2nd Arab Forum for Development & Employment

ILO Director-General: Decent work, social protection and respect of rights central to sustainable development

ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, tells Arab Forum for Development and Employment in Saudi Arabia that the demand for social justice must be met through decent work for all and that providing social protection of those in need, is an expression of the solidarity which holds societies together.

Statement | Kingdom of Saudi Arabia – Riyadh | 24 February 2014
Honourable Dr. Ahmed Luqman, Director General of the Arab Labour Organization,
Honourable Minister, Adel Fakieh, Minister of Labour of the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia,
Honourable Ms. Inger Andersen, Vice President of the World Bank,
Honourable Dr. Mohamed El-Tweijry, Assistant Secretary General of the League of Arab States

I am very honoured to address this second Arab Forum for Development and Employment and to be again in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia.
I want to express my deep appreciation to my friend, Dr. Ahmed Luqman, for this kind invitation. The World Bank’s support is also extremely welcome and very much in line with its strengthened partnership between the Bank and the ILO.

My warm thanks go to the Saudi Government and people both for the very warm welcome and for the chance to renew and consolidate our cooperation. It is a relationship to which the ILO attaches the greatest importance, and I am very optimistic about it.

You have chosen social protection for sustainable development as the subject of your discussions here in Riyadh. I believe you have chosen well because these are issues with which the international community as a whole and the Arab world in particular are having to grapple as a matter of urgency and in conditions to frequently of considerable uncertainty and sometimes instability or even conflict.

Global upheavals have reached deep into the Arab World. In turn your countries are to the fore in defining the course of future events, the history we have still to write, just as you have done in the past.

And if there is one lesson we should have learned from the past, and which should guide us now and in the future, it is that there is one consistent and recurring factor: The demand for social justice, the chance for a decent life for oneself and one’s family, for respect of one’s dignity, identity, culture and values. It is a demand which must be met through opportunities for decent work for all, including social protection and which is central to truly sustainable development.

In our hearts we all share the conviction stated in the ILO Constitution that lasting peace depends on the realization of social justice.

We know too that, though much good, much human progress has been generated by the development of our global economy, something has gone wrong, and this is expressed in economic crisis, social crisis, environmental crisis, including a level of inequality which does violence to the values of social justice.

What does this crisis look like globally and in the Arab World?

Globally the economy is still struggling, five years after the 2008 crisis. In 2013 growth slowed down to 2.9 per cent.

Growth in the Arab region fell to 2.2 per cent in 2013, significantly below the global average.

The developed economies and EU region, the major economic partner for the Arab countries, have been growing at 1per cent.

Labour markets have been deeply affected. Almost 202 million people were unemployed in 2013 around the world. And even as we look forward to moderately improved growth around the world, the ILO forecasts continuing growth in unemployment.

Alarmingly the Arab region had the highest unemployment rates in 2013, as it has had for decades, at around 11.5 per cent (12.2 per cent in the Mashreq and 10.9 per cent in the Maghreb).

The situation of young women and men was even worse and this is perhaps the greatest challenge of our time. Almost 74.5 million young people aged 15-24 are without jobs. Young people are two to three times more likely to be unemployed than others.

In the Arab world the youth unemployment rate is the highest in the world, reaching between 27.2 per cent and 29 per cent in 2013. I am sure you will agree with me that this is deeply disturbing. We must act.

And on the top of all this, as I have said, there is rising inequality within and between countries. It goes against social justice, retards growth and reins in sustainable development.

Within this general panorama, let me make three observations about specific conditions in Arab labour markets:

  1. Firstly, unemployment affects all income groups, more or less equally, not principally lower income groups, as tends to happen elsewhere.
  2. Secondly, skills mismatch. Often even highly educated youth are unable to find appropriate jobs and in the end may resort to relatively low skilled jobs. It is a situation that we encourage a brain drain, reinforced when job creation policies concentrate on low productivity sectors and encourage the growth of the informal economy.
  3. Thirdly, the low labour force participation rate of women, only one in four Arab women are in the labour force (26 per cent) compared to a world average of 51 per cent. 31 per cent for the all countries, Arab women’s participation is highest at 27 per cent for the Maghreb and at 19 per cent for the Mashreq.
Ladies and gentlemen,
There are some obvious lessons to be drawn from this somewhat gloomy outlook.

We have realized, I presume that unemployment comes with considerable economic and social cost; lost productive potential, human misery and sometimes with political cost too. In addition, long-term unemployment, which has gone up in many Arab countries, is a particular threat. Because after a certain point the longer somebody is out of work the less likely they are to find their way back to the labour market.

We have realized too that the informal economy will always be associated with poverty and low quality, precarious work.

The facilitation of transition to formality, which is going to be on the agenda of the June 2014 ILO Conference, is now increasingly considered a core component of national development strategies and a major issue for social cohesion.

We have realized also that the failure to tap the rich productive potential of women is to throw away all of the keys to sustainable development.

