108th International Labour Conference

Opening remarks by Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General, at the 108th Session of the International Labour Conference

Statement | Geneva | 10 June 2019
Photo album and video recording of the ILO Director-General's opening remarks at the 108th International Labour Conference
and Guests,

“Despite all the misery of a world that is still divided and in turmoil, despite all the difficulty of peoples to meet and to know one another we believe that, through the ILO, social justice will be established in the world”.

The words of the ILO’s first Director-General, Albert Thomas, in 1926.

And as I congratulate you Mr President on your election – recognition of Switzerland’s role as the ILO’s host, and your personal contribution to our Organization, – and as I welcome all participants to this Centenary Conference, I think we might reflect a moment on these words.

Today, there is still much division in the world, too much turmoil, and dialogue and understanding in and between countries seems frequently to elude us.

But the confidence in the ILO’s capacities remains. I have seen it. I have seen it expressed in member States throughout this Centenary year. It is shown by the more than forty Heads of State and Government who honor our conference in the coming days. And the presence of representatives of governments, workers and employers here in this great world parliament of labour is its most concrete confirmation.

And you are here because you share the vision and confidence of Albert Thomas and the conviction that it is within our grasp to generate the conditions for decent work for all, in which enterprises prosper, people succeed, and societies progress.

And this confidence matters. It is even vital. But alone it is not enough. It needs to bring with it the political will to work together to produce results, and it requires us to bring creativity and innovation to everything that we do to advance our common cause.

The defining challenge of this Conference comes from the fact that the ILO’s Centenary coincides with the most profound and transformative process of change in the world of work that it has seen throughout its history.

There is nothing in these changes which questions the relevance of the ILO’s mandate or detracts from its importance. Indeed, if anything the reverse is true. Because the uncertainties and insecurities of our time instead underline just how fundamental the achievement of social justice is to stability and to peace, and how vital access to decent work is to the advancement of human well-being.

And so, we are not called then to review or revise, or even to add, to the objectives which the ILO was established to pursue, this great social contract for peace and social justice. But we certainly do need to subject to rigorous examination exactly how we intend to realize these objectives. It is, to say the least, improbable, as the world of work is transformed by the combined impact of technological innovation, demographic shifts, climate change, and globalization. Impossible that our Organization would be best served by unreflecting business as usual. What worked well yesterday may not work well tomorrow. Things we saw no need to do in the past we will need to address in the future – and that includes integrating environmental sustainability into all areas of the ILOꞌs activity.

And, in fact, this is a lesson of our history. To what does the ILO owe its longevity, its 100 years of uninterrupted activity which is unique in the international system? I think we owe it to three things.
  • To its mandate for social justice – because the human reflex for fairness and for the the respect of rights is universal and its permanent.
  • We owe it to our tripartite composition. Because it is surely no accident that when other purely inter-governmental organizations fell, the tripartite ILO alone survived.
  • And finally, we owe it to our constant capacity to adapt – to turn towards the challenges of change rather than away from them.
Mr President,

It is true that much of the business of this session of the International Labour Conference resembles, in form at least, what we have done at our Conferences for decades. It would thefore be tempting to see it as “routine”. But in fact it is more than that. By adopting new International Labour Standards to stop violence and harassment at work, this Conference will, of course, strike a blow against abuse which should offend the basic standards of decency of each and every one of us. We have to do this. But when we have done it, we will also have taken one further step in the ILO’s historic normative role of establishing international labour legislation. And this was at the heart of the founding vision of our Organization, and it must certainly stay there. Were it otherwise the ILO would be diminished out of all recognition. And setting the labour rules of the global economy is meaningful only if their application is effectively monitored. The ILO can be justifiably proud of the supervisory system that it has built over the years into one of the most remarkable of the entire multilateral system. Certainly holding member States to account for their obligations under ratified Conventions is not the easiest part of the ILO’s mandate. But there are few, if any, which are more important, and we should all take care not to damage it.

Indeed, from the historical perspective of our Centenary we can see that this Conference will be cementing new bricks into the extraordinary edifice of achievements of the ILO’s normative work and in doing so carrying forward the cause of the rule of international law.

Mr President,

The decisions taken by our Members five years ago, mean that this Centenary Conference is dedicated above all to our future, to the future of work. There was wisdom in those decisions. Because the ILO’s own activities in this period, the 110 national tripartite dialogues on the future of work, the deliberations of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work, its inputs to the broader United Nations system, and, most strikingly, the hopes and concerns of citizens in all of our countries and their impact on national public life demonstrate just how strongly people of all regions recognize in this debate challenges, opportunities, and choices, which will be of extraordinary importance in determining the future of individuals, families, communities, and societies.

And so, Mr President,

This is no obscure or introverted, or self-indulgent exercise to mark 100 years of a venerable organization. This is about tackling the issues that most matter to people, at a moment when they see urgent need for answers and for action, and our collective capacity to provide them is in question. And at a time when people seem to feel need to take back control of their lives, it is based on the proposition that whatever the power of the forces at work changing working lives so profoundly, and in ways more quickly felt than understood. The fact is that the future of work is not pre-determined. It will not be decided for us, not by robots, not by artificial intelligence. These matter of course – and much else does as well. But the fact is that the future of work will be the result of our decisions, our choices, our capacity to follow-up on them, our willingness to cooperate together and to make it the future of work we want, and that is a future of work that one which assures the continuity of the 100 years old vision of the founders of the ILO and the aspirations of the citizens of the future, through the constant advancement of decent work, social justice and peace.

The ILO Global Commission on the Future of Work has urged us all to take responsibility for this task. We will be honored to hear from its Co-chairs, President Ramaphosa and Prime Minister Löfven later today. As they and the Commission have summarized the challenge, it is for us all to re-dynamize that social contract which was born with the ILO.

This Conference, uniquely, brings together those who can do what no others can. You are the right people, the representatives of Governments, Employers and Workers, in the right place – the ILO, and you are here at the right time – now! The Declaration that you are called upon to negotiate and adopt can be – but it depends on you – a crucial statement of intent, a strategic roadmap for the ILO precisely because the future of work is the future of the ILO, a mobilizing call to each of our member States, and the platform for cooperation with our sister organizations of the international system.

And, in this regard, with the multilateral system under pressure, and responding through deep reform in the United Nations, in which the ILO is so actively engaged, we surely need to be able to demonstrate that we are ready to lead in promoting greater coherence, coordination, and common purpose between all those whose mandates impact on the world of work. And that is called for by our common responsibilities to deliver the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. And it is called for too by the simple fact that international organizations working for example in the fields of labour, of finance, and of trade have entirely compatible, complementary, and interactive mandates.

Secretary-General António Guterres will join our Conference on its closing day. Could there be any better way of showing him the power and contribution that tripartism and social dialogue can bring to the reformed UN than an ambitious Declaration on the Future of Work?

Mr President,

When all is said, it is clear in fact that this International Labour Conference over which you preside is different from others.

Different because its decision must tell the world that we have the confidence, the common purpose, the will, and the means to construct a future of work with social justice for all. And I believe that we will do so because labour is not a commodity. We will do so because labour conditions with injustice, hardship and privation do imperil the peace and harmony of the world. We will do so because each human being does have the right to pursue their material well-being and spiritual development in freedom and dignity. We will do so because freedom of association and expression are essential to sustained progress. And we will do it together because poverty anywhere is a danger to prosperity everywhere, and we will do it because the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of work obstructs other nations which wish to do so.

We will do so, we must do so, because this is the International Labour Organization. We know what our past has been and we assume today responsibility for what our future must be.

Thank you.