19th International Labour and Employment Relations Association (ILERA) World Congress 2021

Reinvigorate labour market institutions to address present crisis and future challenges

In a speech to the International Labour and Employment Relations Association (ILERA) World Congress, the ILO Director-General, Guy Ryder, outlined the steps needed to build a sustainable and resilient recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic in the world of work.

Statement | Live-streamed from Lund University, Sweden | 21 June 2021
Professor Rönnmar,
Mayor Helmfrid,
Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure to be able to address this 19th ILERA World Congress.

Of course, I would have preferred to be with you all in person. But it can’t be that way this year.

ILERA Congresses are always important opportunities for scholars, policy-makers and others involved in the world of work to meet and to exchange ideas gleaned from both practice and from research.

But we have all had to learn to do things differently this year, and I want to congratulate you on the successful organization of this first on-line ILERA Congress.

And the timing and the theme of this Congress could not be more opportune. The crisis which COVID-19 has brought us is unprecedented. If we are to chart our way to an inclusive and sustainable recovery, then breaking and re-making boundaries and systems will certainly be essential, although there will also be some boundaries that we will want to keep and to preserve.

But, even before COVID-19 was declared to be a pandemic, it was clear that profound transformations were sweeping through the world of work.

And many of you participating at this Congress had already started working on these challenges.

For example:
  • How can we reinvent labour market institutions so that they support the transition to a carbon-neutral economy?
  • How can we prepare these same institutions for the fast-changing digital economy and its employment models?
  • How should we adapt institutions and regulations so that they could provide protection to all workers - including migrants and those in the informal economy?
  • And how can we reinvigorate systems of collective representation, voice and governance, so that they meet the challenges of our time?
From the ILO perspective this can be summed up as the need to organize and regulate work in ways that guarantee rights, in ways that are fair and in ways that that promote well-being and social justice.

Then, the COVID crisis made these questions even more urgent.

The ILO has been tracking the impact of the pandemic since its outset.

In my report to the just-closed International Labour Conference I described that impact as “cataclysmic”. I stand by that description.

Consider some of the figures:
  • 8.8 per cent of total working hours lost in 2020 – the equivalent of the hours worked in one year by 255 million full-time workers, working 48 hours a week.
  • US$3.7 trillion wiped off labour income, equivalent to 4.4 per cent of GDP.
  • And perhaps most alarming of all, an increase of 31 million people in extreme working poverty: that’s more than three times the population of Sweden. Many of these workers faced a choice which probably we here find hard to imagine: stay home with your family and go hungry, or take an existential risk to put food on the table, and go out to work.
Overall, the ILO estimates that the effect of the COVID-19 crisis on the world of work is four times more severe than that posed by the financial crisis of 2008 to 2009.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I would like to use the opportunity you offer me to highlight three issues you are discussing at this Congress this week, that seem to me crucial if we are to achieve a human-centred and sustainable recovery from the current crisis that is truly inclusive.

The first of those challenges relates to the deep and structural inequalities in the world of work.

Even before the pandemic, inequalities had already grown to alarming levels in our labour markets. The crisis made these fractures very much worse.

We can see these in:
  • The increase in the numbers of people excluded from formal labour markets;
  • A shortage of decent job opportunities in many countries;
  • The outsourcing and fracturing of traditional work structures and relationships;
  • And, a certain erosion of the collective institutions that provide workers and employers alike with a voice, and support balance in labour relations.
Let me expand briefly on this last point.

The general decline in trade union membership has been widely reported. But there is more to the issue than that. The ILO estimates that, in 46 countries for which we have data, the coverage of workers by collective agreements has also declined. By an average of 8 per cent in the last 5 years. Taken together, this means that the voices of many workers are not being heard. This has consequences not just for the world of work but for democracy more broadly.

Ladies and gentlemen,

The pandemic has also shown us very clearly how the impact of labour market inequalities goes far beyond income. They affect access to healthcare, vaccinations, social protection, basic public services, the internet and online schooling and training.

The lowest paid, unskilled, least protected and already disadvantaged are hit hardest by these inequalities.

People such as informal and migrant workers, and as we have seen during the pandemic, youth, and women.

Indeed - we know that a far higher proportion of the women who lost their employment have left the labour market, compared to men.

