ILO 100

Social justice, tripartite cooperation are the keys to social progress

Speaking in Norway, Director-General Guy Ryder has praised the strength of the ideas, convictions and values that the Nordic countries demonstrated, and their positive impact on the work of the ILO.

Statement | Oslo, Norway | 20 September 2019
Representatives of the employers and the workers of Norway,
Director of the Nobel Peace Center,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends,

Let me first begin by thanking you for inviting me to this very important event to mark the Centenary of the International Labour Organization. I thank the Norwegian ILO Committee and the United Nations Association of Norway for organizing this event. I want to say how particularly happy I am to be speaking here at the Nobel Peace Center, on the 50th birthday, as it were, of the ILO’s receipt of the Nobel Peace Prize of which, as I am sure you will all be aware, we are extraordinarily proud.

Today, ladies and gentlemen, you give me an opportunity and you give me a challenge.

The opportunity of course is to thank the Government, the employers and the trade unions of your country for their remarkable contribution to the work of our Organization over the last 100 years. Norway has always been to the fore in its participation in the political life of the ILO, and in its support for our development cooperation work. But I always think that your greatest contribution has been here at home, putting into concrete practice the values of social justice and the methods of tripartite cooperation which are at the heart of what the ILO stands for. Moreover, and it is equally important, you have demonstrated that these are keys to economic success, to social progress, and to the overall good health of your society.

And I want to begin by underlining just how crucially important that example is.

Your great compatriot Henrik Ibsen once observed that what internationally are often called ideals have in national practice often become lies. On the other hand – and I have just come from a Centenary Conference in Ireland – the great President of that country, Eamon de Valera, once said that “all history is man’s efforts to realize ideals”.

Through your combined efforts over 100 years, on this occasion, you have proved the Irishman right, and the Norwegian wrong.

The challenge is to try to identify exactly how Norway - and your Nordic neighbours - have managed this historic contribution to the ILO and how it can be sustained in the future. And, I have to say, this is a little bit more complicated, and I want to start with an historic reference which, at first sight, looks a bit surprising and discouraging.

On his travels to this part of the world in 1927, the first ILO Director-General, Albert Thomas, noted that Nordic employers were generally more hostile to the demands of workers than were their colleagues in other countries. And yet, the practice of dialogue and collective bargaining already well established had generated a strong sentiment of mutual respect between them.

Now, as I have said, employer and worker organizations here had been negotiating for a very long time before the ILO came on the scene. So, while it was the ILO that set tripartism in motion in many countries, a distinctive form of tripartism already existed here, with its roots firmly in the strong bipartite relations of employers and workers.

So, it is the first thing I want to note about the distinctive nature of Nordic inputs to the ILO. Take the example of gender equality. It is an important example. In the early years, the ILO’s approach was to adopt Conventions with special provisions for the protection of women workers. In 1923, Betzy Kjelberg, the Norwegian labour inspector who was the first ever woman delegate to an ILO Conference, told Albert Thomas, in very clear terms, that what the Nordics wanted was full equality of treatment, not special protections. It took many decades for that view to win out in the ILO – but eventually it did.

The second point is that just as social partnership was never a love affair between employers and workers in Norway, nor has it ever been so at the ILO. Albert Thomas noted that, maybe because of culture, geography or climate, Nordics were used to expressing their needs and interests in very clear language – without some of the elaborate protocols of the south. But once the basis of agreements were thrashed out they were solid and respected. As the recently published study on 100 years of social dialogue in Norway amply documents, strikes, lock-outs even bitter public exchanges have never been absent from Norwegian working life. But organizations and their leaders were and are able to switch from that tough negotiating stance to close cooperation. There is no contradiction.

This too is vital at the ILO – and when it happens, the ILO works well. What is at stake here is not a question of good will between the parties. It is a recognition that there are different, sometimes conflicting interests in the world of work but that there is advantage to all parties in resolving them through dialogue and through compromise. If we took the view that the worker-employer relationship was inevitably a zero-sum game then such dialogue would be a waste of time, and the ILO for example simply could not function. But that does not mean that the Norwegian model means that there is some inevitable identity of interests. That inevitable identity of interests was a fiction that was brought to the ILO by the Soviet bloc for a certain period of our history, a fiction which was in reality a device to undermine the basic rights of freedom of association and the independence of employer and worker organizations. This is behind us now, and a good thing too.

