The need for social justice

The aspiration for social justice, through which every working man and woman can claim freely and on the basis of equality of opportunity their fair share of the wealth that they have helped to generate, is as great today as it was when the ILO was created in 1919. As the ILO celebrates its 100th anniversary in 2019, the importance of achieving social justice is ever more pressing, with the rise in inequality and exclusion, which is a threat to social cohesion, economic growth and human progress. With climate change, demographic changes, technological development and, more generally, globalization, we are witnessing a world of work that is changing at an unprecedented pace and scale. How can these challenges be addressed to offer possibilities for the achievement of social justice in an ever more complex world of work?

Towards a fair globalization

The most salient characteristic of the global economy over recent years has probably been globalization. New technology has meant that persons, goods and capital are moving ever more rapidly between countries, giving rise to an interdependent global economic network that is affecting almost everyone on the planet. Globalization today means the internationalization of production, finance, trade, and also migration.

The issue of whether contemporary globalization is a source of prosperity or is aggravating inequality and injustice is still hotly debated. The ILO has always occupied a prominent place in this debate in view of its mission to promote a fairer and more equitable globalization. The ILO Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization (see section 3 below), adopted by governments, workers and employers in June 2008, is designed to strengthen the ILO’s capacity to promote the Decent Work Agenda and to forge an effective response to the increasingly significant challenges of globalization. The Decent Work Agenda, which is based on four pillars (employment promotion, social protection, fundamental rights at work and social dialogue), covers many of the challenges that the Organization was already facing when it was first created, and is intended to allow everyone to obtain decent work through the promotion of social dialogue, social protection and employment creation, as well as respect for international labour standards.

Globalization has certainly caused upheaval in global production structures, with important effects on enterprises and employment. Global supply chains, which account for one-in-five jobs throughout the world, show the growing diversification of production. While they have created jobs and opened up prospects for economic growth, employment relations and the pace of production may have had in certain cases negative effects on conditions of work. For example, following the fires in factories in Pakistan and Bangladesh in 2012 and the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in 2013, which cost the lives of over 1500 persons, voices were once again raised, particularly in light of the local failings of surveillance and good governance, calling for action at the global level. What is at stake for the actors in the world of work is to improve the governance of supply chains and ensure respect for international labour standards, and particularly for fundamental rights. It was in this context that the 105th Session of the International Labour Conference adopted a resolution concerning “decent work in global supply chains”.

Another symbolic aspect of the contemporary economy lies in the financialization of trade, with emphasis being placed on financial return to the detriment of real investment. In the absence of appropriate regulation, such financialization has the effect of increasing the volatility and vulnerability of the economy and the labour market through the focus on short-term profit and has harmful effects on redistribution, with consequences for employment creation, productivity and enterprise sustainability. The reasons for the financial and economic crisis of 2008, and its devastating effects on the real economy, are known, and include in particular shortcomings in the governance and regulation of financial markets. But it is still uncertain whether these lessons have really been heeded.

Vulnerability in the world of work

Despite its undeniable benefits, globalization has clearly not resulted in a new era of prosperity for all. Some progress has been made in terms of development and the recognition of rights: the reduction of extreme poverty, the increased presence of women in the labour market, the development of social protection systems, the creation of sustainable jobs in the private sector, etc. But today’s globalized economy has also resulted in major social upheavals, including high unemployment in certain parts of the world, the delocalization of workers and enterprises, and financial instability. The current situation on the global employment market remains particularly fragile.

Despite several recessions, including the 2008 global financial and economic crisis, the total number of jobs worldwide in 2016 was 3.2 billion (or almost one billion more than in 1990), emphasizing the positive trend of job creation. But unemployment rates remained high: in 2017, there were around 198 million persons actively seeking employment throughout the world, three quarters of whom lived in emerging countries. The vulnerability of employment has also increased (nearly 1.4 billion workers were engaged in vulnerable jobs in 2017, affecting three in four workers in developing countries), as has income inequality, which has increased dramatically in most regions of the world. (Note 1)

The deepening of inequality seems to be becoming one of the principal characteristics of the contemporary world. The distribution of wages at the individual level has also become more unequal, with the gap growing between the highest 10 per cent of the wage scale and the lowest 10 per cent. In practice, with the exception of Latin America, all the other regions have experienced a widening of income inequality, accompanied by a decline in the proportion of income from labour. Inequalities not only lead to a fall in productivity, but also give rise to poverty, social instability and even conflict. It was precisely for this reason that the international community recognized the continued need to establish fundamental rules of the game in order to ensure that globalization would give everyone the same opportunity to achieve prosperity.