This is in all likelihood linked to the disproportionate share of unpaid care responsibilities that women took on during the crisis.

What this means is that we risk losing the progress made towards gender equality. Hard-won progress that has taken decades to achieve.

This is just one example of how the scarring caused by this crisis could affect both workers and enterprises long after macroeconomic conditions have improved, as we hope that they will.

The fact of the matter is that inequalities in our societies today are about more than just where somebody stands in the spectrum of income distribution. Rather they have hardened into structural injustices. And much of this can be traced back to how we conduct industrial relations.

I will be reiterating all of these points when I speak to the G20 Labour Ministerial meeting in Italy in the coming days.

Dear Congress Participants,

Addressing these issues will not be easy. We will need to leverage the best scholarship and academic thought at our disposal.
  • We must build on some of the policy experiments that have successfully increased transfers to poor families and supported the earnings of minimum-wage workers.
  • We must learn from the innovative approaches to social protection.
  • And we must reinvigorate our labour market institutions so they can support a human-centred recovery.
The second theme I would like to emphasize relates to the role of key workers, those who served on the frontlines during the pandemic. These workers, often putting their own lives at risk, are mostly among the lower paid. Yet, their work is essential for the wellbeing of us all - in health and care work, cleaning, retail and transport.

I should also point out that, in most of these sectors, the majority of these workers are women, and many of them are migrants.

We have seen many expressions of support for these key workers – hand-clapping, speeches and one-off bonuses. The question now is - how do we transform this apparent change in attitudes into something more concrete, more just, and more permanent? A reassessment of social priorities and a fundamental re-valuation of their work does seem necessary.

And thirdly, we must reinvigorate the institutions of work so that they offer adequate protection to all workers.

Here I think about:
  • The frameworks supporting cooperation and dialogue between governments and workers’ and employers’ organizations.
  • The collective agreements on adapting work organization and work time that have helped to save jobs and lives over the past 16 months.
  • And, the wage support measures, short-time working, and furlough schemes that have helped prevent former job losses.
During the COVID crisis these institutions have helped our systems remain resilient.

But more investment in them is essential if they are to have the flexibility and vigour necessary to handle the challenges ahead.

I want to highlight two of these challenges that stand out.

The first is the transition to a carbon-neutral economy. Something that affects us all, and in an existential way.

The second is the digital economy. The rules and institutions governing labour markets must be able to cope with the new working arrangements that are developing. Let’s be clear - fundamental rights at work, including freedom of association and collective bargaining, are as relevant to the digital world as they are to the analogue one. What’s right for the analogue world of work is just as applicable to the digital world.

Further to that point - this year marks the 70th anniversary of the creation of the ILO’s critically important Committee on Freedom of Association, whose chair Evance Kalula will be hosting a special session at your Congress on Wednesday.

The CFA’s work has consistently emphasized that workers and employers should be free to form and join organizations of their choosing.

And for those organizations to be able to operate freely and without interference.

The Committee has received over 3,400 complaints since its creation and achieved critical results, and made a real difference to the lives of people and enterprises. And we value it very highly.

My friends,

The last 15 months have shown more clearly than ever that the future of work is not pre-determined. We have seen long-established policies and work arrangements being adapted in ways that were previously unimaginable.

This gives me confidence that governments, employers’ and workers’ organizations can also adapt to shape a better, post-pandemic, future.

These priorities were affirmed in an important document that was adopted last week by the International Labour Conference, also in its first virtual session, a Global Call to Action for a human-centred recovery from the COVID-19 crisis.

The Call to Action, which I would invite you to read carefully, highlights the policies that are needed to shape a response to the pandemic that is inclusive, sustainable and resilient.

It is a roadmap to prevent long-term scarring of economies and societies, and ensure a recovery that leaves no one behind.

Our friends and partners in ILERA will have an important role to play in this. You can provide the fresh perspectives the ILO needs to help shape a sustainable, inclusive and socially just recovery.

At the ILO we have renewed our commitment to ILERA by strengthening the support that our secretariat provides to you.

In the weeks and months to come, as we implement the Call to Action we will be counting once more on your knowledge and expertise to help forge a pathway to that human-centred recovery.

Thank you for your attention. I wish you a wonderful Congress.