President delivers Opening Address at National ILO Centenary Event

Tue 17th Sep, 2019 | 09:15
location: (Dublin) Dublin Castle

(Dublin) Dublin Castle

Tuesday, 17th September, 2019

Speech at Joint DBEI/ NUI ILO Centenary National Event “Changing Work in a Crisis-Stricken World: the Need to Embrace a New Paradigm”

Dublin Castle Tuesday, 17th September 2019


Your Excellency,

Distinguished delegates,


I am honoured to be here today to address so many distinguished delegates. May I begin by thanking the International Labour Organisation (ILO), the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, as well as the National University of Ireland Galway, for organising this important national event to commemorate the centenary of the ILO, and for inviting me here to give the opening address.


I wish to welcome the ILO’s Director-General, Guy Ryder, whom is in attendance today, as well as 2014 Nobel Laureate Kailash Satyarthi whom I’m delighted to hear will be giving the Edward Phelan biennial lecture later today. Kailash Satyarthi has made a profound contribution towards the ending of child labour, as well as providing powerful advocacy for the rights of children and young people to education.


He is the architect of the single largest civil society network for the most exploited children, the Global March Against Child Labour. The Global March covered almost 80,000kms and played an important role in the adoption of ILO Convention 182 on the Worst Forms of Child Labour which has been ratified by 186 of the 187 ILO member States.


Today’s event not only celebrates the ILO’s centenary year, and Ireland’s strong links with the organisation, but it also represents Ireland’s first ever term as Titulaire member of the ILO’s Governing Body. Having a speaking and voting seat on the ILO’s Governing Body for the first time since we joined the organisation in 1923, coinciding with an ambitious and active period in the ILO as it celebrates its centenary in 2019, places Ireland in a unique position to shape and influence the ILO’s policy agenda, and to highlight Irish best practice on the international stage.  


Ireland’s strong links to the ILO include the key role that Irishman Edward Phelan played in the organisation’s establishment.  As Secretary of the Labour Section of the British delegation to the Peace Conference in Paris in 1919, Phelan took part in the peace negotiations and the process of the founding of the ILO. He advocated for a permanent machinery for international labour regulation, and he is indeed acknowledged as the architect of the ILO’s tripartite structure.


I am proud that the ILO was the first international organisation that the fledgling Irish Free State joined in 1923. I am very conscious too that the ILO is one of the most important institutions in the conduct of international relations, one that gives voice not only to governments, but to the representatives of workers and employers, one that attempts a partnership.  The ILO was born in the aftermath of the collision of empires, that catastrophic loss of life, the collapse in human consciousness that we now know as the First World War.  The ILO was an institution that was created as part of the Treaty of Versailles, central to its foundation rhetoric being the belief that social justice is essential to universal and lasting peace.  This value driven initiative succeeded in an atmosphere of its very antithesis – the division of the spoils of the vanquished among the victors. 


However, the challenge we now face as we mark the ILO’s centenary year: we now, most regrettably, in terms of the public rhetoric of our times, live in a world that has in recent years moved away sharply from notions of solidarity and empathy and have made a significant shift towards extreme individualism, market fundamentalism and hostility to a role for the State.  What was once the public space of discussion and disputation in public service broadcasting has given way to an aggressive divisiveness and hate-filled rancour, with a vision of society emerging from certain parts of the world that is disturbingly reminiscent of that which laid the seeds for the rise of Fascism in the 1930s.  Such a context presents enormous challenges for those of us who believe in the transformative powers of collectivity, solidarity, equality, social justice and human decency.


The labour movement is singular among movements in that it has always drawn its greatest strength from its collective ability, from its members, from people willing to demonstrate solidarity in their workplace, and beyond the workplace towards their fellow citizens, and beyond national borders towards people all over the world. The ILO then, in turn, with its principle of tri-partism has acted as a leading authority to improve standards and conditions of work and to encourage decent work for all.


In our present circumstances, 100 years after that principled, and for so many, emancipatory constitution was first proclaimed, the ILO’s spirit of idealism and of vital moral purpose is now more urgently required than ever, yet I believe this moral purpose is seriously undermined in the context of an ongoing assault on workers’ rights, of the hostility to regulation, the result of decades of pursuit of a neoliberal agenda in many parts of the West, and now these tendencies are succeeded at the level of society with the rise of political extremism, especially that on the Right. This provokes the question as to how the ILO might re-dedicate itself to its founding mission and do so with increasing authority and potency.


