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The Future of Work Podcast

Episode 32
Social justice

ILO Director-General – Why we need greater social justice

20 February 2023

A toxic combination of mutually-reinforcing crises – inflation, debt, food and fuel price rises, geopolitical tensions and conflict, climate change – are threatening to increase poverty, inequality and discrimination worldwide. They are also fuelling social tensions. Yet, while policymakers focus on the need for progress on economic and environmental issues, less attention is being paid to the third pillar necessary for recovery –  social progress.

On World Day of Social Justice, the ILO’s Director-General, Gilbert F Houngbo, explains why a greater emphasis on social justice is essential for a sustainable recovery, and why we need a Global Coalition for Social Justice to ensure that the necessary measures and actions are integrated throughout all levels of policy-making.


If you desire peace, cultivate justice.

This phrase is written into the foundations of the ILO,


It's on a stone in the foundations of our first building,

our first headquarters in Geneva.

It refers to justice in the broadest sense.

It means justice in life for humanity.

In other words, social justice.

Rarely in the ILO's 100-year history,

has the lack of social justice been so clear as it is at the moment.

On top of the legacy of COVID-19,

we're facing several overlapping and mutually reinforcing crises,

geopolitical tensions, economic instability,

growing inequality, and the effects of climate change.

Together, these pose existential risks that are too large for any one country

to solve by themselves.

This is a special edition of the ILO's Future of Work podcast

to mark World Day of Social Justice on February the 20th.

Our special guest today

is the ILO's Director-General, Gilbert F. Houngbo.

Director-General, welcome to the podcast, and thank you very much for coming.

-Oh, thank you for organizing this.

-My first question to you is that

since you took up your post of Director-General last autumn,

you have made the campaign for social justice a priority.

While times are particularly difficult now,

and the need is particularly obvious,

the lack of social justice is not new.

Why does it particularly matter now?

-Yes, you are right that social justice is not new

and the needs are not new.

Quite frankly, if you look at the last few years,

the situation is worsening.

On one hand, all of us are very amazed

about the potential of wealth creation driven by technology,

lot of opportunities.

We have the 5%, 10% of the richest in the world

that sees their wealth keep growing.

Then on the other hand,

when you talk about 50% of the world's population

with zero social protection,

with zero protection, you have more than 200 million people, workers

that are remaining poor despite 40 hours of work.

They cannot secure a $1.90 per day.

-Working poverty, as we would call it. Yes?

-As ILO will call it the working poverty, the working poor.

I can go on, and COVID, I remember very well

how striking it was

when we that were living in this part of the world

were vaccinated at the rate of 70%.

When I called my family back home in Togo, the vaccination were maybe at 5%.

It doesn't matter how you want to explain it.

Facts are facts.

The situation was going worse.

This is why, for me,

it's important to bring social justice back on the front line.

-Let's try and narrow this down a bit.

When you talk about social justice, what do you actually mean?

Because it's a very broad term, and it can mean all things to all men.

-It's true that it's quite very broad.

To be honest, I believe we can spend hours

trying to have an agreed definition of social justice which doesn't exist.

There's no international very specific definition per se,

but let's just apply our common sense.

For me, the very important thing is really fighting against inequalities,


ensuring every human being should have same opportunity.

Equal access to opportunities, for me, is quite important in social justice,

and therefore having a decent work and dignifying work,

people are not asking more than that.

Having a minimum protection, what ILO will call the protection floors,

and for me, it's part of the social justice.

Access to water and sanitation, access to education,

having the freedom, the voice to express what one feels,

or willing to work safely.

I can go on.

In all those dimensions, essentially,

we need to ensure that our life,

our social contracts is really balanced,

that we don't create too much inequalities.

-A lot of the criteria you've just mentioned

are actually included in the ILO's normal conversation about decent work,

but I think from what you're saying,

that what you mean by social justice actually goes a little beyond decent work.

-Essentially, all our work contributes to a better social justice.

Let's be very clear.

At the same time, social justice goes beyond ILO mandate.

This is what I was referring to education.

I can refer to health.

I can refer to water sanitation.

The right to food security is a matter of social justice.

It's important for us to keep in mind that social justice goes beyond ILO mandate,

but ILO has to contribute more

and, of course, remain focused on its mandate,

which would be its contribution to that broader challenge.

-I can hear policymakers saying to you, well, yes,

there's nothing in what you've said that we disagree with,

and social justice is fine, and it's a laudable long-term goal,

but right now we've just come out of COVID.

We have inflation,

which in many places has been in double digits.

We have a lot of bills to pay.

Not right now.

What do you say to them?

-That will be a big mistake.

This is why we are talking about the coalition,

not only to bring others to join ILO.

ILO need others, others need ILO,

but every single policy making has to keep in mind,

okay, the policy I'm about to make,

how does it contribute to a better social justice?

