105th International Labour Conference

ILO Director-General’s opening remarks to the 105th International Labour Conference

Statement | 30 May 2016
Madam President,
Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Let me extend to you all my own welcome to this 105th Session of the International Labour Conference.

Our Conference has great challenges before it, much work to be done in a shorter period of time than ever before. But we have made the best of starts, Madam President, by electing you to lead us. You are well known in this house for your leadership in your own great country, South Africa, and internationally. As such, you are a guarantee for our collective success over the next two weeks.

And, of course, you will not be alone. We expect to register more than 6,000 participants at this Conference – representatives of Governments, of employers, and of workers, as well as of the international organizations and of civil society who will accompany us in our work.

We will be privileged to welcome three outstanding guests of honour. Later this morning we will be addressed by the President of our host country, Switzerland, Mr Johann Schneider-Ammann who we count as a great friend of the ILO. And on the day of our World of Work Summit – 9 June – a Summit we will be dedicating to the global crisis of youth unemployment – we will receive the President of the European Commission, Mr Jean-Claude Juncker, and the President of Zambia, Mr Edgar Lungu.

And I think that this is vivid testimony to something which we should not forget, and that is the enduring importance of this extraordinary World Parliament of Labour as it has come to be known. Over nearly 100 years this has been the time and the place where the actors of the world of work from now 187 member States meet, talk, negotiate, and generally find consensus. And if you think about it that is no small thing given the global realities of today.

Yes we have reformed our Conference, we have made it more efficient, made it shorter. We have striven for real relevance in our agenda. We have challenged ourselves to get a maximum done in a minimum of time. And we are right to do so. Because that is how we will ensure that the Conference continues to be the key event in the international calendar that it has always been. And I think we should accept nothing less.

Madam President,

I believe that it is important as we start our work to take a moment at this opening session to step back and place our Conference in its global context.

Above all, that context is a world of work undergoing profound and rapid change, transformative change. For some, this means opportunity and generates optimism. For others it brings insecurity and generates fear. The potential for innovative disruption of productive life is celebrated by some. By others it is dreaded.

Faced with this, it is of no purpose to try to judge who is right and who is wrong. But, bear this in mind: if current trends towards and beyond already unacceptable levels of inequality are allowed to continue, accentuating still further the polarisation of our societies, retarding their prospects for growth, frustrating their ambitions for sustainable development, and eating ever more deeply into their social fabric and cohesion, then we would have to conclude together that, viewed with the short term myopia of sectional interest, both views can be valid. But we have to conclude as well that ultimately all will be losers. Because these trends cannot continue for very long. They carry the seeds of their own non sustainability.

This is what we need to have in mind as we set about our work here in Geneva. We must not allow ourselves the illusion that inequality, marginalisation, and division are things which happen to the world of work and to which it is our task to react. The reality is that it is the world of work that is bringing these phenomena about - of course under the pressure of external factors – but all of this is the consequence of what we do, how we behave, and what we decide.

So facing up to the responsibilities which the ILO’s mandate for social justice imposes upon each one of us means adjusting our actions, our behaviour, our decisions to ensure that the undoubted opportunities of transformative change at work are realised. So that all – not just the few – can look to the future not with fear but with confidence, not with an eye only to individual advancement but also with a real sense of common purpose.

Three years away from our Centenary Conference, the ILO has already decided to set its ambitions at the heights of this existential challenge. By harnessing our collective energies, commitments, and knowledge in an unprecedented reflection on the future of work we have already accepted the imperative of equipping our Organization to prosecute its unchanging mandate for social justice in the transformed conditions it will confront as it enters its second century.

Already, some 115 member States have engaged in national processes under the first phase of our Future of Work Initiative, and I want to encourage the rest to join them. By the time Conference convenes in this same hall next year we will be at the stage of feeding the outputs of their national processes into the High-Level Global Commission on the Future of Work.

