International cooperation

An inconvenient truth

"We need to address the causes of the rise in populism and ethno-nationalism," said ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, at a meeting in Vienna of the European Trade Union Confederation Congress.

Statement | Vienna, Austria | 21 May 2019
Thank you President, delegates.

I bring you the greetings of the International Labour Organization; congratulations on the ETUC’s achievements of the last four years under Luca’s leadership; and best wishes for the challenges that you will confront on the road to your next Congress four years from now.

At that time the ETUC will celebrate its 50th anniversary, so please take my speech as a message of solidarity and encouragement from your 100 year old sister organization.

In the broad historic perspective the ILO, born of the trauma of a first global conflict, and the European Union born of a second such conflict which ravaged Europe in particular, share at their origin a single big idea – that social justice is the only sure guarantee of peace, an idea that has stood the test of time.

And more than that, we have used the same tools to construct it – social dialogue and social partnership – the combined efforts of Governments, trade unions and employers to create and share prosperity, and to guarantee decent work for all. We have grown together, the EU through successive processes of enlargement which have brought their own challenges, the ILO to universal membership which constantly challenges our capacity to serve members in extraordinarily diverse circumstances.

So it is no accident, is it, that the EU has translated ILO principles and values into concrete action in a way and on a scale that has no parallel anywhere else. No accident either that all its member states have ratified all of the ILO’s eight fundamental rights Conventions.

On the face of it then, the ILO and the ETUC should be able to sit back and celebrate the fruits of our common endeavours. But that is not quite where we are. Because, as our Chinese friends would say, “we live in interesting times”. Your Congress takes place on the eve of European elections of quite unparalleled uncertainty and challenges to the very notion of the European project, and an uncertain time before the apparently now movable feast of BREXIT.

And in the same vein, at the same time, the multilateral system confronts its most profound crisis since the establishment of the United Nations some 75 years ago.

As I see it, international cooperation and multilateralism is under attack for three reasons:
  • Because it is failing to deliver – to prevent or end conflict, to take action on climate change, to generate sustained development, to manage large-scale human displacement and migration;
  • Because it is portrayed, by definition, as a limitation on the exercise of national sovereignty, the “will of the people”;
  • And because it is portrayed as a space occupied by cosmopolitan elites to their own advantage and to the detriment of others.
You may think that this resonates with the European experience and the European situation today. In any case the lesson I draw from our circumstances is that both the ETUC and the ILO need to do more than just huddle together for comfort and mutual support under the umbrella of shared principles and history. We know – if we care to look – that significant, even disproportionate support for those who today denigrate these shared principles comes from people who our organizations exist to represent and whose interests we are there to advance.

This is an inconvenient truth and we are obliged to confront it, all the more so if we take the view that in large part the rise of populism, of ethno-nationalism, or whatever label one wishes to attach to it has been generated by people’s widespread feelings of disappointment (to put it mildly) of their reasonable expectations of their working lives, compounded by disorientation and insecurity in the face of unprecedented and transformative change in the world of work.

When things that once seemed permanent no longer do, small wonder maybe that people grasp for points of reference in the familiar and proximate, in their own identity, and turn against what feels different and threatening; things over which they feel they exercise little control.

President, Delegates,

In such challenging circumstances, the need is surely to construct together a project for the future – the future of Europe, and the future of work. And, even when change can look challenging or even threatening, that project cannot simply be an attempt to preserve the status quo, still less reinstate what previously prevailed. That has never been the way of trade unionism. Tomorrow will be different from yesterday and the task is to make it better than today.

And looking at the agenda of your Congress, at the documents presented for debate and approval I am massively encouraged that this is exactly the task that the ETUC is taking on.

You will not do it alone, and you don’t have to. Under the leadership of President Juncker, firm foundations have been laid with the European Pillar of Social Rights and we must hope and work so that the new Commission will build upon them. New impetus has been given to European social dialogue, and I very much hope that Luca and Markus from Business Europe will continue to pester one another with the same vigour they have done in the past!

For its part, the ILO has decided to dedicate its own centenary to the project of constructing the future of work that we want. We’ve done it in three stages: tripartite national dialogue around the world, a Global Commission on the Future of Work co-chaired by Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden and President Ramaphosa of South Africa which published its report in January, and finally the adoption in our Conference next month of a Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work.

We have high ambitions for it. Our Global Commission tabled a 10-point set of recommendations which call for investments in people’s capacities – in lifelong learning, in social protection, in a new effort to achieve gender equality; in the institutions of work; in the jobs of the future – the green economy, the care economy; and call for reinforced national action and international policy coherence. Taken together they make for a human centred agenda which places people and the work that they do at the heart of economic policy-making. It is a renewal of the social contract at the heart of the International Labour Organization.

Just think of this.

In the 1930s the multilateral system of the old League of Nations was destroyed by the rise of authoritarian extremism in Europe. The ILO was the one and only survivor. And that survival was the result above all of the courage and tenacity of European trade unionists aided by their allies across the world who refused to let die their vision of something better. Not only that, from such life-threatening adversity came the Declaration of Philadelphia, the historic template of rights, justice, solidarity and peace which Europe has carried forward ever since.

That’s the challenge before us today. So good luck with this Congress. Nobody can doubt that what you will discuss and decide here really matters – for Europe and for the world as well – and that what you do after you get home will matter even more.

And one thing you can do is all come to Geneva next month to the centenary International Labour Conference so that together we can set course to the future of work that we all want.

Thank you.