Director-General at the International Labour Organization (ILO)
The three priorities chosen by the German Presidency of the Council of Europe are timely. They also echo important themes in the ILO’s Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work, which was adopted at the International Labour Conference by all EU Member States and others in attendance in June 2019. Since then and since this article was initially penned, the world of work has been profoundly disrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic. This experience has implications for the priorities of the German Presidency.
Digitalisation, automation and other technological advances are changing the world of work everywhere. These advances are creating countless opportunities to generate new jobs, improve the quality of working lives, expand choices and much more. Yet these developments will also destroy jobs and may lead to deteriorating working conditions. The growing platform economy, for instance, could create future generations of “digital day labourers”, as Chancellor Merkel has described1 and exacerbate regional and gender inequalities. COVID-19 has precipitated a sudden shift to widespread teleworking and has highlighted both the advantages and challenges of this modality. In terms of the latter, it has thrown into relief the situation of millions of workers particularly at the lower end of the gig economy who are highly vulnerable, on low incomes and without social protection, leaving them without a buffer. They simply cannot afford to stop working. Their plight mirrors the situation of workers in the traditional informal economy who must work to survive.
The future of work will have to be about assuring decent work for all workers in traditional and non-traditional forms of work.
However, the future of work is not all about technology. Demographic change is shaping labour markets differently in different parts of the world. Population ageing in some regions could compromise the sustainability of social security systems yet at the same time, it could also create new employment opportunities in the silver economy and contribute to the creation of more inclusive and lifelong active societies. Growing populations in other parts of the world are leading to a huge youth employment challenge, which could translate into positive economic and social outcomes if addressed properly. Climate change threatens the livelihoods of many people and communities across the globe. Policies to address the situation will require many people to transition into new jobs or occupations, yet adaptation and mitigation measures could also create millions of decent jobs globally.
We can and must shape the future of work. It is not pre-determined. The ILO Centenary Declaration calls on the EU and its Member States to put people and the work they do at the heart of economic, social and environmental policies. It also calls on all of us to shape the future of work by designing human-centred policies that create decent work for all and deliver economic security, equal opportunity and social justice. The sobering experience of COVID-19 is an opportunity to take stock, and build a better future that is safer, fairer and more sustainable. The human-centred agenda is about:
- Strengthening the capacities of people to benefit from the opportunities of a changing world of work: This requires the effective realization of gender equality in opportunities and treatment, effective lifelong learning and quality education for all, universal access to comprehensive and sustainable social protection, and effective measures to support people through the increasing number of transitions they may face in their working lives.
- Strengthening the institutions of work to ensure adequate protection for all workers: All workers should enjoy adequate protection in accordance with the ILO Decent Work Agenda, which entails respect for their fundamental rights, an adequate minimum wage (statutory or negotiated), maximum limits on working time and measures for safety and health at work.
- Promoting sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment, and decent work for all: These objectives should be at the heart of all macroeconomic policies, and trade, industrial and sectoral policies must promote decent work and enhance productivity.
In October 2019, the Council of the European Union – a steadfast partner of the ILO – adopted conclusions for implementing the ILO’s Centenary Declaration and its human-centred agenda. These conclusions encourage EU Member States to ratify and effectively implement ILO Conventions in order to ensure decent work for all.
„We can and must shape the future of work. It is not pre-determined. “
Economic and social upward convergence in Europe
Germany’s second priority lies at the heart of the ILO’s mandate. The Preamble to the ILO Constitution not only proclaims that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice”, but also 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 creation of closer European integration through the Treaty of Rome in 1957 was based on the same philosophy, and it remains the strongest rationale for closing existing economic and social gaps within the EU.
Work still needs to be done. With significant differences in income growth rates between Member States, economic and social convergence in the EU is a “tale of two speeds”. Achieving more broadly shared income distribution across EU Member States could provide a major boost to achieving upward convergence in Europe. Developing an EU framework for minimum wages and minimum income benefits could provide a path towards greater convergence and contribute to making societies more equal. The European Pillar for Social Rights provides the basis for such a framework. It calls for adequate minimum wages “that provide for the satisfaction of the needs of the worker and his / her family […], whilst safeguarding access to employment and incentives to seek work”2 Harmonising incomes from work can play an important role in reducing inequalities because most households of working age rely on labour incomes – wages and earnings from self-employment – as their main source of income. However, in itself this will not be enough. Increased investment in other institutions of work, such as in safe and healthy workplaces and the promotion of collective representation and social dialogue are also necessary to ensure equality in the labour market.
