ILO director-general Somavia: 'People vote for decent work'

“The current globalisation may have reduced extreme poverty, but it has clearly enlarged the gap of inequality”, says Juan Somavia, director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). In order to recede the inequality and its corresponding unrest, the Chilean is advocating decent work. That also happens to be the theme of a large campaign held by the Flemish civil society this autumn.
Employees are not tools. This rallying cry heads the campaign which promotes decent work as the best remedy against poverty. The campaign is launched by the ACV, ABVV, World Solidarity, FOS, Oxfam Solidarity and 11.11.11. The concept of decent work originates from the International Labour Organisation (ILO), and was introduced by the then novice director-general Juan Somavia. The Chilean lawyer had already worked himself through an extensive career in diplomacy and academics before he started at the ILO in Geneva. An example of his career constitutes his repeated presidency of the UN Economic and Social Council. After ten years as director-general, he is hoping for a third mandate.
How did the ILO end up with its agenda for decent work?
Juan Somavia
: The ILO assembles the knowledge and experience of employees, employers and governments. Or you could say that the organisation is rooted in a tripartite social dialogue, of which the main goal is to reach for the right to decent work, social protection and a dialogue to tackle labour issues. For the twenty-first century, we have translated this goal into the Decent Work agenda. When we came out with this dream, we saw that people and politicians were accepting of this story.
After all a job, a decent job is a source of dignity and stability for families and peace within and between communities. Not one politician can be elected without offering something in the sort of more or better employment. Employment stands key to the needs and expectations of people. The international support for the Decent Work agenda has caused the UN top in 2005 to accept decent work as a global objective. We are now working on the implementation of the agenda in seventy countries.
Sounds good on paper, but what about practice?
Juan Somavia:
During the past ten years quite a few new countries have ratified the eight basic standards of labour. These standards embrace a ban on child labour, forced labour and discrimination, and also centers on the freedom to unite and on collective negotiations. Objectives concerning decent work have been included in the national plans and budgets of a number of countries. The most important fact is that the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC) explicitly refers to decent work as a key objective.
I see a growth in the movement for decent work. The ITUC with its secretary-general Guy Ryder, was one of the champions for getting the unions and the civic society in the same line of support for this common objective. That has been essential, because without civic society we would lack a women’s movement, an environmental and human rights movement. We cannot materialize decent work for all – the fundamental outcry of people today – without the same kind of action, organisation, mobilisation and leadership.
What are the main obstacles on the road to decent work?
Juan Somavia:
The largest barrier constitutes the very path which today’s globalisation is taking, and the vast inequalities and imbalances one finds on that path. Today’s globalisation is moving around inside a moral vacuum. The uncertainty and lack of safety are growing, not only among the poorest but also rapidly among the middle class.
Sometimes I hear people say that they are left powerless, that the forces are above their heads. That is incorrect. The powers of today’s globalisation were created 25 years ago, by a series of decisions which can be enclosed under the Washington Consensus. If we do show the political will, change is indeed possible. The way forward however, does not lie in closing markets again or blocking potential advantages of international trade and investments. It is of key importance to find solutions, in which the central focus lies on the needs of people, families and communities. The positive message is: it is possible. Globalisation should create jobs, in both North and South, and its advantages should reach more people. This can only happen if countries and international institutions make labour into their central policy focus.
Is there a growing consensus about that in the international arena?
Juan Somavia:
 This year’s International Labour Conference has unanimously accepted the ILO declaration on a fair globalisation. This declaration was the result of a process of tripartite consultations, which had already started in 2005 after the report from the World committee on the Social Dimension of Globalisation. The principles which define the agenda for Decent Work are of central importance to this declaration. They emphasise the universality of the ILO objectives: all members of the ILO must strive for a policy that is based on the strategic goals of employment, social protection, social dialogue and labour rights. The members are committing themselves to striving for all of these elements equally and simultaneously. The role of international labour standards as a useful tool to reach these goals is thereby secured.
An example of such an international standard is the convention on child labour.
Juan Somavia:
 That’s right. Not so long ago many countries were still denying they had a problem with child labour. Today the ILO convention on the worst forms of child labour is the one to be ratified the fastest in history. In many parts of the world, we are starting to see a decline in the occurrence child labour, especially in its dangerous forms. We now have large sectoral partnerships for the production of footballs in Pakistan, cocoa in West Africa, and sugar cane in El Salvador. The objective is clear: children out of the workplace into school, and parents out of unemployment into work.
