109th International Labour Conference

Opening remarks by Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General, at the 109th Session of the International Labour Conference

Statement | Virtual | 07 June 2021
© M. Crozet / ILO
Mr President,
Delegates and Observers,

I begin by reiterating my welcome to all participants at this 109th Session of the International Labour Conference and my congratulations to all those elected to hold office.

Mr President, you and the President of the ILO’s host country, Switzerland, have just recalled the challenges before this Conference and the circumstances that require us to meet virtually on this occasion, following the postponement of the Session last year.

It is, of course, disappointing that we are not in a position to be together in Geneva. Because our tripartite organization more than any other thrives on the personal interaction and informal exchanges of this global parliament of labour.

But, equally, it is extraordinarily important that this Conference takes place, and an extraordinary achievement that we have found the technical and political ways of making it happen after the interruption of 2020. We have some 4,700 registered participants from 176 Member States, and this is comparable to the numbers of past years. And there is good news too in respect of women’s participation. At 38.3 per cent it is significantly better than before.

The need to ensure business continuity and the institutional integrity of the ILO is one reason why this Conference matters so much. Over the last 15 months, my colleagues and I, mostly operating remotely, like so many enterprises and workers around the world, have striven to pivot our activities to analyse the social and economic impact of COVID-19, to facilitate exchange of information on what is being done to respond to it, and to offer guidance and support to you, our constituents.

It has been gratifying that the ILO’s role has been widely recognized and welcomed. And this Conference offers us the chance to advance our efforts still further. Can there ever have been a time in the history of our Organization when the responsibilities of this Conference have been heavier, or the expectations of it greater than now? At this moment of pandemic-induced crisis in the world of work, and as people across the globe hope and reach for a recovery that leads to a resilient, sustainable, fairer, and better future.

There may be parallels and comparisons with 1919 when the “wild dream” of the ILO was launched, or 1944 when the Declaration of Philadelphia pointed the way out of global conflict to shared prosperity and social justice, or even just two years ago when we last met to chart the course to the future of work that we all want.

But we are in the here and now. And we need to act, here and now. And that has to begin with a lucid assessment of what the pandemic has done to the world of work. As my report to Conference sets out, the impact has been devastating – cataclysmic.

The equivalent of two hundred and fifty five million full time jobs lost in 2020;
  • $3.7 trillion wiped off labour income;
  • Millions of enterprises under threat, particularly small and medium sized ones;
  • 108 million people pushed back into working poverty; the most vulnerable and already disadvantaged hit hardest – young people, women, informal workers, migrants.
Taken as a whole this represents a world of work crisis four times as severe as the one triggered by the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

It has not gone unanswered. Governments have stated their determination to do whatever it takes to overcome the health crisis and to mitigate its social and economic consequences. And indeed they have generally done whatever they could. Some $16 trillion has been spent or announced for crisis response to date. In line with the policy framework advocated vigorously by the ILO, this has been channeled to stimulate economic activity, to support enterprises, jobs and incomes, and to protect working peoples’ safety and health. And to an encouraging extent it has been done in the framework of cooperation and dialogue between Governments and workers’ and employers’ organizations.

These efforts have been unprecedented. It has been estimated that without them the damage brought by the pandemic would have been three times greater than it actually was.

But, what exactly have we learned from the drama and trauma of the last months? My report points to four lessons.

Firstly that the world was ill-prepared for the pandemic, and that that is true for the world of work as much as in respect of health. Consequently the policy response has had to be through serial ad hoc interventions, decisions made in real time conditioned by the evolution of the pandemic and by resources available. For example, the ILO has recorded more than 1,600 newly introduced measures of social protection. That is a remarkable response but surely evidence too that building systemic resilience into the recovery process alongside sustainability and inclusivity must be part of building back better.

Secondly, the pandemic has confronted us, with unbearable brutality with the reality and consequences of the multiple and growing inequalities in our societies. We need to be honest about this. We have talked about inequalities often and for a long time. We will do so again later in this Conference.

But we have failed to stop the situation from deteriorating.

And the sum of human suffering caused by the pandemic is all the greater for that collective failure. In this house of social justice we, more than most, need to draw conclusions from this.

All the more so because the pandemic has made these inequalities worse and we can see, if we care and we dare to look, how they have hardened into deep structural injustice. The working experience of this pandemic for some has been of inconvenience, tedium, stress, and frustration. For others it has been about fear, poverty, and survival.

And, as we increasingly look to the recovery process, with some economies growing quickly and jobs now being created at great speed, I think we need to be conscious about just how uneven that recovery will be if it continues on its current trajectory.

Put in the simplest terms, countries which enjoy the greatest advantages in access to vaccines, which have the most fiscal space to stimulate their economies, and which enjoy the highest levels of connectivity can look forward to getting back quite rapidly to pre-pandemic levels of GDP – and within a couple of years of employment too. It won’t be painless, it won’t be without problems, there are great uncertainties but this is where the high income countries are heading. For low-income countries, and most of the developing world the prospects are starkly different.

The fact is that gross inequities in vaccine distribution, and vastly different fiscal firepower will inject a double-dose of more inequality into the world of work, with a booster from uneven digital connectivity. That is, unless deliberate action is taken to prevent it. To prevent long-COVID taking hold in the world of work making it more unequal, more unjust, less resilient, less inclusive and ultimately less sustainable.

Which is where the third lesson comes in. It is an obvious one. That this terrible global crisis requires a global response. Tragically, the pandemic has probably made a more persuasive and tangible case for multilateral cooperation than the many speeches emanating from our Organization and from others. I can only echo Secretary-General Guterres’s observation that “we are seeing an overwhelming appetite around the world for more, and more effective international cooperation”.

