UN labor agency ILO sees big challenges on 100th anniversary

In 1919, the International Labour Organization was brought to life to fight for social justice. A century later, many workers are still exposed to exploitation, particularly in Africa. Martina Schwikowski reports.
The International Labour Organization (ILO) has been “a trusted voice” to “ensure social justice in every corner of our world,” UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres said on Wednesday.
He made the remarks at a high-level meeting to commemorate the centenary of what was the first ever United Nations agency.
The UN chief painted a picture of a time of upheaval, when newly-emboldened labor unions in many parts of the world, demanded fair treatment, dignity at work, adequate wages and an eight-hour working day.
Guterres said that ILO has had its “finger on the pulse on people’s concerns,” and “played a central role in the struggle for social progress.”
Acknowledging ILO’s more than 180 conventions and implementation programs “on everything from gender equality to forced labor,” UN General Assembly (UNGA) President Maria Fernanda Espinosa Garces said that “injustice is still a reality for millions of people,” highlighting the predicament of child workers, forced laborers and those trafficked into prostitution.
“Over 40 million people today are victims of modern forms of slavery, more than twice the number involved in the transatlantic slave trade,” she said.
Citing decent work as one of her own priorities, Espinosa affirmed that it makes the United Nations “more relevant to people,” by demonstrating the “everyday impact of international agreements like the 2030 Agenda, and multilateral bodies like the ILO.”
Founded in Geneva, Switzerland in 1919, the ILO is a UN agency whose mandate is to advance social justice and promote decent work by setting international labor standards. The ILO is the first specialized agency of the UN with 187 member states.
On April 11, Archbishop Bernardito Auza, Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the UN, gave an intervention during the High-Level Meeting of the United Nations General Assembly to commemorate the 100th Anniversary of the International Labor Organization (ILO).
In his statement, Archbishop Auza said that ILO’s centenary is an opportunity to renew the commitment to collaborate for social justice. He noted that ILO’s motto, “If you desire peace, cultivate justice,” and its Constitution, which emphasizes that “universal and lasting peace can be established only if it based upon social justice,” is something that for 100 years the organization has been striving to establish, but he asked whether, after 100 years, work conditions and the role of labor are still considered cornerstones to social justice and peace. He praised the ILO’s Global Commission Report on the Future of Work for recognizing the importance of anthropology, specifically how work is a necessary component of human fulfillment but one that must be harmonized with other parts of human nature, like the importance of family and community. Work, he said, is important, above all, for forming a person’s character and dignity in accordance with personal creativity and responsibility. He also addressed the issues of access to work and social security protections for those who cannot work, as well as the necessary legal, political and ethical underpinnings to ensure fairness in employment and not reducing the dignity of workers to commodities. He finished by emphasizing that the Holy See looks forward to continued collaboration with the ILO.
Following is the Archbishop’s Full Intervention:
Madam President,
The Delegation of the Holy See is pleased to participate in this High-level Meeting on the occasion of the one-hundredth anniversary of the establishment of the International Labour Organization (ILO). We consider this celebration an opportunity to renew the necessary commitment to work together in order to achieve the goal of a social justice available to all, leaving no one behind, while moving forward into the second century of the Organization.
At the time of its creation, after the ravages of World War I, the motto that was chosen declared: Si vis Pacem, cole justitiam – If you desire peace, cultivate justice. It echoed the values that were foundational in guiding the action of the Organization, as enshrined in the first paragraph of the Preamble to the Constitution: “Whereas universal and lasting peace can be established only if it is based upon social justice.” This key point was emphasized even by the Nobel Committee when it awarded the Peace Prize to the ILO, in 1969: “there are few organizations that have succeeded, to the extent that ILO has succeeded, in translating into action the moral idea on which it is based (…) [thus having] permanently influenced the social welfare legislation of every single country ”[1].
One hundred years later, the question remains: are the conditions of work and the role of labor in societies still the cornerstones to grant social justice and peace?