A third feature of the Norwegian experience that I want to underline is the application of social dialogue to issues which go beyond the immediate workplace concerns. Nordic trade unions and businesses have had close relations with political and parliamentary actors, and one result is that the issues addressed by them have generally extended significantly beyond their immediate workplace or enterprise. Over the years, many social reforms, many decisive pieces of economic, social and employment policy have, at their origins, been negotiated in the labour market. In Norway, this has been a part of nation-building since the 19th century and notably of resistance and reconstruction during and after the Second World War.

This has been very important in the ILO as well. International experience of the breadth of application of social dialogue differs very considerably between different countries. In some, we have seen controversy about the interaction and respective prerogatives of social actors on the one hand and of elected legislatures on the other. But also – and here I think particularly of the large number of developing countries who joined the ILO from the 1960s in the process of decolonization – where trade unions were often key to liberation struggles – there has been a different dynamic. Sometimes the proper representation of worker and employer interests was considered secondary to the imperatives of national development strategies and even made subordinate to it, or eliminated entirely. History has taught some of the unfortunate consequences of this tendency.

The last feature I want to mention is the open and internationalist perspective of Nordic social partnership. One can argue about its origins. Some would point to the importance of the maritime sector and tradition – international by definition. Others to the always obvious advantages of open trading conditions to your relatively small economies. But I was interested to learn as well that the Arctic copper mines of Sulitjelma, the second largest enterprise in Norway in the early 20th Century, were truly international workplaces and generated, as early as the 1880s, discussion of equal treatment of migrant workers. This is an interesting historical footnote.

In any case, what I see today, is that Nordic social dialogue accepts, as a fundament, that open global economic and trade relations – with the appropriate rules in place – are unambiguously positive. And at the same time, through your political commitments and through your development cooperation, you contribute very importantly to the multilateral architecture and the national conditions that can make these relations work well for everybody.

If I was feeling cautious, I would say that this openness is not found everywhere in the world today. If I was being a little bolder, I would say that your commitment to internationalism and multilateralism places our Nordic friends and supporters in a very significant minority in the world today. That is very worrying and I will come back to it in a moment.

Ladies and gentlemen,

What I have done here is to highlight some of the factors which I think have made our Nordic member States key and distinctive actors within our Organization for 100 years.

And they lead me to an old debate about the “Nordic Model”. For many of your friends around the world, the Nordic Model is a bit like the Loch Ness Monster. We are not really sure whether its exists, and if so, what is really looks like.

In this context, it has been tremendously helpful and encouraging for the ILO that the Nordic Council of Ministers has commissioned the research programme “The Future of Work - Opportunities and Challenges for the Nordic Models” (and yes I noted the “s” on the end of Models!)

It is an encouraging study because it is inspired explicitly by the ILO Centenary Future of Work Initiative and it is helpful because it offers a rather clear presentation of what that study considers the key components of the Nordic models and there are three: firstly, prudent macro-economic governance; secondly, solidaristic wage-setting and local cooperation; and third, the inclusive welfare state with education and active labour market policies. And binding all of this together are, of course, the social partners and the dialogue and cooperation that takes place among them.

So it seems that the monster does exist. And the question then becomes - does it have a future? And can it live beyond the cold waters of the Nordic north?

The Nordic research programme – which FAFO is conducting admirably – is addressing these questions, and let me also do so, but from a slightly different perspective than does that research programme.

Going back to history, we know that the creation of the ILO was the result of a fundamental choice about the world of work. This was between the revolutionary path exemplified by the Bolshevik revolution, and the reformist path of the ILO. Today, that might seem an obvious choice, but it certainly wasn’t at the time - it wasn’t for example for the Norwegian trade union movement, because, to quote the title of a recent history of 1919 “The World [was] on Fire.” There were revolutionary movements on all continents. And this choice between revolution or reform was not even definitively made at that time. It took until the 1930s for the Soviet Union to get over its ideological hostility to the ILO and to join our Organization.

