Third ITUC World Congress

Address by Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization

Statement | Berlin | 19 May 2014
President - Dear Michael,
General Secretary - Dear Sharan,
DGB President - Dear Reiner,
Delegates and Observers - Dear Friends,

I think you will all well understand why it is such an honour and a personal pleasure for me to address this third ITUC Congress, so thank you for giving me the opportunity to speak to you.

And thank you also for making it possible for me to do so as Director-General of the ILO.

You have come to Berlin with clear intentions: to build greater power for workers; to make trade unions across the globe bigger and stronger; to win universal respect for workers’ rights; and to make decent sustainable jobs and social protection accessible to all.

And these are goals which unite the ITUC and the ILO. They make us partners in the continuing struggle for social justice. They require of us that we bring our shared values to the task of generating shared prosperity for all. And we come to that struggle mindful of what others too easily forget: that this prosperity is entirely the outcome of human labour; that this labour is not a commodity but is essential, and it is endowed with rights; that its interests must be at the centre of policy-making which must be organized to meet its needs and in accordance with those rights.

The ITUC Constitution of 2006, like the ILO Constitution of 1919 and the Declaration of Philadelphia of 1944 which has been quoted here, speak to these imperatives and call us to the defence of principles unchanged over a century which has seen the world of work transformed.

And if the ILO was born as the world emerged from the cataclysm of its first global conflict, the ITUC came into existence on the eve of its descent into the first generalized crisis of the globalized economy.

The continuing aftermath of that crisis, unfinished – the great recession – reminds us of the truth that lasting peace really does depend upon social justice.


The crisis has taken and continues to take an appalling toll of human suffering, with workers taking the brunt.

Your Congress documents record it:

Global unemployment at record levels, still rising, and rising on a path that will not be reversed by today’s anaemic recovery in growth;

the labour share of global income continuing to fall, fuelling intolerable and growing inequality which is offensive to our most basic concepts of social justice, damaging to our capacities of growth and job creation, but also a danger to the very stability of our societies;

a financial sector still remote from its proper functions as facilitator of the real productive economy and resistant to the regulation needed to save it from its own worst instincts and the rest of us from the devastating consequences of its excesses;

the fight to end world poverty inexcusably retarded, the challenges of climate change as yet unmet, and the world an increasingly dangerous place.

Wherever you have come from to Berlin, in all of your neighbourhoods the cold winds of multiplying conflicts and social tensions are not far away from you.

You will, as you must, focus at this Congress on the most serious violations of fundamental workers’ rights in the world. They are far too many and it is the ILO’s responsibility to stand with you for their elimination. Many of you in this hall have been their victim; I salute your courage and I salute your fortitude.

Some of the worst situations are defined by national frontiers – those countries which, as we have heard yesterday and again this morning, have still not assumed their responsibilities as ILO member States to respect fundamental rights. Other violations have to do with processes, still incubating, deeply embedded in globalization – global supply chains, migration, trafficking, and the type of enterprise mobility that allows the evasion and the avoidance of tax, of the employment relationship, of collective bargaining and of trade union organization.

And I think we need to get to grips with both dimensions. From an ILO perspective that means firstly and crucially ensuring the integrity, the strength and the authority of our standards supervisory system. It is a unique and invaluable benchmark for global justice at work but it is – as you know – under stress.

Those of you travelling from Berlin to Geneva for the annual ILO Conference know that what is at stake in the on-going controversy over the right to strike is of inestimable importance, and we have to find solutions which do not compromise what is of such fundamental historic significance to the labour movement.

At the same time the tragedy of Rana Plaza just over one year ago has been a game changer in the politics of supply chain management. For that we owe real thanks to the Global Unions who have broken new ground with the Accord on Fire and Building Safety, and we owe it to the 1100 dead of Rana Plaza to go further. Global supply chains that translate cheap goods and big profits into terrible working conditions can no longer be tolerated. We can change them and change them we must.

And in the same vein, the only possible response to the 300 victims at the Soma mine in Turkey last week is to act now and to act decisively, and that is exactly what the ILO is doing. And as others have said, their deaths had nothing to do with destiny. They were not collateral damage unavoidable in a hazardous industry. They were the result of negligence and failure and of the corrosive notion that even human life has to be weighed in the scales against efficiency and competitiveness.

