Debate on the Future of Work and the European Pillar of Social Rights

The future of work and the EU’s Pillar of Social Rights

The values of the ILO and those of the Pillar of Social Rights are closely aligned, directing us towards a future of work that is fair and inclusive, the ILO Director-General has said in a speech to the European Economic and Social Committee.

Statement | European Economic and Social Committee, Brussels | 19 February 2020
ILO Director-General Guy Ryder (left) and EESC President Luca Jahier (right)
Mr President,

Let me thank you for the invitation to come back to the Committee. It is, as you have said, the second time I have been with you and I want to extend those thanks to all members of the Committee and the representatives of the different Groups.

I am really very appreciative to come and share some thoughts with you on the important issues before us.

It is, I think, really important and in some ways natural, that the dialogue between the ILO and your Committee be a regular one, because many of the ILO’s founding principles are deeply embedded in the makeup of the European Union.

You will recall that the Preamble of the ILO’s Constitution, which is one hundred years old now, is that “the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle to other nations that desire to improve conditions in their own countries”. It seems to me to be very close to the philosophy behind European integration and this remains a strong rationale for the closure of economic and social gaps within the European Union.

So I am pleased to be here in Brussels and I am very pleased to be before this Committee in particular because if I look at this room and I listen to the debates that you have, it is very reminiscent of the way the ILO does its work. The composition of your Committee, the recognition of the importance of the voices of those other than government is something, which animates the ILO as it does this Committee, and I see many actors in the room here who played a very important role in the ILO as well and I am very grateful for it.


You have recalled that I was previously here in November 2016, invited by your predecessor. That was at our joint Conference on “The Future of Work That We Want”. That underlines the point that you have just made. There is not a future of work predetermined; there is not a future of work waiting to happen to us. It is down to people like those in this Committee to construct the future of work that corresponds to our shared values.

Since that meeting in 2016, both the EU and the ILO have done an enormous amount to understand better the transformative impact of technological, demographic, and environmental change on the world of work and what we need to do about these transformative changes if the future of work is to meet our shared objectives and values of social justice and human welfare.

The achievements are considerable. For the ILO, the Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work was adopted by our Conference last June. And for the EU, the Pillar of Social Rights launched at the Gothenburg Summit, which I was honoured to attend in 2017. Already in Gothenburg, I could not but be struck by the way that the twenty principles of the Pillar aligned very strongly with the values, with the normative framework, and with the forward-looking ambitions of the ILO. It seems to me that the Pillar offers a framework for the world of work that is forward-looking, ambitious, fair and inclusive. It is grounded in our shared conviction that prosperity must be shared, that human and labour rights underpin human dignity, and that social dialogue is an indispensable ingredient of justice and fairness. I say that at a time when it is my unfortunate impression that dialogue in the world is becoming more difficult.

In its short lifespan to date, the Social Pillar has already achieved concrete results. By way of example, let me quote the recently adopted Work-Life Balance Directive for parents and carers, which has enormous potential. It is certainly something, which the ILO can take inspiration from. It can transform peoples’ lives, break existing stereotypes and amongst other things, move us forward in the long-delayed fight for full gender equality. I am sure more results will follow, not least in the light of the very welcome commitment of the new European Commission to strengthen implementation of the Social Pillar – and I will come back to this in a moment.

I do not think it is a coincidence that the host of the Gothenburg Summit, Prime Minister Löfven, was also, together with President Ramaphosa of South Africa, the co-chair of the ILO’s Global Commission on the Future of Work that made an invaluable contribution to the preparation of our Declaration. There is some coherence here.

Members of the Committee,

As the ILO’s Centenary of 2019 was approaching us, the ILO and its constituents - governments, employers and workers – we took a clear decision, and we decided that we would set ourselves the task in our Centenary of working out how to shape the future of work that we all want. This was against the background of growing inequality at work and therefore in society, of growing uncertainty, and frankly as well of increasing disillusionment with established policies and policy-makers. We saw the need to begin to give answers to difficult but widely posed questions. We saw that need as clear, we saw it as urgent, and we felt the responsibility to act and we began by promoting national dialogues on the future of work in some 120 ILO member States around the world. Then we had the influential report of our Global Commission and finally, the Centenary Declaration.

