NEDLAC Labour School 2021

This global crisis must have a global, united, response

Greater international solidarity and common purpose are needed to build economic and social recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic, ILO Director-General Guy Ryder said in an address to South Africa’s NEDLAC Labour School.

Statement | 01 February 2021
Thank you very much indeed, President.

Mr. President of the Republic, Mr Ramaphosa,
All participants in the NEDLAC labour school,
Dear sisters and brothers,

Let me say that I am very honoured and pleased to have this opportunity to participate in this extraordinarily important discussion. And let me take advantage of the honour that is given to me, as speaking immediately after the President of the Republic to echo three things which he has said, of absolutely fundamental importance in the dramatic circumstances which not only South Africa, but all the nations of the world face today.

The first, President Ramaphosa, is your statement about the importance of ensuring that vaccines against COVID-19 are truly treated as a global public good - and you've warned against the dangers of vaccine nationalism, which we see terrible danger of. Thank you for that.

Secondly, the importance that you have given - and today's event is an example of it - to the importance of social dialogue: the cooperation of government, organized labour, and business in finding solutions forward in the recovery process from the COVID-19 crisis.

And the third point, very much present in our own thinking, is that as we confront the immediate drama of the pandemic and look for a way forward our sights need to be set not simply on getting back to where we started from, but moving forward. Taking our countries, our labour markets forward in new and better directions to ensure that the new normal in labour markets, which is so frequently talked about, is in fact a better normal. One with greater social justice, more access to decent work.

Now with those preliminary comments, let me just give you very quickly the global dimensions of the world of work crisis which COVID-19 has brought. It is the most dramatic world of work crisis in the history of our 100 year old organization; we have not seen a crisis of this dimension over the last century.

The ILO has calculated that if you look at the number of hours actually worked in the course of 2020, this translates into a loss of 8.8% of all work, into the loss of 255 million full-time jobs around the world.

If you break down that horrible figure, what do you find? You find that about half of that loss of work is accounted for across the world by people who are simply working less hours or no hours but remain in an employment relationship. They've not lost their jobs, but they're not working so much. After that, the lion's share of the losses is caused by people simply going into inactivity. They've left the labour market, have been discouraged, and are not looking for work. And this is a very worrying process of marginalization.

Open unemployment in the world has gone up very significantly, we estimate by 33 million, but that does not measure the full impact of this crisis. What does this mean for workers? Well, two things we need to focus upon. One, and it's already been said in your introduction, is that it is the most vulnerable, those already most disadvantaged on labour markets who've been hit the hardest. We live in a world where still 6 out of 10 working people work in informality. And those 2 billion human beings have often found themselves without any form of protection against the consequences of this economic and social crisis.

The low paid have suffered the biggest income losses. Those in precarious forms at work without full-time formal contracts have been expelled from work at a greater rate. Women have suffered disproportionately. The young have been hit to such an extent that we do truly run the risk of seeing the generation lost through the pandemic.

Certain sectors have been hit the hardest. I think of food, accommodation, everything connected to travel and to tourism, but also retail sectors and manufacturing. And if you add all of this up, the hit to wages and salaries has been enormous. Income through labour has declined by 8.3% over the last year. That's about 4.4% of global GDP. Put into perspective, this means that the overall impact of this crisis is four times as great as the crisis that hit us in 2008 with the financial meltdown.

Now, what do we do about all of this? What is, and what must be the policy response?

Well, I echo President Ramaphosa in saying that our choices are not between the protection of human health and lives and the protection of employment and livelihoods. We have, and nobody can believe this is an easy task, to reconcile these two objectives. We should not believe, and the trajectory of the events over the last year confirmed this, that there is any enduring and sustainable economic and social recovery until we have this pandemic under control.

I welcome the fact that South Africa will receive the vaccine as of today. This is of course, a very important step and offers the prospect of improved labour market conditions in the year ahead. Our basic estimate is from the 8.8% loss of work in 2020, we could be going to a 3% loss in 2021. You'll see partial, uncertain recovery, we won't even be back to where we started, but there is a measure of improvement in all of this.

We have made the point, and it stands to reason, that this is truly a global crisis. No country, no region has been left unaffected. We need a global response. And the hard message I need to deliver to you all today is that this global response has been lacking over the last months. We have not seen the international common purpose, the joining together of efforts, the solidarity that is required to ensure that truly global responses are put together.

What do I mean by that? Well, the estimates are that over the last year some US $12 trillion was spent by governments in stimulating their economies, protecting working people in enterprises, keeping things going, mitigating the economic and social impact of the crisis. This is an enormous quantity of resources. And yet these resources were spent nationally.

The United States is in the process of injecting another 2 trillion into its economy. But this is US money for US purposes. And I could say the same about Europe; I could say the same about countries across the globe. And this is where we run into a very severe difficulty. We understand very well that those countries that have the financial means to do so, that have access to financing from international markets, are able to invest more in countering this crisis than developing and emerging countries whose access to finance is constrained. And this means, inevitably, that the response to the crisis is both compartmentalized nationally and uneven. This goes entirely against the notion that we require a global response.

And so the ILO is and will continue to advocate and to work within the United Nations system for the construction of a truly global response. We've seen some modest steps, and I know they have been welcomed by South Africa in terms of relief from debt servicing. But frankly, these are small and initial steps. We need to see in vaccine politics, but also in economic and social recovery, a much greater demonstration of international common purpose.

In the meantime, it is important that on the basis of tripartism and social dialogue - precisely what NEDLAC exists to do, and has done throughout the history of your democracy and is doing today - each country works out its path forward to a better future of work. I strongly welcome the work that has been done by you all to put together the South African economic reconstruction and recovery plan, and the fact that this plan not only looks at the immediate need to engage and preserve, it looks forward to recovery and reform, and then to the process of reconstruction and transformation.

This resonates in the strongest possible way, both with the policy advocacy of the ILO in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic and the crisis that it has brought, but also our broader reflections - which predate the pandemic - on the future of work.

You will recall that the ILO in its centenary year of 2019 engaged in a major reflection on the future of work. President Ramaphosa co-chaired our Global Commission on the Future of Work and we adopted a Centenary Declaration for the Future of Work at our Conference in 2019. If you read it today - although it was put together through tripartite negotiation before we ever heard of COVID-19 - it provides a really apposite, relevant and urgent roadmap to help us find a way forward.

It talks about investing in the capacities of people, it talks about investing in the institutions of work, and it talks about investing in the jobs of the future – in the infrastructure which President Ramaphosa has referred to, in the green economy, and in the digital economy.

Let me conclude by something which came out in the strongest possible terms in our future of work reflections, and that we all need to keep in mind today. The process of recovery, the exit from this crisis in which we are immersed, is not simply a function of the trajectory of the pandemic. It's not just about technology. It's about what we do, what you do; governments, organized labour, and employers, to construct the future that we want.

And there is true danger, in the absence of the type of human agency that you can bring to this purpose, that the world of work will become more unequal. There will be higher levels of unemployment, higher levels of poverty, higher levels of social frustration, if we do not nationally and internationally combine our efforts to construct a better future of work.

It is through the efforts of organized labour in South Africa - with all of the record of achievement of the past, the determination of the present and the vision for the future - through your efforts and those of your supporters, your friends, and your colleagues around the world that we can find a way forward. But in the end, truly, it depends on each and every one of us and our efforts.

I hope you will count with the ILO to accompany you in your efforts to that end. Thank you all once again for the honour of being able to speak to you today.

My greetings to you all.