A time for social justice

In his address at Georgetown University in Qatar ILO Director-General Gilbert Houngbo highlighted the pressing need for global action on social justice amid multiple crises, labour market inequalities, and technological transformations.

Statement | Georgetown University, Qatar | 12 September 2023
Thank you very much for the invitation to join you today.

I speak to you on the back of the G20 Summit in New Delhi last week, and en route to the SDG Summit and the UN General Assembly in New York next week.

Having the occasion to speak to you during the entr'acte – the intermission - between these two global multilateral events is an opportunity to reflect on the scale of the global challenges we face.

And it is an opportunity to underline the importance of national and multilateral action on decent employment; on policies that can deliver sustained reductions in poverty and inequality; and on just transitions so that we can tackle these challenges.

I will focus my remarks today on three preoccupations that I carry with me as I head to New York to meet with leaders and other key entities.

The first is the scale of the global challenges we face.

The second is the need to address the fault lines in our labour markets, and the structural inequalities that undermine sustainable development and threaten the stability of our societies and economies.

And the third is our global ambition, particularly for multilateral cooperation, and some of the ILO’s initiatives in this regard.

My first point is that despite our exit from the COVID-19 crisis, we continue to face compounding crises and sweeping transformations that pose significant challenges to our efforts to advance social justice as the precondition for peace and stability.

Geopolitical instability has taken a heavy toll on the socio-economic situation in many countries.

The economic outlook remains highly uneven and uncertain.

While global food and energy prices have fallen from their peak levels, we continue to see a rise in the cost of living in some countries.

The tightening of global financial conditions risks pushing countries that are already vulnerable into financial distress, and provoking a debt crisis.

There is a risk that this will contribute to an increase in the type of internal democratic instability that we have seen take place in a few countries -- exacerbating poverty and suffering.

Climate change is provoking extreme weather events of increased frequency and intensity, causing dislocation and exacerbating economic insecurity.

These compounding crises occur at a moment in which transformative technologies, including AI, are reshaping our economies and societies. The ILO recently released a study of the likely effect of generative AI tools, such as ChatGPT, on employment. It projects that AI will probably augment the productivity of more jobs than it replaces outright. But there is still likely to be major economic and social dislocation.

Therefore societies will need to invest heavily in the skilling and transitions of workers if they want to avoid serious social tension. People must receive the support they need to adapt to the changes coming to many occupations, particularly in the service sector.

Societies will also have to adapt their governance frameworks to ensure that these technologies are developed and applied in a human-centred fashion.

These challenging times provide many reminders that social justice is the best guarantee of lasting peace.

Yet the realities of so many people’s lives leave them with the perception that we are on a trajectory leading away from social justice, - calling the sustainability of peace and stability into question.

My second point, is that decent work is key to advancing social justice.

Decent work brings together the social, economic and environmental dimensions. As one of the UN’s sustainable development goals, SDG 8 sets out to “Promote sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.”

Decent work is based on respect for fundamental principles and rights at work: freedom of association and the effective recognition of the right to collective bargaining; the elimination of all forms of forced or compulsory labour; the effective abolition of child labour; the elimination of discrimination in respect of employment and occupation; and a safe and healthy working environment. These are universal rights; member states of the ILO commit to protect them for all of their workforce, including for informal economy and migrant workers.

This enables work with dignity, irrespective of where or by whom that work is carried out.

Having a decent job provides people with the means to ensure an adequate standard of living for themselves and their families -- and to secure improvements in these conditions. It is a route out of poverty.

This is essential for making progress on the environmental dimension. When families are preoccupied with how they will put food on the table or pay their bills at the end of the month, they are less likely to support the difficult transformations that will be needed to achieve global environmental targets.

Decent work provides opportunities for productive engagement and participation in one’s workplace, community, society and economy.

In addition to these social and environmental dimensions, decent work is a catalyst that can create a virtuous circle of increased productivity, rising living standards and sustainable enterprises and economies.

And yet the reality today, is that the fallout from the COVID-19 pandemic and the compounding crises we now face have significantly delayed -- and in many instances reversed --progress made in advancing social justice and securing decent work.

