Future of work

Nordic countries an inspiration for the ILO

ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, praised the contribution of Nordic countries to the organization’s mandate and outlined the opportunities and challenges ahead at the Nordic Conference on the Future of Work, in the Icelandic capital, Reykjavik.

Statement | Reykjavik, Icelandic capital | 04 April 2019
Representatives of workers and employers,
Dear friends,

Let me begin by firstly thanking through you Minister, our Icelandic hosts, for bringing us all here in Reykjavik, and also the Nordic Council of Ministers and the Secretary General, for the cooperation that we are enjoying.

And also congratulations to you Minister Daðason and social partners for that collective agreement which cost you a bit of sleep last night, but I think it will save you some sleep in the future. So warm congratulations to everybody on that collective agreement.

Dear colleagues,

It is the Centenary of the International Labour Organization. We have decided to place the future of work rather than our own history at the centre of our celebrations. And in this Centenary year I want to say that I regard this conference and the process that has led up to it, and will continue after it, as an absolute highlight of the ILO's Centenary activities. And I'm extremely encouraged by the engagement of our Nordic partners in our Centenary process.

I'm encouraged because in the first place the Nordic countries from the beginning, have been key actors in the International Labour Organization, in its founding and in its operations. And your contribution has many facets. One is simply the amount of energy, the amount of effort, the amount of resources, that you put into our organization, for which I, and many of our member States are deeply grateful.

But I would say that the major contribution of our Nordic member States to our organization is by example. It's what you do at home that provides inspiration and encouragement to our organization. Because you demonstrate by what you do the principles that the ILO stands for; the methods that it promotes are actually applicable in your countries. And, they produce fantastic results. The Nordic countries seem to come out first in so many league tables that it shows that these processes have real applicability.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I know that the Icelandic presidency has been inspired this year by the Old Norse Epic, The Hávamál. I understand this is about finding the right path in life, the right path forward, guided by ethical values and clear objectives, and I think that's a pretty good way of looking at the future of work.

The Hávamál tells us that we should travel with friends. And in this role I feel very much that way with our Nordic friends at the ILO. But the ILO's group of friends is actually a very big group. We have 187 member States. And so when we consider the future of work at the ILO we don't just think about our Nordic friends. We think about Africa, we think about South Asia, we think of all the regions of the world. And this is, as you will understand, makes our ambitions high and our work difficult.

But I think there are some principles that apply to us all. There's one thing I have learned from observing and working with my Nordic friends over many decades now. It's that the Nordic model is not a static model. It's not something that was invented in the 1950s and 1960s and continues unchanged. It is a model, which is under a continuous process of evolution and change and adaptation, and of course keeping a number of principles, a number of basic building blocks in place, but developing as times change. And that, I think, is also a good parallel for the circumstances in which we find ourselves.

Minister Daðason said recently that fleeing from the future is not an option. And I think this is absolutely correct. One of my predecessors as ILO Director-General 50 years ago said something very similar. He said it on the occasion of receiving the Nobel Peace Prize for the ILO, exactly 50 years ago. And he said, I'm going to quote him:

“That the ILO has never seen and will never see its role as active defender of the status quo. It will continue to seek and promote social evolution by peaceful means to identify emerging social needs and problems and threats to social peace.”

So that's also a pretty good message for our time. That's 50 years old. But I can do better. A thousand years ago, the Hávamál, again, advised us:

“The coward believes he will live forever / If he holds back in the battle / But in old age he shall have no peace / though spears have spared his limbs.”

So here it is, we shouldn't be holding back. We should try to avoid those spears but we have to move towards the future. And I think that these are absolutely key thoughts as we address the future of work, and in fact it is the spirit in which the ILO's Global Commission on the Future of Work, which completed its job and published its report in January of this year, it’s the spirit in which they undertook their work.

It was co-chaired by Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden, along with President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa. This was a very diverse group of 27 eminent thinkers about the world of work who produced a report which I hope will help us all in our reflections as we move forward.

