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Regional Meeting to discuss future of work challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean

With almost 100 days until the ILO’s Centenary, ILO Regional Director José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs discusses future of work challenges in his region.

Comment | 20 September 2018
José Manuel Salazar-Xirinachs

What are your expectations for the upcoming Regional Meeting?

The Regional Meeting will take place in Panama, from 2 to 5 October. Held every four years, this meeting is very important as the timing and theme are of particular relevance – the future of work in the region.

It’s also very significant because of the complex regional context but also as a result of the proximity with the ILO Centenary. The ILO has been present and influential in the region from its creation.

We expect governments, employers and workers attending the meeting to adopt a major document calling on leaders of the region to address some of the major challenges facing it.

In 2014, we could already see some of the dark clouds on the horizon, and, unfortunately, some of these clouds and signs of economic deceleration turned into a storm. In 2015 and 2016, the latter led to economic contraction in the region – with serious impacts on social and labour market indicators.

How would you analyse the context for the ILO’s work in the region?

The first thing to say is that there are really two distinct regions: Latin America, on the one hand and the Caribbean, on the other. Each has distinct social and economic identities, but we face a number of common challenges.

Both sub-regions are composed of middle-income countries, and much of the discussion focuses on the so-called “middle-income trap”, as many countries have a significant population of poor and vulnerable people.

This is also a region with high levels of literacy and access to the internet, which means that it is a region of high expectations. There are huge gaps in the labour market, and huge issues of discrimination. The unemployment rate remains high, with around 26 million people – notably youth, a “lost generation” – out of work.

Inequality – the highest levels in the world – and the informal economy remain major structural challenges. In recent years, we have even witnessed a decline of some social indicators, and informal employment is estimated at 47 per cent across the region.

There is a high level of self-employment, 28 per cent on average, and employment in micro enterprises, another 28 per cent on average, while employment in large and medium sized enterprises is less than 20 per cent. A very large proportion of the decent work deficits are concentrated in these segments of self-employment and employment in microenterprises. Despite some progress, there are also important gender wage gaps, and barriers for women to enter the labour market.

A very unique challenge is to address the needs of indigenous populations and afro-descendants, which constitute a large proportion of the population in several countries and face centuries of exclusion and discrimination.

In all areas, the ILO seeks to nurture social dialogue and tripartism bringing together governments and the social partners. However, dialogue is challenging for a number of reasons: Public policies do not always provide the political support necessary for social dialogue to work, there is a profound sense of inequality and dissatisfaction, a sense of injustice and lack of opportunities, and often a lack of trust in government or between social actors themselves.

We observe that there are a lot of people who are being left behind in Latin America, but, unfortunately, it is the politics that often becomes the major obstacle to progress, politics that are often characterized by a toxic mix of ideological polarization, weak institutions and exacerbated by recent corruption scandals. These social cleavages and the political confrontation provide the ingredients of a “perfect storm” or vicious circle that hinders progress.

What are the ILO priorities in the region?

The ILO is working with governments and social partners across the region on a whole range of economic and employment challenges, to promote respect for labour rights, and to support productive development policies and quality jobs. One of the main contributions that the ILO can make – successfully in many cases – is to nurture shared visions of both problems and collective actions and solutions.

Interestingly, the Latin America region has the highest number of cases of alleged violations of international labour standards presented in the supervisory mechanisms of the ILO. This does not mean that this is the worst situation globally, but it points to the need to work on conflict resolution strategies.

When I became ILO Regional Director in 2015, we defined three major priorities for our action in the region, based on the Lima Declaration agreed by constituents at the Regional Meeting the previous year.

The first priority is productive development policies for inclusive growth and more and better jobs, anchored in the employment mandate of the ILO and on objective 8 of Agenda 2030. Productive Development Policies is the main “toolbox” to influence the pattern of growth to make it higher, more sustained, inclusive and sustainable, and more capable of generating decent work.

The second priority is about promoting the transition from informality to the formal economy, which is a self-evident priority in a region with almost half of workers in the informal sector.

The third is promoting respect for fundamental principles and rights at work, which includes areas such as freedom of association and collective bargaining; the eradication of child and forced labour; the strengthening of labour administration and inspection; improving labour justice; dispute resolution and the right application of Convention 169 on indigenous peoples.

Looking ahead to the Centenary, what is your greatest hope and wish for the ILO?

Anniversaries are highly significant, as they are opportunities to energize organizations like ours and the wider network of influential organizations which are the social partners.

The Centenary Initiatives launched by the Director-General, and particularly the initiative on the Future of Work, has played a catalytic role for the Organization. The ILO is at the centre of what has become a global movement discussing and preparing the future of work. This has become a topic of central importance for all humanity.

It is essential that this is not just a conversation about technology but it is about how we can advance towards a better future, and how we can overcome the negative legacies of the 20th century. And on top of this, we need to anticipate the challenges of the future, which are looming like a tsunami.

The ILO has, I believe, a very good diagnosis of the social and economic issues we are facing. To successfully address these issues will depend on the capacity of policy-makers and social partners to overcome ideological and other differences to function and act collectively, build common policies and engage with financial, fiscal and production ministries and authorities, as much of the change in the world of work will depend on progress in the world of production.

This is why social dialogue between governments and the social partners is not only about negotiating the distribution of income or wealth, but is about collaboration to create more income and more wealth, to identify solutions and ensure that these are implemented together. It is much more than just creating spaces for dialogue on labour issues. This is the time for social dialogue to extend to other areas of national and regional importance, such as dialogue for productive transformation and productivity growth.