Employers’ Spokesperson’s Remarks during the Opening Sitting of the 108th Session of the International Labour Conference 20
10 June 2019


Excellencies, Your Excellency Ambassador Mr Jean-Jacques ELMIGER, Chair, Colleagues from the GB,Delegates, Observers, Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen:(caution to interpreters) Good Morning, Bonjour, Buenos Dias, Molweni, Sanibonani, Dumelang, Asubuhi Nzuri…It just occurred to me that there is not a single African language that is one of our languages in 100 years and we may need to look into this…Happy Birthday to all of us, may we have a festive time and get time to dance!!

Allow me to begin by congratulating the President and Vice-Presidents of the 108th Session of the International Labour Conference on your election. You are presiding over a historic session of this Conference. As you all know, I have an enormous respect for each of you, and the work we have done together over the years.  Let us continue to make history during the next two weeks.


It is an exceptional honour and a pleasure to speak on behalf of the Employers’ Group this morning for this truly landmark event: the opening ceremony of the 108th session of the International Labour Conference taking place in the year of the ILO Centenary Anniversary. For me as a rural South African boy, it is a dual celebration given the Mandela Centenary celebration at home that dove-tails with this one and think there is more in the Stars than meets the eye. I do not believe in coincidences, but in universal connections.

Distinguished colleagues, when we launched the Centenary celebrations at the ILO building on the 22nd of January this year, I mentioned that for 100 years we have been living a wild dream. In 1941, the US President Franklin Roosevelt described ILO tripartite governance as a wild dream. Well, this dream has quite literally transformed the lives of billions of people for the better and changed the course of history.

This wild dream has sometimes seemed out of reach, but it is always leading us to a better place.

Our wild dream began in the shadows of the First World War. Then, the Commission on International Labour Legislation of the Paris Peace Conference proposed the establishment of a “permanent organization” and series of urgent measures to improve labour conditions in the world. These provisions became the Constitution of the International Labour Organization and were adopted by the Peace Conference on 11 April 1919. In October 1919 in Washington, DC, the First Session of the International Labour Conference took place.

A few milestones along the way included a Nobel Peace Prize in 1969. At the time the Chairman of the Nobel Committee said this about the ILO: “There are few organizations that have succeeded to the extent the ILO has, in translating into action the fundamental moral idea on which it is based.”

Our extraordinary capacity for dialogue has served us well as wars erupted, and as walls were (and are) erected to divide us. Our strength, my friends, is our ability to speak together, respect one another and find common ground. We should jealously protect and nurture this powerful force with all our collective strength for future generations.

We have much to be proud of as we look back on our 100-year history. We have risen to great challenges, overcome many obstacles and seized opportunities. The path has not always been clear, and conflict has, and will always, inevitably arise. But we persevere and, as M. Scott Peck wrote in The Road Less Traveled: “Once you admit that life is difficult, the fact is no longer of great consequence. Once you accept responsibility, you can make better choices."

Ladies and gentlemen,

Employers fundamentally believe in a fair playing field for the world of work. No one should be left behind, and we must go beyond rhetoric and make things happen.

And, importantly for us, labour is not a commodity; it is humanity.

We share the ILO’s belief that a skilled workforce is the backbone of success, not only of business but of society as a whole. We are committed to promoting social dialogue to guarantee sustainable economic growth, concomitant stability and ensure lasting peace. We firmly hold that freedom of association is a prerequisite for social peace, for workers and employers alike.


My presence here today symbolizes the active engagement of the Employers with the ILO since its establishment in 1919. On this Centenary and on behalf of the Employers’ Group and the International Organisation of Employers, now representing over 50 Million companies through our members globally, celebrating its Centenary in 2020, I unequivocally reaffirm our profound and long-standing commitment and gratitude to the ILO and to the objective to ensure social justice based on access to equal opportunities, productive employment and decent work for all.

We, the Employers, recognise the ILO’s significant contribution to the continued existence of employer organisations worldwide. Without these efforts, I doubt that I, indeed most of us, would be here today.

More significantly, the ILO’s work to protect employers’ organisations has not only saved institutions but also lives.

We believe that balanced ILO Conventions, Recommendations, and supervisory systems matter for business. We value the ILO’s policy guidance to shape  national and international debates in a balanced manner that benefits both workers and employers. And we whole-heartedly want to continue to be a strong voice in those debates, bringing the voice of employers to the ILO table.

