DBEI ILO NUI Conference

The ILO’s mandate maps a path to a better future

Core ILO principles such as labour standards and tripartite social dialogue are increasingly recognized as part of the solution to current issues disrupting the world of work, including growing inequality, threats to social justice, and loss of trust in institutions and leaders, the ILO’s Director-General has told a conference in Dublin. The meeting was convened to mark the ILO’s Centenary and reflect on the legacy of the Declaration of Philadelphia.

Statement | Dublin, Ireland | 17 September 2019
Mr President,
Representatives of employers and workers,
My colleagues from the ILO,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends,

Let me begin by saying to you all just how pleased I am to be back in Dublin again, and on behalf of the International Labour Organization, to say how honoured we all are to be taking part in this prestigious and also substantive Conference to mark the Centenary of our Organization.

Thanks are due in particular to the National University – which has so generously hosted the Phelan Lecture in recent years and of course to you Minister and to all of your colleagues at the Department for bringing us all together here. You give me the opportunity to pay tribute to the extraordinary contribution of Ireland and your Department and colleagues, who as titular members of the ILO in the centenary period of our Governing Body have played such an extraordinary helpful role in making our Centenary a success and we thank you very much.

I am privileged as well to be speaking in front of my brother Kailash Sathyarthi, whose history of struggle against child labour, we will hear more of in the Phelan Lecture this evening. He has been an integral part of the history of our Organization. We are privileged above all of course by your participation Mr President, although I have to admit to a degree of trepidation, at taking the floor immediately after his intervention. Those of us who deliver our thoughts in plain prose stand at some disadvantage when we follow not just the statesmen and stateswomen who have occupied the Presidency of Ireland from the beginning but also the intellectuals, the linguists, and the poets. I have to do my best in these difficult circumstances. And I say this having in mind, Mr President, the power of the message that you delivered to the 2018 session of the International Labour Conference where you were our guest of honour.

On that occasion, and you recalled it again this morning, you remarked that the birth of the ILO came from the collision of empires and the collapse of human solidarity which was the First World War. The current decade is rich in centenaries both here in Ireland and the world - from that descent into global conflict in 1914 to the accession of Ireland to the International Labour Organization in 1923, and everything of course that happened in between.

And while the ILO has been decided in focusing our Centenary on the future – the future of work in particular – I think we would have been presumptuous – even foolish – if we had not paused to draw some lessons and some guidance from the circumstances of the ILO’s creation and from some of the high points of its history, notably of course the adoption in 1944 of the Declaration of Philadelphia.

Because if we do this, even in the most cursory way, there is illumination to be had, not least as we navigate the turbulence and the uncertainties of our own times - this last decade which has seen global financial collapse and the hard and unfinished work of recovery, renewed global tensions, and then of course for some of us the long shadow of BREXIT in all its potential variants.

But, I think that one of the more encouraging aspects of this last decade has been Ireland’s own recovery from the severe hits of the global crisis, your return to robust growth, and job creation, the renewal of cooperation between government, employers’ and workers’ organizations after the demise of the old partnership model. Encouraging too, is the intent to project this into the future – through the Future Jobs Ireland initiative, and to project it at the local level, through the Regional Enterprise Plans, and to project it beyond your borders through your commitment to the UN Sustainable Development Goals National Implementation Plan.

Please do not think that I have come as a cheerleader to Dublin for Irish achievements, nor unaware of the challenges and controversies you face – including in matters so fundamental as organizing and bargaining rights, labour market precarity to which the President has referred or public service provision. But what I do see is that there is much that you have done and I hope you will do that reflects ILO priorities and ILO methods.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I suppose this should be no surprise to us because Ireland and the ILO have come a long way together. We have experienced together the successes and some of the tragedies of the 20th Century. The foundations of both the Irish Republic and the ILO do share a common heritage – the values of social justice, solidarity, equality and freedom.

