Seminar – Centenary of the Finnish membership of the ILO

Ryder salutes Finland’s contribution to ILO’s work

Since joining the ILO in December 1920, Finland has contributed to various areas of ILO’s work. Speaking at a seminar to celebrate the Centenary of Finland’s membership of the ILO, Ryder said that it has been a two-way street.

Statement | Helsinki, Finland | 11 February 2020
President Halonen,
Minister Haatainen,
Representatives of the employers and the workers of Finland,
Ladies and gentlemen,
Dear friends,

The ILO celebrated its Centenary last year. So, some people might be asking themselves why we are celebrating one hundred years of Finnish membership only now. In fact, despite some local difficulties at the time, Finland did manage to get to the very first International Labour Conference in Washington DC in late 1919. Just like Germany and Austria, Finland had been promised membership. But while the former Central Powers could not arrange their travel in time, Finland did so.

And, once the Finnish delegation got to Washington, it was given full participation rights at the Conference, and the same happened the following year when the ILO met in Italy. And yet, the formal date of Finnish membership of the ILO is 16th December 1920, when it finally joined the League of Nations. So we are celebrating in the right year!

In these early years, Finnish delegations to the ILO were mostly led by Dr. Niilo Mannio, one of the pioneers of modern Finnish social policy. He was one the number of strong personalities – from Government and from workers’ and employers’ benches who marked the early development of the ILO in the inter-war years, and later in the period of reconstruction after 1945. They assured a remarkable stability in the governance of the ILO through those first fifty years. Dr. Mannio chaired many important ILO Committees, including the Committee on the Application of Standards when it was set up in 1926.

And, as a francophone, he was also a friend of the Frenchman Albert Thomas, the first Director of the ILO, who visited Finland in 1921 and in 1927. Archives show that already during the first visit, Albert Thomas advised the Nordic governments to establish a rotation of their representation on the ILO Governing Body – something that has been done ever since, with the happy result that Finland is currently a member of that Governing Body, at this historic time of centenaries.

As for the Finnish trade unions, they had sent their President, Matti Paasivuori, to the Washington DC Conference. But for the radical left which then gained control of the unions, the brand new ILO had the smell of class collaboration, and for a while they boycotted it. In the aftermath of the Civil War of 1918, radical leftist political party organizations and trade unions close to them were being dissolved. Not wanting to see the new country become a trade-union free zone, the Finnish trade unions duly complained in 1924 to the ILO, and the Office responded by sending an official to clarify the situation.

Subsequently, a report on Finland, published by the ILO in 1927, explains how the Finnish judicial authorities came to recognize the difference between political and trade union organizations. In an exact precursor of the logic which some decades later was followed by the ILO’s Committee on Freedom of Association, newly independent Finland concluded that as long as a trade union did not substitute itself for a political party, freedom of association could not be limited by ideological considerations. This crucial understanding has been central to the fundamental rights doctrines adopted by the ILO and applied in situations of truly historic importance over the decades that followed.

Another early landmark was the adoption of the 1924 Collective Bargaining Law, which provided Finland a framework for contractual relations between employers and the trade unions. At the time, the ILO recognized that the Finnish trade unions representational rights extended beyond the basics of freedom of association, and that no category of workers, public or private, could be denied the right to free association.

The full benefits of the Collective Bargaining Law became evident in the post-war reconstruction period. The Soviet attack on Finland, which started the Winter War, led to the employers and trade unions practically recognizing one another as business partners and bargaining partners. At the same time, informal arrangements and contacts have always played an important role in Finland. We Know that the International Labour Conferences in Geneva since the late 1940s provided a setting for the leaders of both industry and trade unions to deliberate the future of their relations and their country.

I cannot help thinking that these early experiences have had a lot to do with the remarkable fact that there have not been any cases concerning Finland in the different standards supervisory bodies of the ILO. Apparently, when considering different policy options, particularly during episodic moments of economic and social upheaval - and Finland has had a few - the guidance and the standards of the ILO have continued to have an important influence, and to be signposts towards a consensual road forwards.