This year’s International Labour Conference adopted a Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work. It looks at the major challenges and opportunities for the future of work, charting the ILO’s path forward as it celebrates its centenary at a time of transformative change. It correctly calls for a human-centred approach to the future of work. 


In the Centenary Declaration the fundamental principles of the Declaration of Philadelphia are reaffirmed, and the Declaration does indeed provide a platform for the ILO to intensify engagement and cooperation within the multilateral system.


Another key outcome of the Centenary International Labour Conference was the adoption of a Convention on ending Violence and Harassment in the World of Work. This is the first ever international instrument on this important topic. All of this is positive and so hugely worthwhile.


However, I believe that the founding message given expression in an achievable agenda of the ILO must be vigorously brought to the attention of the world by all of us who believe in equity and the dignity of work. How much better it would be if the necessary elements of what constituted social cohesion formed the basis of the discourse that prevailed on the streets of the world, rather than those who are objectively the excluded and others who are fearful of, or perceive themselves as being excluded are left abandoned to become the prey of xenophobes, homophobes and racists.


In an attempt to offer a positive contribution, I suggest that all of the prevailing ruling concepts in our present economic discourse – flexibility, globalisation, productivity, innovation, social protection, decent work – are capable of being re-defined, if looked at through  a prism of social cohesion be given a shared moral resonance, and I go further, made useful within the context of a new ecological-social paradigm, such as that being espoused by Professor Ian Gough and others. 


What Professor Gough speaks and writes of is a new, recovered political economy, and I urge third-level institutions, including the National University of Ireland which has jointly hosted today’s event, to make space for this interdisciplinary paradigm, to require it to be taught and to inform policy, including labour policy. Consideration of a new ecological-social paradigm, based on economic heterodoxy, recognises the limits of the world’s natural resources, as well as acknowledging the role that unrestrained greed, unaccountable, accelerated, often speculative growth, has played in creating the climate crisis.


In his book, Heat, Greed and Human Need, a superb contribution that I wish would be required reading across the social sciences, Gough outlines how the alternative paradigm is rooted in the concept of human need over greed, moving away from insatiable consumption and accumulation. It advocates gender equality, redistribution, and a reconfigured social consumption and investment strategy that, for example, transfers resources and technology from rich countries to developing countries as the key means to achieve this eco-social welfare state.


There is a welcome recognition in recent empirical scholarship that the eco-social policies that underpin such an economic paradigm simultaneously pursues both equity/social justice and sustainability/sufficiency goals within an activist innovation state, with substantial public investment and greater regulation and planning.


Furthermore, the approach outlines the socio-economic measures that are also required to offset any adverse or regressive impacts of the ecological transition for lower income groups (such as, for example, unemployment resulting from the closure of legacy industries) and to reverse growing levels of inequality.


Within the most exciting sociological research and theory scholars such as Professor Hartmut Rosa of Jena and Leipzig Universities, builds on the concept, arguing for the need for society to move away from ‘consuming’ the world to experiencing it and resonating with it. For quality of life, as he puts it, cannot be measured simply in terms of resources, opinions, and residual moments of happiness; instead, we must consider our relationship to, or resonance with, the world, or as Hartmut Rosa puts it,


“from the act of breathing to the adoption of culturally distinct worldviews. All the great crises of modern society – ecological, democratic, psychological – can be understood and analysed in terms of resonance and our broken relationship to the world around us”.


I believe this “catastrophe of resonance”, as Rosa puts it, which we have witnessed in modern times, is related to the growing narcissism, aggressive individualism and an emphasis on insatiable consumption and wealth accumulation, which I have mentioned and which is such a far cry from the social justice, solidarity and fairness principles that underpin the framework for the Sustainable Development Goals and the 1944 Declaration of Philadelphia, revisited today as the theme of our conference.


