Very open party for the election of the head of the ILO

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Geneva (AFP) – Will the next head of the International Labor Organization be an African or a woman? Either way, it would be the first. A few hours before Friday’s election, the party is still very open.

Five candidates are running in this election – behind closed doors and in a secret ballot – to succeed former British trade unionist Guy Ryder, who has been in office for 10 years and has reached the end of two terms.

For many, the final battle should pit former Togolese Prime Minister Gilbert Houngbo, backed by the vast majority of Africa and workers’ representatives, with former French Labor Minister Muriel Pénicaud, backed by Paris and the European blog.

Also present are South Korean Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, South African businessman Mthunzi Mdwaba and Australian Greg Vines, the ILO’s Deputy Director-General for Management and Reform.

Gilbert Houngbo, President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), in February 2019 in Rome Tiziana FABI AFP / Archives

Beyond the elections, the stakes are high: the next head of the ILO will have the heavy task of adapting the standards of this centennial organization to a changing labor market under the effect of new technologies.

Especially because the Covid-19 pandemic has given a boost to telecommuting technologies that make it possible to abolish geographical barriers and work remotely as a team.

Even for some, the metaverse already exists daily, beyond gamers and technology enthusiasts, creating a new world of work whose rules have not yet been set.

While it is true that this parallel universe, accessible through augmented reality or virtual glasses (AR or VR), is still science fiction for the vast majority of humanity.

Born after the Great War in 1919, the ILO has never been run by a woman or a representative from Africa or Asia. On the other hand, he has two former French chiefs, among them the first, Albert Thomas (1919-1932).

Muriel Pénicaud, then Minister of Labor, in June 2020 at the Elysée in Paris
Muriel Pénicaud, then Minister of Labor, in June 2020 at the Elysée in Paris Ludovic Marin AFP / Arxius

The 5 candidates must convince the representatives of the governments, but also those of the employers and the unions, the 187 member states of the ILO are represented by the three branches.

Two African candidates

Only the 56 full members of the Governing Council can vote, ie 28 members of the government, 14 business members and 14 working members.

Ten of the incumbent government seats are permanently reserved for major industrialized countries (Germany, Brazil, China, France, India, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom, and the United States).

The African Union supports Togolese Gilbert Houngbo, but the International Business Organization (OIE) has chosen the South African candidate, who has taken over the vice-presidency of the ILO Governing Council.

Mthunzi Mdwaba, then Regional Vice President for Africa of the International Employers' Organization (OIE), in February 2015 in Paris
Mthunzi Mdwaba, then Regional Vice President for Africa of the International Employers’ Organization (OIE), in February 2015 in Paris ERIC PIERMONT AFP / Archives

If Mr. If Mdwaba were elected – a hypothesis considered unlikely – he would be the first employer representative to lead the ILO.

Mr. Houngbo, the current President of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) in Rome, served as Deputy Director (2013-2017) of the ILO in charge of field operations.

Former Under-Secretary-General of the United Nations, Director of the United Nations Development Program (UNDP), he was also a member of the strategic team and the administrative and financial director of the organization.

In front of him, Muriel Pénicaud, Minister of Labor from May 2017 to July 2020 in France, initiated the major social reforms of the five-year term of Emmanuel Macron, such as those of the labor code or unemployment insurance, very criticized by the unions.

At the head of his ministry, he also reformed vocational training, promoting learning that was then underdeveloped in France, and working to make companies more respectful of gender equality.

South Korean Kang Kyung-wha has held senior positions at the UN, including as an adviser to Secretary-General Antonio Guterres, but her critics point to her “ignorance” of the world of work.

Kang Kyung-wha, then South Korean Foreign Minister, in December 2020 in Manama
Kang Kyung-wha, then South Korean Foreign Minister, in December 2020 in Manama Mazen Mahdi AFP / Archives

As for Mr. Vines, has held leadership positions in Australian unions, and could be a continuation after Mr Vines. Ryder, a weakness for some.

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