As the 21st century gathers pace, the old truism that "change is the only constant", seems to become more relevant by the day. Twenty years ago, it would have been difficult for anyone to envision the world that we live in today. The internet, facsimile machines, mobile telephones – in less than a generation, these have all helped transform the way we live, work and do business. Advances in information and communications technology really can put the world at our fingertips. Unfortunately, the world is much closer to some fingertips than to others. In the developed, industrialized countries, globalization has brought enormous benefits. Business moves faster, it is more efficient, and more profitable. Skilled and knowledgeable workers are helping their companies and countries forge ahead. And yet, as UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan has warned, these opportunities are far from equally distributed. In the developing world, globalization has often been short on opportunities and long on risks. Here, we saw just how great those risks could be, when the Asian financial crisis swept through the economies of East Asia. Capital outflows, and plummeting stocks and currencies turned into declining wages and conditions, unemployment and poverty. Globalization can mean volatility. Volatility can mean pain.
The way in which we choose to respond to globalization’s challenges is vitally important. It will shape our lives, and it will shape the future. The Global Compact launched by the Secretary-General Mr Annan represents an important part of this response. The nine key principles of the Global Compact draw heavily on the ILO’s fundamental principles and rights at work. Freedom of association and the effective right to collective bargaining; the abolition of forced or compulsory labour; of child labour; and of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation are the principles that lie at the very heart of the ILO’s work in the world today. In 1998, by adopting the ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, the ILO’s Member States committed themselves to respect these principles, whether or not they had ratified the fundamental Conventions that enshrine them. And these same principles form a key part of the Global Compact. They comprise four of the Compact’s nine principles.
The ILO is one of the UN agencies working closely with the UN Secretary-General to promote the Global Compact. At a high-level meeting in New York last year on the Global Compact – involving UN agencies, business, labour and civil society – our ILO Director-General Juan Somavia outlined areas that held great potential for cooperation and dialogue. These included the elimination of child labour – the ILO estimates that there are 250 million working children in the world today. Others were social dialogue – the ILO has an 80-year history of encouraging dialogue between employers and workers. International labour standards and practices addressing the four key labour principles in the Compact are also vital – and the ILO has all the information in the world on these. And, he addressed freedom of association, the management culture within enterprises, and the parallel growth of the information economy and the informal economy.
At that same meeting, Mr. Annan warned that it would be "tragic" if countries reacted to the challenges of globalization by repeating the mistakes of history, and turning in on themselves. Rather, he said, it is open markets that offer the only realistic hope of pulling billions of people in developing countries out of abject poverty. The ILO, for its part, is striving to ensure that in the rapidly globalizing world we live in today – social policies are considered together with economic policies. Fundamental principles and rights at work – and the ILO’s decent work agenda – offer a means of building a social floor for this global economy. Decent work means working in conditions of freedom, equity security and human dignity. Less formally, it means work that lets people meet the needs of their families in safety and health, educate their children, and that offers them income security after retirement. It means that people are treated decently at work, and their basic rights are respected. Decent work is a vital aim. It is vital that we work together to ensure that people and their fundamental concerns are placed where they belong, at the very heart of development.
The Global Compact is a striking demonstration of the strength of voluntary commitment to these aims – and commitment to promoting corporate social responsibility and best practice. I wish you well with your efforts here today to promote this Compact and to further the aims that we all share.