ILO chief election race heats up: who’s in the running

The headquarters building of the International Labour Organization (ILO) in Geneva, Switzerland, 16 October, 2019 (Photo credit : Marcel Crozet / ILO)

The race to select the next director general at the International Labour Organization (ILO) officially kicked off last week after five candidates presented their arguments for being chosen for the top spot at a time of widespread disruption in the world of work.

The Geneva-based UN agency, which promotes rights at work, is looking for a new chief to replace Guy Ryder who will step down on 30 September after 10 years in the role.

The five candidates vying for the role are former Togolese prime minister Gilbert Houngbo, South Korean politician Kang Kyung-wha, South African businessman Mthunzi Mdwaba, France’s former minister of labour Muriel Pénicaud, and the ILO’s deputy director general, Australian Greg Vines.

During two days of public live-streamed “dialogues” held on Thursday and Friday, the would-be director generals presented their visions and were questioned by ILO representatives. The next stage in the election process will be a private round of hearings followed by an election on 25 March.

The winning candidate is decided on by the ILO’s 56-member governing body composed of workers, governments and employers – the three groups that make up the ILO’s unique tripartite structure.

The topsy-turvy world of work

Ryder’s successor will inherit an intray of considerable challenges as a result of the devastating impact of the Covid crisis on people’s livelihoods.

Last week, the ILO warned that the road to recovery remained uncertain and unemployment is likely to remain above pre-pandemic levels until at least 2023, with countries facing deepening inequalities.

The emergence of new technologies and the growing shift of services online, a tense geopolitical landscape, climate, conflict and forced migration are also factors having massive consequences on the future of work.

“It's been a time of extraordinary transformative change,” Ryder told Geneva Solutions in an interview in October, reflecting on his decade at the helm of the organisation.

“I wonder if there's ever been a decade when the world of work has been so fundamentally changed by technology, by international circumstances, by financial crises, and by the pandemic.”

With the labour market undergoing rapid change countries have been struggling to stay ahead, making planning ahead a priority, Ryder said.

“What we still have to learn to do is to make sure that those changes are managed and not just sort of treated as “Deus ex machina” sort of processes that we are incapable of influencing or shaping in line with the things that all of us want for our societies.”

“The idea that we're not passive spectators, but we are actors in defining the future, is fundamentally important – and fundamentally important for multilateralism,” he added.

Five names – one job

Among the five people in the running are two women including Penicaud, France's labour minister between 2017 and 2020 who played a key role in President Emmanuel Macron’s government in establishing social reforms including unemployment insurance, promoting apprenticeships, and advancing gender equality.

Kang was South Korea's first female foreign minister, a position which she held from 2017 to February last year. She previously held various UN posts, including deputy human rights chief as well senior policy adviser to the UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.

Mdwaba, a businessman, has been at the helm of various companies in Africa and also served a leader of the International Organization of Employers, the ILO’s employers body.

Vines has been the ILO's deputy director-general for management and reform for ten years. Before that, he was a minister with the Australian Permanent Mission and over his career has held a number of senior appointments with Australian and Timor Leste Governments, and leadership positions with Australian trade unions.

Houngbo is the president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development. He was previously prime minister of Togo from 2008 to 2012 and was also ILO deputy director-general four years.