From his offices in the Swiss city of Geneva, Guy Ryder, 60, directs the International Labour Organization, the UN’s specialised agency dealing with labour issues, at a time of great global uncertainty.
The belief that “a rising tide lifts all boats” is no longer tenable. Inequality and vulnerable employment are not only widespread, they are getting worse in many places. One in 10 of the Asia, Pacific and Arab States region’s workers lives in extreme poverty, with many having no access to social and legal protection.
Moreover, even the formal sector is looking precarious these days. Permanent employment is steadily becoming “informalised”. Meanwhile, plenty remains to be done to promote stronger labour-market institutions and fair labour migration, not to mention social protection and gender equality.
The ILO’s 16th Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting concluded earlier this month in Bali, Indonesia, with a declaration that prescribes policy actions aimed at creating more decent jobs, responding to the impact of technology on employers and workers, taking action against child and forced labour, reversing widening inequalities, and building resilience to conflicts and disasters.
In an exclusive interview with Al Jazeera on the sidelines of the Bali meeting, Ryder spoke on a wide range of issues affecting employment and the world of work.
Al Jazeera: Many of the ILO member states have achieved “statistically impressive” economic growth without necessarily meeting internationally recognised labour standards or recognising the dignity of work. Why should other developing countries not follow this model?
Guy Ryder: We have this situation in the Asia and the Pacific region where there has been impressive growth, which we have to absolutely recognise. There has also been impressive poverty reduction.
But at the same time the level of ratification of the ILO’s rights conventions, the level of tripartite engagement [by governments and worker and employer representatives], is quite low. And this looks like a paradox.
The key message here is that it is a mistake to imagine or believe that economic success is a consequence of the weakness of labour-market institutions or the absence of respect for rights.
In my view, in the Asia and the Pacific region at least, the level of economic development and the complexity of labour markets in the region and internationally today mean that continued economic dynamism, continued economic success, depends upon greater attention to developing stronger labour-market institutions and fuller respect for fundamental rights.
Al Jazeera: Why should economic success in the Asia and the Pacific region depend on respect for fundamental rights?
Ryder: Well, the region has become richer, graduating often to middle income. The population is very much more sophisticated and aware of processes.
Despite economic development, however, inequalities have grown wider. This means, I think, that the social dimension of this development course has to be given greater attention as a precondition to continued sustained success. Precondition, and not an obstacle – I think that’s the key phrase.
Al Jazeera: How can the ILO shape the ongoing changes in the labour-market systems for better in the age of disruptive technologies and innovations?
Ryder: I think we have to acknowledge what I call this transformative change taking place in the world of work. I don’t think we have seen this before, and it raises, I think, two types of questions.
The first question is something that everybody asks: Is this new technological revolution the fourth industrial revolution?
Will it create more jobs than it destroys? History would suggest so because that’s what happened in the three previous revolutions.
After the turbulence we come out ahead. We come out with better jobs, more jobs, greater prosperity. But frankly the jury is out on that question.
There is a strong school of academic literature which says “this time it is different”.
My view on this one is that the future is not determined. We should not believe that technology autonomously and independently will decide everything.
Al Jazeera: But can technology be harnessed in such a way that its societal benefits outweigh its costs?
Ryder: This is a debate not so much about technology; it is a debate about policies. How are we going to organise to manage technology?
I agree it is futile and impossible to stop technology. But we can manage it, we can direct it, so that it meets the social goals that we are working for. That’s the first question.
The second is not the quantitative – more jobs or less jobs – question. It is the qualitative change.
This industrial revolution has the capacity to change the way we do work. And the example everybody gives is [online transportation network company] Uber.
But, more generically, this is the appearance of the platform economy, the shared economy, or the gig economy – people use different words.
The question is, is it just niches of activity or will the Uber model become a general way of organising work and production?
If it becomes general, then we have a transformation from work being organised through labour contracts and labour relations – that is, employer-enterprise-employee with a labour contract – to a …
Al Jazeera: A commercial relationship?
Ryder: Yes, a commercial relationship. You want something – a good or a service; I make that good or service. We go through the internet and we have a commercial transaction. You give me money for the good, I provide the good.
It is an episodic, commercial, temporary transaction. It is anonymous, it is temporary and it is commercial; it is not a labour contract.
We have spent a hundred years in the ILO building up the institutions, the processes of labour relations. [But] this is commercial – the business of lawyers and traders. If this is what is going to become general, then we have a transformation that we haven’t seen before.
