to have weathered the global financial storms of 10 years ago rather well by comparison to many other countries, and this is certainly thanks to the robust institutions you have in place, and the stability that they help to ensure.

While social dialogue is not always an easy process, in Belgium it is very much alive, and it is delivering: at the firm, the sectoral and the national levels. We have seen that again in recent months. It can be tricky. But those who characterize tripartite consultation as some kind of conspiracy against effective decision-making would do well to look at Belgium and to think again.

Belgium also plays a leading role in international development cooperation, and we are proud to be your key partner for technical cooperation.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Earlier this year, on 22 January the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work launched its report entitled: “Work for a brighter future”. It is not the only report about the future of work. You have a lot to choose from if you are interested – important reports from the World Bank, the OECD and the IMF. There are plenty of opinions and plenty of reports out there.

Recently, I took the trouble to read an important speech made by Minister Peeters at the EU conference on the future of work on 9 April. You quoted 14 challenges – you called them “movements” that will be crucial as we face up to the future of work.

This raises one of those historical echoes I spoke of. When the ILO was founded by the Treaty of Versailles, President Wilson came over with 14 treatises. A visibly irritated Prime Minister Clemenceau said that the good Lord had only 10!

And our Global Commission report has just 10 recommendations.

One thing that distinguishes the ILO report from those of others is that it is very much centred on people. It calls for an agenda that puts people and the work they do very much at the heart of economic and social policy and business practices.

To summarize the content, it is essentially about three priorities for action.

The first is investing in people’s capabilities, so that they can fully take advantage of the real opportunities that the future of work offers.

That’s why the report calls for universal social protection from birth to old age. Not a new story, certainly not for Belgians, but knowing that Belgium’s record in this regard is formidable I am very much aware of another of those echoes from the past.

It was 75 years ago that the Belgian social partners were negotiating their social pact, which provided for social protection and social peace, on the basis of social justice. At just the same time the ILO doing the same with the negotiation of the Declaration of Philadelphia. It is one more of those historic parallels that strikes us, as we look to the future. A comprehensive social protection system is a fundamental cement of society. It can be a facilitator of change, a lubricant for that adaptation of society as we move into new forms of work and new ways of working.

The Commission proposes a universal entitlement to lifelong learning – in other words, a right to lifelong learning. The traditional sequential approach to life, that first we study, then we work and then we retire, does not apply anymore. It is unlikely that the skills we learn in the first 20 or 25 years of our lives will last for the entirety of our working lives, meaning people will need to be supported as they go through the multiple transitions over that time. Governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations, as well as educational institutions, have complementary responsibilities in building an effective lifelong learning system.

The Commission believes that it is time to move to a new stage in the fight for gender equality. It proposes what it terms a transformative agenda for gender equality. Belgium has consistently promoted gender equality and equal opportunity, but we all know that a considerable amount remains to be done. We all know that one century since the ILO set out the principle of equal pay for equal work in 1919, an unacceptably large gender pay gap remains. It is clear therefore that just carrying on doing the same things is not good enough. We have to look for innovative, transformative, new instruments for gender equality.

The second priority of the Global Commission is to increase investment in the institutions of work. The type of institutions that Belgium has worked so long and so assiduously to develop.

The report reminds us, as the ILO Constitution does, that “labour is not a commodity” and that it is the institutions that regulate labour markets that prevent labour from being treated as a commodity.

There are some significant propositions in the Global Commission report. The first is the establishment of a Universal Labour Guarantee. In the face of increasing diversity in the way that work is undertaken in the world, the Commission recommends ensuring that all workers regardless of their employment status enjoy certain basic guarantees – their fundamental rights at work, an ‘adequate living wage’, the guarantee of maximum hours of work and guarantees of hours of rest, as well as the right to a healthy and safe working environment. All of these guarantees are part of the ILO Constitution of 1919, so these are really not new objectives. Yet, we have to work hard as their application remains a distant prospect for very many people in the world.

