École Nationale d'Administration

No time for complacency

The ILO needs to stand as a bulwark against the ‘new brutalism’ in the world, said ILO Director-General Guy Ryder in a speech on the future of work to the École nationale d’administration in Strasbourg.

Statement | Strasbourg, France | 08 July 2019
Director of the École Nationale d'Administration, Patrick Gérard,
Graduates and students of the ENA,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends,

Let me begin by thanking you, Mr Director, for the opportunity to speak to the École Nationale d'Administration about the challenges and the opportunities that we face as we take the ILO and its mandate of social justice into the future at a time of major disruption in the world and in the world of work. Thanks to all of you as well for coming to listen to me this afternoon. I feel very honoured and very lucky to have this audience before me.

Now I think you are all aware, and it has just been recalled to us, that this year the ILO marks its Centenary and such an anniversary is a very good occasion to look back at our many achievements. President Macron put it very well when he addressed our annual Conference, our Centenary Conference on 11 June, when he said: “100 ans de combat, 100 ans de justice sociale, 100 ans de dialogue, 189 conventions internationales de travail ratifiées qui ont changé la vie de millions d’hommes et de femmes”. It's a nice way of summarizing what the ILO has done over a hundred years. Although I have to update President Macron, as we now have 190 conventions, because shortly after he spoke, our Conference adopted a Convention and a Recommendation against violence and harassment at work, the very first international instrument of its type.

I think that I can say that the ILO can be justifiably proud of the achievements it has recorded. But I can see absolutely no reason for the organization or anybody connected with it to be complacent at a time when the lives of millions of people around the world are affected by profound disruptions in their working lives, as well as by the systems and gross inequalities and by large-scale injustices. That is why above all the ILO Centenary celebrations have focused on the future: the future of work and the future of the International Labour Organization itself.

I do also believe that knowing where we have come from makes it a lot easier to understand where we are going and where we should be going. As you will be aware, the ILO was born in 1919. It was born of a reaction to global conflict and the carnage of the First World War. I have always felt – and it's a big thing to say, I know, in this city of Strasbourg – that the ILO is probably the most positive and enduring, or one of the most positive and enduring, products of the Treaty of Versailles. 100 years later it is very frequently forgotten what the level of social tension was in the world in 1919. Massive political unrest, revolutionary uprisings in Budapest, in Berlin, in Munich, at the gates of Strasbourg, insurrectionary labour risings in Winnipeg, in Seattle, in Queensland. 1919 was a year of revolutions or embryonic revolutions. So when the signatories of the Treaty of Versailles met in 1919, yes, they were moved by a vision of social justice, moved by the thought that if you want permanent peace, then you have to base it on social justice. Those leaders were also moved by the very real political threats of the moment. So if they had social justice as their vision, they also had Bolsheviks on their mind. In addition, to repay the debt to organized labour contracted through trade unions in maintaining the war effort from 1914 to 1918.

Effectively Wilson, Lloyd George and Clemenceau were picking up the torch that had been burning at least in Europe from the middle and late part of the 19th century. The recognition that there was a need to improve labour conditions in the world, and that that need was very urgent.

How does that look a hundred years later? Can we identify with that founding proposition, that without greater social justice in the world, the stability and the peace of our societies would be imperilled? Is this a relic of history? Is it a message for today? Well I think you would have gathered what my answer is. Our current circumstances should lead us to not only recall the original message of Versailles, as an echo that comes to us from the distant past, but rather a message that can and must direct our efforts as we confront the challenges of our own society and the future of work. I'm encouraged by the fact that last month 34 Heads of State and Government came to the International Labour Conference to deliver a message of support and of commitment to what the ILO stands for.

Let me just point you to – and it's already been referred to – the two unique characteristics of this International Labour Organization. I use the words of a former US President, Franklin Delano Roosevelt who said, 30 years after the creation of the ILO, that the idea of creating an international organization, whose primary objective was to negotiate and have applied international labour legislation, was a “wild dream” and wilder still was the idea that this undertaking should be done not just by governments on their own but by governments, workers and employers representatives working together on the basis of equality. For 100 years, this “wild dream” has shown its value. It has survived. It has prevailed.

