Guy Ryder speaks about Thailand's 300 baht minimum wage, migrant workers' rights and his rise to the top of ILO


Guy Ryder speaks about Thailand's 300 baht minimum wage, migrant workers' rights and his rise to the top of the International Labour Organisation
Published: 8/01/2013 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Life

 

Guy Ryder's decades-long experience in the labour force, largely at the international level, and a genuine empathy for workforce-related issues made him the perfect candidate to become the 10th director-general of the International Labour Organisation (ILO) _ a post he took up late last year.

 

Ryder, who was born in Liverpool in 1956, is respected for his strong commitment to advancing social justice. As a believer in tripartism, where business, labour and the state work together, he has been able to reach out and secure consensus in diverse situations


In 30 years of addressing difficult global labour issues, he was called on to manage complex, often politically sensitive situations which he addressed with immense finesse.

 

In an interview with Life, Ryder touched on an array of issues, including forced labour which he described as a despicable practice that needed to be tackled by everyone involved.


"There are modern forms of slavery that continue to dog our societies," he said. "Such injustices meted out to innocent people can occur in both poor and rich countries alike, and come in all sorts of settings. Bonded labour and human trafficking are also on the rise.


"To address this growing predicament head-on the public has to rise up against this practice and insist that their governments put an end to it. Apart from government intervention, international cooperation is essential.


"After this is set in place, we need organisations like the ILO to help develop polices that will put an end to this. The main obstacle is not in the lack of laws to address this social ill but rather the implementation of it."

 

Ryder said the problems of world unemployment, particularly for youths, is another concern for him. While that may sound strange in Thailand where there are labour shortages, globally the problem is acute and often critical with 75 million people aged under 25 out of work. It is perhaps the worst consequence of the crisis and needs urgent attention.


"I would also signal the roll-out of minimum social protection to the majority of working people in the world who still don't have it. The ILO just adopted an instrument on global social protection floors and we will work hard to see it translated into action," he said.


During an official trip to Thailand recently, he spoke to the country's politicians and representatives from the local work force on labour issues dogging the Kingdom.


On Thailand's implementation of the minium wage rise of 300 baht throughout the country this year, Ryder said that he had discussed this matter with the government, employers and workers, including some from a province where the 300 baht level had already been in operation for some time.


After his discussions, the head of the ILO had this to say: "While there are always concerns about the effect of a raise in minimum wages on enterprise profits, it does seem that this raise represents a 'catching up' since there have not been adjustments for some time and the real levels have fallen behind productivity and price increases.

 

Minimum wages are particularly important too where collective bargaining is weak, as is often the case in Thailand. I think the raise is to be welcomed, and there will need to be effective oversight to ensure that it is respected."


To get a better perspective of the ongoing concern of migrant child labour in the Thai seafood industry, Ryder looked at enterprises in the shrimp industry in Samut Sakhon province and discussed the problems of child and forced labour with the province's governor, industry leaders, non-government organisations and trade unionists.

 

After the discussions, he felt it was important for all stakeholders in this matter to commit to eliminating migrant child labour, not just because of the sensitivities of international opinion, which he said are real, but because there should be no place for such abuse in Thai society.

 

The ILO is cooperating through its Ipec _ International Programme on the Elimination of Child Labour _ project in addressing this issues, and Ryder is optimistic about the prospects for progress. Commenting on domestic workers' right to have one day off a week, an issue that continues to receive media coverage, he said: "We are rather belatedly waking up to the reality that domestic workers are workers just like everybody else and entitled to the protections of labour legislation and decent conditions.


"That is the message of the ILO's Convention 189 for domestic workers which was adopted last year. In this light it is a very basic demand that they should have one day off a week and I support it."


Ryder was also able to better understand the complexities of identification verification of migrant workers in Thailand during his visit.


He is of the opinion the government genuinely wishes to regularise the status of migrant workers and said it is to be commended. He said it is a necessary first step for the proper recognition and protection of the rights of migrant labourers. Ryder found that difficulties in this area clearly arise from the fact that many of those involved do not have documents from their country of origin confirming their nationality.


There is definitely a need to find the right method of addressing this problem, noted Ryder, in a way that does not risk enormous numbers of workers being uprooted and deported in ways which would be seriously damaging to their rights and welfare.


"Everybody I met in Thailand agreed that migrant workers make a vital contribution to the success of the Thai economy," said Ryder.


"That is certainly reflected in the call of Thai employers. Treating their situation with consideration and sensitivity would not only be proper recognition of that role but also a way of making sure it can be sustained in appropriate conditions."


Ryder shared that when he is faced with a conundrum, he addresses it in three clear steps. First, he takes the time to really understand the issue at stake. That can be difficult, he said, when quick action is called for, but if you don't do it, you might risk things going wrong. Second, he seeks the advice and views of colleagues, especially those most directly involved (even if they are well down the chain of command). Third, he makes the decision and lets people know why.

 

If people have been asked for their views and know that a decision has been made for good reasons (even if they don't agree with it) then they can better accept it. And afterwards, he sticks with what he has decided.


On dealing with the high expectations people have because of his position, Ryder said: "There is only one way of meeting expectations. Perform to the best of your ability, perform in accordance with your own personal values and beliefs, and stay yourself. I've tried to do those things throughout my professional life and will bring the same approach to the ILO."


When asked to pick three of his most memorable assignments to date, Ryder's first answer was going as a young trade union official to Paraguay in the 1980s to work with people organising in semi-clandestine conditions under the brutal dictatorship of General Alfredo Stroessner. He said the experience brought home to him first-hand the realities of dramatic situations which he had really only known theoretically in the past. Since then he has always believed in "going and looking for yourself"'.


Another highlight was leading an international trade union delegation to the G20 leaders' summit in Pittsburgh in 2009. The occasion played a pivotal role in bringing to world leaders' attention the urgent need to put jobs at the heart of crisis recovery, and one which came at a moment of critical importance for the global economy.


Last but definitely not least for Ryder was meeting Aung San Suu Kyi at her home in Yangon at a time when it seemed that democratic changes in her country were finally within reach.


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