Interview with Guy Ryder, Director-General of the International Labour Organization (ILO)

In this interview, Guy Ryder, ILO's Director-General tells us about the ILO, its work and impact, and the challenges it will have to address in the coming years and decades.

March 2015

What exactly is the ILO? What would the world of work look like without it?

The International Labour Organization (ILO) is the oldest UN agency. It was founded in 1919, even before the United Nations. The aim of the ILO is to promote rights at work, encourage decent employment opportunities, enhance social protection and strengthen social dialogue.

It also has the global responsibility for drawing up and overseeing international labour standards. So it plays a major role in the world of work by making sure that labour standards are respected throughout the world.

The ILO has the particularity of being the only "tripartite" agency within the UN system. This means that it brings together not only governments but also representatives of employers' and workers' organizations.

Can you please provide some concrete examples of the impact that you have?

I'll give you three:

There are approximately 53 million domestic workers worldwide, most of whom are not covered by labour laws.

In June 2011, the International Labour Conference (ILC) – which meets every year in Geneva in May-June – adopted the Domestic Workers Convention (C189), which was the first ever attempt to give a legal status to this category of workers.

The Convention seeks to protect their rights, promote equality of opportunity and treatment, and improve working and living conditions. So far it has been ratified by 17 countries. It may not seem like much, but bear in mind that the ratification process can be long -- since it needs to go through the national parliament.

However, even in countries that have not ratified C189, the mere fact that there is such a convention has led to a public debate on whether or not it should be ratified. This has helped to highlight abuses against domestic workers.

Another example is the new Protocol on the Forced Labour Convention that the ILC approved last year, giving new impetus to the ILO Convention in the global fight against forced labour, which includes trafficking in persons and slavery-like practices. This new Protocol was particularly important to keep up with changes in modern forms of forced labour. It will provide new tools to reinforce the fight against this injustice.

Also, I would like to mention our action in Myanmar where the ILO was involved in the political and social crisis from the very beginning and helped bring significant democratic changes while reducing forced labour. The ILO contribution was recognized by Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi, whose first speech outside Asia once she was freed by authorities was at the International Labour Conference in Geneva in June 2012, bringing considerable media attention.

News about the world of work is often quite gloomy: high unemployment, forced labour, child labour, degrading working conditions. Is there any good news to share?

You are right to point out that the employment situation is still very difficult in many parts of the world while – at the same time - we need to tackle many challenges such as the ones that you mention. However, even if progress is slow, poverty has been significantly reduced in many areas. Also, social protection is slowly but surely expanding, especially in Asia.

In addition, there are many workers and entrepreneurs throughout the world coming up with innovative ideas either to increase productivity, improve occupational security and health at work, reduce negative effects on the environment or simply to offer new services to people, just to give a few examples.

I have met many of those talented workers and entrepreneurs during my recent trips across the world and they also deserve to be in the spotlight.

What kind of situations or developments are you currently worried about in the world of work?

The persistence of high unemployment with levels that will further increase over the next five years is certainly a major concern, also because youth are particularly affected. Young people around the world are nearly 3 times as likely as adults to be unemployed. This is unacceptable.

Also, even if poverty is decreasing globally, the world is faced with growing inequalities that can be found even in developed economies, especially between the richest and the poorest. How can we tolerate a situation such as the one we have now, with the richest 10 per cent earning 30 to 40 per cent of total income while the poorest 10 per cent earn between 2 and 7 per cent of total income?

The reality is also that these trends have undermined trust in governments and kept the risk of social unrest high. Social unrest is particularly acute in countries and regions where youth unemployment is high or rising rapidly.

There are more areas that need our attention, such as the globalization of the economy, the automation of industry with the growing use of robots, the transition to green jobs and the difficulty to reduce discrimination against women at work, to name only a few challenges that we need to tackle over the coming decades.

If we take the main crises that are making world headlines, for example Ebola or Syria and Ukraine, does the ILO have a role to play and, if so, which one?

The ILO is an integral part of the UN system and provides its expertise and support whether directly or indirectly through sister agencies.

For instance, regarding Syria, we are working to improve conditions of Syrian refugees living in Jordan and Lebanon while also supporting local communities faced by a sudden influx of refugees.

In Ukraine, we are participating in the UN country team recovery strategy. We also took part in the joint UN, World Bank and EU recovery needs assessment mission that took place in November/December 2014 with a specific focus on employment. In addition, we fielded an ILO employment expert for a 12-month period to advise on short-term job creation for the internally displaced population and on longer-term policies to ensure that fiscal recovery measures do not have a negative impact on employment.

Finally, on Ebola, We are acting by bringing our technical expertise to the agencies that are the first line respondents, such as our colleagues from WHO and the UN Mission for Ebola Response (UNMEER). For example, we issued joint guidelines with WHO on how to best protect workers from catching Ebola. We are also working with other UN agencies to assess the economic consequences of the Ebola crisis on the most affected countries in Africa.

You launched a reform process within the ILO. Can you tell us more about it?

Reform of the ILO has been one of my priorities with the aim of making the ILO the reference point on all world of work matters.

This has included a major adjustment of departmental and organizational structures to improve the way we work across areas of technical expertise and ensure that we deliver to the needs of our constituents in a timely manner. An important pillar of this objective was to strengthen our research capacity, in order to provide policy makers with relevant evidence-based analysis and advice on what works where and in what conditions.

Reform has now been extended to our field operations and to our main tripartite meetings, with changes both to the International Labour Conference and Governing Body to increase efficiency, as well as results. This year's Conference for example will run only for two weeks, with the same ambitious agenda as previous Conferences.

Will this process have any influence on the ILO presence in Geneva?

The reform process is not expected to have any major influence on our presence in Geneva.

The idea is more for people to interact in a more effective way within the organization, whether they are based in Geneva or in field offices.

The ILO will soon celebrate its Centenary. What are your plans?

Obviously 2019 will be the occasion to celebrate our centenary but it is too early to talk about specific plans.

What is more important for the time being is for the ILO to further get ready to tackle the main challenges the world of work will face in the coming years and decades and that I already mentioned. The Centenary will certainly be an occasion to reflect widely on all these challenges inside and outside the ILO.

As ILO Director-General, are you spending more time in Geneva or in the field?

I have travelled extensively since I became ILO Director General. The reason was that I wanted to meet not only with ILO staff throughout the world but also with representatives from governments, employers and workers organizations in order to get a better understanding of their priorities and concerns.

However, Geneva remains a city where you come across many decision makers Many UN agencies have their headquarters here. So Geneva is a good meeting place. For instance, a couple of months ago, Greek social partners quietly met at the ILO in Geneva for a whole day and decided to take the first steps to re-launch social dialogue, which had become non-existent, in the country. The peaceful climate of Lake Geneva certainly played a part, to a certain extent.

What is your relationship with Geneva?

I was born and raised in Liverpool, in the UK, but 30 years ago I first came to Geneva to take a job at the international federation office of a trade union. Since then, I have been living and working in the Geneva area except for a few years when my professional career took me to Brussels.

The fact that I have spent so many years here is obviously not just the result of chance. It is because Geneva is one of the key places to be when you have an international career.

It is also a good place to learn or improve foreign languages. I can practice my French everyday here, which is another way to open up to the world – by being aware of the existence of so many different cultures and languages. Just take a Geneva bus and you will hear so many different languages. This is also what makes Geneva special. Its many international workers give it a rich cultural diversity. 

 

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