Singapore Conference on the Future of Work 2019

Embracing technology for an inclusive growth in Asia

Opening remarks at Singapore Conference on the Future of Work 2019 by Guy Ryder, Director-General, ILO.

Date issued: 13 May 2019 |

Minister of Manpower Josephine Teo,
Secretary-General of ASEAN,
Representatives of the Singapore National Trade Union Congress and National Employers Federation,
Representatives of the employers and workers of ASEAN countries,
Members of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends,

Let me begin by thanking our hosts the Ministry for Manpower and the Government of Singapore and the social partners – the Singapore National Employers Federation and the National Trade Union Congress – for their joint effort in organizing this most important regional conference on the future of work today.

Ladies and gentlemen, I join you here in Singapore at the end of what's been a truly remarkable month for the International Labour Organization.

On the 10th of April I was with the President of the United Nations General Assembly and the Secretary-General António Guterres in New York where the General Assembly held a special session to celebrate the ILO's one hundredth anniversary. And the very next day the 11th of April, which was the hundredth birthday of the ILO, we had a live 24-hour Global Tour. We moved across the globe broadcasting online from 24 cities. We highlighted our success stories and we had insightful debates on the future of work, but we also had dancing and singing and laughter. And this remarkable event showed us what the ILO's 100-year fight for social justice and for dignity at work has really meant to governments, to workers and to employers. And I hope that some of you at least were able to join in or to follow these events in your region. They took place in Suva, in Manila, in Beijing, in Bangkok, in Dhaka, in Colombo, and in New Delhi.

And ladies and gentlemen, today's Conference, today's event is a continuation of this journey. And in many respects let me say that Singapore has been a pathfinder when it comes to the future of work. And we’ve just heard from the Minister and we've just seen on the video how that has been played out. And the same applies in the International Labour Organization’s Future of Work Centenary Initiative.

So again, Minister Teo, to all of you in your team and to your social partners, thank you for this leadership.

The Centenary celebrations for the ILO provide us with a real opportunity of course to look back at 100 years of achievements in pursuing our social justice mandate. And in doing so we of course recognize the progress that has been made in keeping with development anchored in the principle of decent work for all.

At the same time I think it's more important we have the opportunity to look to the future and to see how we are going to shape the future of work that truly leaves nobody behind.

The future of work is not decided for us it's not predestined. We have the power to work together to determine the direction that future will take. And I believe that we have a shared responsibility to do just that. And that's an important message – I would say it’s the central message – of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work, which published its report in January of this year.

Now the content of that report will be presented to you shortly. So I'm not going to spend much time on it right now, except to share one of its messages, which is that we have the potential to work together, to drive a human-centred agenda for the future of work. What does that mean? It means placing women and men and the work that they do at the very centre of economic and social policy.

We're all aware that new forces are transforming the world of work: new technologies, demographic pressures, climate change. And today there is also uncertainty about the future path of globalization.

And we know that all of these factors are changing how people work and where they work. Enterprises and business models are changing as are labour market institutions and the services that they provide. I think we all know that change is inevitable and it is welcome. But there is one thing that does not change and that is our moral imperative to protect the most vulnerable from any negative consequences of these transformative forces.

And for this, we need to make sure that we have strong institutions in place to keep the future of work moving in a positive direction. I have no doubt that our social justice mandate is as relevant today as it was when the ILO was founded in 1919. And I have no doubt either that our standards setting work conducted through our unique tripartite structure is needed as much as ever it was – possibly even more so today than ever before – as the world of work undergoes these transformative changes of unprecedented scale and speed.

But if we look at the ASEAN region in this context we see that there is certainly a lot to celebrate here. Good reason to look to the future with both optimism and confidence in a region that continues to outperform all others in terms of economic growth. As we heard the average growth rate of five per cent between 2007 and 2017 was well above the average growth rate and some of the fastest growing economies in the world are represented in this room today with almost all ASEAN countries still above five per cent annual growth.

In the 20th century millions of Asians moved to Europe or to North America to pursue their dreams of building a good life. Today the flows are reversing. Entrepreneurial Europeans and Americans are flocking to Asia attracted by your region’s dynamism.

Asia has become the heart of the digital innovation and there is that sense of optimism here. And so there is a great deal to be excited about, and a lot of interesting policies here that are to be applauded. I think particularly of the SkillsFuture Initiative of our host country as a case in point. And I suspect that we will all benefit from hearing about their Smart Nation Singapore and also about a future of manufacturing initiative that is creating the economic dynamism needed to lead in this fourth industrial revolution.

But let's keep in mind as well that innovation often by itself does not necessarily create decent work or inclusive growth for all. And in fact despite the region's success in economic growth let's remember that there are still far too many workers living in poverty or near to poverty. In 2018 nearly one in two workers in the ASEAN region was toiling in vulnerable employment either self-employed or in unpaid family work, and two out of three were in informal employment, and one in five workers lived below the poverty line. I think we can all accept that we must aim to do better than this.

