A Centenary of endeavour and achievement

In a speech to open a year of Centenary celebrations, ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, described the organization as a locomotive of social progress and a harbinger of peace. He also outlined the challenges ahead.

Statement | Geneva | 22 January 2019
Members of the Global Commission on the Future of Work,
Distinguished Representatives of the Ville et Canton de Genève,
Members of the United Nations family,
My ILO Colleagues,
Ladies and Gentleman,

It is an exceptional honour and a pleasure to welcome everyone of you here this afternoon for this truly historic event: the launching of the Centenary of the International Labour Organization.

Nous sommes très honorés de la présence des Représentants de la Confédération Suisse, notre Etat Hôte, et de la ville et Canton de Genève:

M. Antonio Hodgers, Président du Conseil d’Etat,
M. Jean Romain, Président du Grand Conseil,
M. Sami Kanaan, Maire de Genève,
Monsieur Jacques Moret, Directeur général de la Ville de Genève
M. Ivan Pictet, Président de la Fondation pour Genève

Au BIT, nous travaillons et nous vivons entre les Genevoises et les Genevois, nous sommes fiers de cela et nous sommes reconnaissants de l’appui et de l’hospitalité offerts.

For one hundred years now the Governments, Workers, and Employers of the world have come together in this house, moved by the conviction of its founding fathers that universal and lasting peace depends on social justice, and by a common determination to work together for that cause, notably by the adoption and supervision of international labour standards.

What has been described as a wild dream at its origin, has turned out to be something else; a century of endeavour and achievement, during which the ILO has been a locomotive of social progress and a harbinger of peace.

But it has not been a smooth journey. If indeed the arc of history does bend towards justice it has nevertheless taken some detours along the way.

By the time it reached its 25th anniversary, in 1944, perhaps the ILO’s greatest achievement was its very survival. The group of 42 founding member States had by then grown only marginally to 49. But by then the Organization had come through the great depression, a dark period of authoritarianism, global conflict, the collapse of the rest of the multilateral system, and exile, to lay the foundations for its future success as the first specialized agency of the United Nations. That 20th anniversary was commemorated not here in our historic home, Geneva, but in our wartime refuge, Montreal. And it was marked by the adoption of the extraordinary Declaration of Philadelphia – as remarkable a statement of visionary intent for a world emerging from cataclysmic conflict as was the ILO Constitution of 1919.

The following 25 years were ones of explosive growth as the ILO’s membership increased by nearly two and a half times to 119, as decolonization brought independence and freedom to so many peoples.

The ILO was challenged to meet the needs of the Governments, Employers, and Workers of these new states and did so by developing its technical cooperation programmes into the crucial means of action that they are today. So it was more than casual symbolism when the ILO marked its 50th anniversary by launching the World Employment Programme. This was a true watershed in development policy with its focus on employment, poverty, and basic needs and whose effects can still be felt in the UN’s 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda.

It was also in 1969 that the ILO was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, prestigious recognition of what it had done in its first fifty years, but more than that, powerful encouragement for the next fifty.

And by the time it got to its 75th anniversary, the ILO had added a further fifty five member States – bringing it close to universal membership in a world that was itself standing at the threshold of the era of globalization. By then the confrontation between two ideological and political systems had ended. The crime of apartheid had been defeated with the ILO playing its full part in that victory of humanity. Some foresaw – wrongly – an end to history with the triumph of a universal market economy. But in fact this was the beginning of a challenging new chapter in ILO history as the world sought a social dimension to a phase of globalization driven by liberalization of trade and investment and supercharged by successive technological revolutions. And the ILO delivered with its Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and then, a year later its decent work agenda – jobs, social protection, tripartism and rights – which today stands at the centre of the world’s road map for the future.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

What can we learn from this remarkable history?

Well, most obviously, that it would be a very brave, or perhaps a very foolish person who would venture with confidence a prediction of where the ILO and the world will be 25 years on from now.

But more importantly it demonstrates that the ILO has always had to adapt to new challenges and circumstances and has been able to do so successfully. Had that not been so I doubt we would be celebrating this Centenary.

This was what Director-General David Morse said when he received the Nobel Prize on behalf of the ILO 50 years ago. That every time the ILO had found successful solutions to the social issues of the day, new, often unforeseen issues came up. So the Organization could never rest on its laurels and had constantly to reappraise the world of work, review its own methods, and reinvent itself in order to stay relevant.

And on this day of celebration of the ILO’s Centenary we take this message to heart with the launch of the report of the Global Commission on the Future of Work, and begin the process that I trust will lead to the adoption by the ILO Conference in June of a Centenary Declaration.

In these times of transformative change at work, of great uncertainly, and even of a certain disillusionment about the capacity of policy makers to provide credible responses to the global challenges that the future of work poses it is surely more important than ever that the ILO demonstrate once again that capacity for renewal and reinvention.

In the ideas – or rather ideals – formulated 100 years ago, the ILO possesses the moral compass to guide its decisions, and the values by which it must assess all changes in the world of work. The task is to shape the emerging realities of our time into conformity with those values, and not the reverse.

It is by combining the clarity of our principles, unchanging and universal, with flexibility and innovation in the tools we use to achieve them that the ILO will succeed in the future, as it has in the past.

However formidable the challenges ahead may appear they are surely no greater than those that the women and men who went before us in the ILO confronted and overcame. Except, perhaps, in one regard, which comes from the observation that today we appear to be losing the will and capacity for dialogue. It seems more difficult to listen and to weigh honestly the views of the other against one’s own, to be tolerant and to reach for compromise rather than the imposition of one’s will.

These are tendencies that need to be resisted, because if they prevail the work of the ILO becomes impossible and its values will fall.

And this is why I wish to end by echoing the central message of the report of our Global Commission. That it is urgent for us all – representatives of the Governments, Employers and Workers of our now 187 member States and all of our allies – to rededicate ourselves to reinvigorating the social contract that was and is at the heart of the ILO’s mandate. The basic commitment to work together to defend not only our own interests but those of others so that social justice is available to all, with none left behind and all moving forward in this new ILO century.