102nd International Labour Conference: what’s in it for Singapore?

The International Labour Organisation (ILO) recently held the 102nd session of its International Labour Conference (ILC) in Geneva. Among the many topics discussed by the delegates and the representatives of labour movements from most ILO member countries were the pressing issues of labour standards and social protection for growing and ageing populations.

Singapore representatives attended the conference to not only give our nation’s point of view on certain issues (job creation, social protection, inclusive growth, tripartite representation), but to also bring home some valuable insights to avoid the mistakes other ILO countries have made.

One of the main topics, employment, was discussed by a panel of delegates from countries heavily affected by the economic crisis. As Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, put it in his closing remarks: “employment – and especially youth employment – is today at the heart of the political debate in most EU countries. [it is] a recent concern for us in Europe, has been a topic for many countries gathered here, [and] it’s a key global challenge”.

As you may already know, the youth unemployment rate here is one of the lowest in the world, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be aware of what is being done elsewhere to tackle this issue.

Regarding the impact of changing world trends on decent work, wages, and inequalities, Director-General Guy Ryder summed up the challenge in his opening remarks: “The mega-drivers of demography and technology, the new processes of rebalancing of a global economy still recovering hesitantly, unevenly, or not at all, from a half-decade of crisis, the transformation of the nature and location of production systems, the new contours of poverty and prosperity around the world, and the alarming levels and growth of inequality in and between our societies are all acting and inter-acting on the world of work, transforming it more quickly and more deeply than ever before”.

All of these elements already have and will continue to affect our economy. Thankfully we already have the tools and institutions to face such external pressures, but the fact remains that anything that harshly affects other global economies can disrupt our own balances.

Simply put, if other countries around the world are going through difficult times because they don’t have enough jobs for the young, enough wage increases for working adults, or enough pensions for the elderly, then we can be sure this will somehow affect us.

Whether it’s companies not hiring, consumers not buying, tourists not travelling, or people not working, it all has a direct/indirect consequence on the way we conduct our own business.

That’s why we should acknowledge and celebrate the fact that we are doing relatively well here in Singapore: our unemployment rate is low, wages are rising steadily, and re-employment age for mature workers is going up.

Don’t get me wrong, we obviously have issues and challenges of our own, but unlike other countries’, ours are still very manageable and steps to address them are already underway.

For instance, we are already transforming our economy so that it’s more productive and future-proof. From minimising unemployment, training our youth, to re-employing the elderly, we are essentially focusing our efforts on steadfastly growing the economy with high productivity gains.

In response to labour shortages and rising business costs, companies and industries are pushing hard to upgrade operations, to adopt new technologies, and to follow security guidelines.

In terms of workforce, we’re also making sure we are capable of keeping up with global changes; skills, knowledge, and expertise are constantly being upgraded and workplaces are becoming more and more flexible and family-friendly.

Of course none of this would make any sense if we weren’t also striving to build an equal and inclusive society so that all our hard work pays off for everyone in the long run, and not just for a privileged few in the short-term.

Just take a look at our schools, hospitals, airports, seaports, public housings, hawker centres, and everything else we rely on in our day-to-day lives; not only are they among some of the best in the world, they are also rewarding workplaces and careers for the people that run them on a daily basis.

Maybe the 103rd ILC should be held in Singapore, so we can showcase the great strides we’re making against a pretty depressing global context?

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Vince Chen

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