Address by President Cyril Ramaphosa at the 108th session of the International Labour Conference, Palais Des Nations, Geneva, Switzerland
Excellencies Heads of State and Government,
President of the 108th International Labour Conference, Ambassador Jean-Jacques Elmiger,
Vice-President of the Conference, Ambassador Margarida Rosa Da Silva Izata,
Chairperson of the Governing Body, Ambassador Silvia Elena Alfaro Espinosa,
Director-General of the International Labour Organisation, Mr Guy Ryder,
Dear Friends and Colleagues,
It is a great honour to address this session of the International Labour Conference in the year that the ILO celebrates its centenary.
This is an occasion to reflect on the profound impact that the ILO has had on the world of work and the lives of workers over the last 100 years.
For South Africans, the ILO has played a particularly important role in giving form to the country we are today.
Throughout our struggle for democracy, justice and workers’ rights, the ILO has been a constant source of support, encouragement and guidance.
Earlier this month the principle of social justice which was one of the founding principles of the ILO was so well played out in our South African courts when lawyers representing mineworkers and five mining houses appeared side by side, asking the court to approve a multi-million dollar settlement for mineworkers who had contracted illnesses like silicosis and tuberculosis while working on the mines.
This case has dramatic and far-reaching implications for the way workers health and safety are treated in our country.
It is a victory for social justice and brings redress for one of the most vulnerable workers in not just our country but around the developing world.
Mineworkers around the world work under extremely dangerous and difficult conditions, and are often exploited and denied adequate benefits.
This settlement, and the class action that preceded it, is unique in our history and covers compensation for workers as far back as 1965.
It is for workers like these, for the protection and promotion of their rights, that the ILO was formed one hundred years ago by a group of visionary men and women.
They sought to lay the foundations for a new world of social justice, where governments, employers and workers would strive together in pursuit of a common goal.
It was a vastly different world back then, emerging from the ravages of war, but the challenges it faced are similar to those we face today.
Now, the world must confront the question of how to enhance the rights of workers in the face of rapid industrialisation, climate and technological change.
In addressing this question – which poses both a challenge and an opportunity – the ILO has been a standard-bearer.
It is in fulfilment of its founding purpose that the ILO established the Global Commission on the Future of Work.
It has been my singular privilege to co-chair the Global Commission with Prime Minister Stefan Löfven.
This is an inspired initiative that places the ILO at the centre of global efforts to shape the world of work in a tomorrow that is constantly changing and uncertain.
The work undertaken, the insights shared and the recommendations put forward will be of immense benefit for many countries and for my own country, South Africa, as we grapple with the challenges of change.
It also provides guidance on how best to embrace the opportunities that this change presents.
Comprising leading global figures from business, trade unions, think tanks, governments and NGOs, the Commission took the view that rapid and unprecedented change in the world of work required a human-centred response.
Both the workforce and the workplace are being rapidly transformed by the technological advances of the 4th Industrial Revolution, as the growth of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics threatens jobs.
Unemployment and working poverty have trapped hundreds of millions of people across the globe.
The youth and women are at the bottom of most, if not all, socio-economic indicators.
The change in work processes is leading to an increase in casualisation of labour.
The principle of equal pay for work of equal value, especially between men and women, has still not been realised in many parts of the world, calling into question our collective commitment to gender equality and justice.
Whether it is an underpaid worker in a garment factory, a taxi driver who has been made redundant by the spread of online platforms, or a female football player of a national team demanding the same pay and benefits as her male counterpart, there is a common experience.
Yet we know that the changing world of work also presents new opportunities.
If we are to harness these changes for our benefit, rather than be shaped by them, we need a new approach.
That is why the Global Commission on the Future of Work has said that we need to invest in the capabilities of people, we need to invest in the institutions of the world of work, and we need to invest in decent, sustainable work.
We seek a reinvigorated social contract that encompasses all factors that are fundamental for human development, including rights, access and opportunities.
The Commission proposes formal recognition of a universal commitment and entitlement to lifelong learning – what I would call a right to lifelong learning.
Employees should be provided with suitable opportunities to re-skill and up-skill.
We propose a re-allocation of public spending to encourage universal, lifelong social protection, funded through contributory social protection schemes.
The Commission calls for growing investment in the institutions of work, systems and regulations.
A proposal for a Universal Labour Guarantee that recognises and protects fundamental workers’ rights, such as freedom of association, the right to collective bargaining and freedom from forced and child labour is being made.
It seeks to offer protection to all workers with a view to building labour market institutions appropriate for the 21st century world of work.
It should include provisions for an adequate living wage, limits on hours of work, safety and health at work, as well as giving workers greater control of their time.
The third pillar of a human-centred agenda is investment in decent and sustainable work.
Targeted private and public sector investment, coupled with the right technology, can create millions of new, decent, sustainable, jobs in the green economy, the care economy, infrastructure development and rural areas, among others.
As countries of Africa, we are particularly determined to ensure that this investment focuses on the creation of economic opportunities for young people.
We are a continent that has a huge youth dividend, many of the young people on our continent are unemployed and lack the critical skills demanded by the workplace of both the present and the future.
As South Africa, we are mobilising all social partners around programmes to provide work experience opportunities to young people on a massive scale and to put in place practical measures to close the divide between the world of learning and the world of work.
Many employers are joining this process and are finding talented and well educated young people to join their companies.
The final recommendation of the Commission involves reshaping the incentive structures that guide business activity to encourage long-term, responsible investment in the ‘real’ economy.
We need measures of economic and social progress that are broader than just GDP growth.
These measures should capture environmental impact, unpaid work, equality and other aspects of human well-being.
We also recommend changes in corporate governance and conduct, to make companies more accountable and ensure there is greater representation of stakeholders.
It is our hope that this Conference will consider and adopt this ‘human-centred’ agenda as its own, not only to guide our tripartite interactions, but also to confirm our renewed commitment to our social contract.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
For the ILO to continue with its valuable work, we need to reaffirm our commitment to multilateralism.
Although the ILO retains its unique character within the UN system as the only organisation that has governments, business and trade unions as equal partners, the global multilateral framework remains fragile.
The prospect of looming trade wars and other disagreements seem to signal greater global tension and polarisation.
If we are to remain a trusted and credible vehicle through which social justice will be achieved, organisational unity and cohesion will be paramount.
We must continue to reform the governance of the ILO so that it promotes inclusivity, fairness and equality.
As we collectively strive to achieve the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals, particularly Goal 8 on decent work and economic growth, we look to the ILO for leadership.
Despite our challenges, workers today enjoy improved working conditions, including better wages, unemployment insurance and other benefits.
The progress that has been made is the result of a deliberate and conscious recognition that decent employment is intricately linked to peace, prosperity and progress in the world.
Looking into the future, we must renew our commitment to fundamental workers’ rights.
Let us be reminded that before us, behind us, above us, beneath us and all around us, social justice remains a central aspiration for all the workers of the world yearning for a better future.
Let us seize all the opportunities brought about by the changes in the world of work to deliver greater economic security, equal opportunities and social justice.
When he addressed this august gathering nearly 20 years, the father of our democracy, Nelson Mandela said:
“I think we are safe in assuming that the ILO will not fail us.”
Today, we can declare with confidence that this a sentiment that is shared by billions of people around the world.
Let us therefore work together to strengthen this important organisation and ensure that it continues to fulfil the purpose for which it was established all those years ago.
I thank you.