Opening remarks by Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General, at the 110th Session of the International Labour Conference

Declaración | Geneva | 27 de mayo de 2022
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President of the Conference,

Delegates, Observers,

Let me begin by congratulating you, Minister Moroni, on your election to preside over this 110th Session of the International Labour Conference. It is one further chapter in the record of leadership of your country, Argentina, in the ILO and we know that we are in very good hands as we embark upon what is undoubtedly a challenging agenda, in a more than challenging context.

And my congratulations extend to all others who have been elected to office by the Conference.

This opening sitting is predominantly a virtual event. We have got used to them over the last two years. But the good news is that now we will be welcoming back large numbers of delegations in person here in Geneva. After the postponement of the Conference in 2020 and the challenges of last year this is truly a major step forward. Ours is an organization that thrives on personal interaction. We need it to produce optimal results. And while doing everything to provide a level playing field for those participating remotely we are once again able to have this face to face contact.

Yet, it would be profoundly wrong for any of us to conclude that the impact of COVID-19 on our Organization and on the world of work is a thing of the past.

Of course we have made important progress. But globally, labour markets are still operating at levels of hours of work which are substantially below pre-pandemic levels – 3.8 per cent below according to our latest estimates which is the equivalent of 112 million full time jobs. Recovery has been very uneven. Advanced economies have mostly bounced back quickly and strongly. Middle and low income countries have not. This great divergence is making an already unequal world more unequal still. Six out of ten workers are in countries where income from labour has not got back to pre-crisis levels.

This is bad enough. But with the effects of Russian’s aggression against Ukraine making themselves increasingly felt throughout the global economy, there is all too likely worse to come. Possibly much worse, if fragile recovery becomes full blown recession. From the depths of the pandemic back in 2020 we all wanted to see a way forward to a new and a better normal, to engage collectively in building forward better. A straight line to the type of future work that we envisaged in the ILO Centenary Declaration.

But things have turned out differently.

On top of the lingering social and economic symptoms of COVID we must now contend with the impact of the war against Ukraine. My report on the situation of workers of the occupied Arab territories is one reminder that there are many conflicts in the world and that they bring suffering and damage to working people and enterprises. Yet the fact is that the situation arising from the aggression in Ukraine is generating global crises in respect of food, of energy, and of finance, with renewed disruption of supply chains, surging inflation, and extraordinary levels of uncertainty, insecurity and tension.

The human-centred recovery which we advocated at the Conference last year did not, indeed could not, foresee any of this. But it is the harsh reality of the moment and we must confront it.

And there are two general implications of this situation for this Conference.

The first is that it has put international cooperation under considerable and maybe unprecedented pressure. We must show ourselves and this conference capable of rising above that pressure. Of delivering the results that show that multilateralism – in this house allied with tripartism – actually works. That we need it. That it is indispensable.

The second is that the rule of law must prevail. That just as the flouting of the UN Charter by military aggression is not to be tolerated and must not prevail, so the violation of international labour standards must not go unanswered.

There are multiple reasons why the work of the Committee on the Application of Standards at this Conference matters enormously. It goes to the essence of the historic normative role of the ILO. It is where the rules we have set for over a century, and our idea of how work should be organized take concrete shape. It is the place where all Member States, big or small, powerful or less so, rich or less affluent are held to the standards that you – the governments, employers and workers of the world - have decided should apply to us all.

I have seen this unique process in operation at the ILO for four decades. I have seen its achievements, and its difficulties. I have seen the controversies it has generated, and the deliberate and ill-disguised efforts to weaken its authority and effectiveness. They continue, and I regret that they are not yet resolved. Because this system of standards supervision is what matters most to this Organization.

So I look forward with particular interest to the successful and important examination by the Committee on Standards of the individual country cases that are brought to it and also its examination of the General Survey of the Committee of Experts on nursing personnel and domestic workers. What more fitting subject could there be than the working conditions of the women – above all women – and the men who have played such a key role since the pandemic hit.

President, Delegates,

Together with its crucial normative work our Conference will be tackling an agenda of technical items which taken individually are each of evident significance to the world of work, and would be at any time. But looked at in the whole and in the difficult context I have outlined they acquire a greater collective significance. Because in distinct but complementary ways they all contribute to the construction of a human-centred recovery and a better future of work.

It is good, I think, that our recurrent discussion this year is on the strategic objective of employment and focused in particular on a new generation of comprehensive employment policies. It is good because we are seeing complex and sometimes confusing developments in employment – labour shortages in some areas and high unemployment elsewhere. We know that employment policies must address the transformative changes of digitalization, decarbonization and formalization and navigate demographic shifts. And there is danger also that in tackling contemporary challenges and disruption, as has happened too frequently in the past, employment objectives – including the decent work for all objective in SDG8 of the UN 2030 Agenda – will take a back seat, become the passive variable, as competing policy objectives – financial ones in particular – get priority attention. Comprehensive employment policies are one way of stopping that from happening and they merit the attention of our Conference.

