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ILO's DG Guy Ryder finds inspiration from problem-solving Iceland

ILO's DG Guy Ryder finds inspiration from problem-solving Iceland

| Text and photo: Björn Lindahl

Why does the Director-General of ILO choose Iceland as one of his last stops before the organisation’s centenary celebrations kick off? Why Reykjavík and not Paris or Rome?

The Nordic Labour Journal has taken Guy Ryder outside for a photograph. Since he is staying at the sumptuous Hotel Borg, it is only a short walk to the Alþingi.

"It’s my first visit to Iceland, but I know that is the parliament! To answer your question: I come here because this is where the Nordic tripartite family has decided to hold their conference this year," says Guy Ryder.

Even if it is beautiful and the sun is bright, the wind is really cold and we retreat to the hotel and the Art Deco armchairs in the lobby. The elevator door could have been designed for the Empire State Building. Guy Ryder seems not to notice, he is concentrating on the question again:

"Ever since ILO started preparing its centenary and its Future of Work initiative, the Nordic group has held a series of conferences. It began in Helsinki in 2016, moved on to Oslo in 2017, to Stockholm last year and it will culminate here in Iceland.

"So we are here because this is where the Nordic family is gathering and obviously, in our organisation, the Nordic countries have a very special place and a very special relationship with ILO," says Guy Ryder.

Members from the start

"It has to do, of course, with history. Most of the countries have been with the ILO from the very beginning in 1919." (1920 in the case of Finland, and Iceland came a little bit later).

"The Nordic Labour model and the way the Nordics handle labour issues also fits very naturally and very strongly with the ILO's work methods and objectives. So this is a very important hour in our centenary year."

The feeling of importance is reciprocal. The plan for Guy Ryder to be driven straight from the airport to a meeting with the Icelandic Prime Minister Katrín Jakobsdóttir.

But internal labour issues in Iceland made her presence indispensable and the meeting was postponed for a day. The largest confederation of unions and the employers' organisation where on the verge of agreeing on a deal but needed some extra support for the it to go through. Not an unusual situation in the Nordic countries, where the social partners are left to their own when negotiating wage deals, but where the government can provide support through tax changes or through other kinds of measures. The tripartite cooperation and mutual respect are often quoted as reasons for why the Nordic countries  often top international lists of which countries are best to live in.

Not only one Nordic Model

Guy Ryder is careful to use the expression “The Nordic Model” as if it exists in a fixed state.

"My experience with our Nordic partners is that they never seem to think that they have found the magic solution or the solution that will last for ever. I think that what is coming out clearly when we discuss the future of work together, is that the Nordic Model is undergoing constant renewal. It doesn’t stand still. It requires constant vigilance and constant updating."

How much of the Nordic Model can be exported to other countries, who do n0t share the same history of cooperation, where neither the workers nor the employees are organised in the same way?

"I don’t believe that the ILO should be in the business of exporting models, nor do I believe that we can transplant them, like a heart transplant.

"What we try to do is to learn from the positives – and there is a lot of that to be had from the Nordic experience – explain how things work here and draw from all this elements that other countries can apply."

Strong social consensus

"I think Nordic countries have constructed – because it wasn’t automatic – and maintained a very strong social consensus around the value of cooperation between government, employers and workers. They have maintained a high level of union membership and a growing number of employers' membership. And I think that it is seen as being good for the whole country, not just for the workers."

What about Iceland – is it easier to try out new models in a small country, than in a big one?

"It’s an interesting question. Is it easier to do things on a smaller scale first? I think some times that is the case. You can take advantage of this, and make very important differences with policy initiatives in societies which are relatively small and cohesive.

"The first thing which comes to my mind is the disaster which fell upon Iceland when the banking system went crazy and the whole financial system came down, back in 2008. I think that was a very good lesson, not just for Iceland, but anywhere in the world. Who would have imagined, I think it came as an enormous surprise that in a country so well organised, so cohesive, so democratically transparent as Iceland, that a catastrophe on this scale could take place. It just seemed impossible."

"You pay the price"

"But the fact is that if you don’t regulate your financial sector properly, you will pay the price. That is what happened in Iceland. But what is remarkable has been the speed of recovery. I’m not suggesting that this was automatic or easy. It entailed some difficult and very painful policy decisions, but if you look at the state of the labour market, you see that this recovery process has been extraordinary.

"The Icelandic Model did not insulate them from disaster, but Iceland took the right decisions to get out and move forward again. This constant idea that you have to think and you have to find solutions.

"The one preeminent thing about the Nordic Model is that it is fundamentally a problem-solving model. You confront a problem, as the Labour Minister of Iceland said, we are not running away from the future. We are looking the future straight in the eyes and we are finding answers to the problems."

Gender certification process

"I think the work Iceland has done on equality is also fantastic, like the gender certification process. I’m an unambiguous fan of it. In itself it is a remarkable initiative and it shows something which is really important. We have been talking about gender equality, and the ILO is invested here, and has been for a very long time. Equal pay for equal value is in our constitution from 100 years ago. We adopted the key ILO conventions on equality 60 years ago. And yet we still have these problems like gender pay gaps and lower work participation.

"It is clear to me that just adopting laws, just doing the obvious good things – important as they are – is not enough.

"We need new, creative transformation policies. And the Icelandic certification process is a fantastic example of these innovative, creative processes. So we will see how it works out. It is still at a relatively early stage. Let’s see what the results will be, but I know there are very many other countries looking at it!"

Guy Ryder will get ample opportunity to talk to the Nordic tripartite family during his stay in Iceland. On 3rd April he meets many of them in connection with the yearly meeting of the Nordic Ministers of Labour, before the Future of Work conference in Reykjavík is held on 4th and 5th April.

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