8th World Congress of Education International

Education must safeguard democracy, promote the common good

In a speech to the 8th World Congress of Education International in Bangkok, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder highlights the critical role of trade unions and teachers in shaping a just, human-centred future of work.

Statement | 23 July 2019
© Education International
President, General Secretary, Delegates and Observers,

I bring Congress the fraternal greetings of the International Labour Organization. And it's a particular honour to do so in this Centenary year of the ILO, and at the moment when you are taking stock of the first 25 years of the history and the achievements of Education International.

In this time our organizations have built a powerful partnership, and the ILO values it very highly. It's an important part of our work. Because our values coincide, our mandates interlock, and therefore our destinies necessarily converge.

When the education trade unions of the world came together to form Education International, back in 1993, in an act of unification which was a precursor and an example for several others which followed in the international labour movement, at that time, the post-Cold War world was in thrall to the “End of history thesis of Francis Fukuyama.” With the triumph of free-market economics, it was argued, we could look forward to an era of safe, if somewhat tedious, non-confrontational, ideology-free coexistence and prosperity. It's as if the global economy and all the rest of us were going to go on to autopilot.

How very different from the circumstances in which the ILO was created 100 years ago in conditions of disruption, upheaval and revolution from the wreckage of the First World War. Different, too, from the conviction of the founders of the ILO that it had to be the determined and combined action of governments, trade unions and employers and the regulation of the world of work for social justice that was a necessary instrument to guide the dynamics of history in the direction of peace, progress, and democracy.

And, colleagues, with the perfect 20/20 vision of hindsight today, we know that the ILO's founding vision, what Franklin D Roosevelt later called “a wild dream”, that vision was right, just as Fukuyama’s vision was wildly wrong. And amongst many other lessons, this history tells us that whatever our collective future will hold, it will be the outcome of our own efforts, not least those of trade unions, and not of the workings of any imagined natural laws of economy and society.

That basic proposition - it is a simple one - has been at the heart of the Future of Work initiative, which has been the centrepiece of the ILO's Centenary activities, and which culminated last month in the adoption by our International Labour Conference of a Declaration for the Future of Work. It was a conference, as well - as Suzanne you've reminded us - which adopted the first International Labour Convention since 2011. A Convention whose aim it is to eliminate violence and harassment at work. A Convention which we need you to go home and have your governments ratify in the months ahead.

The point is that the future of work is not predetermined, it will not be decided by robots, by artificial intelligence, or even by climate change or globalization. It will be a combination of society's preferences and our capacity and our will to act upon them. And however complex our circumstances may appear this is what really matters and the rest is background noise, the rest is distraction.

And there are good reasons - very good reasons - why we need educators and their trade unions in the lead.

It is part of the shared value system of Education International and the ILO that the future that we want is one of democracy, one of human and trade union rights and of social justice. If you unpack these big ideas, these big concepts, you realize how much in our lives depends upon them: our freedom to think, our freedom to speak, to associate, to build fair and equitable societies, to have decent work opportunities, to live together in conditions of security and of well-being.

These are aspirations which are so inherent in the human condition, that it is at first sight, at least, hard to believe that they are subject to dispute or to objection. And yet today they are.

Because the reality is that your Congress meets at a moment when basic tenets of democratic process are under attack; when human rights are not only violated, often with impunity, but they are deemed to be somehow an imposition in the proper relationship between the state and the individual; it's a time when tolerance of those who look, who think, who sound, who pray or who love differently, is perceived as weakness or even a betrayal.

This is the Zeitgeist of our time, one of a new brutalism which increasingly pervades public life and political discourse. In which openly xenophobic and intimidatory attitudes are gaining common currency, in which liberalism is pronounced as defunct, and where nationalism and authoritarian reflexes are being massaged by populist ambitions.

Ours is a time when untruths are peddled as facts by the purveyors of fake news. And where simultaneously, truths are dismissed as fake news by those to whom they come as an inconvenience.

And an inconvenient truth for us is that working people are very often the intended recipients of such falsehoods and with alarming frequency they are succumbing to them.


These are the circumstances of our times and they are not easy. And they are, in large part I believe, the consequence both of past policy failure and current processes of disruptive change at work and in society. Painful experience of stagnating or falling wages, of basic public services under pressure, of growing inequality, has left many in society feeling forgotten and feeling angry. And accelerating disruptive change has also left them often disoriented and confused. Injustice breeds injustice and there is an appetite to assert identity; to take back control; to be somebody.

Colleagues, this is a strong cocktail of emotions- and it is a toxic one. It is also one that education trade unions and the ILO are called upon together to resist.

For its part, the ILO occupies a space where international cooperation -multilateralism - meets tripartism, THAT cooperation between governments, workers and employers. And both of these are under strain. So this is an area of turbulence.