One crucial component of those policies needs to be skills and lifelong learning. There seems to be the broadest and strongest tripartite consensus in the ILO on the criticality of this theme for all Member States and clear determination that our Organization take international leadership in it. That is why we begin now on discussion of a new standard, or standards, on a framework for quality apprenticeships. It is significant both for the substantive issues it addresses and for the fact that it takes forward the continuity of the Conference’s standard-setting function. So, I welcome it on both counts.

And I welcome equally the fact that the ILO will return as well to the role of the social and solidarity economy in generating decent work. I detect an upsurge of international interest in this topic in recent years. It has been referenced explicitly in the solemn Declarations adopted by this Conference. But, let’s not forget, that it is deeply rooted in the history of the ILO and has been from the very beginning. And what is important is that the organizations of the social and solidarity economy be recognized not as secondary, or artificial or unsustainable, or as temporary instrument of crisis response, but rather as fully fledged competitive enterprises which not only served to promote equity, participation and social objectives but are permanent and valuable sources of decent work. Seen in that light they are, self-evidently, a major actor in the world of work, and partner for the ILO.

President, Delegates,

The idea of including safe and healthy working conditions in the ILO framework of fundamental principles and rights at work has been around for a long time. I seem to remember it was around when the 1998 Declaration was adopted. But it resurfaced particularly during the Centenary Initiative on the future of work and specifically in the resolution adopted by the Conference in 2019.

As a result of intensive preparatory work – and I want to thank our tripartite constituents for their engagement in that – Conference now has before it a draft resolution which would have the effect of amending the 1998 Declaration to include safe and healthy working conditions – or environment – alongside the right to organize and collective bargaining, discrimination, forced labour and child labour.

We have become familiar with the challenges this process has thrown up: the precise terminology to be used; the Conventions that should be considered fundamental; how to address unintended consequences for trade agreements that reference fundamental principles and rights at work. They are significant of course, but they are far from insuperable. We are very nearly there.

And if we weigh these remaining challenges against what is at stake – the 3 million lives lost each year because of work and the ILO’s constitutional obligation for “the protection of the worker against sickness, disease and injury arising out of employment” – then the responsibility we share is stark and clear.

The 1998 Declaration has demonstrated its power to advance fundamental principles and rights at work for nearly a quarter of a century now. And by extending its coverage to occupational safety and health that power can be brought to bear in an area where, I feel we can all agree, it is most badly needed. We will be saving lives.

These are the issues which you, the ILO’s tripartite constituents have through your representatives in the Governing Body selected for Conference discussion. I believe you have chosen wisely. However, it falls to me as Director-General to choose the subject of my own Report to the Conference. Over the last ten years I have sought to put before the plenary issues of strategic significance which on the basis of the guidance provided by he Conference have subsequently taken up an important place in the overall direction of the ILO’s work.

This year, in the same spirit, I have devoted my last report to the Conference to the Least Developed Countries (LDCs). At first glance this might seem surprising. Only 45 of the ILO’s global membership of 187 countries come into this category. So what has this to do with the rest of them? My answer is, a great deal and I have explained why at the beginning of my report.

Institutionally, we are approaching the 5th United Nations Conference on LDCs and the Doha Programme of Action has already been approved by the General Assembly which has called on the ILO to contribute significantly to its implementation. I think we must respond.

We are also well into the last decade of implementation of the UN 2030 Agenda, and the Secretary-General is appealing for us all to “rescue” the Sustainable Development Goals. The Agenda exhorts us “to leave no-one behind”. And my report argues it is the LDCs that are the most in danger of being left behind. So if we are serious about the 2030 Agenda we must be serious about the LDCs because it is there, above all that the fate of the Agenda will be played out.

I argue too that labour market conditions in the LDCs present a very particular test for the ILO. The question is whether the Organization’s established means of action – tripartism, and international labour standards and everything that stems from them – can be truly and demonstrably effective in addressing situations where informality touches 90 per cent of the working population, the rural subsistence economy often dominates, institutions of work are weak or absent, and poverty widely present. How can the ILO contribute optimally to the processes of structural transformation that are needed to move the LDCs forward? This is not a small question. In a very real way the ILO’s credibility as holder of its universal mandate for social justice depends upon the answer we give to it.

So, this concerns all ILO Member States.

President,

Let me conclude by reverting to what I said at the beginning of this intervention about the context in which we meet.

I believe that they constitute a sharp reminder of the foundational truth upon which the ILO was constructed and which has been borne out time and again over the last century, and is again today.

That lasting peace depends on social justice, and that the achievement of social justice depends upon peace. Those who resort to war deny social justice. And those who obstruct social justice endanger peace.

The veracity of these propositions is surely self-evident. I hope that we will all be guided by them in the course of this Conference. I wish you all success for your work.

Thank you.