And that Commission will also be able to draw upon the other centenary initiatives – I just want to refer here to the particular reference of the green initiative which highlights the imperative of integrating environmental sustainability into the future of work, and the women at work initiative which aims to ensure that that future is one which completes the unfinished business of the long struggle for full gender equality.

Madam President,

I believe that these future prospects are important for our work. But in the meantime we are already preparing the way. In a real sense the future of the ILO is already being framed. Nearly four years of reform, guided, encouraged, and approved by the Governing Body has already borne important fruit and is being built upon with the strong commitment of everybody who works for you in the ILO to bring continued improvement in the quality and efficiency of what we do.

Substantively, preparations are underway for the ILO Strategic Plan 2018-2021 which will be discussed by the Governing Body next November and which will take the ILO up to and beyond its centenary. The point here is that the ILO is shaping itself to shape the future of work.

And what is more, this Conference can and must contribute in a very important way to that endeavour. Fortunately, you have before you an agenda which is very well suited for it to do so. As I see it, that agenda combines relevance and ambition, is forward-looking while highlighting the continuity of historic ILO objectives, and is attentive to the institutional framework that you have decided should guide the programmes of the ILO itself while encompassing the broader multilateral system dynamics in which they are set.

Let me explain what I mean by that,

The decision three years ago to put an item on global supply chains on the agenda of this Conference session, was taken not only in the wake of tragic events of which we are all conscious but also in a deliberate effort to address a major driver of change and an even greater reality in our world of work. The subject of supply chains was chosen not because it is easy – it definitely is not, but because it is important – it definitely is, and it will be all the more so in the future. So it ticks all the boxes of what the ILO must be focussing on now and in the future. I appreciate that delegates may be coming to this discussion with quite diverging ideas of what should result from it. But it is incumbent on all of us, particularly given high expectations, to come up with clear conclusions on what is expected of the ILO on a subject in which, as I have said elsewhere, it needs to invest considerable effort and resources in the future.

The revision of Recommendation 71 on employment in the transition from war to peace illustrates I think with exemplary clarity how continuity of purpose can and must be combined with adaptation to change. The ILO was, as we all know, born in the transition from a first world war to peace in 1919. Recommendation 71 was adopted in the corresponding transition from a second world war in 1944. Now, our circumstances are radically different today. We do not face global or wide-scale inter-state conflict. The ILO is not the only functioning international organization as it was the case in 1944. Yet we are still faced with the task of contributing to the ending of multiple conflicts around the world and of consolidating peace and stability through the application of the decent work agenda. History and experience show just how potent opportunities for decent work are in exiting fragility and in building peace and resilience, and a new Recommendation will vitally strengthen the normative framework for our flagship programme in this area. And I should underline that the scope for action here is not limited to post-conflict situations. It extends as well to the aftermath of natural disasters and other catastrophes.

President, the third technical item on the agenda, evaluation of the impact of the 2008 Social Justice Declaration for a Fair Globalisation, is where Conference will examine the results of the Organization’s efforts to work according to the guidance that that Declaration provides. Let us recall that the Declaration is an ambitious and quite detailed road map of the “how” as much as the “what” of ILO activity. When it was adopted provision was made for periodic evaluation of its impact and I strongly believe that now is the right time for that to be undertaken. Because we have a decent period of eight years of experience to draw lessons from; because it will shed light on the achievement of reform over half of that eight year period; and above all because it will feed directly into the strategic planning process coming up in November.

It is worth mentioning here as well that the Programme Implementation Report for 2014-15 which is forwarded by the Governing Body to the Conference for adoption provides a valuable reference as to what the ILO has done and how in application of the terms of the Declaration.

So Madam President,

I think that your representatives in the Governing Body deserve congratulations for the wise choices they have made in putting this menu of work before us. But what about some of the permanent business the Conference has before it?