We have realized also that economic growth should ensure quality jobs and working dignity of women and men and that this can be done only through effective dialogue between workers, employers and governments; and respect of the rights and roles of each.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Undeniably, then, we can learn much from past experience. It is for each of us to choose what we do in light of them. It was the scientist and philosopher genius Albert Einstein, who said that it was a definition of irrational behavior to repeat over and again the same actions in the hope that it will produce a different result from every previous occasion.

The ILO recognizes the specifics of every national situation, which makes one size fits all solutions as inappropriate to Arab countries as to all others. But international labour standards do provide universally applicable guidance for policy making. They add – value to policy making rather than impose constraint. In addition, the ILO’s current programme embodies eight areas of critical importance which our general membership has determined should stand as priorities in our work and our cooperation with member states. I believe you may find them important parts of the challenges you face:
  • Policies for jobs rich growth so that we can have a chance to overcome the global jobs crisis.
  • Jobs and skills for youth and targeted action to meet the labour policy challenges of a time.
  • Promoting improved productivity and working conditions in small and medium sized enterprises so that the private sector’s most dynamic actors can play fully their role not just of creating jobs, but decent jobs.
  • Formalization of the informal economy, a key to combating exclusion and poverty
  • Combating unacceptable forms of work – to make good of the ILO’s commitments to the weakest and most vulnerable at work
  • Promoting rural development – reforming on a sector which has been neglected in policy making in recent years
  • Strengthening labour inspection – that is the capacity of labour ministries to make a reality of the protections set out in labour legislation
  • And finally, and very much in tune with subject of this FORUM, the establishment of social protection floors.
Ladies and gentlemen,
You will be aware that, from its beginnings, social protection has been an integral part of the ILO’s mandate for social justice. It could not be otherwise, because providing for the welfare of those in society who, for different reasons – age, ill-health, unemployment – are in need of it and it is intrinsic to the values of us all, it is an expression of the solidarity which holds us together. In recent years two things have happened in respect of social protection:
  1. Firstly, its links with other policy objectives have become increasingly clear and important. Not only is social protection good for social goods – it helps us also to achieve economic ones too. People who can rely on it are better placed to confront change in our economies and to adapt to it. And well educated, healthy, and well-nourished they are productive. But we know that these positive linkages between social and economic policies need to be cultivated. It is right that protection policies be designed to encourage people into the labour market – a key objective in many of your countries and not keep them out of it.
  2. Secondly, there has been much discussion about the financial sustainability of social protection about the respective roles of the state, private actors and the individual in its provision and about the levels and types of provision to be offered.
From these debates, sometimes controversial, has come the international commitment, spearheaded by the ILO of the establishment of minimum levels of social protection for all. Today over 80 per cent of the world’s workers lack even the basic of protection. Yet the truth is that it is within the capacity of every country to provide universal social protection floors at levels which will vary according to the financial circumstances of each.

That is the central message of ILO Recommendation 202 on National Floors of Social Protection, adopted in 2012. It provides the platform in which the international community can gradually extend the protection of all people. That work is gaining momentum and I hope that it will find a place in the post-2015 UN Development Agenda now being negotiated to succeed the Millennium Development Goals.

I want to suggest to these present at this Forum that this agenda is one of particular relevance to your countries. Many have developed pension schemes and related measures. But few have truly comprehensive social protection systems.

Ladies and gentlemen,
Decent work and social protection are key components of sustainable development. But they do need to be supplemented by commitment to the respect of fundamental principles and rights at work, certified in the ILO’s Declaration of 1998 and a commitment to social dialogue between government and their worker and employer partners.

I have worked for many years with Arab colleagues to realize these rights in your countries. I have seen the important progress made, and I understand the obstacles, challenges and concerns still to be addressed. These can take a particular form in countries where foreign workers constitute a large part or a majority of the labour force. But we know that all are entitled to the respect of their rights.

This experience leaves me in no doubt that the rights set out in ILO Conventions are fully in accordance with the values and principles of the Arab world, with your beliefs and your culture. That conviction encourages me to believe that we have everything to gain from working together in conditions of respect, confidence, but determination as well to realize goals that we surely share.

So I wish to close by assuring you of the ILO’s commitment to its Arab member states.

Since I took up my post in 2012 the ILO has engaged on a process of change, the ultimate aim of providing you, our tripartite constituents, with the quality and relevant services you rightly demand from us.

This includes our partnership with the Arab Labour Organization. I take the opportunity to thank Dr. Luqman for everything that he has contributed to this and for his personal guidance and support. We will carry this forward with his successor. It will include also, I hope, intensified work with the Gulf Cooperation Council, whose Secretary General was kind enough to receive me this morning. The new GCC office in Geneva will certainly help!

It will involve our continuing work for and with the people of Palestine. As the next step, I will field my annual mission to the territories next month and report to the ILO Conference on its findings. Palestine is a test of our commitment for social justice.

And it will involve colleagues from Geneva, from our Regional Office in Beirut, developing our relations with Arab governments, workers’ and employers’ organizations, listening to you, learning from you, and offering you all the support that we are able.

I thank you all for your attention!