Mthunzi Mdwaba – Candidate for ILO Director-General

Mthunzi Mdwaba from South Africa was the third person to be interviewed. Mr. Mdwaba has had direct experience with the ILO, all within the Employers Group and emphasized his commitment to “three-legged pot” of tripartism. He is listed as an Employer delegate to the ILO Governing Body as far back as 2010, but his biography only refers to his ILO-related credentials since 2017 when he was elected to lead the Employers’ Group in the Governing Body for a term that ran from 2017 to 2020. My recollection is that his competition for this position was Ed Potter, a long-standing American representative to the Employers Group and world-renowned expert on ILO labor standards. Mr. Potter’s last major leadership role was to represent the Employers Group in negotiations regarding a very controversial (to the Employers) normative process to cover global supply chains.

In his written biography, Mr. Mdwaba lists that he has the endorsement of the African Union, the South African Development Community and the South African Minister of Employment and Labor, but on the ILO website, it shows that the South African Government withdrew its endorsement. Instead, the ILO lists five Employer representatives (all from Africa, I believe) and the Government of Lesotho as his sponsors.


As one would expect, one of the first questions from the Workers was about his view of the role for the ILO in managing the growing erosion of the formal economy and increase in precarious jobs – and especially in the context of the ILO role in global supply chains. Mr. Mdwaba responded that informality is “huge where I come from” and that he understands how social protection requires more than transitions to formality. He believed that one should look at people in informality where they are, and even suggested that the ILO could apply a wider array of innovative tools, including the application of Convention 87 (the ILO standard on the right to collective bargaining). “Yes,” he said, “we must deal with informality in all its phases”. As for informality as applied to global supply chains, one could “get into” them to find answers with the development of small and medium enterprises. This appears to be in line with his written statement where he describes a “new way” of restructuring the world of work through social dialogue, also described there as the “third way” without his explaining what the “first” or “second” way might mean. It is worth noting that he expressed enthusiasm for social dialogue and working with Workers’ representatives but said nothing about a role for governments here.

Gender Equality

In both his interview and his written statement, gender was among the array of issues that Mr. Mdwaba listed for the ILO to be addressing. And, in both settings, he specifically mentioned his role in drafting both the Centenary Declaration and Convention 190 on Violence and Harassment at Work, both of which were adopted at the 2019 International Labor Conference. In fact, when asked about this regarding his record on gender, he made a point of saying that he had been directly involved in the drafting of Convention 190 and that “he had a dance with the Worker” representative when it was formally adopted. He also described his support for women in his company needing the same benefits – “consciously” – as men and his having served on the board of the Business Women’s Association in South Africa. He went on to say, and I quote, we “can’t have world peace if our women are not happy”. And he concluded that he participated at a recent event at the Rosa Luxembourg Foundation to promote the importance of a “three-legged pot” and that he opted to cook with a three-legged pot at this event in order to feature this image. (It is, by the way, a phrase that he uses mostly to describe the importance of tripartism, not necessarily the importance of gender equality.)


On this issue, Mr. Mdwaba did make references in his interview to working with the UN and especially the Sustainable Development Goals, but he offered no specific proposals on multilateralism in his written statement.  He did at one point indicate that he has given a lot of thought to how the ILO could have more impact in the UN family and especially on behalf of its tripartite constituents at ECOSOC or UNDP. There was a question on climate change on how to promote a just transition in the world of work, to which he replied that the ILO must collaborate with other entities. But the point he made even here was that the ILO needs to focus on working with the different circumstances for a just transition with people on the ground, rather than with any other multilateral institution globally. But taken from this different angle on multilateralism, Mr. Mdwaba also suggested that the ILO could look for new ways of financing “ILO delivery”, including with the private sector. This, too, was in the context of a discussion on climate change but also with regard to the exponential growth since the pandemic on the developmental needs for something like SDG 8!

Normative Future

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”.


Memorable quotes from Mr. Mdwaba: Tripartism is like a “three-striped jacket” or a “three-legged pot” and on gender, we “can’t have world peace if our women are not happy”.

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