Over the last 35 years the Director-General in conformity with a Conference resolution has presented a report on the situation of workers in the Occupied Arab Territories. At different moments, it has reflected moments of relative optimism and hope for positive change, and sometimes it has reflected the exact opposite. This year- as last – there is little good news to report, and much frustration that circumstances have not allowed the ILO to do as much as it would want for workers who continue to suffer the consequences of occupation.

Turning to the all-important work of the Committee on the application of standards. Last year, following the difficult experience of preceding sessions when, because of serious divergences of opinion on matters of fundamental importance, the Committee had been unable to complete its work, I appealed to all Groups to redouble their efforts and their readiness to seek compromise so as to ensure that on this occasion it could do its job successfully.

Well, you did just that. And the benefits were felt well beyond the Conference session itself. Because today and as a direct result of what happened at the Conference last year, the ILO is very much better placed to address the crucially important set of standards-related issues which make up the Centenary Standards Initiative. Most obviously, the standards review mechanism is underway. It has made a good start and there is now a higher degree of confidence between constituents and a greater willingness to strive for constructive solutions.

So I won’t surprise if I renew the appeal made to you one year ago. A successful CAS is fundamentally important for two reasons. Firstly, because we all know that the underlying divergences of opinion are still with us. They have not been resolved. And that means that the forward path is narrow and the consensus which is the compass by which we can find a way along it is fragile. And secondly, because a strong, authoritative and relevant standards system is a precondition of an effective, influential ILO. The ILO we want, the ILO the world needs. One of the major positive lessons of the often difficult discussions of the last four years is that we all agree on that and, moreover, are all committed to achieve. And let me add, with reference to the criterion of relevance, that I warmly welcome the decision for our Committee of Experts to zoom in this year in their General Survey on the key Conventions on labour migration. It is difficult to think of a choice more appropriate to our apparent circumstances.

And, Madam President,

I hope that, my choice of subject – one of the few choices I get during this conference- the Director-General’s Report to be discussed here in plenary will also meet with the approval of the Conference. It is on the End of Poverty Initiative which is the ILO contribution to the implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

We can certainly take satisfaction that, as a result of our collective efforts, decent work finds such a central and strong presence in the 2030 Agenda. Its Goal No. 8 explicitly puts decent work for all at the heart of the world’s sustainable development road map for the next 15 years. But that is not all. Because you can find because you can find decent work components embedded in practically all of the other 16 Goals.

This is a success – a big one. But with it goes a heavy responsibility for the Agenda’s implementation, and it is to that task that the report before you is directed. It has the triple purpose of making the content and significance of the 2030 Agenda widely known in the ILO’s tripartite constituency; encouraging you to be active shareholders in national ownership of the Agenda which is a precondition for its success; and eliciting your guidance on how the ILO should support implementation – in its own activities and in the collective work of the whole multilateral system as it strives for greater coherence, collective action, and fitness for purpose in and through the agenda’s delivery.

In considering these themes let us, once again, step back and see the full context. The fact is that with the 2030 Agenda the international community has committed itself to transformative change to bring an end to extreme poverty, which is one of the historic objectives of the ILO. It is an agenda for global social justice and an agenda for our times in which, perversely, the very wealth creating capacity that offers the prospect of consigning poverty to history also risks taking us further away from social justice rather than carrying us towards it.

So this is very much the ILO’s Agenda. Because, simply expressed, humanity’s challenge is to align what it is now capable of doing with what it must do to preserve its humanity and its future. And that alignment can only come about in, and through, the world of work – through all of you.

And this is the reason why delivering the 2030 Agenda is so intimately intertwined with our work to bring about the future of work that we all want and of which the ILO and its constituents must be the architects.

Madam President,

The challenges of the world of work today, the challenges we have set for the Centenary, the challenges of the 2030 Agenda, and of course the immediate challenges of this Conference are certainly considerable. But the ILO has, I would contend, set a course, and raised its ambitions to meet them. We move with our times. We stand on our principles and together we have reason to fact the future with confidence as well as determination.

The next two weeks are our next steps forwards and I wish you all a successful Conference.