Candidates for ILO Director-General on the Normative Future of the ILO

Here are the summaries of my perspectives on how the five candidates for ILO Director-General addressed the normative future of the ILO in their January 2022 interviews. 

Gilbert Houngbo

On the normative future of the ILO, the Governing Body members naturally asked Mr. Houngbo a lot of questions – regarding the “ceasefire” between employers and workers on the “right to strike” issue, the varied concerns about the nature and quantity of standard-setting, but also about their rates of ratification, implementation and oversight by the ILO’s supervisory machinery. Mr. Hounbgo’s response to the first of these questions was to agree that the right to strike was one of the issues that need to be brought to closure, without going into any further detail about this. One might conclude from this that he had not been directly involved in any of the debate on this issue during his brief tenure at the ILO.

Beyond that, his priority was on the implementation and ratification of standards rather than on either standard setting or the supervisory machinery. In this regard, he explained how he would start by “modernizing” the system, with his proposal on the ILO as an arbiter in trade agreements given as an example. Later, he spoke about modernizing the standards themselves, praising the current work on a review mechanism for cleaning up existing standards and supporting an integrated approach with Workers and Employers sitting together – but also drawing on the “three major pillars” of economic, social and environmental concerns for an “integrated approach” to standard, but with no specific mention of the Governments. He gave as examples what is already an ongoing focus on a standard focused on biological and chemical hazards and perhaps also a new standard on e-waste management. He also mentioned the gig economy without elaborating further on what he thought about it. (The “digital” economy was, however, mentioned in his written statement as an area where new standards may need to be developed.) And in several other places during the public interview, he referred to the challenges of corporate accountability in forced labor and supply chains, and he specifically repeated the proposal in his opening statement for a special program on the “transborder” dimension of ILO Convention 29 on forced labor.

Kang Kyung-wha

This topic was not Ms. Kang’s strength, unless one accepts her premise that the “great divide”, as she described it, between the Workers and the Employers needs a “fresh leadership”. Confirming her appreciation for the norms and values of the ILO and its tripartism, she explained that she was well placed to bring the skills that she applied in other difficult settings (for example, the tensions between humanitarian and development policies at the UN) for steering the parties to a compromise. “I can be,” she said, “an impartial player in this community”. This certainly is a credible claim on her part, and Ms. Kang showed a sincere interest in knowing more about the normative processes of the ILO, but without showing any familiarity with the specific issues. She had no suggestions of where new standards might be needed – just that she was open to new standards (or something “softer”) for new “challenges” or new “gaps” or new “needs”. She did have some more specific things to say about the ILO’s supervisory machinery – that, for example, there could be more interaction between mechanisms, more than just with the chairs. Interestingly, she drew on her experience as Deputy High Commissioner for Human Rights to suggest that there could be closer coordination between the monitoring mechanisms of human rights treaties and ILO mechanisms, such as the ILO’s Freedom of Association Committee. And a couple of times she remarked about how amazed she was with the quantity of the ILO’s work in its supervisory mechanisms, with the implication that they are handling far more work than the supervisory mechanisms with which she was familiar in the human rights arena.

Mthunzi Mdaba

Here we come to the crux of  Mr. Mdwaba’s interview. How does Mr. Mdwaba propose to move beyond his Employer-specific background to support all of ILO’s constituents? This came up in a number of ways during the interview, and each time he was emphatic in his commitment to “serving the board” – that is, the Governing Body – much as he has shown his responsiveness as a businessman to the board of his various companies. “The ILO” he said “is a three-striped jacket” (changing his wording here from his earlier references to a “three-legged pot”), and, he continued, “I will engage and give equal time” to all three and will “try to minimize the distrust” that he acknowledged to be a characteristic of the past ten years. Later in the interview, this trust issue came up again in terms of his views on the right-to-strike ceasefire and how to gain the trust of the Workers. Yes, he said, much as I have been a fierce fighter for the Employers, I will be the same for all three. After all, he pointed out, he and the Employers Group had already agreed with the Workers (and presumably the governments?) on other issues, mentioning the role of the CFA chair (not clear to an outsider what that meant) or UN reform, and specifically elaborating on the handling of the recent ILO project in Qatar. Besides, he said, the right to strike issue was “before my time”, and he further asserted, everyone has already agreed on how to manage it.