We understand the scale of the challenges we face together: it must encourage not deter us. And we should not make the mistake of ignoring the advances that have been made – the victories that have been won – because as Sharan reminded us in her speech, they are considerable too. As the ITUC calls working people to join its struggle do not forget that, in general, people prefer to be on the winning side, that means joining a movement which demonstrates its capacity to defend their interests and to bring real change for good.


It matters that, in the ITUC, the world’s trade union movement has created the largest democratic movement in the world. But it depends on the people and the organizations in this hall whether that extraordinary potential can be brought effectively to meet the formidable challenges ahead.

Internationalism is a natural reflex of trade unionism. Of that I have no doubt. But I know as well that internationalism does not and will not function automatically. It requires leadership. It requires organization. It requires the innovation so in evidence at this Congress. It requires that the very diverse traditions, cultures and practices of trade unionism around the world come together in shared purpose and mutual respect. It will thrive only with your commitment. It needs to be rooted deeply in the life of the ITUC’s affiliates and be close and responsive to its members.

Do all of that and, recognizing that no force on earth is weaker than the feeble power of one, the ITUC truly can become the greatest force beneath the sun. And in this you have no weapon more powerful than your unity and your principles.

For its part, the ILO faces the same task of advancing its goals, in conditions of unprecedented change and a frequently inhospitable political climate. Since the votes of your representatives got me elected, the efforts of our organization have been focused on equipping it to be more influential in advancing justice at work.

Building ILO power has involved sharpening our technical and analytical work, focussing on key priorities, advocating for jobs and growth in the G20, using our partnership with international organizations to have them better understand why organizing and collective bargaining are good for equity and good for our economies. It has meant working to ensure that decent work and social protection are included as explicit goals in the United Nations post-2015 development agenda, and we need your help to make all of that happen.

Equally, colleagues, we make the case for social dialogue, the case for talking – it is the way the ILO itself does its work – and we have sought to repair or reactivate such dialogue where it has been a sacrificial victim to the perceived imperatives of austerity.

The ILO will advance to its centenary – it will take place just one year after the next ITUC Congress gathers – committed to new initiatives:

• to redynamize its commitment to equality for women at work
• to make decent work a guiding principle along the road to a sustainable green economy
• to play our full part in the global push to end extreme poverty by 2030
• and lastly, but not least, by launching a centenary initiative on the future of work which, I trust, can serve to restore policy priorities and values which are today in grave danger of being lost.


To paraphrase Willy Brandt who was quoted yesterday, from an ILO perspective the ITUC may not be everything but without it there is not very much.

In this city, Berlin, once divided now united, the forces of global democratic trade unionism, once divided now united, meet. Much depends on your deliberations, your decisions, and what you do to act on those decisions. The different currents that converged at Vienna eight years ago and flowed on to Vancouver and now Berlin can and will take you further with increased strength, unflinching resolve, with the solidarity from which the ITUC was born.

You will be making changes. One of your leaders, a son of this city, Michael Sommer steps down from his national and international duties at this time. I had the chance to make my personal tribute to him at the DGB Congress last week from this podium and reiterate before you my admiration, respect and friendship for this great trade union internationalist.

You will, I am sure, succeed in building worker power. You will meet the challenge of organizing 20 million new union members in the next four years. And you must, because the echoes of history tell us everything about what is at stake.

This city was one of the European capitals where global war was declared exactly 100 years ago. The international solidarity of labour was broken, broken by the siren calls of nationalism and aggression. In the words of a then political leader of my country the lights were turned off across this continent and indeed they were not to come on again in the lifetime of all those who witnessed it.

Today the danger is that the lights will be off for a whole generation of young workers, excluded from decent work, shut out of society. For them the lights of hope must be turned on again. It falls to all of you and to the ITUC to act on the lessons of history to which others may prefer to be deaf, to give leadership where it is so badly needed and to hold the line of social justice.

Colleagues, you will probably make a few enemies along the way. But you might just bring a better world and a fairer future for the next generation.

Good luck.