After all, the Democratic Programme that was set out by the first Dáil whose Centenary the ILO shares this year, clearly affirmed the primacy of social policy. With such luminaries of Irish labour as Tom Johnson, William O’Brien and Cathal O’Shannon, amongst the authors, the Programme had a strong egalitarian character, emphasizing “liberty, equality and justice for all”, “the right of every citizen to an adequate share of the produce of the Nation’s labour”, with the affirmation “that all right to private property must be subordinated to the public right and welfare”.

And for me, it is impossible not to see the echoes of the ILO’s founding Constitution in these provisions, or indeed not to see the seeds of the Declaration of Philadelphia which came 25 years later. And if we do make the effort to join up the historic dots, then the one common denominator is an Irishman – Edward Phelan, the world’s first international civil servant and the ILO’s 4th Director-General and, as we all know, the key author of the Declaration of Philadelphia - the “Magna Carta of the working class”, as David Morse, Phelan’s successor at the ILO referred to it. Obviously, what the French intellectual Alain Supiot has called the “spirit of Philadelphia” had not emerged overnight. It was generated by these bitter experiences and disillusions of the first half of the 20th Century and the determination to embed social justice effectively in post-war reconstruction. In retrospect, Phelan’s historic achievement was firstly to keep the ILO in existence during its World War II exile in Canada, and then to author the foundational text of what the French still call “les trente glorieuses” – the decades of economic and social progress with all its imperfections, that followed.

As early as 1941, Phelan presented to the International Labour Conference his vision of the future in his Report entitled "The ILO and Reconstruction". The Report and the Resolutions adopted by that Conference sketched out a programme of current and future work. It covered a long list of objectives: elimination of unemployment; vocational training and retraining; social insurance and its extension to all classes of workers; a wage policy aimed at securing a just share of the fruits of progress for the worker; a minimum living wage; migration; equality…And there is a long and impressive list that goes beyond all of that.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

Today, 100 years after the foundation of the ILO and 75 years after the adoption of the Philadelphia Declaration, what is to be said about the results achieved? Labour legislation inspired by ILO standards has concretely changed the lives of millions of workers across the globe. You don’t want me to spell out all of those 190 Conventions that we have adopted and sought to have implemented, but it would be remiss not to at least mention our common efforts aimed at eradicating child labour and we are one ratification away from the universal ratification of the Convention on the Elimination of the Worst Forms of Child Labour.

Child labour, the unfinished business of eliminating forced labour - still 25 million victims of forced labour in the world; the need to still combat discrimination in all of its dimensions, and the guarantees of freedom of association and collective bargaining rights from which so much else floats. And I will mention that latest Convention, as Mr President already has: the first-ever global instrument against violence and harassment at the workplace. I hope that Ireland will be first in the queue or among the first in the queue to ratify this ground breaking Convention.

So, a lot has been done, but, there is needless to say absolutely no reason to rest on our laurels.

Firstly because, in my mind, social justice is a receding horizon. Progress made calls for more effort, calls for more progress. The ILO has never been a defender of the status quo, and it never will be.

Secondly, because the responsibilities of the ILO particularly those mandated by the Philadelphia Declaration have simply not been fully discharged. I think for instance of one of its key provisions that commits the ILO “to examine and consider all international economic and financial policies and measures” in the light of the fundamental objective of social justice. Just think of what that means.

Thirdly, because there are objectives that have been only partially reached, and that are not always pursued, and not at all times in history. Take for example the principle according to which “poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere”. Ladies and gentlemen, it unfortunately remains our circumstances today that more than 20 per cent of all people who work in the world are still poor. This is what Morse, when he received the Nobel Peace Prize on behalf of the ILO in 1969 described so accurately as “the unexploded ordnance” of injustice in our societies, which have yet to be defused.

Finally, we must act because the times in which we live are, in some respects at least, as challenging as those of 1944 or indeed those of 1919. Today, it is true the ILO does not have to choose, apparently not at least, between life and death as it previously has. We might however be faced with more insidious threats, and I can think of two: on the one hand, the risk of relying too much on our acquis (what we’ve already done) and on the other, the risk of some kind of intellectual retreat. After all, President Higgins when he came to Geneva last year rightly observed that too frequently the ILO has been regarded as a sort of venerable advisory body, and even a kind of moral conscience to be acknowledged or forgotten depending on circumstance and convenience. It’s as if, Mr President, those who might seek to destroy the ILO would first make it irrelevant. And yet, it has sometimes been the case and I personally take these concerns as a further encouragement not just to continued action, but to sincere reflection on the way we take action.

