102nd International Labour Conference

Opening remarks from the ILO Director-General

Statement | Geneva, Switzerland | 05 June 2013
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Mr President, Vice-Presidents, Officers of the Governing Body, Delegates, Observers, Members of the Diplomatic Community, Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Allow me to add my words of warm welcome to you all and to this 102nd Session of the International Labour Conference.

With your election, President, the Conference has placed itself in very good hands and my colleagues in the Office and I will exert all of our efforts to facilitate your work and the participation of all actors to ensure the success of our work.

Reaching together for success is all the more our common responsibility because we have an agenda for our Conference which meets the criteria of relevance, topicality, and impact that we insist on for our work.

We will be discussing issues which truly matter.

Transiting to a low carbon economy as the motor of a sustainable development path is, and will remain, a central challenge for the world of work and the ILO. It must find its place as an integral part of a decent jobs objective in the post-2015 agenda.

And as we move ahead with the task of rolling out social protection floors across our member States, we need to examine now the impact of demographics on the future of our protection systems and on jobs.

Equally, with social dialogue at a premium to manage change and to find ways forward from crisis, our recurrent discussion this year must help define how the ILO can better serve its constituents and at the same time refine and advance the value that our Organization can and must extract from follow-up to our 2008 Declaration on Social Justice.

These are matters that it is worth your time coming to Geneva and to the ILO to discuss. We also look forward to hearing from a number of high-level guests and Heads of State and Government over the course of the Conference.

And my report on the conditions of workers in the occupied Arab territories points to a situation of continuing international concern which it is the responsibility of the ILO in accordance with its mandate to address practically and constructively.

Ladies and gentlemen,

It is also my privilege to present to the Conference my first Report as Director-General. It is entitled "Towards the ILO centenary: Realities, renewal and tripartite commitment". The Report seeks to add value to our work, to engage delegates in substantive debate, which can have real consequences for the future of the ILO. In it I have sought to place before you issues which, while sometimes difficult or even controversial, are better addressed than ignored. I have sought to make it concise, clear and accessible. There are challenges here to which I invite you to respond, an appeal for guidance which I ask you to provide.

The ILO stands six years from its centenary. A quite distant horizon, but one which should encourage us to examine the major drivers transforming the world of work. They will define the challenges that the ILO must address in the years ahead. We know already that the ILO will be called upon to pursue its mandate for social justice in radically changed circumstances. But we have only begun to consider together precisely what those circumstances consist of, and what their implications for us really are.

As we meet in Conference, the ILO is nine months into a process of reform which responds to the clearly expressed demands of constituents during the process of electing a new Director-General, and is designed to equip the Organization better to respond effectively to their demands of it. It will produce an ILO which will be a centre of excellence in research and policy analysis, a provider of quality services, an ILO giving the best value for money. From increased relevance, usefulness, and proximity to those it must serve it will gain in influence at national level and in the international arena.

No small challenges these. But there are, nonetheless, real limits to the scope of the reform process as it has been defined and as it is being implemented. I should be clear that we are advancing well with it. Indeed, the fact that the Governing Body in March was ready to recommend to this Conference a “zero real growth” programme and budget in these times of serious financial constraints for many countries was, I believe, a vote of confidence in the reform. It is too a reminder to me and my colleagues of our responsibilities to carry it forward to a successful completion. I hope the Conference will echo those sentiments by adoption of the proposals before it.

But with all of the importance it has, the reform is a static process, in the sense that it is aimed at putting the ILO in a position to do its job better in the conditions existing today. That is necessary, but it is not enough. We need also to understand the dynamics of change in the world of work, to get to grips with the rapidly evolving realities that will necessarily set any relevant agenda for the ILO’s future.

The mega-drivers of demography and technology, the new processes of rebalancing of a global economy still recovering hesitantly, unevenly, or not at all, from a half-decade of crisis, the transformation of the nature and location of production systems, the new contours of poverty and prosperity around the world, and the alarming levels and growth of inequality in and between our societies are all acting and inter-acting on the world of work, transforming it more quickly and more deeply than ever before. They pose questions for the achievement of the decent work agenda which we are still not adequately equipped to answer. The most important, the one asked everywhere and with growing urgency and sometimes alarm, is “where are the jobs coming from?” and it is most frequently addressed to the situation of our young people. I wonder if there is anybody in this room for whom this is not the key issue.

In the proposals made at the end of my Report for a series of “ILO Centenary Initiatives”, I try to point to some avenues for a forward-looking and strategic response, that combined with ongoing reform would help the ILO get to its centenary renewed, in phase with what is really happening to people at work, and in a position to make a difference to it in the ways required by its mandate.

The initiatives tabled for your comments differ in character.

The Governance Initiative would continue the start made with the reform – successful in my judgement – of the Governing Body. That means completion of the Conference reform process, which includes Regional Meetings; and the evaluation of the impact of the 2008 Social Justice Declaration which is mandated in its follow-up provisions, together with the implementation of findings.

