TURIN, Italy (ILO News) - "The key to solving problems of social exclusion and poverty is employment," Mr. Juan Somavia, the ILO Director-General told the Group of 8 Labour Ministers Conference in Turin today, adding that "employment is the source of social inclusion in all sorts of ways, providing not just income, but security, self realization and self esteem for workers who are organized and represented".
But Mr. Somavia warned that employment only plays this cathartic social role under the right conditions, conditions that he characterized as " Decent Work".
The ILO Director-General defined "decent work" as "work that meets people's basic aspirations, not only for income, but for security for themselves and their families, without discrimination or harassment, and providing equal treatment for women and men". Mr. Somavia insisted that achieving decent work should be a goal for developing and industrialized economies alike and that it needs to encompass all participants in the labour force.
In spite of G8 countries' robust economies and rapid productivity growth, they risk facing a "decent work deficit" according to Mr. Somavia, should they fail to translate the benefits of strong economies and enterprises into well-paid, productive and secure jobs for large parts of the workforce. But decent work should be seen as involvement rather than cost.
"I believe there is a decent work growth dividend due to the enormous spillover in terms of improved worker health and safety, more productive enterprises and greater social sustainability of economic policies," he said. "This dividend will be increased further by moves towards gender equality."
"We need a better way of looking at economic and social issues together in order to be able to strengthen this spillover", said Mr. Somavia. He assured the G8 Ministers that "we at the ILO are working on the development of more integrated policy frameworks to do just that". He said ILO was devising "approaches to decent work which bring together workers rights, employment, security and social dialogue so that they reinforce each other and support economic growth and social inclusion".
What is needed at the national and international level, Mr. Somavia insisted, "is a comprehensive employment strategy". This needs to address the fact that the informal economy and the knowledge economy are growing at the same time but in different directions. It will be important to adapt to new forms of organization of firms, new opportunities for small firms. Increasingly, companies will find that they have to uphold certain labour standards when they operate across borders in the knowledge economy.
He stressed that social security institutions needed to maintain their underlying values of solidarity and security while "devising systems that can reach everyone". He warned against a "dual system in which the low-income groups are protected by one standard and the middle and high income groups by another".
Youth and Elderly Workers
Mr. Somavia cited younger and elderly workers as two groups for whom the need for social inclusion is especially crucial.
"For older workers," the ILO Director-General said "social inclusion means, first, a decent income from work or retirement and, second, the possibility of participating in the life of the community through employment, volunteer work or other activity according to their capacities and preferences".
For younger workers, simply gaining access to the labour market is often a major obstacle. According to Mr. Somavia "half of the world's unemployed are between the ages of 15 and 24 and women are particularly disadvantaged". He stressed education systems as being "obviously crucial to ensure that everyone has the basic skills that societies and economies demand".
In particular, he pinpointed information and communications technology as becoming "almost as important as the ability to read". Mr. Somavia endorsed the views of the Italian Labour Minister Mr. Cesare Salvi, arguing that "employment strategy today has to be built around the knowledge economy". He also highlighted the potential for youth entrepreneurship in the knowledge economy.
Mr. Somavia said that in addition to national systems providing skills and apprenticeships to young people, international programmes, such as the joint ILO, United Nations, World Bank initiative called the Youth Employment Policy Network, "provide opportunities to give young women and men everywhere a real chance to find decent and productive work".
Basic Rights at Work
Mr. Somavia decried an all too widespread tendency to "see workers' rights as an obstacle to growth" and insisted on worker rights as "essential to making the global economy work for everyone".
He said that the basis for worker rights existed in the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work . The Declaration, adopted by the International Labour Conference in 1998, is based on a number of "core" ILO labour standards on freedom of association and collective bargaining and freedom from forced labour, child labour and discrimination. Mr. Somavia characterized these as "universal enabling rights" and urged the G8 countries to incorporate these rights and principles in their domestic and international cooperation policies.
The ILO Director-General said that a wide range of instruments were available to the ILO and its worker, employer and government constituents to make these principles and rights a reality. "The ILO Standards", he noted, "become national law once they are ratified and are enforced in national courts." The ILO, in addition, has its own independent supervisory system. It provides technical assistance to establish labour legislation, mediation systems, inspection systems and an array of institutional supports to promote the goal of implementing basic rights.
The Director-General highlighted the ILO's "rapidly growing technical cooperation programme around the Declaration which gives countries with problems implementing rights assistance in meeting their obligations".
While acknowledging that there were "no standard solutions" to the array of challenges facing the authors of labour market policies, Mr. Somavia stressed the importance of "developing dialogue and negotiation about routes toward decent work which are economically productive and socially sustainable, and which are constructed by the workers and employers concerned".