Anyway the wind blows… what future for decent work?

What future for Decent Work in Europe and Central Asia – Opportunities and Challenges

Plenary speech Kris De Meester, employer delegate Belgium


The Employers have emphasised the need for a report to take a fresh look at the future and the opportunities that the future is able to bring to the economic and social situation in the region.

I’m known for my critical approach towards ILO reports (no pun intended, this is my attitude towards reports in general). I’m not going to do that this time. I think the report contains the necessary elements for discussion. But I criticise the tone of it.

I find the report overly pessimistic and building upon fears and misconceptions. People say pessimism is a mark of superior intellect. That might be so, but it does not lead to solutions and answers, only to more questions and more doubt.

“The pessimist complains about the wind.

The optimist expects it to change.

The realist adjusts the sail.”

What we need is more realists and more realism. I heard many panellists say, “What we need to do is…” Sorry, tell me WHAT YOU are doing, not what WE need to do!

Yesterday, during the ministerial meeting, the words “crisis” and “problem” were flying around when we discussed refugees and migrants. People dealing with macro level policies might understand, but what message are you sending to the micro-level? To the migrants and to your workers on the domestic labour market? That you are bringing in a crisis, bringing in problems… It would be a far more productive approach to talk about talent on the move. The challenges remain the same but the message is different!

Successfully addressing the issues in the report requires an innovative and creative approach that leaves behind preconceived ideas and out-dated paradigms. And most importantly: the Pareto principle comes in when dealing with opportunities and threats. We have to bear in mind that spending efforts on threats is likely to only yield a 20% result. Therefore we should focus our resources on grasping opportunities. The future belongs to those who see possibilities before they become obvious. And do it in a realistic way.

There is no miracle solution to comfort your labour market system or social security system for the next 5-10 years. There is no silver bullet. But there are mechanisms that allow you to adjust the sail whatever the wind does. One of those mechanisms is dialogue or even better, genuine conversation between stakeholders. Every panellist this morning confirmed it. Yet, one interest group chose to remain absent. This is very regrettable and not a good signal to those who are here to discuss decent jobs, social welfare and prosperity in our region.

Another mechanism is to learn to deal with change. If you look back, change has always been a constant in the world of work. And in retrospect, most of the changes were not problematic. Look at your jobs. I’m sure the nature of it has changed drastically over the last 20-30 years. Yet it is very hard to indicate real disruptors. The future of work is not about going from A to B. There is no revolution, it’s a constant evolution and a lot of the changes pass by unnoticed. Most of the changes improved our working conditions and life in general. We are more agile than we think and we can learn to even become more agile in the future so that people don’t resist, don’t fear change but become the motor of it. The best way to do that is to focus on outcomes instead of on the means, instruments and procedures.

An open-end contract does not protect against work accidents, against becoming redundant, against harassment, etc. Don’t get me wrong; neither does a short term contract or a status as self-employed. We need to learn to have a more situational approach, assess situations, and look at the talents, skills, needs, aspirations of individuals and their work situations. The skills, needs and aspirations vary throughout working life and so must our approach.

So, what approach should we take? What is our business case? If we launch programs and policies, it is with the aim of having impact. If we want impact, we should not go for standard, employment, filling regulatory gaps, health and safety, etc. we should aim for a ‘great place to work’. The key question is ‘How to create an organization where people are able and willing to do their best work?’ A great workplace is one built on trust. Trust drives sustainable engagement and engagement drives business performance.

The starting point is to continuously seek a balance between the individual worker with his or her capacities, skills, personality, values and aspirations and his or her working situation. The elements that constitute the working situation are the work content, the working conditions, the work environment (OSH-aspects) and the work relations within a frame of systems and processes that constitute the work organisation. Authentic, supportive leadership, respect and trust are enhancing factors to get to the above result.

In general designing jobs for autonomy, meaningfulness, progress and competence leads to this result. Equally important, if not more, is to start looking at people’s talents. TALENTS, not just skills!

Talent management is an organization’s commitment to recruit, manage, develop and retain workers for their talent(s). It’s about all-potentials, getting the best out of each and every single worker. Talents and skills are often used interchangeably but they are not the same. If our starting point is talent we should develop skills to bring that talent to live, to emphasize and complement it at the benefit of the individual and the organization.

The ‘Future of Work’ offers opportunities to create conditions for sustainable and inclusive economic growth, shared prosperity and decent work for all. All of us have a role to play to work this out, but in order to overcome ideological and mental barriers we have to build trust first. Being absent from a discussion does not send a signal of trust. But I of course know that soon we will be around the table again with all constituents. Because only a genuine dialogue between all actors, based on trust and respect, can help us to gain control and steer the boat we all share, not to a precise destination, but according to how the wind blows. And do take in mind, on the Bosporus the wind direction and speed are varying constantly…




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