We have now to engage with the neglected subject of ecology and its connection to economy, society and ethics.  The most pressing issue facing us all as a global community, is that we are inhabitants of a planet that is in peril, owing to the insatiable, unrestricted consumption of the Earth’s finite natural resources since the onset of the Anthropocene, but accelerated so much in recent history. I speak, of course, of the climate crisis.


There exists now a great opportunity for the ILO to give leadership and play a progressive and robust role in the climate crisis, pushing for fair, ambitious and binding globally agreed international agreements on greenhouse gas emission reduction targets. The ILO should also consider playing its part – potentially one that could carry some weight – in urging the USA to reconsider the profoundly myopic and regressive decision to exit the Paris Agreement on Climate Change, a decision which could take effect from December 2020 and will effectively subject future generations to a bleak and volatile planet.


The ILO can also seize the opportunity to provide a lead role in developing a strategy for a ‘just transition’ for workers and communities to ensure that we are all part of a sustainable, low-carbon economy and benefit from decent and green jobs. In Ireland this will mean that those impacted by the closure of unsustainable carbon-intensive electricity production, for example, must be offered re-skilling opportunities to enable them to find suitable jobs in other areas, such as the green economy, or upskilling opportunities that can achieve sustainable incomes in other parts of society. Skills are undoubtedly the currency of the 21st century.


But there will be need for an enhanced focused set of measures of social protection ensuring that loss of job is not loss of citizenship participation.


As to the task of redefining work, we are now witnessing increases in precarious employment, contract working, and an ongoing casualisation of labour, as has been well documented by Guy Standing, Noam Chomsky and other writers on the subject. The new emerging trends in work practices – so-called ‘innovations’ – are only innovations in a particular sense, to my mind, insofar as they maximise profits for employers and reduce employees’ hard-won labour rights.  I see this trend as part of an inexorable ‘race to the bottom’, and I believe that regulation, together with enforcement, is urgently required in order to protect those most vulnerable in society from being exploited as a result of the most adverse effects of these new paradigms of work.


By way of illustration, Dr. Pádraig Carmody of Trinity College Dublin has conducted recent research which has shown how ride-sharing and ‘virtual capital’ have resulted in a “hollowing out of the formal sector” and a rise in the so-called ‘precariat’ worker:


“Whereas many speak of the ‘sharing economy’, a more accurate way to describe it might be the ‘on-demand’ economy where firms divest themselves of their responsibilities to employees, reducing the structural power of labour. This represents an undermining of any social contract between the parties.”


When one considers how an abuse of the trend towards digitalisation is drawn on to assist in this regard, we see how online workers often are not covered by employment law or collective agreements. Moreover, such workers seldom have access to social security, paid leave or paid training owing to the fact that the platforms require workers to register as self-employed. Such practises, we know, are also in place in other sectors, including the aviation industry. These recent developments in the world of work are nothing less than a recrudescence of some of the worst practices of the 19th century, and the ILO surely has an important role to play in discouraging and potentially outlawing such practises. 


The co-ordination and direction of employees by an algorithm owned and operated by a company should never be allowed to divest the employer of their responsibilities towards their employees any less than a spurious self-employment does. One of the great victories of the labour movement in the past was the regulation of piecework; those old practices must not be allowed re-emerge under the cloak of supposed innovation. I believe it must remain an important objective of the ILO to reverse the systematic neglect and devaluation of workers’ rights.


The ongoing displacement of secure, certain, regular employment to achieve that for which the ILO and indeed trade unions were established, by uncertain, precarious jobs and characteristic chronic insecurity is a major cause for concern.


Many workers are expected to demonstrate what is often referred to as ‘flexibility’, by which is meant a willingness and ability to readily respond to changing circumstances and expectations often without adequate information or recompense. Such flexibility is frequently not matched with any security of tenure or appropriate income by employers, with the vista of zero-hour contracts now an appalling reality for many.


Having said all of the above one can recognise how important the responsible, responsive, employer is, and what an important role those who place themselves within the ILO family are.  I certainly recognise their anxiety with others for social cohesion and I believe they are potential allies in certain redistribution campaigns.


The setting we share is the contemporary version of globalisation.  Globalisation has had many impacts on our daily lives, some of which arguably have been positive, or at least not wholly negative. However, an uncritical, unethical globalisation, pursued without consideration as to impact or social consequences, I assert, has contributed to climate change: more goods being produced and consumed, more transport of goods across longer distances, shorter product obsolescence cycles, and a more consumerist and materially driven society all impact adversely on finite natural resources and carbon emissions.


