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31 May, 2012

Global Labour Organisation Chief Gives Myanmar Same Importance as Palestine

Juan Somavia, Director-General, International Labour Organisation

Address to the Plenary, 101st International Labour Conference, Geneva, 30 May 2012.

We know that it’s time for a policy rethink.

The financial crash of 2008 signalled the beginning of the end of the current growth and globalization model as I described last year in my report on “A new era of social justice”.

Four years on we are mired in a period of uncertainty, unclear on what the future rules of the game will be. We are at a turning point where crisis brings the opportunity to change course. I see a critical role for the ILO in capturing the opportunities that lie ahead. I will return to this theme when I inaugurate the high-level segment of the Conference next week. But I feel obliged to say a few words on the Eurozone.

The policies being pursued in the Eurozone are extremely worrying for the ILO.

Early on after our creation in 1919, European countries progressively embraced our values and made them an integral part of their social, economic and political systems and later of the European Union.

The austerity-only course to fiscal consolidation is leading to economic stagnation, job loss, reduced protection, and huge human costs, undermining those social values which Europe pioneered. While trying to reduce the public debt, unsuccessfully by the way a social debt is building up that will also have to be paid. The most affected countries of Europe subject to direct or indirect conditionalities are backsliding on the ILO’s core values on which the region was a leader.

The culture of social dialogue, the foundation for the post war reconstruction of Europe, is being discarded or weakened.

Yet it is precisely with social dialogue that we can get out of the crisis, through productive investments in sustainable enterprises that can increase jobs, aggregate demand and fiscal revenues at the same time. It is possible.

This real economy response must be accompanied by a socially responsible fiscal consolidation. I think the Global Jobs Pact is today a useful tool for Europe. Giving confidence exclusively to financial operators while losing the trust of people not only deepens the vicious downward economic spiral but also opens the way to extreme solutions which I am sure European democracies do not want to revisit.

Extreme policies produce extreme reactions. We must welcome then the emerging debate in Europe on the need for growth jobs and social protection and certainly the ILO will play its part.

Youth employment

We have been failing our young women and men for some time now.

Generally, youth jobless rates are nearly 3 times that of adults. This is without the many millions worldwide who have become discouraged and stopped looking for work.

Furthermore, those who do get a job are likely to be working part time, on temporary contracts, in the informal economy, or precarious work.

There is little inter-generational solidarity when the adult generation who formulates policy, lets the young generation carry a heavy share of the burden of the crises.

There is a powerful reassertion of activism from young people who refuse to accept a future of unemployment, marginal work and expensive, poor quality education. They go from social entrepreneurs to trade union leaders. I applaud this.

At the same time, in many countries, the disturbing truth is that the young, are becoming disconnected from the political process, fed up with systems that have no effective answers for the jobs crisis.

In many different ways, young people are telling us “you don’t listen to us”.

So we decided to listen, interact and think together with them to get their ideas into the ILO Conference discussion. We held 46 national consultations with around 5000 representatives of young people’s organizations across regions. It culminated last week in a creative and stimulating World Youth Forum here in Geneva with some one hundred young people from employers’, workers’ and other youth organizations.

A delegation will present a synthesis of their views and ideas to your conference committee.

This is innovation at work. The several thousands who assembled in these forums and on-line are the beginnings of on ILO youth network to connect us with the ideas and needs of young women and men.

True to our heritage of dialogue we reached out. Young people reciprocated, and I have made their sensible demand my own: “no solution for us without us.”

Social Protection Floor

The ILO’s capacity to innovate also characterizes this year’s discussion on social protection floors. In just four years we are on the verge of a new Recommendation responding to the call of our 2008 Social Justice Declaration to consider “developing and enhancing measures of social protection …which are sustainable and adapted to national circumstances,…” in promoting a fair globalization.

The 2009 Global Jobs Pact called for countries to do so drawing on “a basic social protection floor.” Establishing social protection floors, respecting the diversity of country situations, is about promoting human dignity. It is a basic contribution to reduce poverty, to empower people and to expand aggregate economic demand.

It is a commitment to a decent society, a platform that enables hundreds of millions of women, men and children to progress on a strong footing. Country experience and our work with the IMF show it is affordable even in poor societies.

