Caribbean labour ministers' meeting

Keynote address by Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General, at the 8th Meeting of Caribbean Ministers of Labour

Statement | Port of Spain | 02 July 2013
Honourable Kamla Persad Bissessar, Prime Minister of the Republic of Trinidad and Tobago
Excellency Irwin La Rocque, Secretary General of the Caribbean Community Secretariat
Honourable Errol Mc Leod, Minister of Labour and Small and Micro Enterprise Development
Honourable Ministers of the region
Representatives of the Caribbean Congress of Labour and of the Caribbean Employers’ Confederation
Members of the Diplomatic Corps
Ladies and Gentlemen

Let me start by saying that I am most honoured to be here today, delighted to be back in the Caribbean – and in Trinidad and Tobago in particular – on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of its membership of the International Labour Organization.

Let me thank you, both for the warm welcome and for the very strong support that I have received from this region since my election and assumption of office as Director-General in October of last year. I made it a priority to come to the sub region within the first year of my mandate, and I promised the Minister to do so, and with this meeting I have the perfect occasion to be with you.

The ILO has felt it important to convene this meeting – I believe that it is an important gathering for the world of work and for the Caribbean.

And I want to express my particular appreciation to Minister Mc Leod, to Permanent Secretary Francis and their colleagues for their great support and enthusiasm in bringing us all here.

I believe very strongly that the minister and his team have taken on board this responsibility as an extension of their work as titular members of the ILO’s Governing Body from the sub region. And that is, I have to say, a demanding responsibility when properly discharged, all the more so when the effort is made, as it is made, to transcend a national focus and to bring the sub regional perspectives to the discussions and to our organization, and I attach enormous importance to this sub regional perspective.

Prime Minister – your presence together with that of 16 ministers and representatives of 21 of the countries and territories of this sub region – reflect very positively your commitment to the centrality of the contribution of the world of work in the quest for sustainable and inclusive growth and I cannot insist strongly enough on the importance that work has on the development prospects of all our countries.

And I would say Ambassador La Rocque with respect to your presence, that it reflects the recognition by CARICOM as well of that same imperative – to make work a central part of development processes.

I am delighted that the representatives of the Caribbean Congress of Labour and of the Caribbean Employers’ Confederation are with us as well because tripartism is a leitmotif of the ILO and surely a strong instrument in our hands as we work together for social progress.

Ladies and Gentlemen

The Caribbean countries have strongly supported the International Labour Organization throughout our history and in the most recent years have endorsed the Decent Work Agenda, as we have heard, through the 2006 Tripartite Employment Conference in Barbados.

But as we meet, we know, we are all conscious that the world of work is changing, is transforming with a rapidity and with a depth that we have not seen before and this throws up challenges which we are all called upon to meet. And it is precisely because of this environment of change that the ILO, a values-led, advocacy and standard-setting organization, has set about a process of reform which will enable us better to play our role side by side with all of you to meet those challenges.

I am sure that there are very many of you in this room who know from personal experience that reform, and reform of an international organization in particular, is a difficult and an arduous and a demanding process. It is not always the easiest route to choose even when it is the necessary one.

What I want to transmit to you is the determination of our organization to proceed with its reform process with very clear objectives in mind and our objectives are to bring the ILO closer to our constituents, to our 185 member States around the world, not just to governments but also to workers’ and to employers’ organizations, to make our organization more useful to you, through the quality of the services that we can offer, to make our organization more relevant by addressing and not ignoring the more difficult of the challenges before us, and in the final analysis, we need to make the ILO more influential – more influential to progress the cause of social justice to which we all subscribe.

And all of this ladies and gentlemen we do in a context which is demanding in the extreme. The global context as Minister Mc Leod reminded us at the outset is one of crisis in the world of work. We are in a global economy that is rebalancing. There are few certainties left and those that we cling to are proving increasingly brittle and increasingly illusory. Europe is in crisis, old institutions including the institution of social dialogue are under pressure. And the impact of crisis, no growth, slow growth is felt in the Caribbean as elsewhere – although my impression is that the hurricane unleashed by the fall of the Lehman Brothers has been a glancing blow in the Caribbean, rather than a direct hit as it has been in other regions. But, either way, like a hurricane it is a strong reminder of the vulnerability of our economies to external events over which we have little control, for which we have no responsibility but which can indeed change the lives of us all.

Ladies and gentlemen

The jobs crisis globally demands reaction. There are 200 million unemployed today. And the crisis, as we have been reminded, is particularly acute among young people and that is particularly disturbing – and some 20 per cent of young people are not in employment, education or training in the region. And as has been said, the rates of unemployment among young people are 2 or 3 times as high as general unemployment rates. Surely we would all agree that doing right by youth is the foundation for future success.

But in these difficult circumstances I believe there are also reasons for optimism.

Emerging economies are growing and growing strongly, changing the face of the world of work.

Those emerging economies will account for 55 per cent of world production by 2020. And what is abundantly clear is that there is no one truth, no single one size fits all solution to the problems that ILO member States face and yet we need to work together in new circumstances to promote change.