Labour market insecurity is widespread.

According to the 2023 ILO World Employment and Social Outlook, the global jobs gap – which measures the unmet need for employment – stood at 473 million people in 2022.

Yet global employment is projected to expand by only 1 percent this year compared to 2.3 percent in 2022.

Unemployment rates are much higher among young people aged 15 to 24 than adults. Moreover, nearly one in four young people are not in education, employment or training.
Many of those that do have work do so without labour and social protection.

Around 2 billion workers, which represents 58 per cent of all those employed are in informal employment. These workers are twice as likely to live in poverty than those in the formal economy.

In our efforts to tackle global poverty the fact that the growth in informal employment outpaced formal employment in the period following the pandemic is a deeply worrying trend.

Add to this the expansion of new and frequently insecure working arrangements, including platform work -- and we have significant deficits in opportunities for decent work.

This heightened economic insecurity is compounded by policy agendas that have left more than 4 billion people excluded from any form of social protection. They have no access to healthcare and sickness benefits, no support that might assist them to feed, clothe and care for their children, and no access to income in their old age or during periods of unemployment.

Related to this is the issue of rising inequality.

Income inequality has increased in a majority of countries.

In high-income countries, a key factor driving this increase is the growing inequality in wages – with large gains for the top of the distribution and stagnating wages for workers at the bottom.

In low-income countries, the significant share of informal work with low earnings and a high incidence of poverty contributes to high levels of inequality.

Irrespective of the level of development, there is a gap between men and women. Globally women earn approximately 20 per cent less than men. These pay gaps are even wider when gender intersects with other grounds of discrimination, such as race, disability and migrant status.

Alongside these trends, average real wage growth has lagged behind average labour productivity growth, particularly in in high-income countries. What this means is that rather than creating a virtuous circle, workers are, on average, receiving a smaller share of economic growth.

As an ILO report to be released next week will show, these fault lines and structural inequalities mean that we are off track when it comes to SDG 8 which, as I mentioned covers inclusive growth and decent work. We must change course if we have any hope of making progress not only in respect of decent work, but sustainable development more broadly.

There are opportunities ahead: to transform informal, unproductive and unprotected work into jobs that lift families out of poverty; to expand the coverage of social protection; and to deliver net gains in green jobs through just transitions.

This will require cooperation and balanced partnerships between employers, workers and governments founded on respect for fundamental principles and rights at work.

And it will require global cooperation. It is useful to recall a principle stated in the Preamble of the ILO’s founding Constitution:
the failure of any nation to adopt humane conditions of labour is an obstacle in the way of other nations which desire to improve the conditions in their own countries”.

This brings me to my third point which concerns our global ambition. This must be commensurate with the scale of the we face.

It requires a challenges concerted effort at the multilateral level to tackle the global challenges I have outlined earlier and put us back on track to realizing the 2030 Agenda.

Yet at the very time that we need enhanced global cooperation, the world has become more fragmented, with shifting poles of power and influence.

An increasing number of regions and countries are legitimately expecting to have an equal say in global decision-making.

This makes multilateralism both more difficult -- and more essential than ever before.

At the ILO, we will be harnessing our unique tripartite convening power to forge a Global Coalition with other key actors, including in the multilateral system, to advance social justice while strengthening policy coherence at the global level.

Related to that effort, the ILO is leading the coordination of the UN Global Accelerator on Jobs and Social Protection for Just Transitions, which was launched by the Secretary General of the UN in September 2021. It signals the UN system’s common ambition to address challenges in jobs and social protection. The aim is to direct investments to create 400 million decent jobs, including in the green, digital and care economies, and to extend social protection coverage to the 4 billion people currently excluded.

In respect of transformational technologies, the ILO has been mandated to organize a standard-setting discussion on decent work in the platform economy in 2025-26.

2025 will also be the year in which the UN’s World Social Summit is expected to take place and the ILO is planning to publish the first edition of a major new report on the State of Social Justice in the world.

It is my firm conviction that it is only by advancing social justice and promoting decent work that we will change the trajectory that we are currently on and place the 2030 sustainable development goals within reach.

Thank you.