And right at the beginning, our Commission made some very clear decisions about the report that it wanted to produce. They wanted a concise report, an accessible report. They wanted one which is strategic, action-oriented rather than lengthy and technical. And they wanted a political report, in the true sense of the word, something that would have impact, something that would lead to changes of policy direction. And I think they have succeeded in those ambitions.

And I do want, just before I go quickly into the details of that report, to say how impressed I am by the research program which is under way under the auspices of the Nordic Council of Ministers. I find in that report, and I studied it very carefully, very close echoes of the ILO’s own Global Commission report. I see many issues that we should be developing together.

One thing that comes out of your research report, and again I'm going to quote it, has to do with the ILO and how we can be useful. It says, and I quote again:

“The most salient role of ILO in our region is probably as agenda-setter and forum for policy deliberation.”

So I think we are fulfilling that role as we move forward today.

Now what about this Global Commission report? Can I encourage you to read it, if you haven't already done so. And it will I think interest you and be of value to you.

What the report basically sets out is what it calls a human-centred agenda for the future of work and for growth and development.

The idea is a very simple one but an obvious one you might argue, is to put people right at the centre of economic and social policies. And it has 10 recommendations, concrete recommendations grouped under three areas. It says areas of investment. So what are these three areas of investment which the Global Commission recommends?

Well the first is investing in people's capabilities. The capabilities of people. And there there are some very clear ideas. The first, we discussed it with the Ministers yesterday, is the creation of a universal entitlement to lifelong learning. The word entitlement is important, a right to lifelong learning.

Now everybody that I talk to in the world of work agrees that lifelong learning is a very good thing. I think most of us understand that the rate of change in the world of work today is so fast that the skills we learn at the beginning of our lives, in the first 20 or 25 years, they won't be good enough, however good those skills are, they will not last for the entirety of our working lives. This sequential approach to working life, that first we study, then we work, then we retire, that doesn't apply anymore.

Education and work are intertwined and they have to be intertwined in processes of lifelong learning. The Swedish Minister yesterday said, “Yes Mr. Ryder, we've heard about this for a very long time. It's almost like it's a lifelong debate about lifelong learning. We’ve been talking about this for decades.”

And I believe now the time has come, and people are starting already, to actually work out how we finance lifelong learning, how we deliver it, what are the institutions. And I think to do that we have to decide who is responsible for lifelong learning. Is it the State? Is it the enterprise, the employer? Is it the individual worker? And if it is a combination of all three of those, then how do we work out the division of responsibilities?

So lifelong learning is at the top of the list of recommendations.

It also believes that it is time to, I would say, move to a new stage in the fight for gender equality. The Commission proposes a transformative agenda for gender equality.

If I come to the Nordic countries and start talking about gender equality, in my country we would say it's like taking coal to Newcastle. To give you something you already have a lot of.

The point then is the following: one hundred years ago the ILO established the principle, in its founding Constitution, of equal pay for work of equal value; that was in 1919, and 60 years after we adopted the key ILO Conventions on equal pay and on non-discrimination, yet we still haven't reach the goal.

Even the best countries in the world, and I think we're probably in the best country in the world, haven’t got there. And so it seems to me, just carrying on doing the same things, even turning the volume up and playing the same music is probably not good enough.

So we have to look for innovative, transformative, new instruments for gender equality. Let us look at Iceland, your certification process, let's look at transparency. By midnight tonight, every big company in the UK is supposed to report on its gender pay practices. These are making a difference. We have to have this new and transformative approach drawing on such experiences.

And the third area of investing in capabilities is in social protection. Not a new story, but I'm very comfortable in the Nordic region amongst Nordic friends, in saying that comprehensive social protection, this fundamental basis of welfare in societies, is critically important. Not an inhibitor or a brake on change and adaptation; it is a facilitator of change, to lubricate adaptation, and yet we're a very long way away from where we need to be. Seventy five per cent of the workers of the world do not have anything like adequate social protection.