In any case, none of us can afford to be complacent at a time when accelerating disruptions in the world of work and in our societies are leaving many people disoriented, when growing inequalities are fuelling resentment and when the perceived capacity of familiar policy settings and established political actors, including the ILO, to provide credible responses to people’s pressing concerns is breeding a loss of trust.

These are circumstances which have called increasingly into the public arena the purveyors of simplistic alleged solutions which stand as the antithesis of what the ILO stands for. There is a new brutalism at work in too many parts of our life. We should not dismiss, as I sometimes hear done, what we are witnessing as mere rhetorical excess or lapses from proper standards of political decorum. Because in very real ways, iron has entered the world’s political soul.

This, then, is not so promising and is the context in which and the reason why the ILO has made the future of work and by extension the future of the Organization itself the focus of our Centenary.

Yes, and it’s already been said the world of work is indeed undergoing transformative change that is unprecedented in pace, scope, and effect. It is being driven by technological innovation, by demographic shifts, by climate change and by globalization. I do not know and probably nobody knows whether the fourth industrial revolution will destroy more jobs than it creates. But in my view, we need to take great care not to fall into the game of techno-determinism, but rather do our job as the ILO and as humanity to decide what sort of future we want, and then to proceed with how we intend to manage technology to bring it about: the debate about the ethical application of science and technology.

Certainly, the current technological revolution does have the capacity to change not only production processes, but the very nature of work itself. We see that in the platform or gig economy, where established institutions of work do not seem to apply or not easily. Who is the employer when an algorithm allocates your work? Who is the employee? Where is the social protection to come from? What are the employment rights of those involved and how can they defend them?

We will need to be imaginative, determined and creative enough to design and implement the policies and the institutions of work that will steer us in the right direction, in a direction not dictated by technology, but by our choices and those choices need to be for social justice. It is our intention in the ILO to Work for a brighter future, to use the title of the report published in January by the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work, co-chaired by President Cyril Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Stefan Löfven of Sweden.

At the Centenary ILO Conference in June this year, more than 6,000 delegates, representatives of governments, employers and workers, adopted the Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work which calls above all for this “human-centred approach” to the future of work – an agenda that recognizes that human welfare with no-one left behind, to be the ultimate aim and objective of all public policies.

How do we get there? The Declaration essentially points to three critical areas of investment.
  • First, - investing in the capacities of people so they can benefit from this changing world of work,
  • Second, - investing in the institutions of work to ensure adequate protection for all workers, whatever their employment or contractual status,
  • Third, - promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all. Yes, this embodies the ecological as well as the economic and social dimensions that have long figured in the ILO’s agenda.
So, this means investing in people, investing in jobs, investing in skills, in lifelong learning, investing in comprehensive social protection. It means supporting gender equality. It means investing in the 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 many millions of workers. It means working time being addressed in a world where many people work to the point of exhaustion and others not enough to sustain life. It means ensuring a right to healthy and safe workplaces, when nearly three million people die every year as a consequence of the work that they do. And, it means adopting policies that promote sustainable economic growth and decent work for all.

Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Taken in the whole, this agenda would also represent a reinvigoration of that social contract which, for many citizens lies at the heart of what they consider to be fair – fair at work and fair in society. The fact of the matter today, is that too many people’s reasonable expectations of their working life are not being met. And that is a circumstance which is not just unsatisfactory and regrettable, certainly not inevitable, but which is profoundly destabilizing and dangerous. There is urgency in putting this situation right.