It is difficult to precisely say how much the tripartism of the ILO influenced the construction of the Finnish welfare state. The development of not only labour market relations but social policy in general in Finland has certainly been in line with the visions of the ILO on social justice. In the same way as at the ILO itself, the Finnish social state with its institutions and its collective bargaining practices has demonstrated the power of principled pragmatism over calls for radical change. The social partners have done a great deal more than simply safeguard their independence: they have actually often pointed the way forward. The incomes policies of the 1960s and 1970s, which were decisive for the stabilization and growth of the economy, were strongly influenced by the social partners. Their cooperation pushed the agenda far into different aspects of social policy.

To an international observer, this would seem to be very strong evidence if not proof that social dialogue is a pragmatic solution to the management of labour market affairs with a proven track record in a country such as Finland which is regularly affected by outside turbulences. While the relationship between trade unions and employers cannot be called -and should not be- a love affair, they have found ways of aiding Finland from its transition to a market economy, coping with totally new East-West economic and political realities to joining the European Union a quarter of a century ago.

It is not possible to say who has gained more from this interaction – the ILO or Finland. It has been a two-way street. Looking back in 1967 at his half century of experience, the Finnish ILO veteran Niilo Mannio concluded that, on the basis of the guidance provided by ILO Conventions alone, for a small country like Finland, the annual investment through membership fees and participation costs were a particularly good deal.

I am tempted to go a bit further, and float the idea that the ILO has helped make you Finns – according to a recent study – the happiest country in the world. But I won’t. Partly because it sounds a bit exagerated, but mainly because, as you have told me Minister, your compatriots’ reaction is generally to complain “who says we are the happiest?”

In any case, over the decades, Finland has contributed to the ILO’s work most particularly in the fields of International Labour Standards, gender equality, social dialogue, cooperatives, and occupational safety and health. ILO’s programmes on occupational safety and health in Africa and Asia continue to be inspired by the significant support from Finland, which unfortunately could not be sustained in the economic crisis conditions of the 1990s.

A more recent contribution, and one that resonates with particular force in today’s international circumstances, has been the social dimension of globalization on which my predecessor as Director-General, Juan Somavia, set up a tripartite Global Commission, which worked from 2002 – 2004, and was co-chaired by President Tarja Halonen. That Commission produced a state-of-the-art survey on the then new global market economy. The message, which was later crystallized in a major ILO Declaration in 2008, was: globalization must be fair, and for that, it needs to be based on social justice. My personal view is that this message has not been properly heard, not properly acted upon. And, as a result, in many countries, we are now paying the price of that failure.

At the outset of that Global Commission’s work, President Halonen stressed that, to manage globalization, it was necessary to rehabilitate the role of the social state, and while in office, she addressed the International Labour Conference a record three times. She has continued to be a valuable collaborator, and even a co-conspirator, in bringing this message to the United Nations and other multilateral fora.

As we move to the second century of the ILO, what can we and should we do together? The ILO, I think the record shows, was exactly the kind of an organization that the newly independent Finland desired for security, for economic development and for its social cohesion. Finland believed profoundly in an international order of sovereign states with the then League of Nations as its cornerstone.

Today however, we are in a very different situation than we were a century ago. There has been a strong backlash against multilateralism. It is too frequently presented as interference in the exercise of national sovereignty. Many countries are experiencing a significant loss of belief in the solidaristic models that we have developed, and a general loss of trust in public actors and institutions with people looking for simple alternatives, and not always looking in the right place. There has been resistance, there has been revolt. And, it does not fit easily into a particular spot on the left-right spectrum. Rather, it is driven by a fear, a fear of the future, a fear of losing position, a fear of losing control, a fear of losing identity, of becoming marginalized and therefore disposable. We have disenchanted groups on the left, on the right and in the centre.