Similarly, the Standards Initiative would involve the completion of tasks which the ILO has already set itself – but which it is still struggling to advance. As our Conference gets started, what is most on the minds of many here is getting an agreed list of cases for the Committee on the Application of Standards. It is on my mind too, and let me say that with the good will and effort of all concerned I am convinced we will have that list and that the Committee will be able to do its work as we would all wish.

That will be good news. But it will not and must not distract us from the underlying and crucial tasks of consolidating full tripartite consensus and support for our supervisory system – something that the ILO simply cannot do without – and also of establishing and operating a standards review mechanism whose mandate it will be to update and enhance the relevance of our body of international labour standards.

Those tasks are easily stated, but will take considerable political and technical effort to achieve. Yet achieve them we must. They will weigh heavily on the credibility and authority of the ILO as it heads into its second century of activity.

A third initiative which I know from past exchanges may raise some concerns but which I am entirely convinced is crucial to the ILO’s relevance and effectiveness in the future relates to ILO engagement with enterprises. It is little less than self-evident that an Organization which needs to connect better with the realities of business and respond better to business needs should be making efforts to engage with enterprises. And I have been left in no doubt that there is considerable interest from enterprises in bringing this about.

My impression is that obstacles to progress in this area arise from worries – understandable it should be said – that engagement with enterprises may undermine established and necessary representational functions and be insufficiently clearly aligned with ILO objectives. If that is so, the challenge will be to define the terms and the goals of that engagement. There seems little reason why we should not be able to do that and very considerable gains to be had from doing so. We come to the task very late. We should not delay further.

Ladies and gentlemen,

There are three further initiatives which, in contrast to those already referred to, go directly to specific policy issues which, I would suggest, are so fundamental to the future of the world of work that they merit your particular attention and our combined tripartite commitment.

The Green Initiative would insert the ILO strategically in the international community’s quest for action to do nothing less than assure the long-term future of the planet. Whether we like it or not, production and consumption systems are crucial determinants of environmental sustainability, and the world of work is going to have to make unprecedented efforts to reconcile its future with that of the planet. The ILO needs to be centre-stage in this historic process of transition and the proposed initiative can put us there.

In similar terms, the End to Poverty Initiative will not only allow the ILO to play its fullest role in the emerging global commitment to put an end to extreme poverty in the world by 2030 but also to eliminate the danger that poverty anywhere constitutes to prosperity everywhere, and so conclude with victory one battle in its unrelenting war on want. We have the mandate. We have the opportunity in the post-2015 development agenda. What further invitation could we possibly need?

And the Women at Work Initiative would provide opportunity to build on the ILO’s excellent record of advocacy and achievement on gender issues to launch a new stage of our work focusing sharply on the place and conditions of women in the world of work and the policies which really work in correcting persisting and profound disadvantage. This is necessary social policy and good economic policy. I feel sure that many of us attending the recent ILO European Regional Meeting in Oslo were struck by Prime Minister Stoltenberg’s remark that Norway’s prosperity today owes more to the integration of women into its labour force than it does to all of its fossil fuel riches. By our initiative we can help unleash this potential – which all of our societies possess – and at the same time live up to our obligations for equality.

I hope you will consider these ideas and provide your guidance on them. This debate should be one which brings consequences – for the ILO, for your countries, for the world of work. And if the approaches outlined in my Report find favour with you, then I believe they should come together in a seventh and final initiative which, under the title of the Future of Work Initiative would involve the establishment of an advisory panel on the future of work which would draw up a report for discussion at our centenary Conference in 2019.

Such initiatives as this should be used sparingly. They should be prepared well, and their purpose defined with care and precision. We are in a position to do all that, and to draw from the exercise results – of the quality and visibility appropriate to such an occasion.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I have come to the post of Director-General with real ambition for the future of the ILO and a great deal of optimism too. The condition of crisis prevailing in much of the world of work does not mean that those sentiments are misplaced, any more than the dynamism in other parts provide automatic justification for them.

The real point is rather different:

It is that here at the ILO we have the mandate, we have the right actors, and we are equipping ourselves with the means to make the world of work a better, more humane, kinder and fairer one in which all have a place and where all can have an equal opportunity to realize their potential, where the rights of all are protected and respected and the basics for a decent life provided.

We can all work for this and, if we do, we can achieve it.

But, as the ILO’s 5th Director-General David Morse reminded us: “The ILO can only be as effective an instrument for progress as its member States and its other constituents want it to be.”

So I conclude with the hope – and the conviction – that your ambition and your enthusiasm for the ILO will be the same as my own. Without that tripartite commitment we will not get as far as we should. With it, we can look forward to our centenary and well beyond with the confidence and the vision of the ILO that the world needs. ***