International Labour Conference

ILO Director-General’s opening remarks to the International Labour Conference

Statement | 28 May 2014
Mr President, Vice-Presidents, Officers of the Governing Body, delegates, observers, ladies and gentlemen.

I am very pleased to be able to add my words of welcome to you all to this 103rd Session of the International Labour Conference (ILC). As you have heard, we have much important work ahead of us and I want to begin by wishing you all success in getting it done.

Only exceptionally has the Conference elected a representative of the non-governmental groups to its presidency. The last time an Employer occupied the seat that you do now, Mr President, was in 1998 in the person of your predecessor, Jean-Jacques Oechslin. Your election does honour to your country, Argentina. It is recognition of the critical importance of tripartism in this house and above all, as we have heard, it is tribute to the very high regard, Mr President, in which your personal contribution to this Organization over a long and distinguished career is held by delegates from all groups and I take the opportunity to express my own personal thanks for that.

Distinguished Delegates, we rarely meet in circumstances of absolute calm or in the absence of controversy. The world of work is simply not like that. It is subject to constant change and that change has accelerated rather than abated in recent years, when the enduring effects of global crisis have added to the scale of the challenges we face and the urgency of building solutions to them. And since we last met the world has seen an intensification, a multiplication of conflicts and of tensions which must embolden us in our quest for social justice as the surest guarantee of lasting peace.

It is the vocation of this unique Conference to bring together the representatives of governments, of workers, and of employers from across this often turbulent world to put before them issues, which, because they are of crucial significance are not easy to handle and then to draw from your combined inputs outcomes which truly can and must have real impact on what happens in the workplaces of all of our countries.

All of you who are delegates at this Conference come to it in my view with twin responsibilities. The first, self-evidently, is to defend the views and the interests of those you represent and I have no doubt that you would do that with your habitual energy and determination. That is what makes the ILO work.

But there is a second and a no less important responsibility. And that is to combine this entirely proper defence of interests with a corresponding commitment to seek consensus, to find agreed solutions, because that also is what makes the ILO work and without which we will not do everything that we should and that we must.

And, as we begin our work, I believe we can all agree that we will be addressing in the coming days issues of real significance and it seems to me that the three criteria for measuring the success of our Conference are that, firstly, we discuss the right issues, secondly, that we organize our work efficiently, and thirdly, that we produce results.

The quality of the results, as I have said, is very much in your hands now.

The efficiency of our work has been under intense scrutiny in our Governing Body and the upshot is that the innovations agreed by it mean that as of next year this Conference will be reduced to a duration of just two weeks. Several of these innovations are being trialled at this session and I want to underline that as we rightly pursue reform of the Conference, as in many other areas of the ILO, we have been guided and we must continue to be guided by the need to preserve its essential functions and amongst them are the setting and the supervision of international labour standards. The search for efficiency cannot be undertaken at their expense.

So what of the agenda of our Conference? Ladies and gentlemen, with world unemployment at record levels and still growing despite timid recovery in economic growth, with young people its primary victims, jobs have to be front and centre in our work and so they are. The recurrent item discussion matters both for the subject, the strategic objective of employment, and for the institutional role that it has under the 2008 Social Justice Declaration in evaluating and guiding future ILO activities.

Now we have worked hard up to this point to get these recurrent discussions right and that has, as you have recalled, President, presented us with a number of challenges. We have learned from experience and the fact that our Governing Body followed a suggestion that I made to Conference last year and has decided to place an evaluation of the impact of the Declaration on the Conference agenda for 2016 will give us opportunity to learn more and to go further.

Jobs will also be at the centre of the World of Work Summit that we will have on the 9th of June and it will focus on the World of Work Report that we launched yesterday. I’m very pleased that this year the report entitled Developing with jobs focuses particularly on the employment challenges of the developing and the emerging economies. Please do find the time to have a look at this report because the evidence is ground-breaking, I think, and the key message compelling: that quality jobs, decent work are a crucial driver of development and investment in those jobs a major factor in development success.

