Transcript of the interviewQuestion: Why did you want to become Director-General of the ILO?
Gilbert F. Houngbo: I guess you just need to look at my own background and experience, then you would not be surprised. To put it very briefly, while I grew up in circumstances that certainly are far from being ideal, for me, it’s okay. What is not okay is that 50 years later, 60 years later, we still have the same challenges. All the world has made great progress, but we still have a lot of challenges that are unacceptable. So the little I could do, I will always do.
Q: How would you describe the situation of the world of work today?
I'm a bit concerned, particularly since COVID-19, about the impact we have all experienced. On one hand you see the positive side; the digitalization of the economy, of our society, bringing progress. On the other hand are the risks it causes to the world of work, particularly the informalization of what used to be the formal sector.
Since 2021 we have had a certain degree of economic ‘bounce’. We are bouncing back from the economic standpoint but we also know that those jobs, the working hours that we are getting back, are more on the informal side, which is a problem. So the precarity of the recovery is a concern and therefore for me job protection is going to be quite important. The current situation has not necessarily made things easier, but this is what the ILO was created for.
Q: One of the things that is talked about a lot is the increasing divide between rich and poor, both within countries and between countries. And this growth in inequality seems to be increasing. What can we do to tackle that?
Inequality is one of the major points that I was pushing during the campaign. You need to unpack the whole inequality challenge. Part of it is within the ILO mandate but part of it goes also beyond ILO. Through the tripartite approach we need to push for better social justice. I'm looking at not only the divide between poor countries and rich countries, but also within countries.
So at policy-making level, be it national, international or multilateral, in trade agreements, in foreign direct investment or in whole supply chains, we have to ensure that social justice remains at the core, and therefore contributes to the fight against inequality.
Q: Another area of change that is causing great concern is climate change. This year we've seen droughts, we've seen floods, we've seen heatwaves. It's causing a lot of disruption. How do you see the implications of climate change for the world of work?
The direct implication, of course, is the need for a Just Transition; with the crisis, the energy crisis, and the whole objective of zero CO2. We have to make sure that we attach greater importance to productivity, skills development, lifelong learning, so we provide opportunities to the workers coming out of the older industries toward the renewables.
Secondly is the importance of being better prepared to react to crisis situations. What we saw in Pakistan or what we are seeing in other places in terms of floods or drought has a direct impact, not only on the workers but a direct impact on inequality. And most of the time it's really citizens in the lower parts of the pyramid that pay the price. So we have to make sure that our capacity to react and to respond to a crisis country is greater.
Q: At the recent UN General Assembly, the ILO and the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, both promoted the Global Accelerator on Jobs and social protection for just transitions. Where do you think this initiative can go next and what do you think its potential is for solving some of the problems?
First of all, this a very, very good, critical, initiative, both for the production of jobs and social protection. It is a way to face what we have experienced during COVID-19, with the loss of jobs and how precarious other jobs and situations have become. Low-income countries, in particular, have very little fiscal space to be able to quickly and effectively respond through social protection schemes.
So, for me, universal social protection, making sure that in every country every citizen has access to a minimum package of protection, is going to be crucial. It’s a very big, daunting task that we really need to study. And that is going to be a core element of my time at ILO.
Q: A lot of the problems that we're facing at the moment are multilateral problems. Climate change, inflation, food and fuel crisis. Yet at the same time, the multilateral system that's been developed since World War Two is under strain almost like never before. What can the ILO do to help rebuild the multilateral system, to strengthen it and to increase confidence in it?
First of all, let me underscore the importance of multilateralism. We cannot say this enough. ILO has to contribute to it, first of all by taking the lead in the many social issues that are at the core of ILO mandate, starting with social injustice. And secondly, ILO itself has to be much more involved in the global multilateral architecture, in working with the colleagues in the UN, the secretariat of the UN itself, and the UN sister agencies.
Also, with the international financial institutions (IFIs). I feel we need to step up our cooperation with the financial institutions, not only the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) but also the regional development banks. Then, we have all the trade agreements and working relationships, cooperation with World Trade Organization (WTO), with the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD). To me, this is going to be crucial. We know that the whole supply chain can be a source of income generation, a source of job creation, particularly for emerging economies. But at the same time, there is a risk for job protection. So working together on this part of multilateralism is going to be very important.
The third dimension is climate change. Working with the Green Climate Fund (GCF)1, with the Global Environment Facility (GEF)2 with all the adaptation institutions, is also going to be crucial. Not only to ensure a smooth transition, but also to make sure that the future of work is going to be more sustainable and job rich.
Q: You just started your term. There's a lot of stuff on your desk already. What are going to be the priorities?
I will go back to my mission statement and all the debates. But what is important is not only the mission but engaging with the constituents. That helps you see the heart of the issues at stake.
So for me, it’s the stepping up of social justice within major coalitions and universal social protection. We must also talk about the supply chain, the informal sector. Also, COVID has shown us how some groups of citizens are in a much more precarious situation; women and girls, particularly rural women, are one. Small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) and self-employed entrepreneurs are another one.
We talk about just transitions, where the ILO has been doing good work. We must also continue with the whole child labour and forced labour dimension. Another important point is the major decision taken by the International Labour Conference (ILC) in June, for the integration of Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) as part of the Fundamental Conventions. So another issue is implementing our Conventions and modernising our supervisory mechanisms to take into account the demands of today's world.
Let's be honest, there are a lot of demands that may need a new instrument. What type of instrument I do not know, but clearly we need to look at these; the digital economy, supply chains. So, all of those are going to be ILO priorities for me. That's a lot, but we will try.
1 The Green Climate Fund (GCF) is a fund established within the framework of the UNFCCC as an operating entity of the Financial Mechanism to assist developing countries in adaptation and mitigation practices to counter climate change.
2 The Global Environment Facility (GEF) is a multilateral environmental fund that provides grants and blended finance for projects related to biodiversity, climate change, international waters, land degradation, persistent organic pollutants (POPs), mercury, sustainable forest management, food security, and sustainable cities in developing countries.