2020 Annual Forum on Business and Human Rights – High-level Virtual Plenary

Remarks by ILO Director-General Guy Ryder

Statement | 16 November 2020
Chair, Excellences, Ladies and Gentlemen,

The COVID-19 crisis has had a truly cataclysmic impact on the world of work, including on the exercise of fundamental rights at work. It has set back important progress made in recent years.

As the High Commissioner for Human Rights has reminded us, we’ve already seen the loss of the equivalent of 495 million jobs worldwide in the second quarter of 2020 alone, and a global decline in labour income of more than 3.5 trillion US dollars – in excess of 10%.

Millions of people are finding themselves in situations of increased vulnerability. And linked to this has been a sharply increased risk of human and labour rights abuses, particularly affecting the most vulnerable in society.

We are seeing for example reports of significant increases in child labour in some developing countries due to school closures and falling family incomes. There has been a rise in forced labour, and in discrimination in the workplace.

And yet well before this crisis, a multitude of governments had ratified a range of International Labour Standards – aimed precisely at eradicating all such abuses of human rights at work.

Many States and businesses had pledged to adhere to the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights.

A very broad range of stakeholders had committed to work together to achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, which also depend for their realization upon respect for human rights.

All of this is interrelated. But so far it has not been enough.

What we all need to be acutely aware of is that even before the pandemic, progress towards meeting the SDGs was far too slow. All of this means that governments and businesses need to accelerate the implementation of previous commitments they have made.

In the field of labour, this means implementing international labour standards, including stepping up efforts to strengthen labour law, labour administration and labour inspection.

It means adopting that smart mix of mandatory and voluntary measures, and national and international measures, that can truly act to ensure respect for human rights in business, precisely as is outlined in the UN Guiding Principles. Whether we have the right mix will be judged by the results that they generate, and it would need to be revisited if not good enough.

I want here to highlight the fundamentally protective and preventative nature of ILO standards in ensuring respect for the human rights of workers.

Because core International Labour Standards are not only fundamental human rights that all should recognize and support, they are also enabling rights – rights to ensure that other rights can be enjoyed to the fullest.

In this current COVID-19 crisis, this preventative mechanism has proven its effectiveness. All the evidence shows that it is easier to overcome a crisis when effective social dialogue processes are already in place and where parties already trust each other. But the current crisis offers new opportunity to do better.

Trust building between the different parties needs to take place at the national, the sectoral and the enterprise level, as well as between business partners along global supply chains. It’s precisely in that way that we can all jointly construct a Better Normal.

In this context, please let me highlight the importance of the ILO Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy Declaration, which provides direct guidance to enterprises on social policy and on inclusive, responsible and sustainable workplace practices.

This crisis is the time to intensify our efforts and to align our agendas so that respect for human rights in enterprises becomes the normal way of doing business.

We need to take control and to shape the process of recovery to make sure our post-pandemic world is a better one. The business community has a central role to play in making that happen.

For our part we look forward to working with the OHCHR, with companies and trade unions and with other partners around the world to achieve those aims.

Thank you.