Is the attention for decent work growing simultaneously to the economy?
Juan Somavia:
  In one word: no. The current globalisation is not providing the type of growth which creates sufficient decent work. Too often we are seeing jobs of poor standards, disposable jobs, and vulnerable employment. The informal economy is booming, which results in the massive underutilisation of employment. Also, it causes people to get stuck in underproductive jobs, without protection and with little rights.
Decent work, on the contrary, creates more consumption, and thus more demand and more investments. When people are working, they can also contribute to a pension scheme as well as invest in social programmes. Jobs are at the heart of the economic model in which growth promotes equality rather than inequality. That is why creating decent work does not only constitute a sound social policy, but also a sound economic one. Growth alone does not make economic success. People are asking for jobs; that is what they expect from their politicians. That is what they are voting for.
Do you know a model capable of meeting those expectations?
Juan Somavia:
No, there is no solution which works for all countries. The agenda for decent work does not dictate specific solutions: Swaziland is not Switzerland. Decent work says that countries should work on an approach which fits the reality of their own specific environment and development. This is more appealing and sustainable in the long run, compared to solutions being worked out in distant capital cities. There are numerous fine examples: labour intensive employment, local economic development strategies, entrepreneurship for women, and the massive potential of environmentally sustainable, green jobs…this list is yet incomplete.
Do these ideas also infiltrate the emerging economies such as India and Brazil?
Juan Somavia:
Many emerging economies are showing leadership and involvement in order to get on the right track. For example, Brazil’s Bahia governor launched the first provincial programme for decent work. The government of India is making serious efforts to expand its basic facilities of social security. In Cambodia we could witness how better labour standards can increase the competitiveness in a globalised supply chain.
Better standards of course mean labour rights and work, but also social protection and dialogue. Ever since the end of the Multi-Fibre Arrangement (as a result of cancelling the export quota previously assigned to countries, competition has soared in the textile sector, nvdr) the number of jobs in the Cambodian export industry increased by thirty percent, despite the fear that the industry would be decimated. We have globalised that approach. Along with the World Bank, we are working on projects for better work in Jordan, Lesotho and Vietnam, which jointly benefit 1.2 million people, with the potential to reach millions more.
Can decent work in fact be promoted in a world in which the importance of labour is shrinking, while the income from capital gained weight?
Juan Somavia:
The share of labour has indeed shrunk during the past two decades, while the gap of inequality in income and salary keeps widening. There are numerous reasons for that. There is strong concern about the ‘financialisation’ of the economy, which bears repercussions for the concrete productive economy, meaning companies and jobs. The financial system has taken over the production system and has created its own world. Capital is being diverted to this financial world rather than being used for investments in productive companies.
This fact becomes even more pressing seeing that we are seeking a way out of the global crisis of food, energy and money. If this way out is only offering short term solutions, we will again enter the same globalisation which is giving nothing to most people. It is the globalisation which may well have reduced extreme poverty, but which has indisputably enlarged the gap of inequality.
What we need above all, is a better balance between the democratic voice of society, the regulating role of the state, the innovative and productive role of the market, and the needs and aspirations of individuals, families and communities.
Should other international or multilateral organisations play a role in that?
Juan Somavia:
That is essential, and many international organisations are now seeing the benefits of looking at development policy through the perspective of decent work. The World Bank and the Asian Development Bank are using the ILO standards as a way of securing basic labour rights in their development programmes. The World Trade Organisation and the ILO have jointly conducted research into the impact of trade on employment; thereby concluding that trade is not sustainable when one does not address its social consequences.
In December 2007 the German Chancellor Angela Merkel, as the president of the G8, brought together the leaders of the International Monetary Fund, the World Trade Organisation, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the ILO. Together we discussed how we can amplify the social dimension of globalisation. We will meet up again the coming months. In cooperation with other UN agencies we have developed a stockpile of instruments by which decent work can be put into mainstream.
This ‘toolbox’ has been designed with the purpose of triggering a reflex in policy makers and people in the field; a reflex to never stop asking these questions: what does this policy predicate for decent work? How many jobs will this create? Which practical steps can we take? The clear message from the international system says: instead of hoping for the jobs of tomorrow, work for the jobs of today. Even more so: decent jobs.

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