And later, in the 1960’s, the revolutionary impetus came back again. The French-Caribbean revolutionary philosopher, Franz Fanon, wrote “the Wretched of the Earth” describing the conditions of oppression and misery of millions in the developing world, and through that justifying the use of revolutionary violence for their emancipation.

These may look like historical anecdotes. But they send us messages about our current circumstances.

Because today – and I am speaking here about global not Nordic conditions – we see a radical challenge to some of the basic foundations of the reformist approach that the ILO embodies.

We all have our national stories to tell about the rise of populism and nationalism, the rejection of traditional political actors and institutions, the characterization of multilateralism as an unjustified and unwanted infringement of national sovereignty and the will of the people. We have all seen how international law – particularly in respect of human rights – is increasingly ignored and where violations take place with apparent impunity. We have seen how basic truths are brushed off as false, and how obvious falsehoods are peddled as facts.

The point I want to make is that all of these things, if not constituting a revolutionary option, can be very destructive to the reformist approach to social justice in society and at work. So that means that we need to focus on why this is happening and what we must do about it.

And if we take the trouble to do just that and sometimes this is not easy, my view is that we cannot deny that these circumstances are being generated not only because of the disorientation of large numbers of people in the world in the face of transformative changes in their communities, their societies, their lives and their work; not only by their resentment which is real at growing inequalities; but it comes also from a frank failure of established policy settings and policy-makers and institutions to offer credible responses to the pressing concern that is leading many people to seek alternative solutions. And this is a challenge to everybody.

This leads me back to three features which seem to me are fundamental to the past and continued success of the ILO reformist agenda, by those I include the Nordic models.

The first factor is that they depend for their success and their acceptance on a significant degree of consensus about what is desirable in our societies. They are values based. In the case of the ILO, we summarize those values in two words: social justice.

The second feature is that the legitimacy of this approach depends upon its capacity to deliver the results that people want; decent jobs, security, rising living standards, a sustainable environment. My own view is that people will eventually support and approve of a model not because of its ideological attraction but because it delivers what they want in life. And who can blame them for that?

And the third point that I want to make is that, at its heart, the reformist agenda is really a social contract. A contract, unwritten maybe, but still real, between State and citizen, between social partners, about what common goals are, and what each party is expected to do to meet them. I think that the Nordic models bring this contract out in a very clear way. And I have learned from many Norwegian friends that there is one vital ingredient to it, and that is trust. The confidence that everybody involved will stick to the terms of the contract, and that an effort made by one party today will be reciprocated by the other tomorrow.

And this takes us to the heart of the dilemma that we find so widespread today. Many people, who have probably never used the term, or even heard of it, are acting on the assumption that the social contract that previously operated has been broken. They have lost confidence, they have lost trust in the commitment or the capacities of the parties or even their honesty. Unfortunately, there are no laws to enforce trust. There are no regulations to promote confidence. These are intangibles built up over long periods of experience and practice and, once lost, it can be difficult to get them back.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I am conscious that, from a Nordic perspective, all of this might seem a bit exaggerated, even a bit melodramatic. Because really things haven’t got to that point here, have they? I recall that when many of us met in Reykjavik in April 2019, and you were there Minister, for the excellent Nordic ILO Centenary Conference, President Jóhannesson of Iceland spoke of the resentment of Icelanders at the “experts from the South” coming up to tell them what they had to do to overcome the difficulties of recent years. I wouldn’t like to be one of those.

So let me just give some pointers to the future directions we must take. These pointers are provided by the report, presented in January, of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of the Work, which was co-chaired by the Prime Minister of Sweden with the past CEO of the NHO among its distinguished members, and the subsequent Declaration for the Future of the Work which, as the Minister has indicated, was adopted by the ILO Centenary Conference last June.

The ILO Global Commission, in the concluding part of its report, called for a reinvigoration of that historic, global social contract which was at the heart of the creation of the ILO, and has remained there ever since: the global social contract for social justice. The Commission identified the existence of strong and representative organizations of workers and employers and their interaction with governments in the variable geometry of bipartite and tripartite cooperation as a public good; that is to say something of benefit to society as a whole beyond the sectoral interests directly involved in it, something we all have an interest in promoting.

