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Interview with Juan Somavia: “Decent work is everybody’s business”
in SHSviews 18
In this interview, the Director-General of the International Labour Organization stresses the challenge of making work decent for all. According to him, the international labour crisis is one of the greatest current security threats and should be everybody’s business.
Interview with Juan Somavia: “Decent work is everybody’s business” The International Labour Organization published, last May, a report on discrimination at work. What are the main findings?

There is, first of all, one piece of good news: more and more legislative texts and measures are being adopted to fight against discrimination at work. As a result, 9 out of 10 countries have ratified the 2 fundamental conventions on discrimination, the United Nations has just adopted a new Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the collection of ILO practical guidelines to fight against discrimination for persons suffering from HIV/AIDS is now used in more then 60 countries. However, despite this progress, hundreds of millions of people still suffer from discrimination at work. All over the world, information campaigns and the means and institutions necessary to fight discrimination are not up to the task. Every day, women earn less than men for equivalent work. Disabled and elderly workers are deprived of the opportunity to explore their potential. Minority groups are also excluded from the hiring process based on their religion or race. New forms of discrimination are also appearing based on age, sexual orientation or genetic predisposition.

What challenges need to be met to fight discrimination?

The report presents an action plan that suggests promoting stricter laws and more efficient implementation, and working for equality between men and women by integrated action coordinated at global level to provide employers and employees with the necessary tools to promote equality on the ground. Above all, the report emphasizes the need to continue to act to promote decent work conditions for all, without regard in national policies for gender, race, religion or other distinctions. The persistence of discrimination at work is not just a violation of human rights. It also has larger economic and social consequences, since discrimination holds back development by wasting human talent and emphasizing tensions and social inequalities. Because work is an essential part of everyone’s life, eliminating discrimination at work would contribute to empowering individuals, to reinforcing the entire economy and to enrich societies as a whole. Work can help us to eradicate poverty and to reach the Millennium Development Goals by contributing to fair forms of globalization

In order to fight poverty, you have given top priority to the Decent Work Agenda. What does it imply?

Decent work encapsulates human beings’ aspirations with respect to work. It implies opportunities to access productive and adequately paid labour, security at work and social protection for families, better personal development perspectives and social integration, freedom to express one’s demands, to organize and participate in decisions that affect workers’ lives, equality of opportunities and equal treatment for all, meaning in particular for both women and men. And finally, decent work is a source of dignity for the person.

In the global village that the world is becoming, to ensure decent work as a reality for all should be a shared concern of the international community. Indeed, to a certain extent, it already is. What the observable shortage of decent work means is unemployment and under-employment, unproductive and low-quality jobs, dangerous work with unpredictable earnings, rights disregarded and gender inequality, exploitation of migrant workers, lack of representation and opportunities for expression, and inadequate protection and solidarity in the face of disease, disability and old age.

To mention just a few examples: some 200 million people are unemployed today, more than ever before. Worldwide, half of all workers live with less than two dollars a day. 86 million of unemployed persons, almost half of the total, are between 15 and 24 years old. Even today, one in every seven children in the world is forced to work. Each year, accidents or professional illness cause 2 million deaths a year, an average of 6000 a day.

To what extent does the shortage of decent work represent a risk for populations?

Beyond the human rights violations it causes, the current worldwide labour crisis is one of the biggest threats to security. Business as usual will confront the world with increased risks of division, protectionism and conflicts. A chronicle lack of opportunities for decent work, insufficient investment and underconsumption will lead to the erosion of the fundamental social contract that ties together democratic societies, the contract according to which progress should be shared by all. Similarly, experience in many countries shows that the risks of disorder are higher where the need for decent working conditions is ignored. Conversely, crises are resolved faster where communities unite to work on reconstruction. That is why I am convinced that decent work should be regarded as an important item on the agenda to establish peace in the world.

How can the objectives of the Decent Work Agenda be reached?

If we agree on the fact that decent work is a precondition for sustainable development and peace, as well as a key factor in reducing and eradicating poverty, we should coordinate national and international actions to implement the Decent Work Agenda.

To do so, we shall need the assistance of other organizations and we shall also need new means of action.

For employment cannot be created by decree, no more than poverty can be eradicated by fiat. The process is a long and complex one, calling for participation and consultation of all components of society.

Governments, employers and workers have their own role to play in the process of building a constructive consensus. In this respect, while the ILO, as a tripartite organisation, has exemplary experience that should no doubt be more widely shared, the job is not one for one organization alone. It is the responsibility of the international community of stakeholders.

The multilateral system needs to bring teamwork to the challenges our world is facing today. And there is not enough team spirit around.

How can UNESCO contribute to making decent work a reality ?

I believe there is not one challenge related to decent work that is outside UNESCO’s responsibility. We are already working together actively to develop qualifications, but achieving the objectives of the Decent Work Agenda calls for integrated policies in many more areas than education and training. It is a matter of education as well as of human rights promotion, of the struggle against discrimination as well as of the distribution of the benefits of scientific progress, not to mention access for policy makers to the results of social science research with a view to policy design. Could one imagine, for example, discussing climate change without questioning changing modes of work and production? The transformations ongoing in our societies are the result of human activity. These are the areas where we have experiences to share.

Interview by Cathy Bruno-Capvert

Juan Somavia

Before his election in 1998 and re-election in 2003 as Director-General of the International Labor Organization, Juan Somavia had a long and distinguished career in civil and international affairs. A university professor, a lawyer by profession, he served, among other functions, as Permanent Representative of Chile to the United Nations, Chairman of the Board of the United Nations Research Institute for Social Development (UNRISD), and Coordinator of the Third World Forum. For his contribution to peace and human rights, he was awarded the “Leonides Proano Peace Prize”.

Photo: © J. Isaac / ILO

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Author(s) UNESCO - Sector for Social and Human Sciences
Periodical Name SHSviews
Publication date 2007-10
Publisher UNESCO
Publication Location Paris, France
Related Website http://www.unesco.org/shs/views

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