As we face the future, I believe it is necessary for us to look back and see what the achievements of the ILO are and what they tell us about the future. Well the fact of the matter is the ILO has not had an easy 100-year life. Through its first decades it was tested amid global depression and the descent of much of the world, including Europe, into authoritarianism and a second world war. The rest of the multilateral architecture of that time, the League of Nations, collapsed and disappeared. It did not survive those tests. The ILO went into a wartime exile in Montreal, in Canada, and it survived. And it did more than survive. A few weeks before the Allied forces landed in Normandy in 1944, the ILO adopted its very famous Declaration of Philadelphia, which has not only guided the Organization ever since, but has played a crucial role in shaping the post Second World War order, enunciating even before the Universal Declaration of Human Rights the basic principles of those human rights but also of economic justice. Labour is not a commodity, it said. Freedom of expression and association are essential to progress. Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.

The following decades were of course equally eventful for the ILO, and for the world of work itself. We went through the epoch of colonialization, of the Cold War, which conditioned the politics of the ILO in a way which is perhaps difficult to imagine today. We went through the early years of globalization. We helped the world negotiate the trauma of the first global financial crisis of 2008, the big era of globalization. And we have continued to work for the promotion of social justice in all of these conditions.

I just want to pause for a moment to say that throughout this very difficult but productive history, France has been an extraordinarily important actor in our Organization. France provided the ILO with its first Director-General. I was very pleased to see in the photographs downstairs that the 1953 promotion was named after Albert Thomas, a great and extraordinary personality. France has since provided a second Director-General, Francis Blanchard. More importantly today, I think, is the fact that France stands out as a primary defender of multilateralism in a world where multilateralism and international cooperation is profoundly challenged, and I will return to that issue in a little while.

There are, of course, those who will ask today whether an organization that was born out of conflict and recovery in Europe – and which for many bears the hallmarks of an industrial world order – still has a role to play in the era of accelerating globalization, in a rapidly transforming world of work, in a post-industrial world of work, and in an economy where market-based systems are not only the norm but apparently are prevailing over other considerations. Simultaneously we face this great challenge to multilateralism.

Critics of multilateralism as I see it have three arguments to counter the merits of international cooperation. They point to the fact that multilateralism does not deliver the results it is intended to deliver. They point to the idea that multilateralism and the space occupied by multilateralism is seen by many as an arena occupied purely by a cosmopolitan elite. They will argue as well that multilateralism by definition is inimical to the exercise of national sovereignty. You may not agree with those criticisms. I don't agree with those criticisms, but they need to be answered. In my mind at least, the most effective answer that can be delivered to those criticisms is through a multilateral system which performs well and which delivers the results that people expect, that delivers global responses to the great global challenges of our time.

These are reasons why the ILO social justice mandate is as relevant as it ever was; one may argue more relevant than it has been for most of its history; this time when the world is in the grip of what I have termed the Zeitgeist of a new brutalism. A new brutalism which is to be found in the appalling suffering inflicted on millions of human beings in multiplying conflicts around the world. A new brutalism which is evidenced in the collective failure of far too many to come to the aid of those who are most in need – think, for example, of those millions who are on the move and extraordinarily vulnerable. A new brutalism which is evident in the flouting of human rights standards with apparent and flagrant impunity. A new brutalism which is apparent in the challenge to play safe democratic tenets of our societies. I believe it is part of the ILO's job to be a bulwark against this type of contagion, both in its own conduct and through the results that it achieves. I definitely see this as critical to our responsibilities in delivering on the United Nations 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development.

All of this is particularly true at a time when the world of work is shaken by what the economist Joseph Schumpeter termed decades ago, “a period of epoch-making gales of creative destruction”. Mention the future of work and very quickly the question will arise – it's generally the first question: “Will robots steal our jobs? Will my boss be an algorithm?” I think that we need to keep in mind that the transformations that we are witnessing in work and elsewhere are not only the results of technological innovation, but of many other drivers of transformational change. I think of demographic shifts, I think of the challenge of climate change and I think of the increasingly uncertain path of globalization. The change that this is generating is one which gives rise to enormous uncertainty in our societies. I think this is an unparalleled time of uncertainty, at least in my life experience. This uncertainty is leading people to question the capacity of our institutions, our policies, to provide them with the type of future that they want. And the angst which is fuelling the Zeitgeist of anger in our societies is not only the consequence of an uncertain future, it results too from the lived experience of the past decades, when the fruits of economic growth and development have been so very badly distributed, and concentrations of great prosperity are living side by side with reservoirs of deprivation and injustice.

