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Retrospective on challenges and successes - Interview with Markus Pilgrim, Director of ILO Central and Eastern Europe stepping down

Markus Pilgrim retires after long and successful service at the ILO. During his tenure as Director, the ILO Central and Eastern Europe Office managed to further raise its profile as a specialised technical agency on world of work issues and to expand its portfolio.

News | 29 August 2023
Markus Pilgrim, Director, ILO Office for Central and Eastern Europe 2023 

1. What are the most important challenges currently for the ILO in the sub-region, including the Western Balkans, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine?

We are dealing with too many challenges because of multiple crises in the past years. Employment is back to pre-pandemic levels, but not for all groups of the labour market, and huge structural challenges from before the pandemic remain, like unemployment or underemployment. Then, we have to deal with the fallout of a full-scale war in Ukraine which is the biggest country of our region. The war is causing massive losses of employment and income, and we have to provide support in preserving jobs and livelihoods. A third big topic is the just transition to a greener economy made even more urgent by the sharp increase of energy prices. We have neglected this topic a bit because of the pandemic and the war against Ukraine, but we need to urgently scale up our assistance in managing the labour market impact of the transition from brown to green industries. Moreover, the reorganisation of international supply chains bringing production closer to some large European markets is an opportunity for some of the countries covered by us if we manage to help them to become more productive and to improve working conditions. The biggest long-term challenge will be the increasing shortage of labour because of the over-ageing of the societies in our region and the continuous emigration. Some of the largest depopulation hotspots around the globe are in our region.

2. You started to work as Director of the ILO Central and Eastern Europe Office in 2017. What do you consider the key achievements of the Office throughout these years?

Our office further gained profile as a specialised technical agency on world of work issues documented by increasing requests from ILO member states in our region. We also managed to become a partner of choice of many donors leading to a strong expansion of our development cooperation portfolio. The value of the portfolio tripled over the past six years and now amounts to 34 million USD which is high for a specialised agency mainly providing advisory services.

These results were only possible as the ILO team in the region was willing to go for several changes. The office in Budapest became a service hub for the region focusing on project development and implementation rather than being the administrative field office of an international public organisation. We also introduced rigorous quality management as our region mostly consists of higher middle income countries, many of them being EU accession candidates. These countries are very demanding and require high quality services. The benchmarks for any new employment, social protection, or labour law initiatives usually come from the EU.

3. Two major crises hit the sub-region while you have been Director: the COVID-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. How did the Office respond to alleviate the tremendous pressure these predicaments exerted on the world of work?

The short-term impact of the pandemic on labour markets was high. In the region, we lost on average 8% of all working hours equivalent to 10 million jobs. How have we been useful? Our initial focus in spring 2020 was to come out with solid evidence on the impact of the pandemic on labour markets. Our most popular products were the country assessments for the Western Balkans jointly done with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development. These in-depth assessments led to several policy changes like for example an extended coverage of unemployment benefits in North Macedonia. With the support of development partners, we also designed and implemented projects mitigating the impact of the pandemic on livelihoods. My favourite project was a cash transfer project for dismissed female textile workers in Albania rolled out within a few months with support from Sweden. Later on, I was surprised how quickly the labour markets recovered from the pandemic and employment is mostly back to pre-pandemic levels now. However, the structural challenges from before the pandemic remain. They include low labour force participation, high unemployment rates particularly among youth, skills mismatches, and high levels of informality.

The invasion of Russian Federation in Ukraine in February 2022 was a shock to all of us and like so many others we did not see it coming. Our first task as ILO was again to provide evidence on the impact of the war on labour markets. The ILO estimates that employment in 2022 will be 15.5 per cent (2.4 million jobs) below the 2021, pre-conflict, level. Our other immediate response was to provide humanitarian assistance in areas where the ILO can provide value added. Examples include the provision of shelter to refugees by Ukrainian and Moldovan trade unions using their training or vacation centres (they provided some 12,000 bed nights) and information of internally displaced people on the risks of human trafficking (we reached out to 3.6 million people). Right now our focus is more on economic stabilisation and job preservation interventions. The main message we try to get across to donors is that humanitarian, budgetary, and development assistance need to go hand-in-hand. We cannot wait until the end of the war in supporting an early recovery and reconstruction of Ukraine.

4. Finally, a question on the team you have been leading. What was your philosophy as to working with people and managing a team of almost 70 people? What is your best memory with the ILO CEE team?

Good question. The key management principles I tried to apply were delegating and trusting colleagues while holding them accountable for results, providing honest feedback, helping them to set a focus and combating their fear of missing out, the classic leading by example, and managing with humour including laughing at myself. One of the best memories is certainly the first non-virtual annual retreat with the entire team after the long pandemic in September 2022. The joy of meeting each other in person again was great, and I had the impression that the team has become even stronger because of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. The other very strong memory is the resilience and solidarity of ILO colleagues in Ukraine throughout 1.5 years of war. They deeply impressed me with their support to each other, the fast reprogramming of ILO assistance to constituents and their dedication to deliver.

Thank you, Markus for your motivating leadership that enabled solid results and helped to build a dedicated and good-spirited ILO team! Wishing you well for the next chapter.