At a time when we all know that the value of multilateralism has been widely questioned, and the system has come under considerable pressure this hands to us not just opportunity, but responsibility to step up and meet the hopes and expectations that are invested in us.

The fourth lesson, the last one, and this one expands our opportunities, is that we can do things differently.

We have seen that long-established policy-settings and work arrangements can be modified in ways that were previously unimaginable. It has taken an existential threat and a commitment to do whatever it takes to overcome it to give us this perspective. Of course this is not a permanent state of affairs; emergency measures are not forever. But we have learned that we can handle technologies differently, allocate resources differently, reassess social priorities and values – for example how we reward the front-line workers who have emerged as the heroes of this crisis.

Mr President,

This lesson in particular, reinforced by the others I have set out, brings to mind compellingly the one key idea of the ILO Future of Work Initiative which dominated the last International Labour Conference in 2019 as much as COVID-19 response does this one.

That idea was that the future of work is not pre-determined but it is instead for Governments, employers and workers to make. And that this needed to be done in conformity with the values we share in this Organization: social justice and decent work for all.

Today we need to apply precisely that understanding to the task of constructing a human-centered recovery from the COVID-19 crisis. We are well-equipped to undertake this task. Because the Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, adopted two years ago by this Conference, gives us an agreed and highly-valued roadmap to guide our efforts. Through the programme and budget which I trust will be adopted by this Conference and our existing Strategic Plan, the ILO is already focusing sharply on implementing the Declaration in the context of COVID-19 recovery.

The adoption by this Conference of an outcome document calling for, and shaping, a global response for such a human-centered recovery will be of the greatest value in this context.

It will strengthen the ILO’s own contribution. It will help underpin the activities of our constituents at the national level. And I hope that it will serve to promote cooperation with others in the multilateral system, and the coherence of our overall work.

The pandemic has highlighted just how inextricably health, social and economic, financial, trade, and intellectual property policy really is. That has always been the case – we are just paying more attention to it now because of the dire circumstances of the moment – and we need to lever that realization to forge better system coherence on a permanent basis, just as the Centenary Declaration urged us to do.

And that could help us make good on the renewed commitment that has been made by the international community to deliver on the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. The world had already fallen badly behind with this before the pandemic, and COVID-19 has stalled progress further, or even thrown it into reverse. The ILO needs to be a catalyst for the combined efforts of the international community to change to “fast forward” in the run in to 2030.


I take it as a strong statement of attachment to the institution of this Conference that you our constituents have decided, despite the constraints of virtual working methods that it should undertake a full agenda, rather than a stream-lined programme of work. That has required considerable innovation, and enormous commitment from you all. I want to salute both your ambition and your readiness to work in what I am sure are often challenging circumstances, at inconvenient times of the day and for a prolonged period until we can finally bring our session to a close in December. Thank you. This is remarkable.

Your dedication means that the Conference is going to be in a position to tackle three technical items which, while they were placed on its agenda before COVID-19 struck, have now acquired even greater significance and urgency. This is not accidental. In fact there are clear reasons why major pre-existing decent work challenges now return to us with increased force.

Conference has already begun the recurrent discussion item on social protection exactly at the moment when the inadequacies of current arrangements are being so cruelly exposed.

The conclusions to be adopted will undoubtedly provide valuable guidance as to how we must weave better levels of protection and wider coverage into a human-centered recovery, with the Centenary Declaration’s ambition of universal social protection very much in mind.

And in its reconvened session in November and December, Conference will address the issue of inequalities with the intention, I trust, of helping ensure that the recovery builds in deliberate measures to bring much greater equity to labour markets; and preventing it from running ahead along a course which would drive us further apart.

That will be accompanied by the discussion of skills and lifelong learning. This stands out, more than any other, as the issue on which strong consensus quickly emerged during our Future of Work Initiative. We all agree that we need to make lifelong learning opportunities a feature of everybody’s working life – and the disruption and change brought by the pandemic can only underline that need more strongly. But we have a long way to go to work out how to make this happen: what will the delivery systems look like? What are the precise and respective responsibilities of enterprises, the worker and the state within them? And where does the financing come from?

Mr President,

In addition, we will be doing familiar but nevertheless vitally important Conference business. Adopting a programme and budget. Electing a Governing Body for the next three years.

I am presenting for your consideration a programme and implementation report for the 2018-19 biennium. And, as for each conference I report too on the situation of workers in the Occupied Arab Territories where recent week have witnessed renewed conflict and loss of lives.

And of course Conference will undertake the crucial task of supervising the application of international labour standards. It is, perhaps, inherent to the nature of this normative activity of our Conference that it is often one of the more contentious and difficult parts of its work.

This has certainly been my experience as Director-General, because we have had to contend with the combination of heightened tensions in the world with the increased social conflict that often brings, and the reality of longstanding disagreement among constituents about issues which have far reaching implications for the operation of our standards system.

Whatever views delegates bring to this Conference, and whatever the interests each is here to defend I think there are some responsibilities that we all share. Each of us is required to approach the normative issues with objectivity and openness. And we should all take care to abstain from any action which could weaken or damage the ILO’s normative function. Because, that function is critical to everything this Organization does and gives it strength, authority, and relevance. And yet it would be much easier to deconstruct than it has been to build up.

So, I count on everybody to proceed with the greatest sense of care and responsibility that this situation requires.

Mr President,

With these thoughts, let me wish success to all participants – wherever you happen to be, and whatever your specific role in our Conference. Above all, your contribution matters because it sustains and advances the ILO in these most difficult times.

I thank you for that and look forward to our victory over this COVID pandemic, which will enable me to welcome you all personally back to Geneva next year.

Thank you.