ILO marks centenary with hope for the future

OpEd by Claire Courteille-Mulder, ILO country director for China and Mongolia.

Comment | Beijing, China | 09 April 2019
The ILO was established in 1919 by the Peace Conference that ended the First World War, as an autonomous organization associated with the League of Nations, the predecessor of the United Nations. The founding members, among them China, had the ambition to promote and achieve global peace. They were of the view that peace and prosperity were the two sides of the same coin with no lasting peace possible without shared prosperity. This is reflected in the ILO Constitution which states that poverty anywhere is a threat to prosperity everywhere. Additionally, the founding members were convinced that in order to achieve the double objective of peace and prosperity, international cooperation was essential. It is striking to note how relevant their vision still is today, 100 years later.

The ILO was entrusted with the mandate of promoting social justice, improving the working conditions of the global workforce, and supporting workers’ rights and interests through international labour standards negotiated in tripartite cooperation between representatives of employers, workers and governments. The Peace Conference created an Organization in which labour unions, employers, and governments were to be represented on an equal footing. As so constituted, the ILO was, and still is, unique among international governmental organizations: it is the only one in which representatives of workers and of employers have the same status as governments.

From the start, the ILO was an ambitious and bold organization. It was part of the League of Nations but it started immediately a vigorous life of its own. Later in 1945, when the UN was created, the ILO became the specialised agency of the UN system for the world of work, but it kept its tripartite structure and its normative function. In 1969, the Organisation was awarded the Peace Nobel Price for its contribution to global peace and prosperity. Over time, while remaining true to its values, the Organization which now counts 187 member States, has adjusted its action in response to profound political, economic, social, technological and environmental change.

China embraced the ILO’s mandate right from the beginning and a first ILO Office was established in May 1930 in Nanjing. The Office closed in 1952 and re-opened in 1985 in Beijing. Since then, the ILO has been working with the Chinese government and social partners on a number of important issues ranging from labour legislation, labour market development, and youth entrepreneurship to social protection and occupational safety and health.

Of course the world of work has dramatically changed in 100 years, not least in China. Profound transformations have, and still are, taking place under the influence of a number of factors including the advance of globalisation, the spread of new technology and major demographic shifts. Today, public employment policies must cope with very rapid changes on labour markets and the private sector with young people’s new professional ambitions and expectations.

In order to better understand these changes and their implications for workers and employers, Mr. Ryder, the ILO’s Director General, decided to dedicate the 100 years anniversary of the Organisation to the future of work. The ILO Future of Work Centenary Initiative is an invitation to all governments, workers’ and employers’ organisations to engage in a constructive dialogue on how to shape the future of work they want. The underlying assumption is that the future is not pre-determined neither by technology nor any other factors. It is up to the people and their government to build it.

Yet if technology should not decide the future, it is likely to influence it. In fact, the impact of new technologies on the world of work is probably the topic that has generated most heated debates over recent years. How many jobs can technology create in the future? Will robots take our jobs? What do I do when my occupation no longer exists in 5 years time? These are some of the legitimate questions expressing both fears and hopes in front of rapid changes.

There is no doubt that new technologies will continue to create jobs. In China for example, a third of the new jobs created over the last few years were directly linked to the introduction of new technology. According to the 2019 report by the Sharing Economy Research Center of the State Information Center, the sharing economy drew 760 million participants in China in 2018, among which service providers stood at 75 million and the number of employees hired by platforms reached 5.98 million, a 7.1% and 7.5% increase respectively over the previous year.

But, there is no doubt either, that some jobs and occupations will disappear, that skills will become obsolete more quickly than before and that some workers will be made redundant. It is also true that not all the jobs created by new technologies are decent per definition. New forms of employment directly linked to technological innovation can indeed be short termed and temporary, insecure and unsafe, low paid and unprotected.

In order to guide the global debate on the future of work launched by the ILO Director General, a Global Commission, co-chaired by the President of South Africa, Mr Ramaphosa, and the Prime Minister of Sweden, Mr Lofven was established. At the end of January, the Commission issued its “Work for a Brighter Future” Report which calls for a new human-centred agenda.

The Report intends to close the gap between the optimists who embrace innovation as a source of improvement for the world of work with more and better jobs being created, and those who fear artificial intelligence, robotics or the digital economy could benefit only a few lucky ones.

The Report provides recommendations on how to create inclusive economic growth and decent jobs, leaving no one behind as foreseen in the 2030 Development Agenda. The first set of recommendations invites stakeholders to invest in people’s capabilities, while closing gender gaps and ensuring universal access to social protection. The establishment of universal and effective lifelong learning system is identified as a priority so as to enable workers to acquire the skills that are in demand on the labour markets.

Secondly, the Report recommends further investments in the institutions of work, including wage setting mechanisms and insists on revitalizing collective representation of workers and employers organisations. It proposes a “human-in-command” approach to artificial intelligence and a global governance of digital labour platforms. Interestingly a proposal is made for the establishment of a “universal labour guarantee” that would ensure that all workers, regardless of their form of employment, enjoy their fundamental rights, an adequate living wage, limits on their working hours and safe and healthy workplaces.

Thirdly, the Report stresses the urgent need to invest and boost the care, the green, and the rural economies. It also suggests reshaping private sector incentive structures to enable a long-term, human-centred approach to doing business. The social and environmental impact of investment ought to be better accounted for.

These proposals and many others will be discussed throughout the year in China and in many other countries. Next April 11 - 100 years after the adoption of the ILO Constitution to the day - a High-Level Tripartite Forum on “Joint Efforts for a Shared Future of Work” will be organised under the auspices of the Chinese Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security in Beijing. This high level conference will mark the beginning of a series of events to be organized throughout the year as part of the ILO Centenary Initiative on the Future of Work.

Given the importance of the Chinese economy in the world and the size of China’s labour force, the future of work at the global level will be strongly influenced by the future of work in China. It is with renewed energy, focus and vision that the ILO enters its second century, fully committed to working with China and its other member States for a bright future for peace, social justice and decent work for all.

The article was also run by China Daily and China.org