In uncertain time, ILO debates decent work for all

UN agency emphasises need for growth that is sustainable and job-rich, not just statistically impressive.

the International Labour Organization
Bali meeting's conclusions will help shape ILO members' labour policies [Marcel Crozet/ILO]

Bali, Indonesia – On the face of it, Bali, the popular tourist destination renowned for its beaches, arts and culture and natural beauty, is far removed from the harsh world of unemployment, unfair work practices and forced labour.

But in fact, as one of the most economically vibrant provinces of Indonesia, Bali is an integral part of a diverse and complex region stretching from the Arab states to the Pacific islands that is exposed to the ebb and flow of international trade, development, migration, demographic shifts and technological innovation.

Fittingly therefore, more than 400 delegates representing governments, workers’ and employers’ organisations and top officials of the International Labour Organization (ILO) have gathered at Bali’s Nusa Dua Convention Centre to discuss issues affecting employment and the world of work in the Asia, Pacific and Arab states regions, which together account for 60 percent of the global workforce.

In his opening speech at the ILO’s 16th Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting on Tuesday, Indonesia’s Vice President Muhammad Jusuf Kalla called for greater emphasis on social justice in development, setting the tone for four days of speeches and discussions that have highlighted the enduring importance of strong labour-market institutions, collective bargaining and dialogue, no matter what the defining ideology of the era.

Inclusive growth

For his part, Guy Ryder, ILO’s director-general – in his opening speech, his separate report to the Bali meeting and remarks at a high-level dialogue – has argued that the need for strong policies that can deliver decent work and social justice has never been clearer even though there is considerable uncertainty in the world, with “people questioning the capacity of policy-makers to deliver credible answers to the key problem in their lives”.

That is unmistakably an allusion to the rise of political populism in many countries, with mainstream party candidates facing electoral defeats and voters feeling excluded from the benefits of globalisation and labour migration.

Against this background, Ryder cautions that “the quality of everyday life cannot be fully captured just by macroeconomic aggregates and generalities”.

Kalla, right, and Ryder want greater emphasis on social justice in development [ILO]
Kalla, right, and Ryder want greater emphasis on social justice in development [ILO]

To this end, experts from across the spectrum have been brainstorming at the Bali meeting to help the ILO respond effectively to the changes that are transforming the world of work so that it can achieve its ambitious vision of “decent work for all”.

On the brighter side, remarkable progress has been made in raising incomes during the past decade.

Workers are moving from agriculture into higher-value manufacturing and services – Bali itself is a notable example of the transformation – and many more people are engaged in wage employment than in the past.

The growth of modern industries and a more educated labour force have been accompanied by rapid, largely desirable, urbanisation.

There has also been progress in social protection, marked by greater public investment and wider coverage.

Daunting challenges

As the head of the UN’s specialised agency dealing with work-related issues, however, Ryder knows full well how daunting the challenges are.

One in 10 of the Asia, Pacific and Arab States region’s workers still lives in extreme poverty, and more than a billion workers are in vulnerable employment, often without access to social and legal protection.

And as almost any job seeker these days can attest, even the formal sector is looking precarious. Permanent employment is steadily becoming “informalised”, through contract, temporary or part-time work.

Meanwhile, other groups – including youth, migrant workers, child and forced labourers, displaced people and women – are in particular danger of being excluded from progress as the global economy shows continued signs of weakness and volatility.

Ryder says
Ryder says “macroeconomic aggregates” cannot fully reflect everyday life quality [ILO]

Although Asia and the Pacific has generally been more resilient, especially China and India, high economic growth rates of the past decade are unlikely to continue, particularly since China is entering a “new normal” of lower growth that will reduce overall growth in developing Asia, Ryder says.

In his report, he describes the slowdown as worrying given the importance of economic growth, along with labour and social policies, in creating higher quality jobs.

Furthermore, growth in oil-exporting countries, particularly the Arab states, is threatened by the drop in hydrocarbon prices experienced since mid-2014, with corresponding job losses affecting everyone from skilled engineers to semi-skilled construction workers.

Political instability and conflict are another factor hindering socio-economic development in countries of the region, especially the Arab states.

Task of implementation

To its credit, the international community adopted a little over over a year ago a set of 17 objectives known as the Sustainable Development Goals, or SDGs, that make up the UN 2030 Sustainable Development Agenda, the objective being to eliminate poverty and reduce inequality by 2030.

The ILO was successful in ensuring that “decent work” was woven into the language of all 17 Sustainable Development Goals and their indicators, with No 8 specifically focusing on the agency’s mission of “decent work for all”.

“We have succeeded in having the right agenda adopted, and now we must turn to the task of its implementation,” says Ryder in his report and in an oped.

“We need economic growth that is sustainable and job-rich, rather than just statistically impressive.”

The task is far from finished but clearly progress is being made: The conclusions of the Bali meeting will help shape the national labour and employment policies of the ILO’s member states, as well as its work in the Asia, Pacific and Arab States region.

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Source: Al Jazeera