Cost-cutting at expense of workers’ well-being not sustainable, says President Halimah at ILO meeting

President Halimah Yacob said the unsustainable growth model also exerts tremendous pressure on our climate. ST PHOTO: GIN TAY

SINGAPORE - Extreme cost-cutting measures driven by intense competition in a world where capital can move freely across borders can result in a race to the bottom for wages and labour standards if left unchecked, said President Halimah Yacob on Tuesday.

“This is an unsustainable growth model which also exerts tremendous pressure on our climate,” said Madam Halimah at the opening session of the 17th Asia and the Pacific Regional Meeting of the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which ends on Friday.

That is why a platform like the quadrennial meeting, which Singapore is currently hosting at the Raffles City Convention Centre, is needed to allow ILO members to work together on improving wages and working conditions, she said.

“While our national contexts differ, we face many common issues and can benefit from the benchmarks provided by labour standards and good practices, which provide useful inputs for labour policies and practices,” she said.

“The ILO’s role is even more critical today (as) it is estimated that nearly 100 million people have already been pushed into poverty this year by the combined effects of the pandemic, inflation and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.”

She said the ILO also facilitates the sharing of different perspectives on good practices, such as two key occupational safety and health conventions of the ILO that Singapore ratified in 2012 and 2019.

Madam Halimah served on the United Nations agency’s governing body from 1999 to 2011.

The regional meeting was last held in Bali in 2016. The latest edition, which should have been held in 2020, is being held only now due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

About 500 delegates, including 19 ministers and vice-ministers, from 33 Asia-Pacific countries are attending the four-day meeting chaired by Minister for Manpower Tan See Leng.

They will hold discussions on a range of topics, including productivity growth and social protection.

In his opening remarks, Dr Tan said that inflation, supply chain disruptions and geopolitical uncertainties threaten to make achieving a post-pandemic recovery that focuses on the well-being of workers even more challenging.

Echoing Madam Halimah’s speech, Dr Tan said the ILO sets out a very clear global strategy, anchored on dialogue and collaboration between workers, employers and the government, to stimulate the workforce’s recovery.

He added that Singapore, like many other countries, took guidance from the ILO on saving jobs, supporting workers and businesses, as well as protecting livelihoods amid the Covid-19 job crisis.

“Now, as we look to the future, tripartite partners are similarly working hand in hand to see how we can continue to transform both our businesses and our workforce to adapt to a new economic environment.”

Attending the meeting for the first time is Mr Gilbert Houngbo, who was elected the ILO’s director-general in October 2022.

Speaking to reporters before the opening session, Mr Houngbo, who is from Togo, said employment numbers in the Asia-Pacific region and Arab states have recovered.

But, he added, job growth in the region “has been mainly within the lower tiers of job quality”.

“More than ever, workers are getting by on informal work in jobs that provide little in the way of protection and security,” said Mr Houngbo, whose office issued a report in October on the need to promote recovery of the workforce that is socially just and centred on workers’ well-being.

The report is also being discussed by delegates on Tuesday and Wednesday.

Responding to a question on post-pandemic recovery, Mr Houngbo noted that the hours worked globally declined by 1.5 per cent in the third quarter of 2022, disproportionately affecting lower-skilled informal workers, who are also squeezed harder by inflation.

He said: “With effective pro-employment policies, more social protection, a respect for labour rights, constructive social dialogue and an enabling business environment, countries can equip themselves to benefit from the future of work.”

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