And I believe if there is one strong message we all need to note, it is that all voices must be heard in the structures of governance of the global economy, a message that I have heard emitted very strongly from this region. I heard Prime Minister Simpson Miller at the 50th anniversary of the African Union Summit in Ethiopia two months ago speak of the projection of the voice and values of the Caribbean in the global system. And I have taken very good note Prime Minister of your speech at the UN General Assembly (Thematic Debate on Global Economic Governance) when you spoke strongly and compellingly of the need for greater justice and equality in the governance of the global economic system, in relations between international organizations, with the multilateral lenders and with the G20.

All of these messages matter. All of these messages are ones which I believe the ILO can respond to and advance.

Ladies and gentlemen

To meet the substantive challenges of our times the ILO has set itself a limited number of priorities for its future work.

Let me just tell you what those eight priorities are briefly and I ask you to reflect on their relevance, on their usefulness to you in your region and in your countries.
  • We have made it a priority to seek jobs-rich growth for inclusive growth. With 200 million unemployed in the world it is simply not enough that our economies grow but we need to grow in ways that create jobs. The spectre of jobless growth is a reality and we need policies to overcome it.
  • We have made the task of providing jobs and skills for youth a priority. It is no exaggeration, it is no cliché today, it is not idle rhetoric to speak of a lost generation of young people, of jobless young, it is not the spectre of the future – it is a reality of today and we must react to it in your countries and around the world.
  • We need to create and extend social protection floors around the world. In a world as rich as ours is it right that some 80 per cent of working people still do not have access to the minima of social protection? Freedom from fear is a long-term objective, one we are in a position to realize but one to which we have still some distance to travel.
  • We have made improvements in productivity and working conditions in small and in medium-sized enterprises a priority for our organization. We know that the majority of new jobs are coming from those enterprises. We need to help them up but we need to make sure as well that the jobs they provide meet the criteria of decent work.
  • We need as well to strengthen the capacities of labour administration and labour inspection – I fear sometimes that ministries of labour sometimes feel themselves like small islands in the seas of government. We have to help them develop and strengthen.
  • Colleagues we are going to give renewed attention as well to decent work in the rural economy – something which ministers from this region have spoken to me of with passion and I have to be honest, the ILO forgot about the rural economy some time in the 1990s. We must rediscover it as an axis of balanced and sustainable development and we will do so.
  • We are also focusing on the formalization of the informal economy.
  • Finally we are also renewing our fight – and how could we do otherwise if we are an organization for social justice – the fight against unacceptable forms of work, forms of work that offend the basics of dignity. Prime Minister I know of your personal commitment in respect of the rights of children and the rights of women. These will be at the centre of our efforts in this regard.

Colleagues we are focusing on what we believe are key issues. We do so as well knowing that there are major issues out there before us that our organization will necessarily have to address as we move towards our centenary in six years’ time. Let me just draw your attention to four which I think are dramatically important.

The first is demography – some of our countries are experiencing rapid ageing, others are becoming increasingly youthful. Whichever way it is, whether one considers it an advantage or a disadvantage, our policies need to address these issues. I hear very frequently countries talk about the demographic dividend of a young population and that is how it should be, but if those young people are not provided with job opportunities, that dividend can rapidly become a social time bomb. We must not let that happen.

Secondly, there is the whole question of transition to a sustainable development path for the future which not only provides jobs but also protects our planet. I have said and I believe it to be axiomatic that the difference between the first hundred years of the ILO’s history and its second hundred years will have to be the green agenda reconciling the future of the planet with the future of work. This is the business not of one country not of one region but of the global community – because the water levels rise for each and every one of us.

The third issue is rising inequality. We have seen in the last thirty years increasing inequality within and between societies. We are obliged to ask if the point has arrived where excessive levels of inequality not only go against the grain of social justice but are also dysfunctional to our economic systems.

Fourthly, migration. If we define the free movement of goods and capital as defining characteristics of globalization, the other often forgotten dimension is the movement of people. This needs to be addressed and the ILO needs to play a greater role.

We have a challenging agenda ahead of us and it is important to see how our issues fit into the future agenda.

With respect to the post 2015 agenda, the ILO is working to have the world of work issues reflected. Labour is a motor of the development process and this needs to be conveyed in different fora.

This region is active in the Small Island Developing States process and the ILO could be a vehicle for amplifying your views on relevant aspects of the development process on the road to Samoa. The same also applies to our participation in fora such as the G20. Please see the ILO as an ally.

Ladies and gentlemen

My first interest in the Caribbean pre-dated my engagement in labour issues and was rooted in the grounds of places like Sabina Park and Queen’s Park Oval so, to conclude, I hope you permit me to end with words from an anthem to the West Indies – to the West Indies cricket team – which I do believe are pertinent to our work today:

“In a divided world that don't need islands no more
Are we doomed forever to be at somebody's mercy?
Little keys can open up mighty doors.”

Ladies and gentlemen

I have no doubt that our little meeting can open up mighty doors.

Thank you