104th International Labour Conference

ILO Director-General’s opening remarks to the 104th International Labour Conference

Statement | 01 June 2015
Madam President,
Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me welcome you all to Geneva and this 104th Session of the International Labour Conference. I would like to congratulate you, Madam President on your election and to wish you good luck. We know that we are in good hands, and the Secretariat is here to lend all its support to you in carrying out your responsibilities.

This global tripartite parliament of labour gathers as the world of work continues to confront challenges of formidable proportions. Your presence here today shows that you expect the ILO to respond effectively with its member States to these challenges and that you are ready to contribute to that work. And it is precisely because they are formidable that our responsibilities before us now are heavy.

The continuing reforms underway in the ILO, and the hard work of the Governing Body over the past year – which its President Ambassador Correia of Angola will report to the Conference very shortly – show that our Organization is acting, and acting decisively. Our Organization is changing and must continue to change to be more expert, more efficient, more visible, more useful – and in the end more influential. The Programme and Budget for the next biennium 2016-17 which the Governing Body has recommended for approval by this Conference shows very concretely that we are determined to continue on that path to use the resources that you place at our disposal to best effect, and I want to commend that Programme and Budget to the Conference for adoption.

Appropriately in these circumstances, we now embark upon a Conference that combines innovation with ambition. Innovation because we will be using new working methods designed to shorten the length of the Conference without loss of effectiveness. And ambition because our agenda gives us the chance to address issues which affect the working lives of many millions in all parts of the world. That means that what we achieve in the next two weeks can make a very significant, a very important and a very concrete difference.

We have the opportunity to adopt a Recommendation that, for the very first time, will provide an international framework for the transition from informality to the formal economy, which commands increasing tripartite support as a policy priority. And with nearly half of the global workforce working in conditions of informality, we cannot be credible if we do not act to address the conditions they face.

We have the chance also to look more closely at how the small and medium-sized enterprises which are so crucial to the global jobs challenge can be promoted as creators of decent and productive employment. The report presented for this general discussion is rigorous. It examines the true diversity of SME experience, the real evidence of ILO achievements to date and how they can be built upon in the future. This is an important debate.

And the latest in the series of recurrent discussions which began in 2010 under the terms of the 2008 Declaration on Social Justice will this year be dedicated to core labour protection issues – wages, safety and health, working time, and maternity protection – each of which lies at the heart of the ILO’s mandate and of policy debate in very many of your member States.

Put all of this together and it is fair to say that our technical agenda this year meets the criteria of topicality and relevance that we have set for our Conference and if we work well, it will meet those of usefulness and impact as well.

Madam President,

In the light of developments in the Governing Body, I think we can all approach the work of the Committee on the Application of Standards, not only with a shared commitment to have it complete its work successfully, but also with a renewed confidence that it will do so. We all know, in recent Conference sessions this Committee has witnessed serious controversy and on occasion breakdown. But even in these circumstances, all groups have consistently and impressively insisted on the fundamental importance of a strong, authoritative, and well functioning supervisory system.

Ladies and gentlemen, now is the time to make that work in practice, and to do so nobody will need to step away from strongly held points of principle, but everybody is going to have to come to the task with a readiness to compromise and to seek consensus. That’s how this house works. There is nothing more important than this at stake at this year’s Conference.

I also want to join with the Committee of Experts in applauding the decision to have their General Survey this year examine the situation of rural workers: once more a good example of focus on a major ILO priority, and a large part of the global workforce to whom the ILO has pressing responsibilities.

Madam President,

An important consideration in the process of reform of the International Labour Conference, as in evidence at this session, has been how to make best use of the debates here in the plenary session.

This year, we are truly fortunate that the World of Work Summit on 11 June will be honoured by the participation of our four invited guests of honour: President Mahama of Ghana, President Hollande of France and President Varela of Panama, as well as the Nobel Peace Prize laureate, child labour activist and close and longstanding ILO friend Kailash Satyarthi. Their presence means that we have a fantastic opportunity and a real platform to discuss the theme of climate change and the world of work in an interactive tripartite summit. What better contribution can we make to the UN’s year of global action that will address financing for development in Addis Ababa in July, the Post-2015 Development Agenda in September and culminate in the crucial Paris Climate Change Conference at the end of the year in December? All of this is definitely ILO business and we must and will take our proper part in it all.