And these conclusions, Mr President, bear directly on the discussions we begin now and will complete next year on transitioning from the informal economy, where so many in the developing world, but also increasing numbers in the advanced economies, make their living; transition from that to the formal economy. I think it is probably fair to say that the obvious importance of this transition is matched only by the complexity of the task of making it happen. But it is encouraging, truly encouraging that our starting point is robust tripartite consensus that this is the right path to follow. And that was not always the case, certainly not when the ILO first started to tackle the question of informality. But it is there now, it is reflected in the bold initiatives of formalization already being taken in a significant number of our member States. Formalization brings protection and improved conditions to workers. It brings fair competition and improved sustainability to enterprises and it brings revenues and strengthened authority to Governments. Our discussions will need to bring us all together to make sure that formalization happens.

Ladies and gentlemen, from outside the ILO there may be surprise that this year in 2014, our Conference still has to examine what needs to be done to strengthen action to end forced labour and yet that is what our circumstances require. There are today 21 million victims of forced labour in the world. And if we take a hard look at this disturbing reality we have to conclude that this is not simply the residue of abuse from a past era.

Forced labour is mutating, it is recreating itself in the most virulent of forms. It is big business, our recent estimates show that it is worth US$150 billion a year in profits and so we must equally conclude that our existing fundamental rights Conventions, the Forced Labour Convention, 1930 (No. 29), and the Abolition of Forced Labour Convention, 1957 (No. 105), need to be reinforced to fill in particularly the implementation gaps of prevention, victim protection and compensation.

Now it will be for you to determine the way that that is to be achieved and it is not for me to pre-empt that deliberation. It suffices to say, however, that the option that we retain should be the one that responds best to an objective assessment of the abuses that it is our duty to combat and what will work best to end them.

President, I have already referred to the supervision of standards as an essential function of this Conference. And that is why the work of our Committee on the Application of Standards is crucial to our Conference’s success. Nobody, I would believe, would dispute that but nobody either is ignorant of the challenges that that Committee has faced in recent years or of the extreme importance of the issues which are involved.

From the very outset I have stressed the urgent need to restore full tripartite support for the supervisory system which is crucial for its authority and without which the ILO would be diminished, seriously diminished. Since then we have worked hard with our tripartite constituents to find a way forward and it has really been encouraging that all parties, without exception, have underlined their commitment to maintain and strengthen the ILO standards system.

But we have not got there yet and this Conference meets between a positive and constructive Governing Body discussion of last March and the further discussion that we already have scheduled for this November. I believe that we have good perspectives for progress and that those perspectives will be greatly reinforced by the smooth functioning and the successful outcome of the work of the Committee at this Conference. In March, all groups committed to bringing that about and I trust and I am convinced that that commitment will hold good in the days ahead.

Ladies and gentlemen, it is important as well that we exploit the full potential of our Conference plenary sessions. And since many of them are devoted to consideration of the Director-General’s report to Conference I have sought, as I did last year, to present you with a document which addresses an issue of real significance which is of interest to all member States and on which I think plenary debate can add value and have concrete consequences for ILO action. Moreover, as last year, the Report is concise and it is framed in a manner to provoke, in the positive sense of the term, your thinking and your contributions.

Migration fits these requirements. I doubt that there is any country represented here which is not one of origin, of transit or of destination. We know, and some of us have been recently reminded, that migration stands high on the agenda of national and international policy makers. It is taking place on a large and a growing scale, its patterns are becoming more complex, its nature is evolving. We all agree that it has the potential to contribute very considerably to growth and to development. And yet it does pose major policy challenges and lamentably it continues, in too many cases, to be associated with the unacceptable treatment and abuse of some of those women and men who are the most vulnerable in our labour markets. There is no doubt then about the size, the importance and the topicality of the subject, nor indeed of the ILO’s constitutional responsibilities in respect to it.

In addition the multilateral system of which the ILO is a part is at an important moment in its work on migration. Following the United Nations General Assembly high-level dialogue last October, the ILO took up the chair of the UN Global Migration Group for the current year and we have just taken part in the Global Forum on Migration and Development so generously and effectively hosted by Sweden earlier this month. And, at the ILO itself, the Governing Body has recently approved a report of a tripartite high-level meeting on labour migration.

So in this context of manifest need for action on the ground and of intense activity in international organizations there is, I think, very good reason to get the views of the ILO’s global tripartite constituents on how you see the challenges before us and how you want to see the ILO play its part in meeting them. And what better opportunity for that than this Conference? So I ask you to take it, I ask you to take that opportunity to give us the benefit of your thoughts; and be assured that we will be listening very carefully to what you have to say.