After all, what could be more demoralizing for people than feeling that they actually are not needed in our societies? We are not talking now of a marginalized proletariat which has nothing to lose but its chains. We are talking about categories of people, which range from the disadvantaged to the middle class and even academia. As the Brexit shows, fears and aspirations cut across political party lines, cut across social class distinctions. There is anger that people’s reasonable expectations, particularly at work, are not being met and a suspicion of what is seen as a political elite, which has developed its own language, habits, at the service of its own interests.

It is a bitter paradox that the successes of consensus policies and of the universal market economy have contributed to this situation. We can all remember that thesis of “the end of history” with the triumph of the free market economies after the Cold War. But, when people are told that they have no real political alternatives to the solutions presented, and when they feel pushed aside by a new meritocracy, they revolt and start to make history in new and sometimes unexpected ways. They revolt if their aspirations seem blocked; they revolt even more if they feel that legitimate achievements can be taken away from them. This is a revolt against the denial of social justice.

How to engage and enable these people again? How to win back the confidence, which I fear has been lost? How to show that change – rapid and bewildering as it often seems can be shaped for a better future – at work and in society overall? Last June, the International Labour Conference of the ILO adopted a Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, which aims precisely to begin to give an answer. During the Finnish Presidency of the EU, your government took the initiative for a strong statement of support by the European Union to this Declaration – support, which has been echoed by the UN General Assembly. We are grateful for Finland’s leadership.

A key message of the Declaration is that we need to make big investments at three levels. We need to invest in the capacities of people so that they have the tools to master their own destinies. We need to invest in the institutions of work so that everyone, regardless of her or his contractual relationship, has sufficient security to realize legitimate aspirations. And we need to invest in work itself - in the jobs’ of tomorrow, the quality of the work that people will have and the economic, human and environmental impacts that it has.

Effectively, the ILO is following a two-pronged approach on the future of work. We need to explore what is new and to guide it, to shape it. But, we do not forget either the old problems of exclusion, only marginally meaningful employment, a lack of income security, informality, as well as egregious abuses of child and forced labour and discrimination, which continue to plague vast parts of all societies. As we take on new business, let’s not forget the unfinished business of the past.

This means that we have to research, and adapt regulatory frameworks accordingly. But we have to be smart with the advice we give particularly in an international setting, which is anything but easy. We need to spell out with realism and clarity how the world of work can navigate the digital, environmental, and demographic transitions which lie ahead of it, how this will help deliver the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, and above all, we must be faithful to our 100 years old mandate for social justice.

This is not just about adding or expanding to existing rules and institutions. It is easy to shoot down that type of initiative by reference to cost and burdensome process. It needs to be clear that investing in institutions of labour does not mean more bureaucracy, but rather, and to the greatest extent possible, it is about providing the framework within which dialogue and negotiation between the social partners can act effectively so that management and workforces are enabled to meet challenges and to solve the problems that they are best placed to address.

I am struck, in my own work, by how some of the ILO’s member States seem able to extract the full potential of this type of arrangement whilst others find it difficult. My own conclusion is that the key variable is trust. By now, it should be clear that there is no magic solution, no silver bullet for creating trust. Trust can be generated by predictability, stability, transparency and a capacity to adjust. Neither the captains of the economy and their staff, nor workers and their representatives, are capable of unilaterally creating trust. It cannot be decreed by governments. It has to be earned, worked for, and built up on the positive experiences it generates overtime.

Equally, social dialogue has to be constantly adapted to changing circumstances. Dialogue is not an end in itself and ultimately it will be judged and it will be legitimated in society by virtue of the results it produces. In difficult times, it has particular problem solving value. But the solutions have to be sustainable. If it becomes obvious that concessions have exceedingly benefited one side and these are not subsequently reciprocated - then something will inevitably give way.

I remember that my last visit to Finland was in 2016 when the Competitiveness Pact was being concluded. A remarkable act of social dialogue and trust whose consequences will illustrate the point I am trying to make today about reciprocity.