This plenary is also where my annual report on the situation of workers in the occupied Arab territories is discussed. And I give you due notice: there is no good news in this report. Rather the opposite. And at a time when there are so many competing claims on the attention of the international community, I trust it will serve to keep in the minds of every one of us our collective responsibilities, here in the ILO and within the mandate of the ILO, to bring improvement to the lives of working people who continue to bear the full weight of occupation.

Madam President,

My main Report to the Conference is dedicated to the Future of Work, and more specifically to the centenary initiative that I suggested on taking up office and which has gathered, I have to say, very wide support and interest among and beyond the ILO’s constituency.

The basic idea behind this initiative is really very simple, but its significance can be very great indeed – if we get it right.

The idea is that in a world of work being transformed by changes of unprecedented speed and scale, it is generally difficult for the ILO and you, its Members, to step back from immediate and specific policy challenges which are our predominant occupation and to look at the longer term drivers of change, the transformational mega-trends which operate beyond the usual timeframes of political mandates, and what they imply for the goals we pursue in the ILO. The centenary in 2019 gives us unprecedented opportunity to do just that. We would be negligent if we use the centenary only to look back on 100 years of history and achievement. Instead, let us use it to work out what we need to do to equip our Organization to fulfil its mandate for social justice in the years ahead, the second 100 years of its existence. This is the significance of what is proposed.

I hope that this ambition is one that you can share and – more importantly – it will count on your active support and engagement. Because without you that cannot be realized.

To facilitate our joint efforts, I am proposing a three-stage process of implementation for this initiative.

The first stage is an outreach to all interested parties, those in this room, but others too in but also beyond the tripartite community to get involved in a major process of reflection on developments in the world of work; an invitation to share knowledge, insights, ideas and proposals. We have everything to gain from extending the outreach as widely as possible. In so doing tripartism can only be strengthened, not weakened. I propose to structure this stage of the process around four future of work conversations. One will focus on work and society; a second on decent jobs for all; a third on the organization of work and production; and a fourth on the governance of work, the rules and regulations by which to ensure that work is decent.

Together, these should allow for a comprehensive set of inputs to a second stage that would be in the form of a high-level global commission on the future of work. There is precedent for this type of commission here at the ILO and I think it is a good precedent.

It would be the commission’s task to process and where necessary supplement the material emerging from the centenary conversations and to produce a report that, in the third stage of the initiative, would be submitted to the 2019 centenary session of the International Labour Conference - this moment four years on.

We will still have to decide how the Conference would examine that report and with what result in mind. If we share a determination – and I hope that we will - that this initiative should have real and operable consequences for the ILO and for the world of work then consideration, I think, could be given to the possible adoption of a solemn centenary declaration. The occasion would seem to demand such a declaration. But if it is not to fall below the level of ambition we should properly set for it – it will need to be very carefully prepared and a clear understanding developed of its political rather than its ceremonial purpose.

Madam President,

The issues of jobs, equity, sustainability of human security, labour mobility, social dialogue and much more that need to be tackled in a future of work initiative are almost by definition the key policy issues of our time; issues that governments and social partners everywhere are grappling with. Equally these are the issues which lie at the heart of the ILO’s mandate and the collective responsibilities of the constituents in this room of which I spoke at the outset. It is for our Organization to take the lead on them. If we do not, we may see that others will. And without the perspectives that tripartism alone can bring to them, they will not do the same job that we can and, I put it to you, that we must do.

So, on all of these matters, the guidance of Governments’, Employers’ and Workers’ representatives in the plenary is crucially important. This has to be your initiative because without your ownership and support and involvement it cannot work. It will not work. You will find that my Report is mercifully concise, it is easy reading and it is an invitation to debate aimed at eliciting your ideas and interest rather than an attempt to provide an answer to the many complex questions that it raises.

So please, read the Report, give us the benefit of your views, and get involved so that our centenary can be not just a historic milestone but a signpost that signals the way forward along the road, the continuing road, to social justice.

President, delegates,

I want to close by wishing you success in the work that lies ahead. There can be no doubting the importance of the work that we have before us. But it will take your commitment and your skills to ensure that to those ingredients of innovation and ambition with which this Conference begins is added that of achievement in its results.

So good luck – and thank you for your attention and for everything you will be doing during the next two weeks.