The point here is – and it’s not a small one – that basic concepts of fairness, a good way of coding the ILO's notion of social justice, are being shaken. That implicit social contract which underpins work in society is being questioned; it's being put under pressure. People worry that it no longer exists. When that social contract is thought to be broken, then that inevitably impacts upon the legitimacy of our public institutions, the legitimacy of the actors of public life. And what do we get? We get the politics we are living through today.

So all of this is why I feel sometimes a certain frustration that the debate on the future of work, which after all is a debate about the future of our societies, is sometimes so narrowly defined in terms of the impact of new technologies. This is a mistake. We have to think in different terms. We are not victims, or witnesses, or spectators to techno-determinism; the notion that technology unmolested will determine our future. As was mentioned in the very kind introduction to my speech, the fact of the matter is that the future of work is not decided for us in advance. It is a future that we must make according to the values and the preferences that we choose as societies, and through the policies that we design and implement to achieve decent work opportunities and social justice.

And so to revert to the issue of technology, it's up to us to decide how we manage that technology. To abdicate from that responsibility or to believe that it is beyond our capabilities, is perhaps the greatest abdication of social responsibility that we could make. It would be like saying that we surrender our human agency to the imagined forces of nature. The current technological revolution does have the capacity to fundamentally change not just the numbers of jobs that will be available in the future but the types of job that are out there. It has a capacity to change the very nature of the way that work is organized and undertaken. This is most familiarly seen in the advent of the platform or of the gig economy, where the established institutions of work, which the ILO has done so much to establish over the last century, just don't seem to apply. Who's an employer? Who's an employee? What does working time mean in the gig economy? What is a workplace in virtually intermediated work? So we have to craft and implement the policies and the institutions of work that will steer us in the right direction. And the right direction is not the direction dictated by technology; it’s the direction which is decided by our social preferences.

These are some of the reasons why the ILO launched for its Centenary its initiative on the future of work; to help us to reflect on the profound challenges and changes that lie ahead and how the ILO and its 187 member States could best meet them. We started that reflection on the future of work by going to our member States and asking the governments, the trade unions and the employers of those countries to come up with their own ideas about what the priorities and the challenges of the future should be. We fed the outcomes of 110 dialogues around the world into the work of a Global Commission on the Future of Work, that was co-presided by Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa, and Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden. The report of the Commission, published last January, was then presented to our Conference last month, and helped to craft the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, which was adopted by our Conference just a couple of weeks ago. This Declaration answers the challenges that I've referred to. It provides concrete recommendations for the delivery of social justice in the 21st century. It provides a roadmap for the International Labour Organization as it enters its second century. In order to move forward from the perspective of a just and sustainable future, our Declaration proposes a human-centred approach to the future of work, an agenda which understands very well that human welfare is the ultimate aim and objective of all public policies. Concretely that means investing in people, investing in jobs, investing in skills, in lifelong learning, investing in comprehensive social protection. It means supporting gender equality, because 100 years after the ILO in its founding Constitution established the principle of equal pay for work of equal value, the gender pay gap around the world is still 20 per cent. It means investing in these institutions of the labour market so that a minimum wage is an adequate wage to live upon, something which is not the case today for very many millions of workers. It means placing limits in controlling working time in a world where so many people work to the point of exhaustion and others cannot work long enough to keep body and soul together. It means ensuring a right to a healthy and safe workplace, when nearly three million people die every year because of the work that they do. And it means adopting policies that promote sustainable economic growth and decent work for all.

