A wild dream has prevailed

Speaking at a special Centenary session of the United Nations General Assembly in New York, ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, celebrated the ILO’s past and reflected on the Organization’s purpose and its future.

Statement | United Nations General Assembly, New York | 10 April 2019
H.E. Ms. María Fernanda Espinosa Garcés – President of the 73rd Session of the General Assembly,
Mr. António Guterres – Secretary General of the United Nations,
Ladies and Gentleman,

One hundred years ago, recognizing that universal peace can only be achieved if it is based upon social justice, the Commission on International Labour Legislation of the Paris Peace Conference proposed the establishment of a “permanent organization” and series of urgent measures to improve labour conditions in the world.

These provisions were to become the Constitution of the International Labour Organization and were adopted by the Peace Conference on 11 April 1919.

The ILO was the most positive and enduring product of the Treaty of Versailles. Its birth was the first step in the construction of the multilateral system, and a forebearer of today’s United Nations. It was empowered to negotiate and supervise the global rules of labour and to do so by the joint action of governments, workers and employers. Never has the idea of “We, the people” been given such inclusive form.

Truly, this was the “wild dream” described by President Franklin D. Roosevelt some 25 years later, but a wild dream that has prevailed. One that has shaped labour law and practice across the globe, and given substance to our constitutional principle that labour is not a commodity and to our recognition that the primary goal of policy must be the advancement of the material and spiritual well-being of each human being.

The ILO’s journey has not always been a straight path. From the outset the Organization has been tested by the turbulence of history and the economic and social realities of its times.

In its first 25 years, the Organization’s greatest achievement was its survival. It confronted and overcame the great depression, authoritarianism, renewed cataclysmic conflict, the collapse of the rest of the League of Nations and wartime exile.

Precisely as it emerged from this dark period, as the world’s leaders were preparing the creation of the United Nations, the ILO adopted the Declaration of Philadelphia: Concise and compelling, this was truly a vision for a better world.

With its groundbreaking statement of rights, the Declaration of Philadelphia was to inspire the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and laid the foundations for the ILO’s future role as the first specialized agency of the United Nations.

The ILO and the UN embraced their partnership from the outset. Perhaps not surprisingly. After all, the very first Secretary-General had participated in the ILO Conference already in 1923, as a representative of the workers of his country.

The first half-century of the ILO culminated in the award to it of the Nobel Peace Prize in 1969. Speaking at the award ceremony, the Chair of the Nobel Committee recognized that there are “few organizations that have succeeded to the extent that the ILO has in translating into action the fundamental moral idea on which it is based.”

And this was carried forward in the following 25 years, which were ones of rapid growth as the ILO’s membership increased, with the freedom brought to so many peoples by decolonization.

The ILO was challenged to meet the needs of these new states and did so by developing its technical cooperation programmes into the crucial means of action that they still are today.

By its 75th anniversary, the ILO had reached near universal membership in a world itself standing at the threshold of the era of globalization. By then the confrontation between two ideological and political systems had ended.

The apparent triumph of a universal liberal economy, proclaimed by some as the “end of history”, in fact heralded a challenging new chapter in the ILO’s history. Many sought a social dimension to a model of globalization driven by deregulation of markets and fuelled by new technologies.

The ILO’s Declaration of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work, and the decent work agenda – jobs, social protection, social dialogue and rights – were key responses and stand today at the centre of the ILO’s strategy. And they are a pillar of the Sustainable Development Goals.


Ladies and gentlemen,

More than a cause of celebration, the Centenary that we commemorate today is a time to reflect on our purpose, and on the course we chart for the future.

The world of work is undergoing unprecedented transformative change. And while this change brings opportunity for many, for others it is generating a profound sense of instability, anxiety and even fear.

Today the ILO and the organizations of the multilateral system operate in a context of great uncertainty and widespread disillusion about the prospects for sustainable social and economic progress. The very principles of multilateralism are called into question.

Many citizens doubt the capacity of the leaders and institutions of public life to give credible responses to their most pressing needs and concerns.

The demand of people across the planet has been, and is, a renewal of the social contract between government and people, and at work between labour and capital, that is predicated on the concepts of fairness, equity, cooperation, development, shared opportunity and prosperity, and on inclusiveness and sustainability.

The 2030 Agenda stands as the international community’s response. It has the decent work agenda at its heart. And it is a pressing responsibility of the ILO at the moment of its Centenary to work, under the leadership of the Secretary-General, with the rest of the UN system, and through its reform to deliver it – with nobody left behind, and nobody lagging behind either.

In this spirit, and because it is determined to look forward rather than to the past, the ILO has focused its Centenary on the Future of Work, and the ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work, led by President Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden, published its report in January.

The report sets out in ten key recommendations a “human-centred” agenda for growth and development, one which places women and men and the work they do at the centre of social and economic policies.

The Commission makes the evident yet crucial point that the future is not decided for us. It is not dictated by technological development, but will be the result of the choices we make about the future we want and our common purpose in its realization. And our Commission argues for a series of investments in people’s capacities, in the institutions of work and in the sustainable and decent jobs of the future.

If we are to succeed in realizing these high ambitions, which are also the ambition of the 2030 Agenda, the Commission believes that all actors must take responsibility, not least in the multilateral system where, under the impulse of reform, it advocates institutional arrangements to strengthen policy coherence, especially between the areas of labour, trade and finance.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The founders of the ILO one hundred years ago proclaimed that:
“Conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperilled.”

We have progressed much over the past century. But we know that such conditions still exist, as do the dangers.

The ILO’s founders called for the “war on want” to be carried forward with unrelenting vigour. The first 100 years is but the prelude to the future we construct together now. Let us set about that task with the same courage and urgency, and moved by the same sentiments of social justice and humanity which first gave life to the ILO.

History tells us what we can achieve. But it also tells us what the cost of our failures would be.

Thank you.