Our Recommendation will give impetus to a major international initiative. The ILO, the UN system, the IMF and the World Bank will set up a Social Protection Interagency Board within the G20 framework, to promote social protection in global, regional and national development agendas.

Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work

The 1998 Declaration on Fundamental Principes and Rights at Work underlined the role of fundamental principles and rights at work in maintaining the link between social progress and economic growth. Specifically, these principles and rights enable workers “to claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity, their fair share of the wealth which they have helped to generate, and to achieve fully their human potential.”

The realization of Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work is an end in itself and a means of furthering all ILO’s objectives.

This will be your compass and responsibility as you shape Conclusions, identifying priorities that will drive an innovative Action Plan for 2012-2016 to promote fundamental principles and rights at work in practice as well as in the letter of the law.

Today, with a weak and fragile global recovery, when respect for fundamental principles and rights has come under great pressure, your discussion takes on event greater significance. Your tripartite conclusions will be critical in securing more effective action for their realization. Greater respect for what are today universally accepted basic “rules of the game” for the world of work is urgently needed.

You will also have a tremendous responsibility in considering the circumstances of those in the informal economy – up to 90 per cent of working people in many developing economies – and other categories who face specific difficulties in exercising their rights.

The reports of the Committee of Experts to our Conference Committee on Applications also provide essential tools in helping authorities to move from postures of denial to engagement and constructive dialogue on solutions and support to put principles into practice.


We will have an historic discussion on Myanmar.

For many difficult years, in the face of denial of abuses well documented by an ILO Commission of Inquiry, the Governing Body maintained its unity and its pressure.

All remained engaged. Our persistence and method of working eventually enabled us to open an Office and receive complaints directly from victims of forced labour.

It will be a very special moment when Aung San Suu Kyi addresses this Conference. Last year she sent a video. This year she honours us with her presence. It reflects some political changes underway which we should welcome and must seize and expand the opportunities they represent. We didn’t give up and so it should be for the future. Democracy will come to Myanmar. And when it does, we will be able to say: “The ILO was there.”


We cannot have the same optimism for the people of Palestine.

A combination of political intransigence, the incapacity of outside actors to assist the parties or effectively exercise influence on them, volatility in the region, the elusiveness of Palestinian reconciliation, and a weak response by international cooperation partners, create a situation of serious concern.

Yet, the indomitable spirit of the Palestine people shines through.

The ILO will continue to work with our Palestinian constituents through concrete policies and programmes, as they build a fully viable Palestinian State.

When the day of liberation comes – as it will – the Palestinian people, with their heads high and their dignity intact, will prove to the world that the struggle for fundamental rights can ultimately prevail. This, even against seemingly insurmountable obstacles posed by occupation and the never ending expansion of settlements.

Implementation Report

My report on the implementation of the 2010-11 Programme allows you to assess our work over the last biennium.

Of the 50 targets set for the biennium, 46 have been broadly met. We now have 61 countries with an active Decent Work Country Programmes. All 13 UN Development Assistance Frameworks signed in 2010 mainstream some or all the pillars of decent work, with emphasis on employment and social protection. With the ILO’s 20 major development cooperation partners, we have maintained a volume of some US$225 million per year in extra-budgetary resources, equivalent to a third of our total resources. We have progressively established a solid internal governance and oversight system. And once again, our auditors have presented an unqualified report.


In the next weeks, I will take this Conference’s outcomes directly to the G20, the Rio +20 Summit and the UN’s Economic and Social Council while you will take them back to your governments, unions and employer organizations and develop policy and promote action at home. What happens here goes far beyond the ILO.

As we move into the substantive work of our Committees, remember how much your discussions make a difference to the world.

I know it is a responsibility you assume with conviction and a sense of purpose, even a sense of pride.

I am sure you will have the vision and the ambition to match the urgency of the moment:

I call on you to visualize the expectations of youth struggling for quality jobs, of people living in poverty for social protection, of workers demand for fundamental rights.

I call on you to see the hope in their faces, to feel their will to work hard if given a chance.

To put yourself in their place and to think of the dignity you can bestow or negate through your negotiations.

So go and build realistic agreements, but do so with the values of this marvellous organization in your mind and the will to help make this a better world in your heart.