Green jobs? Decent jobs? Or decent green jobs? Focus is also saying no!

106th International Labour Conference – Building a future with decent work 2016

Plenary meeting address
Kris De Meester
Employer delegate Belgium

As every year, this conference brings around a variety of topics to discuss. As regards the discussion on labour migration, we want a meaningful global recognition of the positive role of labour migration. We are happy to see that the tripartite constituency unanimously reaffirmed its commitment for the prevention of occupational accidents and diseases and to even strengthen efforts in that field.

DY5C9313export-2000But today I will focus on the green initiative aiming at scaling up the ILO’s office-wide knowledge, policy advice and tools for managing a just transition to a low-carbon, sustainable future. In general I fully support this goal, as I think everybody in this room does. However, with my background as bio-engineer and degree in environmental science, I have some serious reservations. I don’t think it is wise to focus on low-carbon only. Our goal must be to become as energy and resource efficient as possible whilst minimizing the environmental impact of our operations.

Can the ILO really only pursue its mandate for social justice effectively if it integrates environmental sustainability into the Decent Work Agenda? I doubt this. First of all, “green jobs” do not automatically correspond to decent jobs and decent jobs are not by definition green. Secondly, we cannot really define what green jobs are or what the most appropriate and effective environmental measures are. Thirdly, ecosystems and economies are not necessarily at equilibrium yet and no model is able to take into account the underlying dynamics. And last but not least: we need to take into account the bigger picture: the contribution and impact of population growth, land use, land tenure, exploitation of natural resources… to name a few.

I bring in another element. What word best describes our industries and societies becoming more environmental friendly? Transition? “Transition” is almost content-free, omitting any sense of who is doing what. This is therefore not the proper term.

It is also not “conversion” since this implies active decisions, decisions necessary to overcome resistance and inertia, decisions to change legal rights and obligations; decisions to change asset ownership, pricing options and product mix; decisions to change competitive strategies; and decisions by business and private customers to change behavior. “Conversion” injects accountability by causing one to ask: Who is acting, what actions are they taking, and are the actions working?

What will it be in reality than? It will be “evolution”. Evolution implies natural, gradual change. Similar to the case of the future of work, there is no begin and no end. Therefore we should focus our resources on looking for opportunities, for innovation and possible improvement.

So here we sit applauding a transition to something we cannot define and towards a kind of jobs we also cannot define. Maybe some of the most vital and life-saving products in the future will come or remain to come from energy-intensive (but also energy-efficient) industries. Basic environmental economic knowledge tells us to invest there where marginal cost, that is the cost to reduce an extra unit of “pollution”, is the lowest. In this global challenge, that basic law seems to be easily overlooked. Are you aware that carbon exhaust due to data collection already exceeds that of aviation? Yet, every committee in this conference is asking for more and better quality data collection and analysis.

For sure, the evolution towards a sustainable economy is not contrary to the goal of numerous and decent jobs. But does it serve our goal if we only create confusion and uncertainty? In a volatile, uncertain, complex & ambiguous world, clarity is needed. Let’s please try to be clear if we want businesses to pursue the creation of decent jobs and governments and institutions to foster a business environment leading to sustainable industries.

The International Labour organization primary focus should be and remain “work”, the world of work, the creation of work and the quality of work. The Decent Work Agenda with its four strategic components remains valuable. Don’t dilute it with green, blue or whatever other new initiatives. Let’s first of all try to make decent work more tangible. Explain, show and demonstrate how to make or ensure a decent job: fair income, adequate protection, rights, duties & responsibilities, participation, contribution, purpose, personal and skills development, sufficient autonomy, good working conditions and work relations. That is already challenging enough!

When addressing our employers’ group, DG Guy Ryder stressed the importance of the voice of the private sector in these top-priority debates. Today I raise my voice. And there is quite a lot of criticism in it. But that is because I am trying to launch a constructive debate. This is a house of dialogue so that should not be a problem. I make this speech for the sake of the credibility and the impact of an organization that has a warm place in my heart.

Let’s not surf on the waves of the green religion, but let’s stimulate and assist constituents, each at their own level, in a continuous journey, to gradually become an environment friendlier and better place to work.


“People think focus means saying yes to the thing you’ve got to focus on. But that’s not what it means at all. It means saying no to the hundred other good ideas that there are. You have to pick carefully. You can be as proud of the things you haven’t done as of the things you have done. Innovation is saying no to 1,000 things.”


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