This Declaration calls on the ILO and all its member States to put people and the work that they do at the heart of economic, social and environmental policy-making. It calls for human-centred policies to shape the future of work, with a focus on economic security, equal opportunities and social justice. Concretely, this human-centred agenda for the future of work has three pillars of investment:
  • The first is about strengthening the capacities of people, investing in people, so that they can benefit from the opportunities that will come from inevitable changes to the world of work. That means: making a reality of lifelong learning so that people are equipped with the skills that they need to keep pace with a fast and ever changing world of work; it means assuring universal access to comprehensive and sustainable social protection, which is today denied to three quarters of the global workforce. It means a transformative and measurable agenda for gender equality so that the ILO’s centenary old principles of equal pay for work of equal value and equal treatment and opportunity can finally be realised.
  • The second pillar of the Declaration calls for the strengthening of the institutions of work, to ensure adequate support and protection for all workers, in line with the ILO’s Decent Work Agenda. A key consideration here is that the so-called fourth Industrial Revolution is impacting both the number of available jobs, and the very nature of work and the way work is organized. Think not only of the emblematic case of platform work, but also the growing diversification of contractual arrangements around the world, taking them away from what we have come to refer to as the standard form of employment. The view of the ILO is that we need to ensure that all work is decent, regardless of how and where it is done. That includes respect for fundamental rights, an adequate minimum wage - statutory or negotiated -, maximum limits on working time, guarantees of safety and health at work, social protection, and much else.
  • The third pillar of investment for this Declaration is about promoting investment in the decent and sustainable work of the future, the jobs of the future. The Declaration highlights, in particular, investment in the green economy, the care economy and infrastructure – digital and social, as well as physical infrastructure and also – and crucially for much of the world-, investment in the rural economy.
It was a matter of great satisfaction to the ILO that only a few months after the adoption of this Declaration by the ILO, in October 2019, under the Presidency of Finland, the Council of the European Union adopted Conclusions to implement the ILO’s Centenary Declaration and its human-centred agenda, which it noted “with great satisfaction”. The Council Conclusions cover in a very supportive way many specific provisions of the Declaration: the ratification of ILO Conventions; recognizing safety and health as a fundamental principle and right at work; fostering responsible management of supply chains; eliminating child labour and forced labour; enhancing social protection, and promoting international policy coherence in the multilateral system, of which the ILO is a component. In themselves, these conclusions set an extensive and detailed agenda for ILO-EU cooperation in the years ahead. I hope we can reflect together on how we can move forward with that agenda.


I do believe that we can take some satisfaction with what has been achieved since we last met in 2016. But our current circumstances compel us to still greater effort. Because growing inequality and uncertainty remain predominant sentiments when people look to their futures at work. It is disturbing, is it not, that for too much of the global population, the predominant sentiment and emotion looking to the future is not one of optimism and hope but of fear and reticence, and that cannot be right.

The costs and the benefits of change still seem to be unfairly distributed. Rapid change breeds disorientation. People want to take back control of their lives and they often look in the wrong places for simple - if understandable – solutions.

In Europe, as you know, economic and social convergence remains a distant prospect for too many Europeans. In different member States, incomes are growing at very different rates. More equitable income distribution could not only reduce inequalities between member States but could also lead to improved economic and social conditions across the board and a major boost to achieving upward convergence. Developing an EU framework for minimum wages and minimum incomes can certainly be a step in this direction, and I personally welcome the proposals put forward by the new Commission in this regard, and we are following with enormous interest the process of consultation now underway to address the complexities involved.

And perhaps the greatest of these complexities is how to protect fully the place of collective bargaining in the determination of wages and other terms of employment. This is crucial, not least because we have seen an erosion of collective bargaining coverage around the world in recent years and we are living with the damaging consequences of that erosion. I speak as the Director-General of an Organization, which has a constitutional obligation to promote the effective realization of the fundamental right to collective bargaining.


I think that your Committee has a pivotal role to play in assuring that collective bargaining and social dialogue remain indispensable tools in the European project.

The new Commission has made the Pillar of Social Rights an integral part of its progressive and ambitious growth strategy – the European Green Deal. I spoke about the Green Deal in Parliament this morning above all to welcome its explicit recognition that the transition to carbon-neutrality by 2050 must be – and I quote – “just and inclusive”. The deal highlights the need to “put people first, and pay attention to the regions, industries and workers who will face the greatest challenges” and makes provision for the type of investment that can back this up. As President von der Leyen put it, “this transition will either be working for all and be just, or it will not work at all”. And we all need it to work, because the alternatives cannot be contemplated.


The European Pillar of Social Rights and the ILO Centenary Declaration are at the same time products of decades of shared values and cooperation, and an incitation for us to work even more closely together in the future.

The lesson of the past is that this cooperation has helped us to navigate major challenges and turbulences successfully. The prospect for the future is, most likely, still greater turbulence with the challenges coming bigger, thicker, and faster, and we need to be ready for them and we need to work together to meet them.

And if I see every reason and generally favourable political conditions for intensified cooperation between our institutions, I have equally to recognise and draw to your attention that the global multilateral system of which the ILO is a part, faces tensions and challenges unprecedented in the lifetime of the EU and its predecessors. This is dangerous. It is dangerous for the world, it is dangerous for Europe. But it is also why President von der Leyen’s ambition for a geopolitical Commission and thus, I understand, for the EU to reinforce its role on the global policy stage, seems to me so important.

The issues we are discussing this afternoon are, therefore, of course matters for internal EU policy, but for its external policies too. And here as well we must be ever closer partners, because delivering the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, making trade and finance work for people, and in the final analysis, cultivating social justice to preserve peace in Europe and the world are things that cannot be left aside or ignored.


I have always been tempted to think of the history of the EU and the history of the ILO as parallel histories, going in the same direction, side by side. The more I think about it, the more I think it is a bad way to say it, because parallel lines never come together. I rather prefer to think of a converging history. This is a place where that convergence needs to happen. I hope that through meetings like the one of today, we will be able to make that convergence a reality.

Thank you very much for your attention. Thank you very much for the work that you do. I look forward to listening to the comments and questions that your colleagues may have.