Togo’s former prime minister and the current president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Gilbert Houngbo, has recently received several endorsements that put him in good standing for the post of director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO). If elected he will set out to boost labour standards, double down on labour-related research at the ILO and establish a Global Coalition for Social Justice.
As the world faces a major political and economic crisis following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the repercussions for workers’ rights and employment standards across the world will be huge. Businesses are struggling with rising oil and commodity costs, putting pressure on balance sheets and leading to a rise in unemployment in some countries.
The International Labour Organisation (ILO), a UN body that promotes labour rights, is voting for a new director-general next Friday after the UK’s Guy Ryder steps down following ten years of service. There are five candidates in the running for the Geneva-based job including two from Africa alongside candidates from Australia, South Korea and France.
Togo’s former prime minister and the current president of the UN’s International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), Gilbert Houngbo, has recently received several endorsements that put him in good standing for the top job. The International Trade Union Federation (ITUC), the world’s largest collection of trade unionists, endorsed Houngbo earlier this month in a sign that industry-related organisations are behind the Togolese candidate.
General secretary Sharan Burrow said: “We are pleased to support Gilbert Houngbo in his candidacy for this extremely important position, with his strong track record of support for the ILO’s mandate, standards and tripartite structure and processes.”
Houngbo had served as deputy-director general in charge of Field Operations and Partnership at the ILO, starting in 2013. Writing in his vision-statement, Houngbo says that he was proud of responding to the collapse of the Rana Plaza building in Bangladesh, bringing all parties together to sign an accord that improved the working conditions in the local garment industry and provided compensation for the victims. In 2017, he moved to IFAD and was re-elected in 2021.
“My desire to return to the ILO stems from my drive to contribute to social justice everywhere. I believe that no other agency is currently equipped with such a noble and relevant mandate. As director-general, I will do my utmost to translate this mandate into inclusive progress for the current and future generations,” Houngbo writes.
In a comprehensive manifesto, Houngbo sets out his vision to boost labour standards, double down on labour-related research at the ILO and establish a Global Coalition for Social Justice which would bring together multilateral partners and stakeholders to ensure social justice is at the centre of policy making.
A new social contract is needed
Reflecting on the current crisis caused by developments in Ukraine and the pandemic, he remained cautiously optimistic:
“If there is one positive side to major emergencies, it is their ability to unify above political divisions. In the last two years we have seen some impressive engagement of actors from all political sides in the attempts of finding solutions to a common global emergency of Covid-19.
“This created a lot of common understanding on progressive economic and social policy. I believe that we need to use this political momentum to its maximum at the current stage, as the world is battling its way out of one huge crisis, and trying to prevent an even more dramatic economic downturn that could be the consequence of the current conflict in Ukraine.”
To be able to handle these crises as well as to build on the foundations established especially in developing countries, he feels that a new social contract is needed: “Progress made in the last decades in terms of social justice must be preserved and protected,” he writes in his manifesto, “while the global solutions to new challenges and opportunities must be centred around human, environmental, economic and societal values. In short, a new global social contract is required. The ILO, by virtue of its founding principles of social justice and tripartism…is uniquely placed to bring about this social contract.”
Experts say the world is at a critical juncture and the current ILO elections may be the most important in the organisation’s history since it was founded in 1919 under the League of Nations. Houngbo faces competition from Greg Vines, Australia, Mthunzi Mdwaba, South Africa, Muriel Penicaud, France and Kang Kyung-wha, South Korea.