Let me underline the recommendation of the Global Commission that health and safety at work should become a new fundamental right, in addition to those in the 1998 Declaration on fundamental principles and rights at work that was adopted under the leadership of then ILO Director-General Michel Hansenne. We need to remember that 2.9 million people die each year from occupational injury or, more frequently, occupational disease.

The report further recommends that we take advantage of technological developments to afford greater ‘time sovereignty’ to workers so that they can better balance their work and their private lives. This means that for those working on platforms or in part-time jobs, flexible hours should be a real choice, not out of necessity or imposition.

The fourth industrial revolution, we are told, enables work more and more to be undertaken anywhere and at any time. This brings opportunities for us to make working life more human, and to better balance work and private responsibilities. But it is one thing to be able to work anywhere and any time, and another to be required to work anywhere at any time. And the reality is that more and more people find it difficult to disconnect from work, and as work forms have diversified we get very different and complicated working time arrangements. Many workers find themselves in situations where work and working time is uneven, unpredictable and sometimes very difficult for them to manage – excessive for some, insufficient for others. So the Commission says that the idea of increasing working time sovereignty is an important objective that we should be working towards.

The Commission calls on us all to work to revitalize policies that promote collective bargaining and social dialogue as a public good, something which is good for society as a whole, not just those who are directly involved.

In addition the report calls for innovations that use technology in support of decent work. It advocates a human-in-control attitude towards technology, arguing that we do have this capacity to govern and make the best of technological innovation, not simply to be driven by it in a passive way. In this context, the Commission proposes that the development of an international governance system for digital labour platforms be a priority for the future, one that would set out and require platforms and their clients to respect certain minimum rights and protections. Is it utopian? Is it out of reach? I was encouraged by a recent visit to China where this was on the table as a practical policy proposition.

And the third priority is where the jobs will come from in the future. According to the Commission, this can be achieved by investing in transformative areas of the economy, such as the rural economy, the care economy, and the green economy in addition to high-quality physical and digital infrastructure. These are seen to have the highest potential payoff in terms of decent and sustainable jobs for the future, in the eyes of the Commission. Just to pursue one of those channels, according to ILO research the transition to environmentally sustainable economies and societies can create 18 million jobs by 2030. This includes an additional two million jobs in Europe.

We must also reshape incentives to encourage long-term investments in the real economy. This human-centred agenda cannot be accomplished if the overriding incentives for business are directed towards purely short-term financial targets and solely to maximize immediate shareholder expectations.

Colleagues, finally, and importantly for the ILO, the Global Commission looks at some of the steps needed to implement its recommendations from an institutional point of view. It recommends that countries individually establish national strategies on the future of work through social dialogue and in addition calls on the ILO to be the focal point within the international system for the implementation of this human-centred agenda.

More concretely, it identifies the need for new cooperative agreements between those parts of the international system dealing with labour - the ILO; with trade - the WTO; and with financial issues - the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.

In a nutshell, that’s what the Global Commission is proposing. These are some of the ideas, and there will be many others, that will be put to the ILO Centenary Conference that will convene in Geneva in June. For the ILO this Conference will be historic. Some 40 heads of state and of government are addressing the Conference; we will be delighted to receive His Majesty, the King of the Belgians at the Conference.

The ambition of the Conference is to adopt a Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work that will help us carve out a path for the future. We all trust that this Declaration will measure up to the importance of the issues – issues that are essential for the future, and bear comparison with past ILO Declarations – notably of course our “magna carta”, the Philadelphia Declaration of 1944. In preparation of all this, last week an intense process of consultations took place in Geneva within and among our three tripartite groups to gather their views on the Declaration.

We have a tough job ahead, let’s be clear on that. The challenge facing us all today is to reinvigorate the social contract that took form in 1919 when Governments, Employers and Workers came together to commit themselves to work together for social justice. I believe that in Belgium, this contract has been upheld to extraordinarily positive effect; and I look forward to the cooperation of all our Belgian friends in getting the job done next month. Thank you.