If we miss it, you can have great economic growth,

yet you have people on the streets.

-This is what you're talking about human-centered policy-making.

-Exactly. -As you say,

rather than having fantastic financial figures

from the stock markets,

when as you say, you have

-growing inequalities. -No,

having fantastic financial figures is important

for us to create wealth.

It's important for us to generate jobs.

It's important for us to make progress

in just transition, in tackling the climate challenge, et cetera.

My point is, what's the value

of making those financial progress

just to end up by fueling 5% of the richest

and having the majority of people still in the dark.

This is why I'm saying that we could combine the two.

We have to be very clear.

We are not, and we should not think

about the economy or the finance as the devil.

What we are pushing for is that the economic,

the social,

and the environment are three pillars that has to move side by side,

and we should not favour one to the detriment of the other.

-You are calling for a new global coalition

for social justice to tackle this issue.

What would be different about this coalition

that doesn't already exist with a number of other multilateral initiatives?

-First of all, let's think about it.

Right now the S of the ESG (environmental, social and governmental), the social,

the discourse is not at the same level

as the economic and the sustainability of the environment.

Imagine, if in the whole world, we can bring the discourse

on social justice at the same level as the economic and the environment.

That, for me, will be big achievement, because right now, it's not.

Right now, the S, social,

is not at the same pace.

-Why? Why do you think that is?

Why it has been neglected?

-Because we have not prioritized it.

It's a big challenge, but I believe we all know, you said it at the beginning,

the risk for us is whether we want peace or not.

-Peace as opposed to conflict.

-Exactly, and social peace, that means I'm not talking about

natural disaster or political conflict.

Socially speaking,

if we do not cultivate a better social justice,

you will end up with more social unrest.

That one we know it.

-If you desire peace, cultivate justice. -Cultivate justice.

This is one big objective

bring the discourse at the same level.

Secondly, as I've said,

social justice include ILO but goes beyond ILO,

so you need to create the synergy.

Our Research department will be producing a report

on the state of the social justice in the world.

That will help each country to compare where they were,

maybe three, five years ago.

We are not interested in any comparison between countries,

but a country will have enough data to see the progress they are making

or to adjust their strategy.

The one point you touch on in your question, which for me is very important,

a lot of data exist already in the context of the SDGs,

so we are not reinventing the wheel,

but by bringing all that touches social justice together,

and to be able to see the progress we are making,

it seems to me crucial.

That also will help us to really be better accountable,

vis-a-vis social justice.

We are not just acting here,

and therefore, what's the impact specifically on social justice?

-Have you got any specific examples of the kind of things

you might want measured?

Because it is, of course, a truism that

if you want something done, you need to have it measured.

-Once we will have operational meeting

to finalize what are the different pillars

on where we are going to focus.

Naturally, the four branches of decent work will be there,

but I don't want to preempt what the coalition itself will finalize.

Once that is defined,

I will see each pillar having its own champion,

and Member States, multilateral and other institutions can choose to focus,

to be part of a specific pillar.

That specific pillar could decide, okay, in the next two years,

why don't we focus on social protection?

Why don't we focus on access to water and sanitation?

Why don't we focus on gender equality and inclusion?

Then you can also come up with maybe some dimensions

which are not yet measured.

Then our Research department will develop mechanisms to measure that as well.

-To fill in the holes. -To fill the holes, if any.

-Who do you see as joining this coalition other than nation states?

-First of all, I see most of the UN agencies,

the financial institutions, the Bretton Woods Institutions,

our social partners, both employers and workers,

the civil society, the private sector, for the IFI (international financial institutions).

I will see that will be the beginning of the core.

I came from Davos two weeks ago.

There are a lot of private sectors that are doing great things.

I met with one CEO, a major multinational, and they are quite advanced

in implementing the concept of living wage,

rather than just a minimum wage.

A living wage in all the countries where they're operating,

not just in Europe.

I met with another CEO, where they are really focusing to ensure

that in all the places they're working in the world as well,

a minimum,

the quota for disabled people is one of the highest.

So there are different activities going on from the private sector side.

I want to make sure that we can work with them,

and obviously, before we engage,

we also need to do a minimum due diligence.

-It sounded like you detected in Davos

a fairly major shift in the attitude and approach of the private sector,

from say, 5, 10 years ago.

-I would say from say, 10 years ago, which for me is quite very encouraging,

but it doesn't mean that everything is rosy.

On that, we have to remain alert.


DG, I think that is all we have time for today.

I'd like to thank you very much

for your time and your input in joining us here today.

Thanks to you, our listeners, for your time and your attention.

For now, let me wish you goodbye, and please join us again soon

for another Future of Work podcast.


The world needs a strong and sustained dose of social justice