The Future of Work at stake

Since the 1980s, a series of global changes have profoundly transformed employment and work: the accelerated globalization of trade, technological change, the rise in the activity rate of women, the fragmentation of value chains and subcontracting, changes in demand, individual aspirations, the skills of the active population, etc. But today, with climate change, demographic growth and technological transformation, new challenges have emerged for everyone, and particularly for the world of work, including: the diversification of types of employment, the development of the digital economy, and particularly platforms, a new relationship with the meaning of work, and the reconciliation of work and personal life.

One of the most symbolic controversies relating to the future of work lies in the issue of whether technological progress will result in the destruction or creation of jobs. The ILO is well versed in this debate, which re-emerged throughout the XXth century in various forms, but which is taking on a new dimension in the era of robotization and artificial intelligence. Over and above the pessimistic and optimistic scenarios, the real challenge to which technicological progress gives rise is to identify how, in this transitional context, assistance can be provided to enterprises and workers to help them adapt to new jobs (both physically and in terms of skills) as this will likely be an ongoing and dynamic process throughout a person’s professional life.

To understand and offer an effective response to these new challenges, the ILO launched a “Future of Work Initiative” and in August 2017 set up the Global Commission on the Future of Work. Six thematic clusters focus on the main issues that need to be considered if work tomorrow is to provide security, equality and prosperity: the role of work for individuals and society; the pervasive inequality of women in the world of work at the global level; technology for social, environmental and economic development; skills development over the life cycle; new models of inclusive growth; and the future governance of work. The Global Commission delivered its report in January 2019.

The energy transition as an opportunity?

Action to combat climate change is now high on the international agenda, with the long-term objective of the 2015 Paris Agreement to contain the rise in the global temperature below 2°C in relation to pre-industrial levels. The challenge for the ILO is to respond to the repercussions on the world of work, where the negative effects are starting to make themselves felt: the disturbance of trade, the destruction of workplaces and its impact on the means of subsistence of individuals. A total of 1.2 billion jobs currently depend directly on the effective management and sustainability of a healthy environment. (Note 2) The potential impact of climate change on enterprises and workers, labour markets, income, social protection and poverty mean that attenuation of climate change and adaptation are a major element of the ILO’s mandate and action. The transition to a green economy will inevitably result in job losses in certain sectors, but these losses will be more than compensated by new job opportunities, on condition that policies are adopted that are conducive to decent work and the redeployment of workers.

The ever-more crucial role of international labour standards

It is important to recall, in order to place the current challenges in perspective, that in 1919 the signatory nations to the Treaty of Versailles created the International Labour Organization (ILO) in recognition of the fact that “conditions of labour exist involving such injustice, hardship and privation to large numbers of people as to produce unrest so great that the peace and harmony of the world are imperiled.” To address this problem, the newly founded Organization established a system of international labour standards – international Conventions and Recommendations drawn up by representatives of governments, employers and workers from around the world – covering all matters related to work. What the ILO’s founders recognized in 1919 was that the global economy needed clear rules in order to ensure that economic progress would go hand in hand with social justice, prosperity and peace for all. This principle has not lost any of its relevance: in the future, even more than today, labour standards will be a source of social cohesion and economic stability in an era of great changes affecting work.

International labour standards were also developed to provide a global system of instruments on labour and social policy, backed up by a system of supervision to address all the types of problems arising in their application at the national level. They are the legal component of the ILO’s strategy for governing globalization, promoting sustainable development, eradicating poverty and ensuring that everyone can work in dignity and safety. The Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization emphasizes that, in order to achieve the ILO’s objectives in the context of globalization, the Organization must “promote the ILO’s standard-setting policy as a cornerstone of ILO activities by enhancing its relevance in the world of work, and ensure the role of standards as a useful means of achieving the constitutional objectives of the Organization”.

Note 1World Employment and Social Outlook, Trends 2018, Geneva, 2018.
Note 2
- World Employment and Social Outlook: Greening with jobs, Geneva, 2018; International Institute of Labour Studies (IILS), World of Work Report 2013: Repairing the economic and social fabric, Geneva, ILO, 2013.