G20 Saudi Arabia 2020

Time to talk about building back a better world of work, Director-General tells L20 trade union leaders

The ILO’s Director-General has told L20 trade union leaders that international solidarity and common purpose are essential to building back better from the COVID-19 crisis.

Statement | 08 September 2020
Thank you, Chair.

Greetings to all L20 colleagues.

Good afternoon, Sharan, Pierre, Stefano; it is a pleasure to speak to the L20 meeting today.

Let me begin by congratulating the L20 on the statement it will be presenting to the G20 Labour and Employment Ministers later this week. It is very resonant of the issues and positions we’ve been discussing in the ILO, and reflects many of the key points of the Centenary Declaration on the Future of Work. It is absolutely right for the L20 Statement to be focusing on issues of recovery and resilience, which need to be at the heart of G20 considerations this week and going forward.

It is interesting that the L20 Statement begins by citing figures of the ILO on the world of work impact of the COVID-19 crisis. I don’t need to labour the point. We all know that this pandemic has put the world of work into the most dramatic crisis any of us can remember. And while there is much uncertainty about the trajectory of the epidemic itself, as we see second waves or continued infections around the world, we need to talk more about building back better to the world of work we want to see.

But I have to start with some bad news. The most recent ILO estimates of job losses that have been published, that the L20 cite, were that the equivalent of some 400 million jobs had been lost. We will update that figure later this month and the revised figures are even worse than 400 million. So we are still deep in the depths of the crisis, with a very uncertain forward path out of it.

That said, I must emphasize 2 points:
  1. There is, as with much with the future of work, no fatality about the future trajectory of jobs and labour markets. These are issues that can and must be addressed through policy responses. The L20 Statement points a spotlight on many of the things that need to be addressed now and on our trajectory out of the crisis.
  2. As the UN Secretary-General has been very clear in messaging, it makes no sense to put the health, socio-economic and humanitarian crises in separate, hermetically sealed boxes. These are strongly inter-related issues for policy intervention and must be treated as such.
When the ILO published its last estimates of the employment effects of the pandemic, we pointed to 5 major policy challenges and they bear repetition now, not least as they hold important implications for the L20’s demands:
  1. We need to find the right balance and sequencing of health and economic and labour market outcomes. Many of you in your organizations have been working on how, under which conditions, where to get people back to work. As the L20 says, we do need to see people going back to work and enterprises up and running again, but it is a fundamental principle that those returning to their work in offices, shops and factories must do so under safe conditions. Where those are not in place, workers are subjected to unacceptable risk; and it will simply prolong the epidemic, and the impact of the crisis on people. There are no shortcuts in the solutions. What the L20 say on the impact of the crisis on workers, and healthcare workers in particular, is especially pertinent.

  2. We will be and are being challenged by the capacity and willingness of governments to sustain the type of policy interventions being made to preserve jobs and sustainable incomes. So far in most countries there has been a remarkable social consensus around massive state interventions – with the support of trade unions pretty much across the board. But as public finances become strained, as political appetites are satiated, the question is how long will they maintain those efforts. The L20 says as long as needed, which is the right answer but begs the questions we will face. We need debates nationally and internationally about tapering, and how to move out of supportive measures to get working life back onto a regular basis. These are already issues raising their head around the world, and will be with us for considerable time to come.

  3. This pandemic has brought to the surface the precarious and undervalued status of many vulnerable and hard-hit groups on labour markets. I’ve already mentioned health and frontline workers, but in other occupations too such as retail, or public transport, we’ve seen how their contribution to the world of work is essential, and how undervalued they are. If you go further, we see the drama of workers who effectively work without any social protection. Of those 2 billion informal economy workers who mostly have no social protection, 1.6 billion have been particularly badly affected. Hunger, famine and their very survival are threatened, as the World Food Programme has warned. The most acute question that has raised is how to put a minimum of protection into the lives of those people who have nothing. And others that we might consider such as gig economy workers, or independent workers – who may seem affluent but underneath that affluence are acutely vulnerable to the kinds of shocks that have hit us – also need protection, as the L20 has emphasized and as has to be put forward to the G20.

  4. The international response to this pandemic has been missing. The G20 was created as a vehicle to be get us out of the financial crisis in 2008, 2009 and 2019 and in those first three years it did a good job to get us out, but this time that international response to get us out of the crisis has been missing. When the G20 met earlier this year they talked about mobilizing $5 trillion for their response to the crisis. We know the final figure was up to $10 trillion if not more. But this was simply an aggregation of the monies spent nationally to prop up national economies; there has been precious little international mobilization of resources. And that has meant that those countries where the needs are greatest are where the resources are least. The developed world has spent over 5% of GNP on recovery measures; in lower-middle income and low income countries it’s far less. We just do not have that international solidarity in place. In the next ILO report on the crisis we will try to put into figures the financial gap that, if filled, would at least allow developing countries to put the same level of resources into their economies, and you’ll see what difference filling that gap would make.

  5. And the final point is how important it is that social dialogue and consultation processes are at the heart of response efforts. We’ve seen many countries resort to social dialogue in these difficult times. It should not disappear as the threat of pandemic recedes; it must be made permanent. Furthermore, many of us accepted restrictions on liberties during the pandemic in our personal lives as necessary; but there is absolutely no rationale to restrict liberties when it comes to rights at work.
At the ILO Governing Body in November, we will put on the table what we believe is the ILO’s proper role in the recovery process, building back. We’ll reiterate that the international agenda needs to be central in the recovery. And although some thought the Sustainable Development Goals were out of reach due to the COVID crisis, we have to redirect our efforts to achieving the UN 2030 Agenda, and what’s more we must mean it. It is incumbent on the ILO in operationalizing its actions to put to its own constituents, and to the international community, what needs to be a major international initiative to build back better. That would back many of the elements in the L20 Statement and embody what is meant by the common purpose and international solidarity that has not been present so far.

Thanks again to the L20, and to you, Chair, for the possibility to take part. In everything that I do in interacting with the Labour and Employment Ministers this week, I will do my best to reflect the points of convergence that you have brought to the table.