After that, our Conference Centenary Declaration adopted what it calls a Human-centered Agenda for the Future of Work which will provide the compass for the ILO’s activities in the years ahead.

You will not, I think, be surprised that the negotiation of this Declaration by some 187 member States with tripartite representation involved, was quite a complicated business. And I do think – and Minister I am very heartened by you have said – that we have produced a remarkably positive outcome, and if you have not done so already, please do try to take a look at it, it is a short document.

In essence, the human-centred approach contained in the Declaration has three sets of investments at its heart.

Firstly, investments in people’s capabilities, in their skills through life-long learning, in their social protection; in gender equality; in helping them to navigate the multiple transitions of the future of work;

Secondly, in the institutions of work, in the mechanisms and regulations that govern labour markets so that, whatever their employment or contractual status, all working people have the protections required for decent work and the protection of their rights.

And thirdly, investments in decent and sustainable work – the jobs of the future – notably in the green economy, in the care economy, in infrastructure building, and in the rural economy which is so central to the lives of so many of the ILO’s member States.

The Declaration also commits the ILO strongly to integrate the environmental dimension alongside the established social and economic dimensions of everything that it does, and on this day of global climate action, on the eve of the UN Climate Summit in New York, and knowing Norway’s historic commitment and circumstances, I want to assure everybody here that we will continue to work very hard at that environmental dimension of the future of work.

There is one further part of the Declaration which I would also like to emphasize to you, and that is that multilateralism and coherence in the multilateral system is fundamental to the future of the ILO and the future of our world of work. I think of it this way: the ILO is located at that place where multilateralism intersects with tripartism. Both of these axes are facing challenges right now, so the ILO’s location is one of some turbulence but I believe of great opportunity as well. And I want to put it to this Norwegian audience which, I think, will be receptive to my message. We all need to make multilateralism work better, we need to help it overcome the tensions it has to confront and that imperative gives extra force to the ILO’s commitment to the process of reform in the United Nations.

But at the same time we equally have to work hard – much harder than we have up until now – at promoting greater coherence across the different organizations of the international system. That applies with particular force to those organizations which have primary responsibility for finance, for trade and for social and labour policies, that means the Bretton Woods Institutions – the IMF and the World Bank–, the WTO, and of course the ILO.

The fact of the matter is that the constitutional mandates of each of these organizations are complementary and inter-related, but the way we work doesn’t reflect that.

I am aware that this issue of coherence and cooperation is not new. Indeed, I well recall coming to Oslo in 2010 to attend a Conference on “The Challenges of Growth, Employment and Social Cohesion”, convened by the Government of Norway, which brought together my predecessor as Director-General of the ILO and the then Managing Director of the IMF in a really promising initiative. Unfortunately, it didn’t bear all the fruits that it could have done. My reflection today is that maybe we should try it again.

Ladies and gentlemen,

In conclusion, I want to underline that the agenda that the ILO has set for itself seems to me to resonate very well with the issues which the Nordic Future of Work Project has identified for its continuing attention: the impact of digitalization and robotization; new atypical forms of work; the role of new labour market agents including platform work; occupational safety and health which the ILO is mandated to consider defining as a fundamental right; the possible reform of labour law and regulations.

This convergence of ideas, convictions and values, is why I am absolutely convinced that the Nordic countries will remain the key actors that they have always been in the ILO – that 100 years of solidarity past will open the way to more years of solidarity in the future and I want to assure you that the ILO will do everything that it should do and can do to deserve your commitment and support.

But there is a much deeper reason than this - and it is because Norway, and its fellow Nordic members, have a very deep commitment to the values of the ILO and a proven record of making tripartism work to fulfil these values. Everything starts with that.

When Prime Minister Solberg addressed the opening day of the Centenary Conference in June in Geneva, she recalled that Norway, 100 years ago, “pledged to work together with others to promote economic and social advancement to achieve social justice”. That pledge has been honoured and I want to thank all of our Norwegian partners for that.

And the Prime Minister concluded that “it is no time to rest on our laurels”… “It is our responsibility to decide the direction we take from here. The future depends on the choices we make now.”

I agree. So let’s make these choices together. I thank you one again.