Toespraak minister Koolmees over 100 jaar ILO

Toespraak van minister Koolmees (SZW) tijdens de viering van het 100-jarig bestaan van de International Labour Organisation (ILO) op 7 februari 2019 in Leiden. De toespraak is alleen in het Engels beschikbaar.

1. Introduction

During birthday parties, those who have reached a respectable age often look back upon the past, thinking about their wild '20s or roaring '30s. And I think that it is perfectly permissible to do so, when you reach the respectable age of 100. Yet there is 1 problem in this matter. It’s that the ILO was not only wild and radical in its '20s and '30s… It has been so from the very start.

That’s at least how one of your biggest admirers described it when he addressed the ILO in 1941.

In Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s own words:

To many the ILO was a wild dream. Who had ever heard of Governments getting together to raise the standards of labour on an international plane? Wilder still was the idea that the people themselves who were directly affected […] should have a hand with Government in determining these labour standards.

It’s exactly this radical, wild idea, that has brought us here today, and which brings thousands of delegates to Geneva each year. It’s this radical idea that has had a profound impact on our lives. We could well have lived in a world with no minimum working age, no protection for pregnant workers, no weekends and no 8-hour working day. Not a very happy place.

Over the past 100 years, the ILO has adopted almost 200 international labour standards. 1 by 1, these are great accomplishments. But they do not tell us a story. They do not show us how the ILO has impacted the lives of many people. How the ILO in fact can save lives.

Professor Paul van der Heijden, who will speak here later today, once gave a compelling account of a Columbian trade union leader, who spent 12 hours in the plane, on a flight from Bogotá to Geneva.

With tears in his eyes, this man told the ILO delegates horrific stories about the fate of union leaders in his country. There have been years when more than 200 trade union leaders were murdered in Colombia, simply because of their occupation.

The union leader from Columbia was not an exception. On a regular basis, individuals have shared their personal accounts with the ILO. And with the adoption of progressive regulations, the ILO has helped these people.

It is exactly here where the ILO’s impact lies: on individual lives. And it is exactly this that so many people outside this room do not know. They see the ILO like they see any other international organization: A big colossus, far away. You rarely hear about it, and when you do, you think: Ah, it doesn’t involve me.

I think that the ILO’s challenge for the future lies precisely here. First, shifting the focus to the radical idea with which the ILO once started. It's not about governments, organizations, systems, it's about people. And second, also sharing this idea with people around the world, and showing others how important the ILO has been, and still is.

2. ILO report The future of work

Now I am very pleased that this is also a key thread in the ILO report The future of work: A human-centred agenda. To me, this term hits the nail on the head. Not only when it comes to that what we want to accomplish, but also when it comes to those who will need to accomplish this. Let me explain this by elaborating on 3 examples:

  • Life-long learning;
  • The need for more protection in the workspace;
  • And, third, more generally: our modus operandi of moving forward.

2.1 The need for lifelong learning

Our world is changing rapidly. In order to keep up, people need to develop themselves continuously. For this, a human-centred agenda is needed. We need to invest in human capital and enable people to develop. Only then can workers and companies continue to be sustainable in our labour market. I would therefore urge the 3 ILO constituents, and that by definition includes of course the Dutch government, to engage in a meaningful discussion, in order to set a global aim, for example in the outcome of the coming ILC.

Let’s start this process, but at the same time, let’s also listen and learn from each other. Because here lies the biggest challenge, also internationally: How can we motivate and inspire people to learn throughout their lives, when the taste of learning still remains bitter, especially for low-educated workers. In this respect, lifelong learning is also a permanent course for social partners and governments.

Only by sharing best practices, we can learn how to develop a learning culture and stimulate continuous learning.

2.2 Improving protection in the workspace

A human-centred approach is also needed to improve working conditions of people around the world. I find it quite disturbing, this seeming paradox that when we see the terrible working conditions of people in dirty and unsafe factories, we all agree this is completely unacceptable. Yet at the same time, we all know that these conditions will not stopimmediately, because we have not found a solution that we all agree on.

It’s as if the system itself is more powerful than we are, as individuals.

In order for the ILO and other organizations to have an impact,we need to shift our focus to a human-centred agenda. I think that we all agree: it’s unacceptable to compete on the safety and health of workers! None of us want to do so. So let’s find ways to realize the protection that isneeded. Where there’s a will, there’s a way.

1 of these ways is the modernisation of the Occupational Safety and Health Conventions that were adopted in the past 100 years, as they are too detailed, and aimed at specific sectors, and do not set a general aim to protect all workers.  

At the same time, we should implement instruments at a national level, ascircumstances can vary per country. I am open for a discussion about adding a convention regarding the safety and health of workers to be added to the 8 existing core conventions of the ILO, agreed upon in de Declaration on the Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work.

2.3 Need for social dialogue

Lifelong learning and the improvement of working conditions are lofty goals. But the big question that remains, is: how should we reach these goals. The Future of work report serves as a great start.

  • It gives an excellent insight into the challenges that lie ahead of us.
  • It provides a thorough analysis of current developments on the future of work and social security.
  • It gives sound suggestions on how to move forward, but on its own, it will not change the world.

As the report itself states:

The transitions involved call for decisive action. We need to seize the moment.

In the report, there is a heavy emphasis on the role of governments. Yet I believe that this emphasis does not quite match the expectations and needs of the world we are currently living in. In many countries, the welfare state – which is a radical new idea and accomplishment of the twentieth century – has evolved into something even more radical: projects of two-way collaboration and participation. Governments around the world cannot accomplish change alone. We need to do this together. Workers, employees, yes individuals.

For this, it is necessary to reinvigorate the social dialogue. The world is rapidly changing and organisations are changing too. New forms of organisations are born every year. Social partners and governments need to be open to these new forms. I also believe that we need to look for supporters of ILO policies in other organisations.

By constructive social dialogue, we can protect workers at a higher level and prevent competition on labour conditions. This is a process of trial and error. As you may know, In the Netherlands, over the past weeks, all parties involved tried to communicate with each other via a very loud call horn… and well, all I can say is: we have tested it for you. Don’t try this at home!

3. Conclusion

Ladies and gentlemen,

1 thing is clear:

You cannot respond haltingly to developments that are going full speedahead. They demand action, and yes, also a political response.

  • We need to give individual people certainty in a volatile world.
  • We need to give them straws in the wind of change.
  • We need a human-centred agenda.

I am looking forward to a discussion preceding the ILC in June. In my opinion, this discussion should acknowledge ILO’s great achievements of the past 100 years, and at the same time build on these achievements, by setting new and concrete actions for the ILO in the forthcoming 100 years.

It’s our choice to think as wild and free as our predecessors did 100 years ago.

If they were able to construct the inconceivable, then I am sure that we can do it again.