Technological advances are bringing extraordinary opportunities to boost economies and the standard of living. And that is why most of the countries represented in the hall today are moving forward in their industry 4.0 strategies. But we still need to ask ourselves how the big push to embrace technology will bring about improvements in the quality of working lives for everybody in the region. How are we going to make that happen? I think this is the big question on the table for today and for tomorrow. And of course I'd be very interested to hear the views expressed.

In addition in this room today are representatives from the world's most aged countries as well as the most rapidly ageing countries. Five countries: Australia, Japan, Korea, New Zealand and Singapore have more than 14 per cent of their populations aged above 65 years. And I think in Japan that figure is now 22 per cent. China, Thailand and Vietnam will turn that corner within just a few years. With ageing, which is itself a reflection of social success come challenges in recruiting and retaining suitably skilled care workers in filling labour demand in general and in keeping productivity levels up.

The research that the ILO has done shows that we can generate as many as 296 million jobs in the care economy around the world if investments in education, in health and in social work would double by 2030.

Now there are a lot of interesting initiatives already happening in the ASEAN region to promote active ageing, including through the use of technology. And so again I look forward to hearing more from you on this today and tomorrow.

Ladies and gentlemen, climate change and environmental degradation equally present major challenges around the globe. And the ASEAN region is absolutely no exception. And here again there can be absolutely no doubt about the urgency of action.

At the ILO we now have a consensus between governments, workers and employers that economic growth can no longer come at the expense of the environment and indeed that there is no inevitable tradeoff between the two.

That consensus was cemented in the Paris Climate Change Agreement of 2015, and the outcome is that policy-making in the future of work must now incorporate the element of environmental sustainability. The very future of our planet, not just about work, depends upon it.

Ladies and gentlemen, the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda enjoins us to leave nobody behind. So the great feeling of optimism for the future of work in the ASEAN region should not lead us to forget that there are many people who still feel a sense of instability, of anxiety, even fear about their futures. Millions do not know whether they will have an income next year, let alone benefit from a pension in their retirement. Growth is slowing down in most countries, and workers are losing their jobs sometimes even in the most leading high-tech enterprises. Do we have the mechanisms in place in our countries that will help to reskill these workers so that they can change professions? Are the labour market institutions strong enough to help them through these transitions? Can we ensure that there is decent work that leaves nobody behind, and lifts all out of poverty?

In the ASEAN Community Vision 2025, member countries pledged to work together to build an economic community that is resilient, inclusive, people-oriented and people-centred. The community is to engender equitable development and inclusive growth. And this echoes very nicely the human-centred agenda proposed by the ILO’s Global Commission, which we will hear about shortly. And today as Minister Teo has recalled, the ASEAN Ministers of Labour adopted a joint Statement on the Future of Work, a future articulation of the Community’s people-oriented approach, and a commitment to facilitating policies that will lead to smarter, fairer and sustainable workplaces, as a consequence of coherent societies.

So I wish to conclude by congratulating ASEAN Ministers for their leadership and their foresight. I believe that the Statement adopted today can serve as an excellent basis for discussion throughout today and tomorrow, as we discuss how to shape the future of work that we want, but also – I say this in the presence of the ASEAN Secretary-General – I believe that this Conference also offers us a very useful and unique opportunity to think about how we can strengthen our cooperation in pursuit of shared goals, and indeed to launch the regional initiative that Minister Teo has referred to. The ILO will do everything within its capacity to make this happen. It would be a wonderful legacy of the ILO’s Centenary if we could bring this about.

Ladies and gentlemen, looking at the room I know that there is a great wealth of experience here, a lot to be learned from looking at the good practices in ASEAN countries as well as in the ASEAN+6 group. And of course we have with us our social partners – workers and employers organizations. And I’m particularly pleased that the ministerial Statement strongly supports their role and the role of social dialogue in the construction of the future of work, this shared responsibility of which Minister Teo spoke just now. We count on you to share the views of your respective constituents and to engage actively in the future of work discussions today and tomorrow.

Ladies and gentlemen, we are very conscious that strengthening the capacity of governments to interact with employers, the private sector, and with working people, in the process of finding balanced and consensual solutions to world of work challenges, can open the way to a re-invigoration of the “social contract” – this tacit agreement in our societies between people and institutions about what is fair, what is legitimate, what people want for the future of their lives and their countries, how we can work together to realize it.

The Global Commission’s report calls on all stakeholders to take responsibility for building the future of work that they want. It recommends that all countries establish national strategies on the Future of Work, with tripartite involvement. So let us use the opportunity given to us at this Conference to get started on this pathway towards a brighter future of work.

Thank you for your attention.