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By Dr Martha Theodorou


You took office in 2012. Living in a world where the world of work is rapidly evolving what are the challenges that the international Labour Organisation (ILO) faces nowadays?

There have been swift changes affecting the world of work since I took office. For some, technical changes bring opportunity and generate optimism. For others, on the contrary, they bring insecurity and generate fear. There are also other challenges, especially how best to regulate employment relationships in the so-called “gig economy”. The main challenge lies in the absolute necessity to make sure workers’ rights are protected.

There are also challenges in areas such as youth employment, skills and training, facilitating the transition from the informal to the formal economy, and putting an end to gender inequalities, especially the gender pay gap. The list is even longer. In all these areas, we should assume the responsibilities of the ILO’s social justice mandate.


What are the main achievements thus far from “The Future of Work Initiative” which was launched by the ILO in order to respond to the changes that affect the world of work at international level?

We need to better understand the current transformation to respond effectively to new challenges. The ILO launched the Future of Work Initiative seeking to broadly canvas the views of governments, workers and employers, as well as the academic world and other relevant actors. National dialogues with representatives from governments, workers and employers were held in more than 110 countries. These dialogues now feed into the work of a Global Commission on the Future of Work that was set up last August. The Commission is made up of 28 eminent individuals with outstanding personal achievements and visions from all over the world. It will tackle the key question of how a rapidly transforming world of work should be shaped if it is to respond to the values of social justice. This Global Commission will report back prior to the 2019 Centenary International Labour Conference.


How does “The End to Poverty Initiative” push forward the ILO’s work in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development?

The ILO Decent Work Agenda is firmly embedded in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). This substantially strengthens the ILO’s ability to pursue social justice through Decent Work for all.

The End to Poverty Centenary Initiative is designed specifically as the vehicle to take forward the ILO’s work in implementing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. It involves interconnected actions: on the one hand, we need to strengthen partnerships including Alliance 8.7 to eradicate forced labour, modern slavery, human trafficking and child labour; the Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth; the Global Partnership for Universal Social Protection; the Equal Pay International Coalition (EPIC); and the Global Deal. At the same time, there is a need to strive for greater coherence within the multilateral system and integrate the 2030 Agenda, and its decent work components, into national policy strategies.  The ILO is also engaged in a range of activities at national level to realize the SDGs by the year 2030.

I believe we need to further push for the implementation of the 2030 Agenda to become everybody’s business, and not least the business of the government, employers’ and workers’ representatives whose responsibility it is to guide the work of the ILO. As I mentioned in my report to the International Labour Conference in 2016, it is surely within their capacities, as well as their responsibilities, to pick up the tools offered by the End to Poverty Initiative and to use them to put the world firmly back on the path of social justice.


Decent jobs for youth are essential to realizing the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. How does “The Global Initiative on Decent Work for Youth” impact the youth employment challenge?

Youth unemployment remains a significant challenge for the international community as a whole. 71 million young people are currently unemployed. 161 million of them are trapped in working poverty, while 40 million people, mostly youth, enter the workforce every year.

The Global Initiative on Decent Jobs for Youth is the first-ever, comprehensive UN system-wide effort for the promotion of youth employment worldwide. It brings together the global resources of the United Nations and other key partners to maximize the effectiveness of youth employment investments. It also assists Member States in delivering on the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development. Working as an alliance, we can unify fragmented efforts and scale up impact to create sustainable positive change for young people.

The youth employment challenge is enormous. But it is not insurmountable. We have a vision of a world where young women and men everywhere can earn a fair income while working in conditions of security, dignity and equality. Getting young people into decent jobs is not just essential for their future, but also for the future of our local communities, our countries and our global society.

The breadth and depth of the 4th Industrial Revolution transforms the systems of production. Will the new technology be a destroyer or a creator of jobs?

There is a need to achieve a future of work that leaves no one behind. Some jobs will disappear but new ones will be created. We should also acknowledge that some of the technical changes will affect many workers positively: for instance, repetitive tasks and arduous work will be performed by robots.

Also, we should not focus too much on automation and technological change. Obviously, this is a key area. However, there are other mega-trends that are crucial in shaping the future of work, such as globalization, demography, migration and environmental issues. So the future of work is not just about robots. It is a more complex phenomenon which needs to be looked at from different angles.

Going beyond your question, I would like to insist on a key point: The future of work is not pre-determined. It is up to us, particularly the governments and social partners, to forge the kind of future we want. Also, we have to think about the quality of jobs, their impact on education and training systems, and the role of work in our lives.


The Pillar of Social Rights is about delivering new rights for citizens in the EU. What is your opinion of the social dimension of Europe and the world of work?

By facilitating a common approach at the EU level, the European Pillar of Social Rights can help ensure that people living in the European Union fully enjoy their rights. A range of policy and institutional levers at the EU level, many guided by international labour standards, could strengthen existing rights, improve social standards and foster upward convergence in the social and employment fields.