There is a background to this. It is partially in the failure to have an adequate discourse on the impact of science technology and society that discourse is at its best, and where it is barely tolerated on the fringes of academic curricula. 


I feel globalisation is a topic to which I have found it necessary on basic moral and ethical grounds to return to frequently in my speeches as President.


For a key conundrum that has not been solved by most Governments globally relates to how we can make globalisation work for citizens, when what has been its form, its presentation to date lacks legitimacy among much of the citizenry; in other words, is an ethical, sustainable form of globalisation possible?Where, and in what for a can such a debate be prosecuted?


Naomi Klein, among others, has shown how corporations have unethically exploited workers in the world’s poorest countries, often those with atrocious human rights records, in pursuit of profit maximisation. As Klein has written (in her book, No Logo):


“When manufacturing is so highly devalued, it follows that the people doing the production work become highly devalued as well. The shift in corporate priorities has left factory workers and craftspeople in a precarious position. The lavish spending in the 1990s on marketing, mergers and brand extensions has been matched by (…) resistance to investing in production facilities and labour. Multinationals search the globe for factories that can make their products as cheaply as possible. And by contracting out the manufacturing work, multinationals can shed all responsibility for the working conditions inside these factories. The contracting allows multinationals to re-focus on the needs of their brands, as opposed to the needs of their workers.”


As a corollary, it follows that, left unimpeded, such a form of globalisation will lead to a widening gap between rich and poor, with the poor getting poorer.


Globalisation, furthermore, tests rights to the point often of eschewing them, rights that may have been agreed, often hard-won, multi-laterally. To achieve an acceptance across borders then as even the most minimally ethical, globalisation needs to somehow be managed by accountable multilateral institutions so that it supports fundamental human rights, labour rights, and leads to long-lasting development and prosperity for citizens in general, particularly the poorest. The ILO must continue to play, and will be called upon to play, a leading role so that workers are not made the casualties of globalisation, but rather that globalisation is made to work for the world’s workers, and all of our global citizens. 


The good news is that after almost four decades of mainstream economic commentary espousing the virtues of privatisation, deregulation and a lesser role for the State, we now appear to be on the cusp of a turning point in the political economy discourse thanks to the insightful contributions of economists like Ian Gough, Mariana Mazzucato and Sylvia Walby. An effective rebuke of the austerity-fuelled worldview that gained such acceptance in the past decade has been offered in recent literature by authors such as those whom I have mentioned, and alternative models are gaining credence and recognition amongst some sections of the commentariat and in several international and mediatory organisations.


I believe that the neoliberal mantra – in order to restore growth, all that is needed is to reduce deficits by cutting public spending – has been effectively refuted: the empirical evidence speaks for itself, on its being accepted in ever wider policy circles that government investment in areas like education, health, research and technology is a key component of economic growth and must not be cut in times of economic adversity.


Even institutions such as the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank have slowly evolved their thinking on austerity as a strategic tool, believing that it can be self-defeating. As Keynes argued over 80 years ago, if governments cut spending during a downturn, a short-lived recession can become a fully-fledged depression.


This is precisely what occurred in Ireland when the so-called ‘Great Recession’ of 2008 turned into an economic depression in 2009 that lasted for almost five years.


This prolongation and intensification of the economic bust resulted in a deepening of the experience of, as well as a widening of the exposure to, a range of attendant social ills – including corrosive unemployment, particularly among the young – avoidable consequences that were a direct result of a prolonged period of forced, constrained under-investment by the State, many of which have not yet been resolved.


May I suggest, with humility, that productivity as an economic concept needs to be critiqued and problematised more assertively by organisations such as the ILO.   Any narrowly defined concept of productivity – capturing in a simplistic way merely the efficiency of production utilising the four factors of production – while it may be important to understand in an ever-more competitive enterprise environment, is an insufficient concept when examined from a labour productivity perspective.


