Our world is changing with unprecedented rapidity. Technology, demography, climate change and globalisation are mega-trends that seem to be powering ahead, creating uncertainty and, in some cases, fear of change.
But in Asia the experience of change over the last 50 years has been generally positive. It has brought prosperity, lifting hundreds of millions of ordinary people out of poverty.
Today, about half of the region’s workers and their families are classified as middle class or richer (meaning they spend more than $5 per person per day). With better education and more investment, people are moving from agriculture into higher-value manufacturing and services. Social protection is expanding. Labour productivity has been growing at about twice the global rate.
But the wave of prosperity has not washed over everyone equally. Income and social inequality persists, and in some places has widened, notably among marginalised groups. One in 10 of the region’s workers still live in extreme poverty (less than $1.90 per day). More than a billion people are in vulnerable employment. There is a concerning trend for formal employment to become ‘informalised’, through contract, temporary or part-time work.
So the issue is not change itself, but what kind of change. How do we shape these global mega-trends so that they deliver the future we want?
I see one very clear answer to this. That future must be based on the notion of decent work and social justice.
Placing decent work and social justice at the core of policymaking is simply a recognition of the obvious; none of us can build a better future for ourselves unless we include others. For proof we hardly have to look beyond today’s headlines to find cases where the denial of the basics of social justice has created threats to peace, stability and development.
The importance of decent work for inclusive and sustainable development has been recognised internationally and is fully reflected in the UN 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development, in particular in Goal 8.
We must harness these mega-trends so they support the Sustainable Development Agenda, and shape the future of work so that it delivers the maximum benefit to all people, equally. The question is, how?
Starting yesterday I joined hundreds of government ministers, workers’ and employers’ organisation representatives, academics and others to discuss this, at the ILO’s 16th Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting, in Bali, Indonesia.
The delegates represent more than 40 countries in Asia, the Pacific and the Arab States – equivalent to about 60 percent of the global workforce. This ambitious forum only takes place every four years, and the range of actors brought together is unique in the international system; nowhere outside the ILO do employers and workers’ leaders sit down to negotiate equally with government ministers. This gives our discussions real representational and policy-making strength.
The countries in this group are very diverse – economically, socially, politically and geographically – but as they prepare for this meeting, I strongly encourage them to focus more on the similarity of the challenges they face. If they use their combined strength to harness these mega-trends, they can create a region-wide, coordinated programme of action that will pave the road to an inclusive and prosperous region that offers decent work and social justice to all.
We need economic growth that is sustainable and job-rich, rather than just statistically impressive. Such growth can only be lasting and equitable if it is built on the foundations of strong and relevant labour market institutions, which themselves are founded on internationally-accepted principles and rights that underpin better quality work.
I must point out that ratification of the ILO’s eight core conventions is disappointingly low in this region. These standards cover the basic human rights issues of forced labour, child labour, discrimination and freedom of association, yet just 14 of 47 of Asia Pacific ILO members have signed up to the full suite of these standards.
Asia Pacific leads the world in so many areas – why not in workplace standards too?
The promotion of equity and equality must be at the heart of our labour market systems; for example, through effective legislation, social protection systems, and the appropriate use of wage setting and collective bargaining.
We must recognise that workers’ rights do not end at borders. Labour migration is a massive and growing trend. The economies of many Asia Pacific countries depend heavily on migrant labour – both as sending and receiving countries. When labour migration is properly managed, it is a conduit for skills and wages to flow where they are most needed. It can, and must, be a triple-win – benefiting migrants and their families, their home country and their destination.
And, crucially, we need effective social dialogue. None of this will be achieved without discussions and negotiations that engage all the stakeholders of the ‘real’ economy – governments, workers’ and employers – in policymaking and implementation, and treat their views with equal importance and respect.
The 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development offers us a chance to transform the future of work so that it is inclusive, decent and equitable. It is a huge challenge, which will take great political will, long-term thinking and sophisticated co-ordination. I am confident that the countries of this region can rise to it.
The writer is the director-general of the
International Labour Organization.