Thinking Ahead on Society Change (TASC) Platform

The importance of multi-stakeholder dialogue and collaboration in COVID-19 recovery

ILO Director-General Guy Ryder addressed the opening session of the Future of Work Summit.

Statement | 04 December 2020
Let me begin by recording my warm thanks to everybody who's brought us together: Switzerland, the Institute; and say how gratifying it is for the ILO and for me personally to be part of this.

Because, Richard1, as you said, we spent our Centenary last year – and many years before that – having an important and eventually successful reflection precisely on the future of work, and we're really pleased that conversation didn't end when our Centenary came to an end.

Now, what did we do last year, very quickly?

The highlight at the International Labour Conference in June 2019 was the adoption of a Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work. And the very fact of having that Declaration, at the end of a successful two-week negotiation by 187 countries – not just Governments, but employers and workers’ representatives – was no mean achievement given the current state of multilateral negotiations.

And I think it is testimony to the fact that this issue really, really matters. Anybody who's thinking about societal change really must start with work and the dynamics of work. So, congratulations to those people who are putting that thought into action.

I want to emphasize that this Declaration was the culmination of a process. It drew on the report of a Global Commission on the Future of Work chaired by President Ramaphosa of South Africa and Prime Minister Löfven of Sweden, and preceded by tripartite dialogues in about 120 of our Member States, a really important and participatory process.

So, what did this Declaration say? It basically said that we need to adopt what we call a human-centred approach to the future of work. We need to take cognizance of the mega drivers of change at work – climate change, demography, technology and globalization – and respond to them by preparing people for continuing, transformative change. Three sets of investment are needed:
  • in people – in their capacities and skills, naturally on a lifelong learning basis, and also social protection and much else we need to invest in;
  • in the institutions of work – the laws, the regulations, the mechanisms by which we govern work;
  • and in the jobs of the future; and I can come back to that as well.
And then a few months later, COVID-19 hit us.

The first reaction we had to have was to ask ourselves, does COVID-19 cancel out all of the work that we had done? And the answer is a resounding no!

At the Global Summit that we held this July, some 50 Heads of State and Heads of Government said very, very clearly that this Declaration and the vision of a human-centred future of work is an enduring and more than ever relevant compass to take us through the challenges that we now face.

Now, our current circumstances are that we are in a deep hole. There is a dramatic economic and social crisis which has been generated by the health crisis. We've been putting out the numbers, you've probably seen them mid-year when we estimated that the equivalent of 495 million full time jobs had been destroyed in the second quarter of this year.

We think at the end of the year that figure would have gone down to 245 million, but it's an enormous hit; it outscales what happened in 2008 by an enormous scale of magnitude. And the hit to wages, about which we've just published a report2, has been dramatic. We think that US$ 3.5 trillion has been wiped off the global wage bill.

The bad news is the weakest on labour markets have been hit hardest – women more than men; and the bottom 50% of the labour force, who more than the higher 50% were in a deep hole. And when you're in a deep hole, it's very difficult to climb out and look at the horizon – at what the world is going to look like one or two years down the line.

So, what might we have learned from the experience so far? I'm going to be fairly telegraphic here. Number one – yes, we've seen a remarkable capacity to adapt and to be resilient in the world of work, but they're not the same thing.

Some of those in the world of work have the possibility to adapt to work online to work remotely. But not everybody has that possibility. Others just have to be resilient. And this is where I come to the frontline workers.

Go down to your local hospital, go down to your local supermarket, get on the bus to work, talk to the cleaning staff who come in to clean your office, if you still have an office. They haven't adapted. They've just had to just keep on doing it. This is resilience writ large.

And we need to think about what those two sorts of different experiences actually mean. It really is the difference between the frontline worker and those who've been able to migrate online. This has been a massively unjust crisis.

Our organization is dedicated to the promotion of social justice. But just by the nature of what has happened to us, those who are worst off have been hit the hardest. Let's have no doubts about that now, as we look forward.

I'm really impressed by the way you put uncertainty at the heart of this discussion. It takes me back to my old university days in Liverpool, and Professor George Shackle who spoke about the inherent uncertainty of the future. And we should all be very conscious of the levels of uncertainty in which we are dealing.

This was something that's come across strongly in the ILO’s work. Let's not seek to predict the future – we have to actually decide what we want the future to be, and what we are capable of doing to make that future come to pass.

I was going to say a lot about the significance of work beyond its purely economic meaning, but Marie-Laure3 has saved me the trouble because she's pointed to the societal, the cultural, the self-realization effects of decent work. This is tremendously important.

Marie-Laure quoted Lenin and Marx extensively. I'll limit myself to just one quote from Karl Marx. When he looked forward to the utopia of work, that if we all followed his politics we would arrive at finally, he said man (I think he meant men and women) should be at home in his work and not at work in his home.

He wasn't predicting platform work; he was talking about what the end of capitalist alienation would look like. But there is something here we should be directing our efforts to, in our respective work - well-being in the broadest sense, and that cannot be simply reduced to the economics although economics is a massive part of the equation.

But when we're talking about societal change, can I encourage everybody not to undertake an exercise in futurology? I see so many of these forecasts out there, about what the world will look like in 2, 3, 4 or 5 years' time. Yet if we're talking about societal change, the right thing to do is to establish first what we want the world of work in our societies to look like. And my proposition is that we need to put our minds to creating a future of work, and therefore societies, which are more sustainable – and this is a massive year ahead for us on climate change, as a UN General Assembly Summit starts today in New York on climate change – more sustainable, more inclusive, more fair.

We've lived with massively growing inequality in the last 30 years, and we've tolerated it somehow. We've accepted it as an inevitable by-product of globalization and technology, and the policy orthodoxies under which we have operated. But there is zero fatality about growing inequality. It is a result of conscious policy choices – or the failure perhaps to get to grips with certain things.

So, this is the point: we really do have to decide what we want. Do we want mass generalized teleworking? I don't; but I do want to learn from the experience of what we've had. Take the positives - but don't just think that we are destined to all go online, regardless of our own preferences.

My last word: I do hope everybody can keep the international, the multilateral aspects of all of this in their minds. One thing which has characterized the response to this crisis, entirely different from what happened in 2008 to 2010 when at least the G20 was set up to deal with the financial crisis, is an entirely inadequate international response to this crisis. Be it in terms of the health issues, despite the Herculean efforts of our neighbours in the World Health Organization; be it in terms of the economic and social consequences. The world has spent about 12 trillion dollars so far dealing with the economic and social consequences, but they've been spent more or less in national silos, leaving the least developed countries the most vulnerable, basically to fend for themselves. And we will all pay the price for that failure of multilateral common purpose.

Thank you.

1 Professor Richard Baldwin, Graduate Institute (Chair of the Opening Session)
2 ILO, Global Wage Report 2020-21
3 Marie-Laure Salles, Director of the Graduate Institute