I believe this is the case because studies have shown how, since the late 1970s in the USA and subsequently in Europe, growth in labour productivity no longer leads to commensurate improvements in the incomes of workers, but is instead captured by the owners of capital, a capital that itself is often speculative rather than productive. This is not only inequitable, but it places a value on the role of capital that is far higher than other factors of production, such as labour and entrepreneurship, and is inherently volatile given its speculative nature.


Such volatility has clear adverse downstream impacts on labour markets in instances in which when speculative capital does not perform in the markets as well as was envisaged, resulting potentially in the need for firms to cut back on other factors of production, with labour being the most easily adjusted in our increasingly flexible labour markets.


If I may revisit briefly, the very concept of work itself. Andrea Komlosy, in her recent contribution, Work – The Last 1,000 Years, suggests that the often-limited definition and classification of work has never corresponded to the historical experience of most people, whether in colonies, developing countries, or the industrialised world:


“The gap between common assumptions and reality grows even more

pronounced in the case of women and other groups excluded from the

labour market”.


Such insights bring to mind the related philosophical concept of ‘The Dignity of Labour’, so much advocated by Gandhi, in which all types of jobs are respected and treated equally, no occupation is considered superior, and no jobs should be discriminated on any basis; is this not the ethic of work in the public service for the public good? 


Surely a return to the fundamentals of decent, secure jobs, would result in a widespread increase in job satisfaction, a better sense of accomplishment, and general improvements in quality of life across nations?


Rather sadly, a vision in which the concepts that lie behind the Dignity of Labour become more embedded in the citizenry and, in particular, employers is perhaps provocative, even radical, attempting, as it does to upturn the commonly held assertion that money and wealth accumulation is the primary motivation behind humans’ innate desire to work.


The task at hand to create a society that is more equal, one in which all work is valued, and all jobs are decent and fulfilling, is not an easy one given the current geo-political milieu and the recent, if now thankfully fading, Western fixation with neoliberalism. However, advancing the political-economic concept of deliberative democracy – thank you Jürgen Habermas – provides us with a means with which we may engage and promote such a vision across the citizenries of Europe.


Jürgen Habermas has written convincingly on this topic, asserting that political decisions should be the product of fair and reasonable discussion and debate among citizens. It follows, therefore, that we, as citizens, must become more aware of the often obscured or consciously hidden ideological assumptions that lie behind policy choices. This means that we need to foster universal political-economic literacy to deal with new and existing challenges, including those in the labour arena, and a better understanding of the nature of value and what really constitutes happiness. We must have an existence surely, that has as its purpose, something better that as Zygmunt Bauman put it “to be consumed in our consumption”.


May I suggest that, as part of a coordinated discourse, the ILO has a potentially crucial role in ensuring that Governments’ labour policies are ethically grounded, and in helping to bring about a vision of a new eco-social economic paradigm, the components of which I have outlined but briefly in this address. That we might live in peace and harmony, that was the ILO’s founding purpose.  There is an alternative to insatiable concentration of surplus, destructive tendencies to monopoly.  The ILO has a crucial role in our emancipatory future. 


One of the ways in which to do this is to re-establish or embed and enhance Glaucon’s social contract between the citizen and the state, something which has been heavily eroded in much of the West following decades of attack from a prevailing neoliberal orthodoxy, eroding labour rights through laissez-faire policy, and an almost fetishised embrace of an unethical globalisation.  We can do so much better, together.


I see the ILO as having a vital role in turning around this tide, by advocating a rights-based approach to quality work and engaging, within the confines of the Organisation’s constitution, in the deliberative democratic process.


May I conclude by stating that I believe the battle for decent work, for fairness, security and sustainable advancement for all, is a defining battle of our times.  All of the joy of the founding energies – may they be with you.  I hope that your centenary conference proves to be a fruitful experience, and that the ILO of tomorrow can play an even greater part in defending the hard-won rights of workers across the world as we continue to face the challenges and obstacles to a fairer society. The ILO’s voice is one that carries influence and respect, and one that I know can give leadership on the new form of sustainable, equitable economy that will realise the benefits of social cohesion and seek to reclaim a comprehension of work as the basis for the achievement of other human rights and a strong foundation for a life of dignity, fulfilment and flourishing, achieved and sustained through your ethically-driven tri-partism.


Go raibh míle maith agaibh go léir.


Beir Beannacht.