Additionally, we have to be guided by the experience of fully tripartite cooperation in its broadest form. Finland recognizes the important role of trade unions and employers in the running of the welfare state. That role has been wrought by the bargaining partners in the labour market – it has not been gifted by an omnipresent state, and it shows why important social institutions and processes are and must remain under democratic control.

So, Madam President, Madam Minister, dear friends, as I thank our Finnish partners for everything they have contributed to the ILO over the last 100 years, let me underline that the greatest contribution of all is the practical example you have given of making tripartism, social dialogue and collective bargaining work, and work well in your country. It is never the easiest option – but it is surely the right one.

This fact, Madam Minister, was expressed well by your predecessor in an article in the most popular Finnish newspaper last November. The article was co-signed by President Tarja Halonen. It noted Finland’s high organization rates and its traditions on negotiation and cooperation. It notably said that “while established practices have to be constantly challenged and renewed, strong social dialogue and an economy based on confidence are something Finland can offer the world”. This was evident during the EU presidency, it remains true today, and I have no doubt it will be true in the years to come.

A century ago, when our common story began, Leon Trotsky was preaching the case for a continuous revolution. But using social dialogue as a renewable resource is much more efficient for continuous evolution towards social justice.

I wish to conclude with some words on how the interaction between Finland and the ILO might be developed even further. We share belief in the multilateral system and the social dimension of globalization. For Finland, international cooperation is a source of prosperity and security, and, on our side, the ILO depends on a critical mass of countries, which share that commitment.

We no doubt will draw on the common interest to defend the United Nations system and increase its coherence and cohesion, especially through the Sustainable Development Goals. While for the ILO, SDG 8 – the one which encompasses decent work for all – is of special interest, nearly all of the other goals need our simultaneous attention, notably those related to peace, security and the rule of law.

In my view, there is a direct link here with one of the aims of Finnish development cooperation: strengthening the economic foundation and creating employment in developing countries through innovation and women’s role in societies, including as entrepreneurs. This would tie up with our long-standing cooperation on gender equality and the empowerment of women.

Our traditional common agenda includes also occupational safety and health, youth employment, skills training, fundamental rights at work and the development of methods of negotiation and consultation to cover the future changes in the world of work.

At the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work in Singapore, two years ago, I gave the ILO fullest support to a Finnish initiative for an action programme called a Global Coalition on occupational safety and health. This is now taking shape, and in November last year, its steering group was set up with participation, amongst others, of the European Commission and social partners. The ILO and Finland today share responsibility for developing the data and plans of action to support the Sustainable Development Goals through action in this area where the health and safety of hundreds of millions of people are continuously at stake. Let me recall that over 2.7 million people die every year because of the work they do, or have done.

Mandated by our Centennial Conference, the ILO is currently exploring ways to ensure that occupational safety and health is recognized as a fundamental right at work. The argument is clear enough: what can be more fundamental for working people than being protected from harm to life and limb or, indeed, to mental sanity. This is an area of international labour standards that calls for continuous attention, adaptation and development.

By adopting Convention No. 190 on Violence and Harassment in the world of work last June, the Centenary Conference also made it clear that all workers have a right to a workplace free of such abuse. I sincerely hope that a ratification of this Convention will be coming from Finland in the near future. This is a place where Finland should be very much in the vanguard.

Every time I enter our Governing Body meeting room in Geneva, I pass by the bronze bust of our first Director, Albert Thomas. It was originally cast by the well-known Finnish sculptor Wäinö Aaltonen, for whom Albert Thomas modelled during his second visit to Finland in 1927. That statue was presented by President Halonen and the Members of the Finnish Tripartite ILO Committee. It is, in an eloquent and very visible way, a symbol of our common history. It bridges us from the beginning to the present days of cooperation between us and reminds us of the great Finnish role in our Organization for which we are proud and for which we are grateful. And I personally am grateful to have this chance to say to you all thank you.