Perspectives on the Five Candidates for ILO Director-General

Five candidates are standing for election for a five-year term as the next Director-General of the International Labor Organization.  All five are credible candidates, one of whom will be chosen by the ILO Governing Body by secret ballot in late March for a term beginning on 1 October 2022. The Governing Body took the unusual step of holding a series of “public dialogues” with each of the candidates on 20 and 21 January 2022.  As a former Deputy Director-General with no preferred candidate, I followed these interviews with a personal interest in what each candidate had to say on four specific of issues.  I have prepared here an explanation of how and why I chose these four specific issues. This is followed by my reflections on how each of the candidates addressed these four issues in their interviews.  The ILO Governing Body will be meeting again with the candidates on 14 and 15 March, and I look forward to following their deliberations and then, starting on 25 March, the outcome of their balloting.

As a former Deputy Director-General of the ILO from years ago who has no direct affiliation with the ILO today, I continue, nonetheless, to have a deep personal interest in the future of the ILO.  I appreciated the decision taken by the ILO Governing Body to conduct a series of public dialogues with the five candidates in January.  These public dialogues are still available on the ILO website here.  As I listened to them, I identified four issue areas of particular interest to me. In addition to my first impressions of how the five candidates handled these four issues, I reviewed their officially submitted biographies and written vision statements. These are also posted on the ILO website here.  I don’t intend to promote any particular candidate, and my effort here is merely to highlight the characteristics of how each candidate handled these four issues.

In connection with this introductory piece, I have prepared individual links for my perspective on how the five candidates have addressed each of these four issues – Informality, Gender EqualityMultilateralism, and the Normative Future of the ILO and  also on how each of the five candidates  – Gilbert HoungboKang Kyung-wha, Mthunzi Mdwaba, Muriel Pénicaud and Greg Vines has addressed all four chosen issues.

My initial reaction to the interviews was one of skepticism. It seemed as though they were all talking about the urgent need for a new global social contract. Yet another social contract? Yes, I understand that we are in a semi-shocked state as the pandemic has lasted so much longer than any of us had expected. And the pandemic has indeed aggravated many of the workplace-related issues that had been described before the pandemic as something like a “Fourth Industrial Revolution”. But another new global social contract?  Wasn’t there a whole exercise to update or reaffirm the mission of the ILO for the centenary celebrations of 2019?  What about all those other global social contracts that the ILO had previously adopted?  Wasn’t there also a Global Call to Action just a couple of years ago? And before that? What about all those efforts for a Global Jobs Pact or the Declaration on Social Justice for a Fair Globalization?

To be fair, as I listened to these candidates in January, I did come to realize that we are indeed at yet another crossroads for the future of a world of work. We are all experiencing some very dramatic changes in the world of work (rising inequalities, the spread of the Internet, the threat of climate change, increasingly precarious jobs. Indeed, they were all evident and even addressed in that Centenary Declaration of 2019. But one can legitimately argue that the devastating impact of the pandemic on the world of work, the populist challenges to democracy and the vivid proof of the human suffering from climate change are more alarming than ever. So yes, we continue to be challenged, especially as we pull ourselves out of the shocks of the pandemic and related crises of the past couple of years. (Please  note, too, that these thoughts were written down before the catastrophe of the Russian invasion of Ukraine,)

For me, the appreciation of the need for yet another global social contract came into a pronounced focus with the way the different candidates handled the question of job informality as part of that “new” or at least “latest of” crossroads for the ILO. Not only was it evident that informality is a very significant (and long-standing) issue for the Governing Body members who were conducting the public dialogues; it was also significant to me as I started realizing how these candidates were handling the issue a bit differently. That led me to start organizing my notes with a focus on this perspective. And in the process of reviewing my notes in this particular context, I also realized that there were a number of other issues that caught my attention for similar reasons.

Gender equality, of course, was one of these.   That is to say, not only is the issue of gender equality important to me personally, but it was also certainly evident that there were differences among the candidates on this issue.  And another one that has clearly been a personal interest of mine is the extent to which each candidate sees a future for multilateralism. That, too, was one of the issues where the candidates had strikingly different approaches. And finally, on a rather more basic level I had to include the broad question of the normative future of the ILO and how each candidate was proposing to to address the constitutional nuances of this issue.

The dialogues did cover many other issues – like how the ILO should be addressing climate change and other environmental issues or the impact of demographic trends or the importance of geographic or cultural or even “constituent” diversity in the organization itself, as well as other governance reforms.  And they are important issues for the constituents of the ILO.  They were obviously there as part of the dialogues, but I did not see any significant differences among the candidates, at least from my personal perspective. Perhaps there were nuances here and there, but all the candidates seemed to agree that climate change requires the ILO’s approach to a “just transition”; that demographic trends are real, albeit different in different regions; that diversity needs to be implemented in the internal administration of the Office; and that governance reforms include ratification of that long-neglected 1986 amendment for the sake of democracy.

In contrast, the four issue areas that I chose to cover are where one can see some real differences among the five candidates. What follows, then, is a choice of links to my impressions of how each candidate addressed the four issues: Gilbert Houngbo, Kang Kyung-wha, Mthunzi Mdwaba, Muriel Pénicaud and Greg Vines. Or alternatively, here are the links to how all five candidates addressed each of the four issues: Informality, Gender Equality, Multilateralism, and the Normative Future of the ILO.

Note: The dialogues were broadcast live on the ILO website, and recordings of each session are available on the website in all seven official languages of the ILO (English, French, Spanish, German, Russian, Arabic and Chinese).  Each dialogue started with a vision statement by the candidate, followed by the candidate’s response to questions from designated representatives of various groups in the Governing Body and a concluding statement. In addition, the ILO website has a more formal vision statement and biographies. All of these materials can be accessed here.

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