So that’s the first agenda, of investment in people's capabilities.

The second area of investment is in what we call the institutions of work. The ILO Constitution famously says it, we all know it, “Labour is not a commodity,” to be traded on markets.

And it's the institutions of labour markets that you've all developed over a century or more that prevents labour from being a commodity. And yet as the world of work is subject to transformative change around us, I think we have to look at those institutions and see to what extent they need to be updated and adapted to the needs of today.

And so there are some very basic propositions in the Global Commission report. The first is the establishment, and it's perhaps the most controversial recommendation of the report, of what is called a Universal Labour Guarantee.

That is to say, that there are a certain number of guarantees, a certain number of protections, that every worker in every working situation, regardless of their contract status or where they work, should enjoy. And these need to be brought together in a basic Universal Labour Guarantee.

And here's the interesting thing: the ideas that we are packaging in this Guarantee, let me tell you what they are. There are about guarantees of fundamental rights at work; the guarantee of an adequate living wage; the guarantee of maximum hours of work and rest as well, and also the right to a healthy and safe working place. These should be guaranteed to all workers as a matter of right.

All of these guarantees exist in the ILO Constitution for the last 100 years. The ideas are not new, the application I believe we have to work upon. And let me underline the recommendation of the Global Commission that health and safety at work should become a basic human right in the ILO’s lexicon of rights.

Ladies and gentlemen, 2.7 million working people lose their lives in the world every year because of the work that they do or have done, through accident or through disease.

Then we come to a very complex debate about working time. The President said in his opening address that one of the historic challenges of the ILO that it took on from the very first year was the gradual reduction in working time over the years. The idea is that as our productive capacities increase, our prosperity increases; we can allow ourselves to reduce working time.

And historically that's been the trend. We know it. The very first ILO Convention talked about the 48-hour working week at a time when industrial work was normally around 60/62 hours. And slowly we’ve gone from 48 to 40 and under 40.

But the situation today I think is somewhat complicated. It is not just about working time reduction; it is about the organization of work and who controls working time in real working situations.

The fourth industrial revolution, we are told, enables work more and more to be undertaken anywhere and at any time. And that has extraordinary potential opportunities for us to make working life more human, to better balance work and private responsibilities.

And yet it is a double-edged sword because more and more people find it difficult I think to disconnect from work, and as work forms have diversified, often enabled by new technologies, we get very different and complicated working time arrangements. And many workers find themselves in situations where work, working time is uneven, unpredictable and sometimes extremely difficult for them to manage. And so we think that the idea of increasing working time sovereignty is an important objective for us to work towards.

I’ll move quickly on to another notion which I think again is so deeply embedded in the Nordic way of doing things that I don't need to stress it. We believe that it’s time when trade union membership is often under pressure, we need to see effective and strong representation of worker and employer interests of work, and mechanisms of tripartite cooperation; something very valuable in our societies.

The report suggests they should be treated as a public good. Not just strong trade unions for workers, strong employers organizations and employers, but the notion of strong instruments of social dialogue and tripartite consultation as a public good; something which produces good outcomes for society as a whole.

And without flattering you, the best advertisement for that proposition is to be found in this part of the world. Like many other things, tripartism, social dialogue, will be judged on the results that it brings. And here the results can be seen. But I think you're all aware that in many parts of the world this basic, very Nordic proposition, is not accepted, it has been weakened.

There are many who see social dialogue and tripartism as a conspiracy against good decision-making, a brake on decisions that have to be made; a way of producing fuzzy compromises when strong decisions are to be taken. We have a fight on our hands, ladies and gentlemen, to protect the notion of dialogue and tripartism.