Many of the issues the ILO is working on these days do reflect the profound changes that will continue to take place in the world of work. I hear it said when we talk about the future of work that the future is already here, that the future is today. Well maybe, but there is a lot more future coming down the road in the years ahead. Let me give two examples:

One is the transition to a sustainable low- or no-carbon production system future. The ecological dimension of sustainable development figures in none of the ILO’s historic documents. The world of work was not thinking about the effects of climate change when the ILO was created. Even five or ten years ago, you could not have a consensus between governments, trade union and business organizations on the need to come together to act against climate change. It was not possible. The feeling was, until very recently, that a choice had to be made between jobs growth and development on the one hand, or protecting the planet on the other. In a very short space of time, and it is no small achievement, the world of work has understood that this is a false choice and that reconciling the imperatives of action against climate change and protecting the future of work actually go together. The Paris Agreement was an extraordinarily important point in that regard. So we're taking on, somewhat belatedly, the environmental challenges of the future of work. And there is no more urgent task for the ILO, and there is no element that will more clearly distinguish the second century of the ILO's work from its first.

The second example I want to give you very briefly is that of demographic change. We live in a country and in a region here where the focus is very much on ageing societies and how we manage to confront the challenges of ageing. But those of you who may come from, or those of you who know very well sub-Saharan Africa or South Asia, know that the challenge there is the opposite. It is the challenge of providing relevant opportunities and decent work chances for young societies. Those two co-existing realities should lead us to reflect on two challenges, which the multilateral system has not really been able to confront very well. The first is the challenge of governing human mobility and migration effectively. The second is of assuring the sustainability of our social protection systems in the light of these demographic changes.

In the end when you put all of this together, what it really boils down to – what the challenge for the future of work is about – is providing opportunities for decent jobs in a just, secure and equitable world; a world which is characterized not by continuing growing inequality, but much greater equity and fairness at work; a world where that social contract seems to have meaning to people once again.

The ILO of course can bring many means of action to bear to help us move in that direction. We have the capacity to give policy advice on the basis of our accumulation of research and the knowledge of labour markets around the world. We have the capacity to work with our member States by the provision of development cooperation. We have the capacity to convene and to promote social dialogue in our unique global forum spaces. But above all, and I want to close with this, it is the ILO's normative function, this standards-related function, that is primordial. The ILO's founders recognized already and it was ground-breaking at the time, 100 years ago, that the global economy needed clear rules, international labour standards. This function of establishing the global rules of the game for labour markets remains absolutely critical today in ensuring that economic growth, social progress and equity go hand in hand, and that they produce decent work opportunities across the globe. Setting standards is part of this story. The other side is to make sure that those standards are properly applied. And the ILO has – and I think it’s a source of some pride – I think the most highly developed, the most effective supervisory system in the whole of the international system. The ILO supervisory system and its decisions are listened to and heard around the world, including here in France, which has ratified the second largest number of ILO conventions: 127.

So in addition to shaping law, international labour standards provide guidance in developing national and local policies. Labour law and labour practices around the world bear the fingerprints of the ILO. It is through the ILO’s normative framework that fundamental rights at work have been identified: the right to organize, the right to bargain collectively, the right to be free of discrimination at work, the right to be protected from forced labour, and the right to see child labour consigned to history. Unfortunately, none of these tasks is completed. As we look to the future of work, it is good to remember – though it is painful – that 152 million children around the world are still at work, that there are 25 million victims of forced labour in the world and that most working people live in countries where the basic rights to organize and to bargain collectively are not protected by law.

So we still have a steep hill to climb and the opportunities are there. And I want to return to this fundamental point in closure: that our success, our vision and its realization, depends on whether or not we, governments, employers, workers, citizens, can maintain this system of democratic governance with multilateral rules and of cooperation for sustainable development for trade and for peace. Whether or not we can build dialogue stronger than it is today between nations, between governments, employers and workers. The challenges are daunting because the ILO lives at the intersection of the multilateral system and the social dialogue between workers, employers and governments. Both of those things today face challenges, which if not existential, are severe.

In these quite challenging circumstances, I take heart from a last lesson of the ILO's history, which is that when circumstances have been most difficult, when the prospects for the future looked at their darkest, those have been precisely the moments when the ILO has produced its most historic and memorable results. I think that is both a lesson and the encouragement for the future that we should take with us.

So thank you for listening to me. I hope it's been of interest, and I hope you'll join in this very deep reflection that the ILO, with all of its friends, are taking on the future of work and its own future.