„If the production and distribution of goods and services do not stop at national borders, neither does the responsibility to respect working conditions and human rights. “
Redistribution and transfer policies have important roles to play. Social security transfers are essential to decrease inequalities and promote social mobility. The ILO Centenary Declaration calls on governments to work towards universal, comprehensive and sustainable social protection. This should include a social protection floor that affords a basic minimum level of protection to all in need, complemented by social insurance schemes that provide increased levels of protection against all risks from birth to old age.
In the final analysis, we have to expand opportunities for people and enable them to manage the increasing number of labour market transitions they will experience over the course of their lives. The implementation of effective lifelong learning systems along with universal social protection would enable workers to acquire skills, upskill and reskill throughout their working lives. A transformative agenda for gender equality is urgently needed to ensure equal opportunities for all. The COVID-19 virus knows no boundaries. At the same time the most vulnerable are the most exposed and will render preventive measures for the wider population less effective. Beyond the health impact, they are also more exposed to the socio economic fallout. In the spirit of the ILO’s Constitution, promoting convergence and reduction of inequalities means enhancing resilience and improving the prospects of recovery for all.
Sustainable supply chains
As the ILO Resolution on Decent Work in Global Supply Chains recognizes3 global supply chains have created millions of jobs and are a major contributor to development. At the same time, participation in global supply chains has also exacerbated existing decent work deficits. If the production and distribution of goods and services do not stop at national borders, neither does the responsibility to respect working conditions and human rights. International frameworks such as the UN Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights and the ILO Tripartite Declaration of Principles Concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy recognize the distinct but reinforcing responsibility of governments and private actors to achieve coherence between economic outcomes and decent work in global supply chains.
Germany has insisted on the importance of achieving decent work in global supply chains, notably during its G7 and G20 presidencies in 2015 and 2017 respectively. The creation of the Vision Zero Fund attests to Germany’s leadership on these issues in multilateral policy dialogues. The EU and its Member States also played an important role in the ILO’s Meeting of Experts on Cross-Border Social Dialogue in February 2019, which generated relevant conclusions for global supply chains.4
Germany’s Presidency of the Council of the European Union in 2020 will provide it with another important opportunity to explore solutions and build on the relevant EU work in progress. The EU is already promoting the responsible, sustainable management of global supply chains and can help to drive further policy coherence. An increasing number of governments are adopting national action plans on business and human rights, and supply chain due diligence laws are evolving beyond a reporting obligation. Public procurers have increasingly focused on the role that they can play in promoting decent work through supply chain responsibility. Efforts by EU-based companies to strengthen responsible business conduct are also an important tool.
The focus on human rights in global supply chains, including labour rights, is an opportunity to drive broad-based change and demonstrate that economic and social development go hand in hand.
We are all responsible for the governance of decent work in global supply chains – it is a shared responsibility between governments, enterprises, trade unions, civil society and international organizations. Governments are responsible for enacting and enforcing the necessary legal frameworks at the national level and ensuring compliance with labour regulations. Business accountability for respecting human rights can help integrate the private sector as a responsible partner in development. At the same time, governance gaps will not be closed by due diligence processes alone, as they often do not reach the lower levels of the supply chain where most decent work deficits exist.
In the wake of the havoc wreaked by COVID-19 on the global economy, global supply chains have been broken. As demand dwindles, as transportation challenges arise, as orders are cancelled, workers and enterprises along the supply chain and particularly at the lower end are struggling for survival. It remains to be seen if the necessary solidarity will emerge to give them a chance for the future.
Drawing on the lessons of the crisis that we are currently living, progress on these priorities would go a long way toward reducing the widening inequalities we are witnessing within countries – in the EU as well. Through proactive policies and their effective implementation, and adjustments to legal frameworks, we can and we must shape a human-centred future of work with freedom, dignity, economic security and equality.
A strong partnership between the European Union and the ILO is essential to make progress towards our common goal: a brighter future with social justice for all.