Also, acting to ensure fair and decent conditions for all is key to tackling the dangers of deepening inequality at work and to building the conditions for innovation and enterprise success. It is important because the traditional relationship between employer and employee in Europe has been very gradually changing, slowly moving away from the permanent employment relationship to other forms such as the “gig economy” where the labour market is characterized by the prevalence of short-term contracts or freelance work, as opposed to permanent jobs. That increases the risk of segments of the workforce becoming trapped in conditions of permanent insecurity.

Europe has traditionally been at the forefront when it comes to finding progressive solutions to social and economic challenges. The European Pillar of Social Rights is very much in line with that. It provides a framework for building a world of work that is fair and inclusive, guided by principles that resonate with the ILO’s own founding values: the conviction that prosperity must be shared, that human and labour rights underpin human dignity, and that social dialogue is a major component for social justice.        


What is the ILO’s role today on the national agendas of countries undergoing change for the labour issues? We’d like to hear your views on Greece.

The ILO serves its tripartite constituents in various capacities. For instance, the ILO provides support to countries that are going through labour reforms, including Greece. We have been strongly involved with the Greek authorities and social partners since the onset of the economic crisis, including in the areas of labour law and industrial relations. Our support has taken the form of policy advice on specific areas of labour law reform, as well as engagement in the reform process through multiple technical cooperation projects. Over the most recent years, ILO projects have focused on:

Assisting the reform of the Kinofelis public works programme by improving labour market matching mechanisms and building an information infrastructure better able to match the needs of workers and employers;

Strengthening the labour administration system, especially labour inspectorates; and

Supporting the reinvigoration of social dialogue in Greece to reduce the level of undeclared work and to support efforts to help workers move from the informal to the formal economy.

The latter project helped to create the necessary conditions for government, workers’ and employers’ representatives to agree on a roadmap to tackle undeclared work in Greece. The ILO continues its assistance on implementing this roadmap and further strengthening social dialogue.

Throughout our work, we emphasise the importance of policy coherence and the role of social dialogue in making and implementing legislative and administrative changes. We firmly believe that sound policies can only be developed by involving all stakeholders in an open and constructive dialogue.


Labour Migration: How does the ILO cooperate with the countries of destination and the countries of origin, as the migration process implies complex challenges regarding the migrant workers' protection?

First, let me outline the difference between labour migration and being a refugee. Employment is the main driver of migration and a huge force for economic development. Migration should be a choice, not a necessity. However, many people are on the move because of poverty, lack of decent job opportunities and other hardships.

As climate change, globalization, conflicts, income inequalities and demographic shifts are expected to result in the movement of millions of people in the coming years, the need for sustainable migration policies, grounded in human rights’ frameworks and a strong evidence base is both overwhelming and urgent.

On the other hand, a refugee is a person who has fled his or her country to escape war or persecution. You mention cooperation with countries. Let’s take the example of refugees and, in particular Syrian refugees. The governments of Turkey and Jordan have taken important steps to address the socio-economic challenges facing Syrian refugees by improving access to labour markets. The ILO is providing support for the implementation of these policy approaches, working closely with tripartite constituents and national and international partners.

For instance, our employment intensive investment programmes in Jordan are supporting access of Syrian refugees and Jordanians to the labour market, as it is important to take care of the needs not only of refugees but also of communities who are hosting them.

Finally, let’s keep in mind that decent work deficits and economic hardship are among the key drivers of migration. Strengthening social protection systems in the countries of origins will therefore not only reduce vulnerabilities and social exclusion and contribute to economic and social development, but will also address one of the root causes of migration.


Following the 2017 Recommendation on Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience, what is the role of social dialogue and the role of employers' and workers' organizations nowadays?

The Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience Recommendation, 2017 (No. 205), adopted last June by the International Labour Conference, updates the guidance of an earlier ILO Recommendation adopted in 1944 to provide responses to contemporary crisis situations arising from conflicts and disasters. This new instrument also widens the focus of the standard on reconstruction and recovery to include prevention and preparedness. 
The idea is also to help prevent and respond to the devastating effects of conflicts and disasters on economies and societies, paying special attention to vulnerable population groups, such as children, young people, women and displaced people. 

This new Recommendation was the conclusion of a two-year discussion between our tripartite constituents: governments, workers and employers. On this topic, as on all other issues, tripartite social dialogue is key to successful implementation as it is more difficult to apply new policies if they have not been discussed by both employers and workers who are most likely to be the ones turning them into reality on the ground.


In 2019, the ILO celebrates its 100th anniversary. Have you scheduled some special events or actions?

The ILO centenary will be the occasion to celebrate 100 years of working towards social justice. However, it will also offer an opportunity to show how our tripartite organization is more relevant than ever in a fast-changing world of work. You already mentioned some of the seven Centenary initiatives launched by the ILO: on the future of work, but also on ending poverty, women at work, the green economy, international labour standards, enterprises and governance.

The objective is to better understand and respond to the changes in the world of work and to provide leadership in addressing the global challenge of ensuring Decent Work for all women and men. The Global Commission on the Future of Work will help in advancing our thinking on how to tackle these challenges, and report its results to the 2019 Centenary International Labour Conference. Celebrations of and reflections on achievements of the ILO and its constituents will take place around the world and provide a stepping stone on the way forward in the world of work.