In coversation with students from XLRI, Jamshedpur

Students from XLRI – Xavier School of Management interviewed Ms Dagmar Walter on current trends and challenges from the world of work. The interview was published in the institute’s annual magazine Dhyuti 2019. Here are the interview transcripts.

Feature | 09 November 2019

Q: Many Congrats on the centenary of the ILO! The organization is undoubtedly admired by a lot of people, and particularly by those among us that are familiar with law, for its various labour initiatives over the years. But for the benefit of the ones who are not well apprised of the same, are there any specific success stories that the ILO has had over the years that you could, maybe, share with us?

A: I should begin by pointing out that the ILO is unique in being an organization with a tripartite membership. So, there are the governments, and there are, of course, the workers and their employers, all together working out the dynamics of implementing International Labour Law, principles and rights through dialogue and negotiations. By virtue of working with the real actors in the labour market, we can get very close to the actual problems and concerns they face, and that has given us a certain knack in our dealings. As far as India is concerned, it is a founding member of the Organization and this partnership has helped a great deal in the formalization of the workers movement, the workers’ organizations and the employers’ organizations in the country. The Indian Labour Conferences and the Standing Labour Committees were all set up after due consideration of the ILO principles. This is all part of the rich history. From there, we’ve now moved on in the last four years with the theme of Future of Work, in our build up to the centenary. We’ve had national consultation dialogues on the dynamics influencing the world of work today and as to how we can remain relevant and fit for the purpose. This 100 year journey we’ve had with India as a country has been truly remarkable.

Q: Another thing that has been fascinating is the decent work paradigm that ILO developed in 1999. It’d be great to have some light cast on how effectively this has played out in practice, and what changes it has undergone in the past 10 years.

A: The decent work agenda is something that really brings into focus the ILO actions around employment, social protection, social dialogue and tripartism, with fundamental principles and rights at work as the foundation. Translating this at the national level has resulted in the Decent Work Country Program where together with each country we work out what aspirations we want to see concretized in say, the next five years. The preliminary concern is to gradually build up social protection norms and improve on labour law in countries. This is, of course, ongoing right now in India. This not only helps in avoiding contradictions to some extent, but also helps in covering mobile workers, which is important because labour laws were earlier found to be applying only to certain category of workers. To sum it all up, the benefit of the Decent Work Agenda has been in articulating, when working with our constituents, the ideals and vision of the Organization. And it’s also special as it applies to all countries and because there’s always something to be worked on as a result of constant change.

Q: The change that you mentioned, how exactly do you think is it going to affect the evolution of the agenda? Where do you think it’s headed?

A: That, actually, is what constituents have been reflecting in the ILO Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work. In a nutshell, we know we need to have a human centered approach for problems of the future, without losing focus owing to changing circumstances. Three things are vital in this context of change: investment in the people, investment in institutions and investment in sustainable enterprises and decent work. So, we need to continue what we have been doing correctly in a more focused manner, where we become the actors and shapers of the future, rather than just reacting to the same.

Q: In this current scenario where technology keeps changing and we’re still not able to fully protect the workers through law, what role is the ILO playing in India?

A: Our major contribution has been in the form of what we call as technical input. It is ultimately the government that takes the final call on any implemented change. But we work with employers, workers and their representatives to facilitate this process of arriving at their own stance. We support them and the government in our advisory capacity by also looking at what has worked in other places in similar contexts, in formulating their practices. At the end of the day, it’s the knowledge and the best practices that we bring in, while it remains the government’s prerogative to deliberate.

Q: Around 92-93% of the workers in India belong to what we classify as the informal sector. How relevant do you feel the future of work declaration is to the informal sector in the country?

A: Quite a lot, actually. If we go a step further, we have around 77% of workers in the vulnerable category in India, characterized by low earnings and labour rights being at risk or not being respected. When we look into the impact of globalization, then the value chain goes through the whole ladder, all the way down to the household workers. It is in the interest of everybody, including multinational corporations, to take care of this value chain. Although we’re not quite there yet in terms of Industry 4.0 and so on, some jobs are being phased out and new ones are emerging. That means that new skillsets also need to follow, and that is where the big challenge lies in India, that there’s not enough data being produced to project this, in order to be prepared. We should focus not just on this aspect of matching the skills of the workers, but also on facilitating social protection. Transitions are bound to be there, but only if we have a more robust social protection system will there be enough room for necessary flexibility. It’s crucial; and it’s happening in India where health insurance and protection are very much being debated and rolled out. It’s also essential for you guys to consider this, as human resource managers who’ll eventually work with this said workforce. To grow businesses, is, in a way, nurturing human beings, when you take a deeper look at it.

Q: When we look at some of these new jobs that are being created, where traditionally supply chains and distribution networks used to be very labour intensive, e-B2B startups seem to be causing a major disruption. How do you think the nature of jobs will be in future for workers in this particular sector?

A: Well, I don’t have the analysis of the distribution chain with me now, but from what I can observe, the delivery related jobs have increased. The distribution chain has transitioned to allow smaller parcels to be delivered right to individual households, and in that way, there is more diversity within the sector. Digressing to somewhat of a different analogy, when the economy and society is now being pressured to adopt a more environmentally sustainable, low-carbon approach, apprehensions are being raised. But recent studies show that transitioning to a greener economy will indeed create a net gain in the number of jobs. And I believe it will be jobs with more quality; more decent jobs with more dignity. This has to be ensured while drafting policies as well, that everybody should be able to gain from the opportunities of the change. This is also the reason I mentioned that investment in people is critical in shaping our future.

Q: How does social dialogue - both in terms of bipartism and tripartism - help in tackling the challenges and opportunities thrown up by the Future of Work?

A: Where we critically need social dialogue is in skilling and reskilling, because the kind of dialogue that’s required between employers and workers and institutions is not really happening or is not sufficient in most places. And this is especially so in case of gig economy or platform economy, where you have blurring of the employee employer relationship and one’s work may be delegated by an algorithm. The IT sector, where unionization hasn’t been a feature until the recent past, is an example of workers realizing that they need to organize to have an impact. It’s also evident in the way trade unions are reforming themselves, with its results being observed now. One of the channels of help that we provide is through organizing home-based workers and connecting them to unions.

Q: We have recently come across the news that the ILO has adopted its first Convention on Violence and Harassment (C190) in the Centenary International Labour Conference. How important is it to stress on issues of violence and harassment in the workplace?

A: This convention is unique and very historic; I’m happy that the constituents have adopted it, following some years of discussions. It sends a strong signal that harassment and violence are not acceptable at the workplace, not in society, not at home. I believe our resolve can go one step further; we’re now starting the ratification campaign and we’re formalizing what the convention actually entails and how much of it can be put into practice.

I also want to talk a little about how interesting it has been to work with women in the labour force in India. Their participation rates have been declining and prevalence in leadership positions have also not been great, and we had been looking at some of the barriers they face in this regard. We had a survey study done, on first evidence basis, and now we have a network of champions from the employees we’ve trained who are going back to involve with different groups and managements in different enterprises. They’re making a deliberate effort to improve and change things and provide opportunities for women to advance into leadership. I think it’s a great practice and I’m really encouraged by it.