And equally, Education International stands at the intersection between the exercise, the defense of trade union freedoms and the delivery of quality education for all. And this is a rough weather area as well.

It is a constitutional responsibility of the International Labour Organization to defend and to promote democratic principles and human and trade union rights. They are inherent to the realization of social justice. And in so doing we need also to understand the transformative dynamics which are now playing out in the world of work and to shape them in accordance with these principles. That is precisely why we have focused the centenary of our organization on the future of work through National Tripartite dialogues in more than 100 member states, through the report of our Global Commission on the future of work, which was chaired by President Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden. And that report was published in January. And then we had, as I mentioned, last month's conference Declaration on the Future of work.

Colleagues, I believe that that Declaration can serve us well - not just as a restatement of long-held principles, but rather as a roadmap for joint action so that we can have these principles prevail.

What we have is a human-centred agenda for work, for growth and for development. One which calls for investment in people's capacities so that they can successfully navigate the digital, environmental and demographic transitions which are ahead. It calls for investment in the institutions of work so that we can manage and regulate change for the benefit of all working people. It calls for investment in the jobs of the future because what we want is an inclusive, sustainable and equal future with decent work for all.

None of this will happen, none of it can even be imagined, unless education is placed at the centre of the agenda, and unless those whose job it is to deliver quality education for all are sufficiently numerous, adequately trained and paid, and guaranteed the terms, the conditions and the rights that are required to discharge their responsibilities effectively.

And so I want to take the opportunity of this Congress and the ILO Centenary to say that I hope that this can be the moment for us to strengthen our partnership. We already do a great deal together, be it in the application of the ILO-UNESCO recommendation on the status of teachers, be it in the delivery of the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda. But there is scope, and above all there is need, for us to do more. And as the ILO looks to the future of work. I want to suggest that we work together on the future of work in the education sector so that we can help to bring about the vision that we have for the future of our society.

And I think it is encouraging that practically every discussion of the future of work - and there are many, including those of the ILO - these discussions identify access to lifelong learning as a key policy priority. The possibility to re-skill and up-skill throughout working life, overcoming the constantly lamented mismatch between the skills that our education systems produce and those that we are told our labour markets require. These are the common places of the contemporary debate on education and work.

And let's be clear, these issues are not to be dismissed. They matter and they need to be worked on, not least because they raise complex issues of financing, of delivery systems and respective responsibilities of the state of the private sector, and of the individual as well.

But I also think that there is a danger attached to this debate. It is the danger of casting the value of education in far too narrow terms. As if preparation for working life and little more than that. As if the significance of the first day of kindergarten and the educational journey that follows can properly be reduced to the purpose it serves at the first job interview.

There is surely much more to it than that and it has not been more compellingly expressed in the publication “25 lessons from the teaching profession -  on education and democracy” that your President and General Secretary emeritus Susan and Fred have recently published. They remind us, should we need the reminder - that education must also safeguard democracy, it must shape global citizens, it must promote the common good. And if the ILO Constitution states that Labour is not a commodity, then they say also that education is not a commodity either, nor an instrument of state control.

This is equally the vision of education contained in goal number four of the United Nations Agenda for Sustainable Development, the 2030 Agenda. And by the way, goal number 4 is a goal which commits the international community to ensure inclusive and equitable quality education and to promote lifelong learning opportunities for all. It's a goal whose existence and whose content is a tribute to the efforts and the determination of Education International and its affiliates around the world and I congratulate you on that achievement.

And that vision of education is not a dream, it is a reality. When you see school students taking forward the cause of climate change through their own strike action while others are failing, then you can see that teachers are doing the right thing and that education is indeed working as it should.


Societies which understand societies which understand and try to realize the full value of education, place it where it needs to be. These are healthy societies. They are societies which can look forward to the future with genuine confidence, because they will grow the antidotes to the virus of the new brutalism which is broad.

But that value has also to be reflected in the public budgets allocated to education, in the pay packets and the pensions of educational personnel. And although the price of ignorance is vastly higher, education cannot be had on the cheap. And whatever the marvels of technological applications, it cannot be delivered well other than by qualified properly paid educational staff who know their rights and are free to exercise them.

And let me conclude by saying that perhaps the clearest demonstration of the powerful bonds that exist between education, democracy and human rights including trade union rights, at the heart of our society is almost the most tragic demonstration. It is to be found in the appallingly high price paid, often in blood, by education trade unionists who have courageously defended human rights and democracy from those who seek their weakening and their destruction. Your colleagues have too frequently fallen victim, precisely because they made it their business to dispense knowledge, to spark curiosity, to confront power with reason, to defend the rights of their own and those of others, to open eyes, to lend an ear, to raise a voice. And none of us can do any less.

This is what do you do. Long may Educate International continue to do it. And colleagues, as long as you do, you can rely on the ILO as a partner at your side.

Thank you. Good luck.