Director-General statement for the 100th anniversary of the ILO’s Office in Japan

Statement | Tokyo, Japan | 25 April 2023
Photo credit: ILO

Distinguished guests,

Ladies and gentlemen, Excellences,

First of all let me express my deep appreciation to you for coming to this 100th anniversary of the ILO’s Office in Japan.

It really is an immense privilege to speak to you today.

In fact, the relationship between the ILO and Japan goes back even further than 100 years, to 1919 at the creation of the ILO.

Japan was a founding Member State of the ILO. And has had a permanent seat on our Governing Body from the very beginning.

There are very few countries that can claim such a record. And Japan is the only one in the Asia Pacific region.

What is even more significant is that from the start, Japan’s relationship with the ILO has been extremely active, going far beyond diplomatic and formal obligations.

The ILO’s Correspondent Office in Tokyo opened in 1922. Two years later it became a Branch Office.

Not long after, in 1928, the very first Director-General of the ILO Albert Thomas, the ILO’s founding Director-General, paid a visit.

As you can imagine, in those years before air travel, this was an enormous commitment, requiring weeks away from ILO headquarters. I’m struggling to be away for one week! So you can imagine having to be away for several weeks for the Asia mission.

Over the last century, Japan’s engagement with the ILO and its ideals has been consistent, sincere and greatly valued.

You can talk about:
  • your regular contributions to both our Governing Body and the annual International Labour Conference;
  • Your generous backing for development co-operation in many countries;
  • And, domestically, your support for ILO policies and standards.
Japan has been a stalwart supporter of our core principles. You have ratified eight out of 10 of the ILO’s Fundamental Conventions.

Most recently, you ratified Convention 105 on the Abolition of Forced Labour. This will enter into force in just a few weeks’ time.

All in all, it is a record that both Japan and the ILO can be very proud of. I can confidently say that without Japan, our work towards social justice and Decent Work for All would not have made the same progress. Japan is very active in the ILO.

Today, one hundred years on, we once again face difficult times.

At the time when the ILO was founded in 1919, and when this office opened, the world faced unprecedented challenges. Issues such as:
  • Mass migration.
  • And political, economic, and social uncertainty are once again before us.
There are others too - longer-term trends are creating significant labour market challenges:
  • Globalization, or the tendency of isolationism or near-shoring that we are seeing in recent times.
  • Climate change.
  • A.I.
  • And demographic shifts.
Here in Japan, you are grappling with a shrinking labour force, falling birth rate and an ageing population.

By contrast, a country like my own, Togo, is facing the opposite demographic challenge – a youth ‘bulge’ and a median population age of just 19 years old.

All these changes translate in fact into profound uncertainty, and risks to human security.

Despite all that I remain an optimist. I believe we are the masters of our fate. We can overcome these challenges, and shape our future so it delivers equity, so it delivers stability and so it delivers social justice.

The question is, how do we do this?

Firstly, our policies and actions must be human-centred. Their ultimate aim should not be to hit statistical or theoretical targets, but to provide the greatest number of people with opportunity, prosperity, security and dignity. This means focusing on fighting inequalities, poverty, lack of opportunity, and absence of social protection floors.

The most effective way to do this is through quality jobs, so that people can support themselves and build their own futures.

In other words, what we are talking about is Decent Work for All.

That must be the goal. And, fortunately, we already have some of the tools to help us turn this into reality.

First and foremost, there are the Sustainable Development Goals, specifically SDG 8.

And the ILO has already developed a series of resources to help turn this broad target into actual change. These include the Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work; and the Tripartite Declaration of Principles concerning Multinational Enterprises and Social Policy.

I am glad to see that both these tools are already being used and promoted in Japan, and along the multi-national supply chains in which Japan is involved. In particular, I would like to highlight the work you are doing on business and human rights.

The ILO Tokyo office has been very engaged in supporting progress on this topic. This work has included:
  • public procurement policy reform,
  • the National Action Plan on Business and Human Rights,
  • the recent Government Guidelines for Responsible Supply Chains,
  • work in the textile and clothing sector,
  • and the Technical Internship Training Programme.
Your commitment to progress on business and human rights is also evident in your development co-operation programmes. This includes the projects you support on responsible global supply chains and business practices; in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand, and many other countries.

This work is making a real difference to lives and futures in the region. By helping countries and businesses to ‘build forward better,’ it is a concrete example of how we could use our field-based activities to move from aspirations into practice.

Here, I would like to acknowledge the role played by the ILO’s constituents in Japan, in creating this progress. As always, we could not have done it without them.

We have also developed valuable partnerships with other national organizations and bodies. And this broad-based cooperation has played an important role in making progress on the complex problems we all face today. That includes working with:
  • the Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (MITI),
  • the Japan External Trade Organization,
  • and the Japan International Cooperation Agency (JICA).
So, we are seeing encouraging, concrete progress.

But there is still much more to be done.

Globally, real wages have fallen, businesses are struggling, and inequality seems more entrenched than ever. Ordinary people are worried and fearful about the future.

There is only one way to overcome problems on this scale and with this level of complexity; we have to work together.

Dear colleagues – we must ‘up’ our game.

We must step up. We need to strengthen international cooperation. In particular, we must use the multilateral system to reshape our social and economic architecture so that it supports a shift of priorities towards equity and social justice.

This is why our vision is for a Global Coalition for Social Justice. We believe that all of us in the multilateral system and other stakeholders need to be together to prioritize a system that will ensure that economic prosperity, defence of environment, and social justice can move ahead side by side.

I hope that Japan will be able to play a full role in the Coalition and build further on its established record of support for social justice and decent work.

There could be no better way to start our second century together.

Thank you so much.