President, ladies and gentlemen, in this fast moving world of work, the ILO cannot stand still and it has not stood still in the year since its Conference last gathered. On the contrary, change has been a constant in our working lives at the ILO, as reform continues and takes hold. In Geneva we are working within a new structure. We are working differently. We are working better. In particular, that has meant breaking out of silos to focus our collective efforts on the areas of critical importance which you approved last year, the central parts of the ILO programme for this year and the next. The change involved, I make no bones about it, is considerable but the pay-off when we succeed will be great and so we will be equal to that challenge.

Important next steps will be taken after this Conference as we set about the task of establishing a new Strategic Policy Framework for the ILO as of 2015. And that offers us real opportunity to adapt our existing results based management framework to the needs and the new dynamics of the Organization and to help us work as one to serve you better.

We are acting, and we are acting with energy, to meet the ambition of being the technical centre of excellence in the world of work. Our Research Department is now in action. We have launched the first phase of our knowledge gateway. We are strengthening our statistical capacities and services.

And the report of the team I set up to review our field operations and structures was shared with constituents this year and we are moving to action on its recommendations.

We made important progress on internal communications, a precondition for working together better as well as on external communications, but I recognize this is work in progress.

And our revised human resource strategy is being implemented with staff mobility and diversity as key features.

The point here that I am trying to make to you is that we are standing by the commitment to reform, to efficiency, and to improvement. And it is a commitment which involves everybody at the ILO.

It is being taken forward with the involvement of staff mindful and respectful of the contribution of each one of them and in an atmosphere of common endeavour.

And let me say that perhaps the strongest stimulus to our efforts are the constant reminders that we get from the world of work, from all of you, of the importance of the issues which fall within our mandate and which it is our responsibility to tackle. These reminders sometimes come painfully, from tragedies such as that of Rana Plaza in Bangladesh in April of last year to which, with your support, we have responded, I think, with real commitment and innovation with our Bangladeshi colleagues. Sometimes reminders come from the results of elections which convey to us that people demand decent work and the fundamentals of social justice. Sometimes they come from our role in the multilateral system, not least, as we see with increasing clarity, the need to have decent jobs and social protection included as an explicit goal in the United Nations post-2015 development agenda. But most frequently they come every day from our interactions with you, our tripartite actors, the actors that we exist to serve.

In my Report to Conference on the situation of workers in the occupied Arab territories, I again draw attention to a specific situation where our responsibilities are particularly evident and I have to say that I regret that this year I cannot report much which indicates improvement. And there is a great deal in my Report which must be of the deepest concern to us all and which makes a very real claim on our collective solidarity.

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen, in a year replete with historical anniversaries, not least the centenary of the global conflict which at terrible costs finally gave painful birth to the ILO, and against this background of change which I have described let me finish by recalling that we are also celebrating this very month - the 70th anniversary of the Declaration of Philadelphia. We are all familiar with the Declaration or at least with its most resounding and quotable passages on labour, on freedom and on poverty. But I think we could all mark this anniversary by taking the time, you would need about two minutes, to read the Declaration again in its entirety.

Why? Because, by doing so, we will all be reminded that in it is contained an extraordinary and courageous statement of intent couched in terms of the greatest eloquence which speaks to our current circumstances with astounding relevance and clarity.

Central to the Declaration of Philadelphia is the affirmation and I quote “that all human beings irrespective of race, creed or sex have the right to pursue both their material well-being and their spiritual development in conditions of freedom and dignity, of economic security and equal opportunity”. The Declaration goes on to say that this must constitute the central aim of national and international policy and that all such policies should be judged in this light and accepted in so far as they may be held to promote and not to hinder this fundamental objective.

I want to put it to you that it follows that this same objective, announced 70 years ago, is one from which nobody coming to this Conference should dissent and from which the ILO can never depart. That is the meaning of the permanency of vision and of principle that must guide our Organization in the midst of epoch-making change. It is also the yardstick by which we must judge our performance and by which others will certainly judge us and it is equally the measure of our collective success in aligning the twin responsibilities I spoke to at the outset of my intervention, the defence of legitimate interests and the search for consensus to the unchanging goal of social justice.

Ladies and gentlemen, that is what is expected of us at this congress, at this Conference, and I wish you all luck. Thank you.