The Commission also dealt and in some detail with the questions of technology at work. Everybody recognizes that new technology above all else is what is transforming the world of work. You will not find in the report any confident predictions about how many jobs will be created and how many jobs are going to be destroyed by technology. There are plenty of predictions out there for those who want them, and they’re nearly all different, so you can go to the literature that you want and get the answer that you first thought of. There is a danger with these predictions not just because they're all different. There is a danger, and the danger is that it leads us to believe that technology will decide the future for us. In fact the employment outcomes of technological innovation depends on what we decide to do with technology, and the report makes that point.

It strongly says that we need a human-in-control attitude towards technology and that we do have this capacity to govern and make the best of technological innovation, not simply to be driven by it in a passive way.

And finally, it is time when many people in the world are asking, and it's a question I most frequently receive, where will the jobs of the future come from? It's at a time when we have nearly 200 million people unemployed in the world.

So, the third area of investment the Commission identifies is simply an investment in the jobs of the future. And here they point to some very clear areas where we need to invest: in the green economy, I think in Iceland I should call it the blue economy as well, in the care economy, so vital as well for the issues of equity and work/home balance in our families.

And given that we are a global organization, the rural economy where so many of the world's workers still work and find their living. These are particular areas where we need to invest and focus. I would add to that list infrastructure, both digital and physical.

It recognizes as well that all of these ambitions depend crucially on the success of enterprises, of the private business sector. It’s so clearly the case that it's perhaps not said as frequently as it should be.

But we need also to work out the business incentives that would align business practices to the goals that we are setting for the future; those long-term goals, for instance, in the UN 2030 Agenda. And I think also that we need to develop new indicators that go beyond simple GDP measurements to measure the extent of our progress.

And that's what the Global Commission recommends. In the end, they say something about taking responsibility. Who's going to be responsible for doing all this? Well clearly at the national level it is governments, employers and workers organizations. But it believes there is an international dimension to responsibility as well. Part of your Nordic model, part of your success is predicated on the existence of predictable international trading and international economic relations. You depend a great deal on the success of an open, rules-based, global economy.

And perhaps today more than ever, the assumptions we have had about the future success of globalization are questioned. And so the Commission encourages not just the ILO, but the ILO in partnership with those responsible for international finance, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank, and those in charge of trade, the World Trade Organization, to work together better. Because if we work together with hermetically sealed boxes on labour, and trade, on finance, we're not going to get the type of international policy environment that we all need to succeed.

Colleagues, that’s what the Global Commission is putting to you. These are some of the ideas, there will be many others that will go to the International Labour Conference in June, the Centenary conference, where the intention is the adoption of a Declaration on the Future of Work that will help us trace out a path for the future; that takes us back to that common path which is the focus of the Icelandic presidency.

I am, as I said earlier on, extremely encouraged by the manner in which our Nordic friends have engaged in this process and are giving leadership in this process, and I want to thank you for it.

And there are two or three messages in this Nordic research piece will be hearing about later today, which are fundamentally important. And I finish with these three thoughts. The first is quite simply that the future is not decided for us. The future is not written in the stars. The future is what people like you will decide to make it, and that is the lesson of the Nordic model.

There’s nothing special in the Nordic countries. It's not the brown cheese in Norway or the salmon or the cod, it’s you that have made the success of the Nordic model. And it's a lesson for the rest of us that our future depends upon ourselves.

Your report says as well, and it’s very lucid, that current developments, developments over the last decade, have placed the Nordic model under strain. It even talks about cracks in the Nordic model. But we have to work hard to maintain what we've achieved and to take it forward. And I think this is also extremely important. This is not an ideal world in which to be planning the future.

Thirdly and lastly I think the point is that it's about values. It's about the egalitarian social justice values of leaving nobody behind. We have to decide what the world of work of the future is that we want, and then set about the task in a very pragmatic, very practical way as you do, of constructing that future.

Thank you. Thank you for your wonderful contribution to what is, I think, a very important ILO Centenary year.

Thank you.