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Guy Ryder: The multinational system must understand the importance of work issues

Guy Ryder: The multinational system must understand the importance of work issues

| Text: Björn Lindahl, Photo: Crozet / Pouteau

The ILO has celebrated its centenary. In a jubilant tweet from Geneva, Guy Ryder summed up the 108th session of the International Labour Conference: “We had big ambitions for this Conference, and it was a record breaker in every sense. We emerged with a new Convention, a new Recommendation and a Declaration that will take us forward to meet the challenges of tomorrow.”

When the Nordic Labour Journal met ILO's Director-General Guy Ryder in Reykjavik a few weeks before the Geneva Conference, we asked him to look back at the process leading up to the centenary. “What will be the thing where you can say that I made a difference?” we asked.

“I’m not particularly into the “I” thing at all,” he said, making it clear that for him it is “I + LO” that matters:

“When it comes to what the ILO has done there are two things. Putting the Future of Work debate on the table I think we have created a very serious way of thinking, a reflection around the world about the way the world of work is moving. And then, through a new declaration, giving answers to the questions about social injustice that people have all over the world.”

Got the Nordics involved

Guy Ryder was, however, instrumental in getting the Nordic countries involved. Already in 2015 he wrote a letter to the governments of the organisation’s 187 member states. He wanted them to think about and discuss a few topics concerning changes in economics and working life, like job creation and the influence of new technology and changes in relations between employers and employees.

In February 2016 he got an answer from the Nordic governments, announcing a project in coordination with the office of the Nordic Council of Ministers, the ILO and the social partners. The themes that Guy Ryder mentioned became a big research project; The Future of Work, as well as a series of four conferences, the last one in Reykjavik. ILO also established a Global Commission, co-chaired by Stefan Löfven, Prime Minister of Sweden, and Cyril Ramaphosa, President of South Africa. Together with a diverse group of 27 thinkers, they identified challenges and formulated strategies for the future of work.

Although the Convention concerning the elimination of violence and harassment in the world of work – also called the #metoo-convention in many countries – got the most attention during the Geneva conference, we suspect that it is the new declaration that is closest to Guy Ryder’s heart.

Based on social justice

As many of the speakers at the conference pointed out, the ILO was created as a part of the Versailles treaty of 1919. Many also quoted the preamble of the constitution, which stated that universal and lasting peace can only be established if it is based on social justice.

Wikipedia Commons

German Johannes Bell signs the Treaty of Versailles in the Hall of Mirrors, with various Allied delegations sitting and standing in front of him.

The Versailles treaty was written at a time when workers had already staged a revolution in Russia and deposed the tsar. When the conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world is imperilled; then an improvement of those conditions is urgently required, argued the committee that wrote the preamble, which concluded that:

“…the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries.”

The ILO is the only part of the League of Nations that survived World War II. Set up as one of two wings in the new organisation in Geneva that was going to promote cooperation amongst nations, it soon encountered difficulties when the Nazis gained power in Germany.

By 1940 Switzerland was surrounded by German troops and faced a possible invasion. The ILO's leaders were concerned about the organisation's existence. They asked to set up a centre of activity in the USA, but were refused. Instead, a Canadian university stepped in, offering space in a disused chapel. After a perilous journey through occupied Europe, a core group of ILO officials settled in.

The Philadelphia declaration

In 1944 the war was drawing to an end. At the 26th Conference of the ILO in Philadelphia, a new set of guiding principles were adopted, introducing concepts like:

  • Labour is not a commodity.
  • Freedom of expression and of association are essential to sustained progress.
  • Poverty anywhere constitutes a danger to prosperity everywhere.

“The declaration of Philadelphia is quite remarkable. It’s 75 years old, but people are still reading it, people are still quoting it. It inspires people. It still makes people think about what we are doing with the world of work. If our Centenary Declaration can do anything like that, and I’m not trying to be presumptuous, then we will have done something important,” said Guy Ryder.

The ILO became the first specialised agency of the United Nations when it was created in 1945. Today, 187 of the UN's 193 states are members.

Photo: Björn Lindahl

The Swedish Minister of Labour, Ylva Johansson, has just signed the ILO convention on domestic workers during the Future of Work conference in Reykjavik. Photo: Björn Lindahl

Its primary task is to promote minimum labour standards for the world's 3.5 billion strong labour force. It does this by creating international treaties called conventions, which can be adopted by member states. Once adopted, a convention becomes part of the country's legal infrastructure. The organisation also produces non-binding recommendations and provides technical assistance to help countries create Decent Work programs.

The ILO is operated as a tripartite organisation with representatives from governments, employers and labour unions. Guy Ryder is the first trade unionist to lead the organisation, all his nine predecessors were chosen by the governments.

Not in a good shape

At the Reykjavik conference, Guy Ryder told one of the panel debates about the difficulties he has been facing:

“Multinational institutions are not in a good shape. They are not in good shape for several reasons. We have a tough job on our hands in two regards.

“One is to have the multinational system itself fully appreciate the importance of work issues. A decision has been taken when the World Trade Organisation was established, to basically not talk about labour issues in their trade negotiations. It was a conscious decision. A barrier was built between our two organisations, down a street in Geneva, where they are on one side and we are on the other.

“But something strange is happening.  If you look at trade negotiations today, the WTO has great difficulties concluding any trade agreement. Multinational trade agreements have run into the sand. Where trade agreements are concluded, it’s on bilateral, regional or sub-regional levels.

“75-80% of the trade agreements negotiated at that level contained labour clauses. Look at NAFTA-2. Look at the recent US, Canada, Mexico trade agreement: There is an extraordinary chapter about labour issues, all of them referring to ILO’s standards.

“It seems to me that this situation is taking us back to a logical understanding of how the global economy works. It makes no sense to think we can deal with labour here, trade there, environment there, finance there. We somehow have to synthesize and get greater coherence in these things.”

The pressure is growing

At the same time the pressure from ordinary citizens is growing.

“There are people like Greta Thunberg who are mobilising the young and there are people who show their discontent very strongly, like the yellow vests in France. I’m British so Brexit is on my mind. Look at our policies from the United States to Brazil – people are not particularly happy for the most part in the ways things are going for them.

“A lot of that dissatisfaction and agitation, discontent if you want to call it that, comes from what is happening in the world of work. I think there is a genuine feeling in large parts of the society that things are not going the right way. Things are not fair, they are not getting a fair reward for what they are doing. Our task is to give answers to their questions, but to give answers which are in line with the principles and objectives of the ILO. It’s about rights, people’s rights, it’s about human security, international cooperation and social justice. This notion is a very fundamental notion of what is fair and what is not fair.

“And it’s also about dialogues, it’s not about imposing solutions but hard work, sitting with governments, workers and employers and finding solutions,” said Guy Ryder.

He still has two years left as Secretary-General, and even if the 108th session was a success there is still much to do. Specifically, the commission called for a Universal Labour Guarantee under which all workers, regardless of their contractual arrangement or employment status, would enjoy fundamental rights, an “adequate living wage” as defined in the ILO’s founding constitution 100 years ago, maximum limits on working hours, and health and safety protection at work.

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Celebrating a 100 years

Guy Ryder, ILO Director-General, holds a final speech at the closing ceremony of the 108th (Centenary) Session of the International Labour Conference in Geneva,  The session ran from 10-21 June.


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