The ILO’s Global Commission Report on the Future of Work encouraged governments and all stakeholders to commit to a set of measures in order to deal with the unprecedented challenges coming from the today’s world of work. The basis of the Agenda on the future of work is a human-centered approach[2]. In so doing, the ILO recognized work as a necessary component of human fulfillment, while reaffirming that every aspect of the human person, not only as a worker but as a member of a family and of a community, must be at the center of inclusive and sustainable strategies for integral development. “Recognizing the centrality of the person means restoring dignity to work and production processes. It means putting the working person at the forefront even before the work he does”[3].
Important consequences, however, follow from these premises. First of all, access to decent work for all is an essential condition for development. During the last decades, the world economy has not been able to create sufficient decent work opportunities for all. “While the earnings of a minority are growing exponentially, so too is the gap separating the majority from the prosperity enjoyed by those happy few”[4]. The latest data, in fact, show that globally only one out of four persons has the protection of social security, while 5.2 billion people remain without any coverage[5]. Secondly, as repeatedly underlined by Pope Francis, decent work must fully integrate the ecological paradigm, rather than being based on a selfish and outdated growth model. The three “T” motto used by Pope Francis in his mother language – Tierra Land, Techo Housing, and Trabajo Work – push us to reassert the inner value of developmental principles based on the dignity of the human person.
Social protection for inclusive economic growth, together with the promotion of decent work for all, has proven to enable a number of low and middle-income countries to strengthen their social protection systems.
Such progress demonstrates that our societies can afford to provide at least a basic level of social security for all while aspiring to accomplish something more. Inclusive social protection actually facilitates the transition from an informal to a formal economy; it can allow societies to support workers in carrying out their family responsibilities; it responds to the necessities of peoples and communities while caring for those in need.
Rights and benefits should not be disposable. The Decent Work Agenda today is part and parcel of the global development agenda and it is universally applicable, regardless of countries’ economic, social or political status. Labour should have its legal and political framework based on just ethical principles that bear real political, legal and economic consequences. A labor contract, by definition, involves a transaction between human beings, it cannot, thus, be considered as a mere commercial relationship. As clearly stated by the ILO Constitution, “Labour is not a commodity”.
The activity of human labor is important, above all, for its role in the formation of a person’s character and dignity. It is not consumption, but the capability of creating new things, relations, expressions, that marks the vitality of a person. The personal imprint, given through work, brings about satisfaction and the will to grow and to contribute in a positive way to social coexistence. As stated by Pope Francis, “work should be the setting for this rich personal growth, where many aspects of life enter into play: creativity, planning for the future, developing our talents, living out our values [and] relating to others.[6]” From this perspective, the same forces of globalization that today are generating unequal growth can be tomorrow a powerful instrument for the development of the human being. With the diffusion of modern technology new ideas can spring forth, with the circulation of peoples there is an occasion for greater interaction and creativity and with trade in goods and services there arise opportunities that can be put at the service of the common good.
In conclusion, Madam President, the path forward to an effective and inclusive development needs new visions and strategic investments to provide employment and to sustain enterprises, especially where the social gap is deep. Giving priority to decent work keeps economic activity at the service of the human being and its social relations and strengthens the ethical foundation that can help to guarantee it. The good practice and continued relevance of social dialogue, with its important contributions, is increasingly necessary, in a context of global developments, employment as well as in labor relations. Over the last century, we have had the pleasure to observe that, in order to promote a real social dialogue, the effective tripartite structure of the ILO, has been both an objective in itself and a means to achieve other objectives.
We wish to commend the ideals that, 100 years ago, presided over its creation and reaffirm that “the ILO possesses the moral compass to guide its decisions and the values by which it must assess all changes in the world of work. The task is to shape the emerging realities of our time into conformity with those values, and not the reverse”[7]. The Holy See confidently looks forward to continued collaboration, as the International Labour Organization addresses the theme of labor and of its impact on the economy and society, in the best interest of every human person and for the just progress of every country.
Thank you, Madam President.

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