5th Employment Policy Research Symposium

Employment policies for social justice: Questions and answers with Sangheon Lee, Director, ILO Employment Policy, Job Creation and Livelihoods Department

Article | 09 May 2023
Q1. The past several years have seen unprecedented challenges affecting labour markets, ranging from the Covid-19 pandemic to inflation, cost-of-living and debt crises and other economic shocks. Can you provide a brief overview of how labour market realities have evolved since the last symposium in 2021, and what are some of the highlights this year’s symposium will consider?

Indeed, we have gone through turbulent times since the last symposium which took place during the COVID-19 crisis. At that time, we thought that overcoming this crisis will stay the main challenge, but meanwhile other crises occurred, including inflation, cost of living crises, debt-crises, etc. What we observe is a relatively strong resilience of labour markets in the developed economies, while at the same time poor countries get hit hard by each one of these crises, which reenforce one another. Some of these countries must face additional severe challenges such as wars (for example in the case of Ukraine) or natural disaster (for example in Syria and Turkey). All this leads to a situation where the employment gap between rich and poor countries (in terms of quality of employment) risks expanding if we do not intervene and help them. Within all countries but again especially within the poorer ones, the most vulnerable groups are hardest hit by the multiple crises, leaving the low-skilled, young people, women, people with disabilities, informally employed people, and other disadvantaged groups even further behind. So, in short: we face multiple crises and growing divergence between and within countries with very negative impact on future development.

Q2. Has the economic recovery that has been going on in the past several years been effective in terms of stabilizing labour markets, especially regarding increasing equality and inclusion and ensuring just transitions?

Again, the answer is two-fold: Developed economies recovered quicker than expected from the COVID-19 crisis, and to a certain extent this included vulnerable groups. In developing countries, however, the recovery is still ongoing – or should I rather say stopped as a result of the other crises. But even in developed economies, we need to keep a close eye on longer-term trends influenced by the drivers of change such as globalization, digitalization, demographic shifts, climate change and structural transformation processes. Not everybody will profit from the changes, and we need to make sure that those who don’t are well protected. In this context, investing in people, particularly through social protection and skills development, will be key to ensuring just transitions.

Q3. The symposium has in its title “Employment Policies for Social Justice”. What do you mean when you talk about employment policies in this context? Why are well functioning labour markets important for social justice?

When we talk about employment policies, we talk about a set of policies that have an impact on labour markets. This includes not only classical labour market and skills policies, but also sectoral policies, macro policies, investment policies, enterprise policies, social protection policies, etc. And all these policy areas need to be looked at together to really understand their impact on employment creation. This calls for strong coordination across ministries, which is easy to say but much harder to do in practice. And most importantly, it calls for the involvement of workers and employers in the design and implementation of such policies. Our analysis has clearly shown that social dialogue improves the design as well as the implementation of integrated employment policy frameworks.

Q4. What are some of the concrete issues that will be discussed during the Symposium?

We want to understand the impact of future of work drivers on structural transformation and labour market transitions; how we make sure that future of work drivers advance social justice; what the link between social justice and integrated employment policies is; how we can ensure that structural transformation is inclusive, leaving no one behind; and what the role of governments and social partners is in ensuring employment policies for social justice. There are so many questions linked to the topic, one symposium will certainly not be enough, but with the expertise we gather from our constituents, researchers, partners, and other stakeholders we hope this symposium will bring us a step closer.

And don’t, as this Symposium is also the closing of a joint research and policy dialogue project funded by the EU and implemented together with our friends from the JRC, we also get the chance to discuss some of the very exciting findings of this project linked to digitalization, structural shifts in labour markets, labour market transitions and gender impacts of automation.

Q5. What are some of the tools and programmes that the ILO makes available to its constituents to strengthen their capacity to deliver effective decent work creation?

In the area of employment policies, there are many tools. A whole set of them can be found on our newly launched Employment Policy Action Facility on-line platform. The important thing is that we understand that we need to have tools to help countries create jobs, but also to skill the workforce to be able to take the created jobs, and to improve institutions that match the skilled workforce with the jobs that are available. We have also invested in tools that help countries assess the impact of policies on labour markets, ex post and ex ante. Such employment impact assessment ensures an efficient use of scarce financial resources and a maximum impact of policies.

Q6. One session of the symposium will discuss the Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for Just Transitions. Why is this so important?

The Global Accelerator is an ambitious UN-wide initiative that builds on the important links between employment creation and social protection. If handled well within a comprehensive approach, this will lead to just transitions. Please note, I am talking here about transitions in plural, as there are many and they need to be well managed, beyond the transition towards a green economy. The Accelerator aims to bring together member States, international financial institutions, social partners, civil society, and the private sector to help countries create 400 million decent jobs, including in the green, digital and care economies, and to extend social protection coverage to the 4 billion people currently excluded. It is based on a three-pillar-approach: first, integrated and evidence-based national strategies and policies; second Integrated financing combining domestic resources and international financial support; and finally, enhanced multilateral cooperation.

We have now started county level work and really hope that with this new initiative we will support the UN Secretary General’s Our Common Agenda as well as the ILO’s Global Coalition for Social Justice. And most importantly, we hope the Global Accelerator will help accelerate development in countries that otherwise risk being left behind. In that sense, the accelerator is all about the right employment and social protection policies for social justice.

Q7. How will this seminar, which is organized in partnership with the EU/JRC enhance research and policy dialogue?

The project I mentioned before, which has the great title “Building partnerships on the future of work” takes a unique approach. It does not only conduct promising and much needed research, but it also fosters dialogue with policy makers. So, the research done is not a goal in itself, but influences policy decisions. We have had fantastic dialogues at the national, regional, and global level, and this symposium is actually one of these dialogues. And we got feedback throughout all events that such dialogue is much appreciated and influences political thinking. We are so grateful to the EU for funding this project and we hope that it will serve as a best practice for future research projects. Research needs to have a purpose; it cannot stop at the point when a paper is written.