And integral to that task is the challenge of strengthening multilateralism and its capacity to deliver social justice across the world. At a moment when the multilateral system is under attack – even in crisis – we really have to show that multilateralism works, that there is common advantage in adherence to the principles and rules it prescribes. This must mean that the UN Charter is not optional and that the ILO Constitution is not optional either. It is not only for a certain category of countries, it is the same obligations for all. And it is why the Centenary Declaration calls on the ILO to intensify engagement and cooperation within the multilateral system to strengthen policy coherence across its different organizations.

As I see it, that implies bringing the social justice mandate of the ILO to the WTO, to the IMF, to the World Bank. We need to promote this coherence, coordination, and common purpose between all those whose mandates influence the world of work. It is our common responsibility also to deliver the 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda and, of course the UN reform of which we are fully part. Edward Phelan said already in 1946, just after the creation of the United Nations, that the ILO should, and I quote him: “operate under that unique tripartite Constitution, not only to pursue those objectives which are properly within our sphere of action, but also in order to mobilize still greater support for the work of the United Nations of which we are now proud to be the recognized associate”.

This is the “spirit of Philadelphia”. President Higgins rightly described it at our Conference in June 2018: “we must rediscover the moral courage equivalent to that which this Conference displayed in 1944, when it declared that peace could only rest upon international policies and measures which promote the attainment of social justice. This will require a convergence of vision between the institutions of the United Nations, a unified voice from the silos, the Member States, organisations of regional co-operation, and, if we are to be serious, the Bretton Woods Institutions.”

The ILO, in any case Mr President, stands ready to meet that responsibility, and I am, in the end, optimistic. After all, the ILO has achieved, with its tripartite constituents, quite a bit in our 100-year history, a history which may be resumed as one of consistent adhesion to principle and constant adaptation to evolving circumstances.

And, we are indeed in a new multicentric world of unprecedented global complexity where an increasing number of people and countries are simply no longer ready to accept the “fatum” of ideologies and agenda set by some countries and undergone by the rest. More and more countries now want to have their full say and to take up their responsibilities fully at global level. And as was clear from the messages delivered at the ILO Centenary Conference this year by no less than 34 Heads of State and Government, and by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, such countries do not consider the ILO to be outdated. As I noted in my first Phelan Lecture in 2013, it is not because several countries are in crisis that the “ILO model” is outdated. Because, if labour standards and tripartite social dialogue are that bad, how can it be that in many countries - that are developing quite rapidly - the very same ILO principles are increasingly recognized as part of the solution.

This should rather stimulate us in the ILO. Such changes offer new ideas, new avenues for our activities. And ultimately, this must give us a real chance to be part of the renovation of the new world architecture in a way which allows what David Morse was calling for in his Nobel Prize acceptance speech: to lay, as he said, a “social infrastructure of peace” and so contribute to “establish a climate of confidence in relations between nations and among men”.

Ladies and Gentlemen,

To achieve all of this, the ILO has to sharpen not only its pencils but its mind. We have to strengthen our own intellectual and technical capacities. We should more often remember the exemplary behaviour of people like Edward Phelan, the international civil servant par excellence, with the capacity to marry intellectual, diplomatic and technical expertise.

It means also the intellectual courage to test new models, new ideas and enough imagination to design new practices and new labour standards. We shall not be afraid to go against the current - or to use the words of Edward Said, against the “pre-packaged information that dominates our thought”.

We have to have the tools to design a brighter future and to realize the ILO ideals of sustainable peace and social justice. Eamon de Valera said once that “all history is man's efforts to realize ideals”. He is right. By contrast, Henrik Ibsen once observed that what internationally are often called ideals have the tendency, in national practice to become lies. President Higgins said last January when celebrating the Centenary of the Irish Dáil that: “this generation and the generations to come will be summoned to demonstrate solidarity not only with their countrymen and countrywomen but with all the peoples of the world. (…) The struggles to come - for equality, for solidarity, for climate justice -will demand the very best of all of us”. It is as good a statement as you get in the spirit of Philadelphia.

So, as we seek to prove in this case, Eamon de Valera right and Henrik Ibsen wrong, we have to take the ideals to be found in this Declaration and to translate them in Ireland and in every other nation state of the ILO’s membership to turn those ideals into the realities of decent work for men and women everywhere.

Thank you.