Then we have to build different institutions. I am not predicting this will happen. But it depends again on how we react.
Al Jazeera: How is the ILO preparing for this brave new world of work?
Ryder: This is important for us. The ILO has its centenary in 2019. We are the oldest international organisation. For that centenary, we have launched a Future of Work initiative precisely to look at all of the implications of this transformative change.
We are going to set up a global commission next year and we hope to come up with some conclusions and some thinking about how we manage these processes.
Al Jazeera: Millions of refugees from Middle East conflict zones are struggling to make a living and are vulnerable to exploitation in host countries in the Middle East and Europe. How can these refugees have some form of access to livelihood and basic protection?
Ryder: We have more refugees and displaced persons in the world today that we have had since the Second World War.
The United Nations had a summit on this question in September and has decided to produce two global compacts by 2018 – one for refugees, one more for migrants.
Regarding refugees, the ILO is not a humanitarian organisation, so refugee humanitarian questions are not for us.
Still, in any case there is a labour-market impact of this movement of refugees. Refugees will find work legally or illegally, documented or undocumented.
There are two principles that the UN has identified that we need for addressing the refugee crisis.
One is respect for international law, humanitarian law, labour law. The second is shared international responsibilities.
If the international community were to act on the basis of a fairly shared responsibility, we could manage this refugee crisis.
Unfortunately we are not seeing that shared responsibility. Simply by the accidents of geography and proximity, a limited number of countries are having to bear an impossible responsibility.
Al Jazeera: What is the ILO doing about it?
Ryder: Well, in a very practical way, we are working for example in Jordan, a country which now has, I think, over 1.5 million refugees for a local population of six million. We are working in Lebanon as well.
What we are trying to do is to develop with our partners in those countries policies and programmes to offer labour-market access to refugees, though not open-door labour-market access.
We are also trying to stimulate investment for local employment creation.
You cannot, politically, undertake activities just for refugees when the local population is short of jobs.
For example, in Jordan at the beginning of the crisis, I think, unemployment was already 12 percent. It is up to 13 percent now. So we have to find a balance.
In Europe, the question is different: the continent has been unable to agree on a common shared responsibility.
So you see some countries – Sweden, Germany (although Germany is thinking twice) – are trying to do the right things, in my view: Take in numbers of refugees and offer them labour-market opportunities.
The great irony is that these countries with ageing populations need these people. They need workers. The economic case for giving labour-market access to the entrants is stronger than ever, yet the social and political obstacles are higher than ever.
That’s a paradox we have to try to get over. But the politics of this is extremely complicated.
Al Jazeera: Do you believe that temporary protectionist measures and rejection of multilateral trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) deal can somehow be justified on grounds of national economic interest?
Ryder: I think it is a vital question. I have two things to say. For a long period of time, the global economy has distributed its undoubted benefits very unequally.
The top one percent has got much richer and done very, very well. But a very large segment of the population of many countries has seen no benefits, feels left out and left behind. And since the financial crisis of 2008, I think we have seen an accentuation of the resentment and discontent.
I think the collapse of 2008 has generated social frustrations and economic tensions that now are seeping into our political life. So it has gone from economic to social to political.
I think now, when you see the results of certain referendums and elections, all of our eyes have been opened. I do believe that globalisation per se is now being questioned in a way that we have not seen in the last 30 years.
If you take the period since the end of the Cold War as the period of globalisation, this is when we all put our money on globalisation. It has had its ups and downs, but we have all taken it as a given. Today you see countries stepping back.
Al Jazeera: But won’t countries have a price to pay if they violate their international treaty commitments?
Ryder: That’s a big question. There will be questions about World Trade Organisation rules but we also have these regional arrangements, the TPP being the biggest example.
I believe very strongly that we draw best benefits from an open, global economy, properly managed, which takes account of all the issues that have been discussed [at the Bali meeting], but that means something different from the trajectory of globalisation of the last 30 years.
We have to address concentrations of inequality and inequity, but that does not mean that we should retreat into nationalist economics, nationalist politics and isolationism.
We have been here before in the 1930s. This is very, very dangerous.
Politically, it is not advantageous. Economically we may see some short-term benefits. The Dow Jones [stock-market index] may go to record levels. We may see some benefits through short-term policies.
But the fact of the matter is, our collective advantage in anything from the medium- to long-term means living together in an open global economy, I would argue, that is better managed than it’s been up until now.
However, we have to reject this real danger of a retreat, be it from Brexit or from anything else, into isolationist economics and politics. This is really not good for us.