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Statements Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights

ILO Thematic Forum

14 June 2019

Statement by UN High Commissioner for Human Rights

14 June 2019

Distinguished Chairs,
Distinguished fellow panellists,
Colleagues, friends,

I am pleased for this opportunity to discuss the need for sustainable transitions in the world of work. With so many transformative changes taking place, it’s fundamental that we shape the future of work with laws and policies, which uphold the fundamental principles and standards of human rights.

Let me make three points.

First of all, today, we live in an extremely unequal world. The growing gap between rich and poor is not only an economic issue, but a social issue, a political issue – and, fundamentally, a question of justice and human rights.

Secondly, demographic shifts are changing our societies. With youth populations expanding in many parts of the world, there were 70 million young people unemployed in 2017. In fact young people are three times more likely to be unemployed than adults. Meanwhile, in other parts of the world, the population is rapidly ageing, and this ageing society is putting increased pressure on labour markets and systems for social protection.        

Thirdly, technological advances, including artificial intelligence, automation and robotics – are creating new jobs, while eliminating others. People, who are ill-equipped for the transition, will be affected most severely – and often these are people, who already face discrimination. Artificial intelligence, when based on biased assumptions, may also entrench harmful stereotypes, feeding more discrimination.

How can we manage the fact of change, and shift these transformative forces so that they generate benefit for everyone?

I highlighted three shifts; let me highlight three solutions.

One: It is crucial to invest in people’s right to education, to combat inequalities and to achieve decent work for all

A startling number of young people are neither in education, technical or vocational training, nor employment. Meanwhile, older persons, find it difficult to access the necessary training to adapt or to re-enter the labour market.

To ensure that no one is left behind, States need to invest more in life-long learning. They need to scale up solutions for experimental and practical learning; develop vocational training based on labour market demand, with an emphasis on new technologies; establish public-private sector partnerships for apprenticeship; and provide much better guidance to people of all ages on the academic and vocational opportunities open to them.

Two: Women’s rights and gender equality are key to decent work

For a sustainable transition, and a just future of work, women need to be fully empowered and able to exercise their rights and make their own decisions -- at home, and across society, as well as at work.
Today, 14 June 2019, women in Switzerland are striking to protest abuses and gender inequality in the realm of work and beyond. Globally, the gender pay gap is estimated to be around 23 per cent. Currently, 740 million women make their living in the informal economy. The demands of unpaid care work often force women into informal jobs with precarious employment status and no access to social insurance benefits, including pensions.
We need comprehensive and coherent approaches that cut across several policy areas.

To achieve access to decent work for women, half the population, we need gender-sensitive social protection systems that tackle women’s unpaid work. We need far-reaching education to eradicate harmful gender stereotypes, promoting the rights of women and girls to make their own choices, and the need for shared family responsibility for work in the home. We need to reduce the heavy burden of unpaid care work, which women carry all their lives. We need all this -- and more.

Three: Human rights-based policies effectively uphold workers’ rights and guarantee social protection

Whe navigating transitions, States should use their maximum available resources to ring-fence budgets, to ensure that rights are protected -- including the right to decent work and the right to social protection -- that essential services remain accessible even in economic downturns.

Social protection is a fundamental human right. It is also an essential safety net for society, especially when technological advances are accompanied by temporary or permanent job losses and widespread anxiety.

By mitigating the negative impact of unemployment, creating access to further education, improving labour market opportunities, and securing access to at least the core content of the rights to health, food, water and sanitation, education and housing, social security systems can ensure that individuals, and all of society, are protected from the worst impact of upheavals. 

Universal social protection systems that contribute to gender equality, respect human rights and protect marginalized groups -- such as children, older persons, persons with disabilities, informal workers and migrants – are effective, and they are feasible.

A number of countries, both developed and developing, have established universal social protection, and can speak to the very powerful effect these systems can have in curbing poverty and marginalisation, reinvigorating the economy, and upholding human dignity.

When I became President of Chile, I knew the biggest task we faced was making Chilean society more inclusive, undoing the discrimination and inequalities, which forced so many people to the margins of society.

We needed to focus much more on spreading economic growth and making sure it benefited a much wider group of people, with better services, and a strong focus on early child development.
We made it possible for all students in Chile --women and men -- to obtain not only primary and secondary, but also university education, free of charge for 70% of students. 

We worked to provide wider public childcare, so that mothers could work. We made reforms to ensure more representation of women in political parties and in parliament.

These measures, and many others, built a stronger economic base. But their impact also extended much more broadly, across society.

Human rights are the drivers of peace, security, confidence, resilience, and public trust. Inclusive, participatory societies benefit from the skills of everyone; and when essential services are provided, such as adequate and accessible health care, education and housing, everyone reaps massive economic, political and social benefits.


A century ago, in the wake of the First World War, the ILO was created “in the conviction that social justice is essential to universal and lasting peace”. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights was drawn up amid the devastation of the Second World War, and many of its articles are clearly inspired by the international standards and common values the ILO had developed.

Today, at a time of growing turbulence in the world, the fundamental rights and principles that underpin decent work can be our proven guide to navigating the multiple transitions we face in the world of work.

The 2030 Agenda is our roadmap to prosperous, peaceful and resilient societies on a healthy planet. It can only be achieved with human rights-based policies and programmes, which ensure that people will benefit from the life-improving promises of technology.

We have the tools. We have the map. We can afford to enable everyone to live in dignity.

It is time for action.

Thank you.