CMMD Perspectives — The Preoccupation of the International Labour Organization with the Future of Work

Almost all elements of the 104th session of the International Labour Conference (ILC) are concerned with various aspects of the significant changes in the world of work that are challenging the traditional tripartite governance and guidance for appropriate public standards and policy that have been the hallmark of the International Labour Organization (ILO) since its founding in 1919. It is not surprising that the leadership is strategically pursuing a “Future of Work Centenary Initiative” as a constructive way to prepare for the ILO’s centennial in 2019, and it would seem that all of the policy deliberations at this 104th ILC are oriented to adapting already to the changing nature of the world of work but also to building the case for new policy. 

The ILO Director-General Guy Ryder is in the third year of a five-year term and will probably be looking for a second term starting in 2017. His leadership is very much oriented to guiding the ILO to a long-term adjustment to the changing nature of work, and this is reinforced by the chosen theme for his 2015 annual report to the ILC – on The Future of Work Centenary Initiative. This builds on his first annual report to the 2013 ILC, which concentrated on the Reality, Renewal and Tripartite Commitment. In that report, he proposed seven centenary initiatives to prepare for the 2019 anniversary – on governance, standards, enterprises and ending poverty, as well as focused attention to employment opportunities in a “green” economy and for women at work – and, yes, the seventh of these proposed centenary initiatives was on “the future of work”.

While there have been several discussions at the ILO Governing Body on these seven initiatives, including the one on the future of work, Mr. Ryder has featured this seventh initiative as the focus for the 2015 ILC. This gives all delegates from the 185 member-states and the country-level representatives of workers’ and employers’ organizations to express their views in their plenary speeches during the ILC on what the future looks like – or should look like – for the world of work. It also is an opportunity to reflect on the D-G’s proposed three-stage plan for this particular initiative. The first stage would involve the convening of four “conversations” on key aspects of the changing nature of the world of work; the second stage would involve the appointment of a “high-level” commission on the future of the world of work to convene hearings and other activities around the world; and the third stage would feature a final commission’s report and action at the ILC in 2019. There is some speculation of the possibility of a redefining mission statement for the ILO in the form of a “Centenary Declaration” in 2019, but that will be left up to the preparatory work for this big event closer in time to the actual 2019 ILC. For now, the opportunity is presented for delegates to express their views on this current report in their plenary speeches during this 2015 Conference. This includes one that I myself will be delivering on 5 June 2015 on behalf of the Graduate Women International (formerly known as the International Federation of University Women), linking the Future of Work initiative with the centenary initiative on women at work.

The D-G’s report identifies four topical conversations that are not necessarily exclusive or distinct, but they do encompass four main challenges for the ILO – what the D-G describes as “transformational mega-trends” dealing with the world of work in the immediate and longer term future. These are described as (1) work and society, (2) decent jobs for all; (3) organization of work and production; and (4) governance of work. The first of these encompasses societal views about work, how it is understood to meet the material needs of individuals and families but also personal development and welfare beyond the family. An individual’s meaning and purpose is associated with this view of work, and consideration needs to be given to how this is valued and remunerated in the increasingly knowledge-based nature of the economy almost everywhere in the world.

The second concern has to do with the challenge of needing at least 600 million more jobs by 2030 than today, when we still have not recovered adequate job growth to meet the rates prior to the financial and economic crisis of 2008-2009. As the D-G confirms, this will not be an easy goal to reach, and it may require new policy tools. Sector-specific approaches may include policies to promote a “green economy” and a “care economy”, but new skills generally will be required, targeting to improve income-producing opportunities for women and disadvantaged groups, and fair migration practices to allow people to move to where the jobs are, are among the policy areas meriting special attention.

The third concern is related to the recognition that the main unit of work and production is the “enterprise” and that this will continue to be the case. However, there are increasingly non-standard forms of employment, and especially various new forms of relatively permanent self-employment that have implications for social protection policies as well as employment and labour relations policies. There is, as noted in the D-G’s report, also an increasingly important role of finance and the “financialization” of the world of work.

Finally, there is the matter of governance, both at the international and the national levels. For the ILO, this relates primarily to the international role in plays in standards – historically to establish a level playing field and setting standards as a framework of guidance for countries, along with the significant role of the 1998 ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work. The D-G is bold in acknowledging that voluntary initiatives are increasingly significant, including on aspects of corporate social responsibility, where the ILO has had some difficulty in defining its own role. This will be further developed at the 2016 ILC when one of the main agenda topics is on “Decent Work” in global supply chains. At the national level, meanwhile, the main challenge is the changing roles of workers’ and employers’ organizations.

With regard to the rest of the ILC agenda this year, we note that three committees are engaged in developing either a recommendation (a soft standard), or a set of conclusions to guide policy. These are a proposed recommendation (and the first such overarching guidance) on how to move from the informal to the formal economy; and conclusions to be drafted in committees on the changing nature of labour protections for working time, minimum wages, maternal protection and occupational safety and health protection; and on the role of small and medium enterprises in promoting decent and productive employment creation. We see all three of these are intertwined, and we will cover the debates and comment on the outcomes in our next couple of weekly commentaries. Another standing committee has been revived following a compromise on how to interpret the ILO standard(s) relating to the national-level right to strike, and this, too, will be working with the task to develop a new Standards Review Mechanism. Take note, finally, that the ILC will have two special summits (not side events) on Climate Change and the World of Work on 11 June 2015 and the World Day against Child Labour on 12 June 2015. Committee reports to set the stage and a daily ILC bulletin are available here.

From the CMMD Geneva Observer 1 June 2015

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