Elsewhere on this matter of the ILO’s normative future, Mr. Mdwaba expressed support for more “diversity and regional representation” in the ILO’s supervisory bodies. This appears to be code language for tripartite diversity in the appointments to supervisory bodies.  As for the possibility of new standards, he did identify occupational safety and health as an area that was in the interest of sustainable enterprises, and he also mentioned growing awareness of issues surrounding mental health. Otherwise, he said, it would be up to the Governing Body to “tell me what new standards we need”, and he would respond “with analysis”.

Muriel Pénicaud

In general, Ms. Pénicaud showed her familiarity with world of work issues without necessarily engaging in the more technical details of the ILO’s normative system. All processes in the system are interactive, she said, and they need to be fully deployed. New standards may be needed where new challenges are emerging and where there is a convergence on the right framework – for example, in dealing with digital, climate change or demographic shifts. But it’s up to the constituents to decide. Ratifications are a problem, but ratification levels can be deceiving. And yes, there needs to be a “renewed dialogue” on the supervisory system “to boost trust”.  In contrast, though, when she was asked about the “right to strike” issue, she was quite emphatic in asserting that the right to strike, based on her personal experience, is clearly linked to freedom of association and collective bargaining. The right to strike might not “have a convention”, but it is linked to these rights. What is needed, then, is clarification of when there is a right to strike, and the ILO needs to make progress on this. Workers need it, she said, and Employers need a legal framework for fair competition. We all need “serenity and clarity”.

On a related track that has implications for the normative work of the ILO, I note that Ms. Pénicaud’s experiences with corporate social responsibility came up a couple of times in the interview. She spoke about the changes in the traditional business model to support social and green agendas and rights to workers at the international level. Questions were raised about how to regulate the globalization of these practices and the disruptions to global supply chains that come from inadequate regulation. Ms. Pénicaud defended the application of “due diligence” principles at Danone while also acknowledging that the ILO is where decisions need to be taken about which norms make sense for today and tomorrow. She was also challenged regarding her participation in an initiative known as “the Global Deal” in which the French government became directly involved during her tenure at the ministry. This initiative has involved large multinational corporations and global labor union representatives but not any employer-oriented associations. Ms. Pénicaud defended the Global Deal for doing well as an information exchange but not for displacing the ILO or its social partners in any normative negotiations. This, she reiterated, is the ILO’s role, and tripartism is the heart of this organization.

Greg Vines

Again on this issue, Mr. Vines displayed the depth of his knowledge of the ILO and world of work issues. On the need for any new standards, he stated a willingness to consider how the world of work has indeed changed, thus meriting a look at how the application of the ILO’s overarching principles, which are still the same, could be applied in whatever new environment might show gaps in the realization of these principles. He took note, as have others, of occupational safety and health, as well as technology more generally and the gig/platform economy. On ratification and implementation of ILO standards, he described the importance of appreciating the historic link of the ILO to industrial countries of the West and how the ILO needs to reach out and reflect the diversity of its constituents in the dynamism of the rest of the world. This strikes me as rather obvious and something that happened decades ago, but fair enough. It is useful to have a candidate speaking about the importance of building capacity to implement ILO standards in different geographic settings and different levels of development.

On two other aspects of the normative future, Mr. Vines is a bit more traditional. First, on the matter of the supervisory machinery, Mr. Vines firmly stated that he would oppose any change in the reliance on impartial expertise for appointments to the supervisory machinery. Although in the policy-making and implementation processes, there is a role, he affirmed, for a representational diversity of backgrounds (especially based on regional or gender diversity), but not in the supervisory machinery itself.

And finally, the other issue related to the normative future has to do with the “right-to-strike” ceasefire that has stirred such interest from the GB about how each candidate would handle going forward. And here, Mr. Vines was quite outspoken on a question raised by the Workers’ representative, asking him how he would deal with the division on this topic. He explained how he has been given the challenge to review the tough negotiations over the past ten years. He believed that the ILO must resolve the issue, listing the three options (continuing the negotiations to recognize the validity of the right to strike, setting up a special ILO tribunal to settle this, or taking it to the International Court of Justice). The longer it is left to fester, he said, the more risk there is for the Workers in the ILO. “I fundamentally believe in the right to strike,” he said, and thus he pledged to continue to play a hands-on role.

The world of work and tripartite relations make the ILO the catalyst for positive change – for building a new global solidarity and for “reinvigorating social dialogue” at all levels – local, national and global.  The ILO, he concluded, needs a strong, committed and experienced leader, and he is “the right person with the right experience” to deal with the toughest of issues and to build consensus from all groups. Or, as he previously noted, “I know the ILO and the ILO knows me.”

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