All though is not well in our tripartite house. There is an unacceptable mischievousness  reference to us  as being “the brakes” on ILO’s work because we dare to differ and because we insist on being consulted and for urging all to ensure that the three legged pot I always use symbolically does not have unequal legs, as it shall spill the all important food in the pot. While this is meant to be a negative coonotation, we actually think it is a very positive one, where would safety be, without brakes? Brakesd are an essential element in this fast-paced world we live in.There are numerous times when our voice is not heard. There are way too many times when we have fights we should not be having, negative energy we can do without.The same applies when the Office finds consulting all three Constituents too burdensome. The sidelining of Constituents’ views harms the entire organisation. They undermine the ILO’s founding principles, mandate and work. They call into question the added value of the organisation. We are sabotaging social dialogue and tripartism from within and then we accuse the outside world of doing so. Decisions relating to the setting up, structuring and even inviting speakers by the office at the highest level without consulting us, is completely unacceptable, then we have to clean up chaos we had nothing to do with caused by the office?! A few days ago, a discussion had to be cancelled because a Member State was not consulted?!Matters such as the Global Deal, that has been parachuted from outside and imposed on us, then lobbying happening for the Global Deal using ILO resources is another example of what is increasingly becoming unacceptable. Some Member States and regional groups are increasingly being more equal than others, based on better resources or the ability to pay or fund programmes and then we say we shall leave no one behind, this is unhelpful. We cannot speak from both sides of the mouth. Let us have respect for social dialogue and let us mean it with consistent action. Failing this, this Centenary celebration shall be the last one the ILO shall have. As a South African who was oppressed and spent half of my life with no rights and unequal treatment in the old South Africa, I struggle with unfairness and unequal treatment. The ILO has historically had a phenomenal impact in the democratization of my country and freedom of association.

The strength of the ILO is its unique tripartite governance structure. You have other institutions that separately serve business interests while others represent workers, but nowhere else do the silos between the principal actors in the world of work break down and work together towards a better future.

Today I call on each one of us to take concrete steps to reinforce and renew our commitment to the ILO’s Tripartite Governance. We need to ensure that this governance is more balanced and transparent. It means that the Office must work towards ensuring that the interests of the three Constituents are addressed and promoted on an equal footing. This is where rhetoric must meet action. This is the House of Employers and business as much as it is the House of Workers and Governments. It is our House!It also means that as we, the Constituents, celebrate our successes we also must call out failures whenever they arise. It is also not lost to us that the 3rd of July represents a critical day for us, in terms of our Staff and whatever happens, we need to appreciate and look after our staff, our people and be exemplary to the world on how people must be respected and listened as well within the organization. The Employers love what this organization represents, let us all make it keep its shine!!

Ladies and gentlemen,

The agenda of this Centenary ILC is extremely ambitious. I would like to share the Employers’ views on the major topics. On the DG’s report which is the Global Commission for the Future of Work report, the Employers’ Group has made our position clear, what we like and what we find unacceptable. A process that is inclusive, transparent or balanced needs to accommodate and integrate a variety of recommendations that are based on different sources to ensure impact, not just talk and a show of "empty togetherness” that does not change the lives of our people.

The Committee of the Whole is responsible for drafting the Centenary outcome documents. I would like to have a very strong caution that we heed our call for the right manner in proceeding with working methods that are traditional for a discussion of this nature - trying out strange and untested working methods at our Centenary Celebration is very, very risky.Under the umbrella of social justice, the outcome document must include both a promise of decent work for all, along with a commitment to creating an environment where access to equal opportunities, full and productive employment, and economic growth is fostered. This is strategically essential for the future of the ILO. In addition, the outcome document must focus the ILO’s work more on anticipating skills, effectively tackling informality and promoting productivity growth to guarantee that the Organisation is credible with effective leadership.

We unanimously believe that violence and harassment is unacceptable wherever it occurs, including in the workplace – this view was consistently conveyed by Employers during the 2018 discussion. To realistically address violence and harassment, we have expressed our firm commitment to work towards an instrument that can be widely implemented in national law and practice in as many Member States as possible. Despite this clear stance, the whole process leading up to the second discussion has not delivered a satisfactory draft text that is practicable and flexible and that would ultimately provide effective protection to all victims of workplace violence and harassment, including the Employers. This second discussion should provide a renewed opportunity to have our concerns heard and to work towards an effective instrument. The topic is right. The timing is right. The ILO needs to show the outside world that it is capable of adopting standards that are effective and pertinent. The ILO must lead change and positive impact. The ILO must demonstrate that the tripartism brand works and is the solution to our global challenges.

Let me also celebrate that after a period of difficulties, we have been successful in making the Committee on Application of Standards a body which works quite well and provides the highest tripartite guidance to implement ILO Standards. This year, apart from the traditional list of cases it will discuss a general survey on Recommendation 2020 on Social Protection Floors, a highly pertinent topic for the Future of Work. Its recommendations and conclusions carry strong weight, even if divergent sometimes from those of other bodies, like the Committee of Experts. And even if we do not always  manage to get the tripartite consensus in all points. But we have learnt that agreeing to disagree is an intrinsic part of tripartism

Ladies and gentlemen,

In the words of my compatriot, one of the founders of our South African democracy and global icon, Nelson Mandela, speaking at the Conference in 2007: “We rely on the ILO to continue its struggle to make decent work [and I add: productive employment] a global reality.”

We have an extraordinary opportunity now to reaffirm the values and principles of the ILO and set the institution on a just and inclusive path into the next century by having the courage to speak up and tweak some parts to make it better and more effective. One of the ambassadors whose name I shall not mention, said to me recently, “The old lady(the ILO) has gathered a lot of dust over the years and it is time to dust it off to prepare it for its next 100 years.”

I look forward to our discussions over the next two weeks as it will be us, the ILO’s constituents, Governments, Employers and Workers who will set the Organisation on its path for the next 100 years. As we work over the next two weeks, we will disagree and negotiate well into the night. But once we reach a common understanding and a shared goal, we will make history.

I look forward to this landmark session of the International Labour Conference.​