ILO100 in Viet Nam

ILO Centenary Declaration: change in the world of work is upon us

An interview with ILO Senior Advisor on Standards Policy, Tim De Meyer

Comment | 29 September 2019

The Centenary Declaration was adopted at the International Labour Conference in June 2019. What does it mean to Viet Nam?

What this means first and foremost is that change in the world of work is upon us.

Change is inevitable. Change comes from technology, demographic change, aging society, climate change, migration, and globalization. These are what we often call transformative change factors.

But it's equally important to realize that the changes that are going to affect our lives, including the life of Vietnamese people, are not what we have to accept passively. We can shape the change we want, we can use the change that is best for the society and for the economy. But for that to happen, it's extremely important that governments, employers, and workers accept their responsibilities and work together in determining the change and governing the change by appropriate policies.

To give one example, the lively debate about increasing retirement age has been talked about not just in Viet Nam but in in all aging societies around the world. If you want to secure a viable social protection system which is essential, it may be inevitable that the retirement age gradually moves upwards. That in itself does not have to mean the end of the world, because as people grow older, in many cases, they also want to continue to work as long as that happens under satisfactory conditions. Men and women alike who can and are willing to work longer under satisfactory conditions – and to make pension contributions in the process - should be able to do so, while those carrying out work in hardship conditions should be able to retire earlier in a financially secure way. But it's precisely that we probably cannot escape the change but how we deal with the change is something that we can influence and we have to do that in cooperation between governments, employers and workers.

Can you further explain the key points of the Declaration?

One of the key points in the Declaration is that the ILO has been setting standards for 100 years, so we now have what we call a body of standards that contains both recently adopted ones and those no longer considered appropriate. There's been a very strong call in the Centenary Declaration on the organization to intensify efforts to make sure that our body of standards is up to date, meet the conditions of rapid changes to be able to help countries shape their policies. And on the other hand, we also need to make sure that the countries don't continue to have and commit themselves to obligations that are no longer considered helpful in today’s world.

Of course the fundamental standards remain important. They create an environment within which the workers and employers, on the basis of independence and representation, can contribute to, influence and shape the policies that the government is putting forward.

There are a number of new points in the Centenary Declaration, including digital transformation, or the influence that digital technology is having on people's lives. We can envisage that we will have new standards on what we call the “platform economy”, where a lot of people find work. There is a reference to the transitions because if the change in the labour market is more rapid, then individual people in Viet Nam will likely not have the same employer over the period of a lifetime and they will also probably not be able to survive on a single set of skills. They may be expected to re-skill and up-skill a number of times throughout their working career. The issue of lifelong learning has been and might still become in the future a central right. These are few but new elements but overall it really emphasizes that changes are upon us, we don't have to blindly accept it.

Safety and health is also becoming more important. So the Centenary Declaration envisages that workers, including Vietnamese workers, will have a fundamental right to be able to come home again after work and not end up in a fatal or non-fatal accident or injury. That will have implications inevitably for the intensity with which employers and workers at company level are aware of the risks and take the necessary measures to prevent them. As a matter of principle, it's very difficult to argue that the right to life and the right to living a healthy life is not fundamental for each and every individual on this planet.

What is the legal status of the Centenary Declaration?

A declaration is per se not legally binding but that does not make it any less important. What a declaration does is reaffirming, but to an extent, also reformulating the values that underpin the actions of the ILO as we move forward and the context changes. So a declaration is in that sense a document as important as the ILO Constitution which lays down a range of procedures underpinned by values for the organization to operate.

What the Centenary Declaration does is responding to the changes which affect our working lives. What is not different is how we should respond to those changes by in particular tripartite actions and normative actions. These two pillars will remain and therefore undertaking legal obligations, or ratifying standards, will remain as important, if not more important than in the past. It is because international standards equalize the playing field where trade liberalization takes place. If your conditions in terms of the ability of workers and employers to operate is fundamentally different from your trading partners, you're going to have a problem. So you need to equalize that at least to a certain extent.