Ramaphosa at international labor organization's annual meeting
South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and Sweden's PM Stefan Lofven shake hands at the opening day of the ILO's annual conference in Geneva, June 10, 2019.

GENEVA - A vigorous debate is going on at the International Labor Conference about ways to tackle the profound, transformational changes taking place in the world of work. Dozens of heads of state are among those weighing in on this issue.  

As Co-Chair of the Global Commission on the Future of Work, South Africa's president, Cyril Ramaphosa, has been looking into the problem for the past 18 months. The commission’s landmark report, which was released in January, is being debated and considered for adoption by the ILO conference.

Ramaphosa says the threats to work posed by technological advances, the growth of artificial intelligence, automation and robotics require a human-centered response. That, he says, involves investment in decent and sustainable work.

"As countries of Africa, we are particularly determined to ensure that this investment focuses on the creation of economic opportunities for young people... Many of the young people on our continent are unemployed and lack the critical skills demanded by the workplace of both the present and the future.

The commission is proposing a universal labor guarantee that includes the right to lifelong learning and skills training. Prime Minister of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev is in general agreement with the commission’s recommendations.

But he warns of other threats to the future of work and to global economic stability.  

"We live in a globalized world and regulation of labor relations need some common equal principles... and illegitimate sanctions, protectionism, trade wars and other artificial barriers negatively affect inter alia [among other things] the labor market and economy of countries in general," he said.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel speaks during the International Labour Organization's annual labor conference in Geneva, Switzerland June 11, 2019
German Chancellor Merkel speaks during the ILO''s annual conference in Geneva, June 11, 2019.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel praises the International Labor Organization for the work it has done over the past 100 years trying to make the world of labor a fairer place. But she adds more needs to be done to create decent working conditions for all.  

"In this closely integrated, inter-connected world, we have to make more of an effort to really turn economic growth into social progress in which each and every one participates," she said. "There seems to be almost a reverse trend. Globalization has created a lot of very prosperous people, a lot of very wealthy people, but social injustices and discrepancies seem to grow in equal measure." 

Merkel says many pathways lead to the goal of decent work conditions for a good life, but far too many people still are excluded from them. She says there remains a lot of work for the ILO to do in the 100 years ahead.