Speech by Prime Minister Stefan Löfven at Centenary Session of the International Labour Conference

Published

Geneva, 10 June 2019.

Check against delivery.

Ladies and Gentlemen, Excellencies, Friends,

It is a great honour to hold this speech today on the
occasion of the ILO centenary.

“The sated day is never first.
The best day is a day of thirst.
Yes, there is goal and meaning in our path –
but it’s the way that is the labour’s worth.
The best goal is a night-long rest,
fire lit, and bread broken in haste.
In places where one sleeps but once, sleep is secure, dreams full of songs.”

This was written by the Swedish poet Karin Boye in the 1920s, when the ILO was taking its first tentative steps.
I have chosen to start with these words because what we are celebrating today is really not an organisation, a convention or a date, but a movement.

A movement forwards, upwards, from the misery
- of First World War trenches,
- of factories and fields,
- of hunger and squalor.

A movement that has encountered setbacks, new wars and catastrophes, but has never stopped, has always found new energy, new solutions.

It is a movement, that is summed up and symbolised by the three letters I-L-O, it is a movement that now marches towards the future.
Because we know: “The sated day is never first. The best day is a day of thirst.”

* * *

And we gather here today, with stories from our different countries about what has been achieved and what is still to be done.

I would like to mention two Swedish women: Kerstin and Ingegerd.
Kerstin Hesselgren was born into a wealthy family in the second half of the 19th century.

Her father was a doctor, she was educated by a governess at home and then at a school here in Switzerland.

Ingegerd Friberg on the other hand was born into harsher conditions. Her parents struggled. They couldn’t afford to buy the farm they leased, and considered emigrating for a better life.
These two women did not know each other. They probably never met.
But Kerstin used her privilege and her education to work towards improving the conditions of thousands of workers in Sweden.

She became Sweden’s first female factory inspector in 1912, and she came to to the first International labour conference in 1919 to change the course of the world, together with representatives from many of your countries.

Now as for Ingegerd, she started working at sixteen, helping out at a hospital – and continued on as a maid, a night watch, a newspaper carrier, and a factory worker.

And when she was almost 90 years old, she was interviewed by her daughter and spoke about the changes she had seen over her lifetime.
- About the more dignified life she was able to lead.
- About the decent pension she could now live on.
- About her four children, and how they could now live the kind of lives that would never have seemed impossible to her as a child, and how that was the greatest joy in her life.

Just think, she could also dream, as Karin Boye wrote, “dreams full of songs.”

* * *

And what Ingegerd’s and Kerstin’s fates symbolise is the co-operation that I believe lies at the heart of this movement.

We all come from different backgrounds, different walks of life.
We have different values and different opinions – but if we come together if we make an effort we can find shared goals – and shared dreams.

* * *

I so strongly believe in this. Because it played out in my own life.
I was not born into wealth; I grew up as a foster child in a working class family, and began working as a welder.

When I later became a trade union leader, the people across the negotiating table were people with a different education, different values, different lives.

Yet still – when we sat down, when we talked with an honest and respectful desire to agree, we could, despite our different starting points, find a shared goal, shared meaning.

* * *

This is why I started the Global Deal in cooperation with the ILO and in cooperation with the OECD, to promote social dialogue globally – an initiative I urge all of you to join if you have not already done so.

I have seen what social dialogue between workers, employers and governments can achieve.

Both in relatively small things that could be improved for me and my co-workers, for the company we worked for and the society we lived in.
But also in a bigger perspective: How it could transform the country I represent here today – from a poor country at outskirts of Europe, to a rich country at the cutting edge of the global economy.

Social dialogue and tripartite collaboration are something so rare as a solution where everyone wins.
Workers by gaining influence, improved working conditions, higher wages and better opportunities for education and social welfare.
Companies win from a constructive working atmosphere, an openness to change, respect for their right to lead the company, increased productivity and stronger consumers.
Society wins from inclusive growth and social stability.
It’s a win-win-win situation. It is “the way that is the labour’s worth…”

* * *

And it is a fantastic force. A force that has driven the ILO’s work for a century.
Now where should we target this force today? What direction should our movement take?

For my part, I have returned to a Swedish economist, a professor, a contemporary of Ingegerd Friberg, and also to the birth of the ILO.
This man’s name was Gösta Rehn, and just like Ingegerd he came from a small village in Sweden, but had the opportunity to work at the OECD in Paris and the University of California at Berkeley.

He saw the difference between on the one hand the “safety of the shell”, which shields from external dangers, and on the other hand the “safety of wings”, which helps to reach a better and safer place.

And he pointed out that true safety didn’t come from futile attempts to protect old jobs in a new economy, but by making sure workers could reach new and better heights.

He understood the importance of being able to move towards something better. “In places where one sleeps but once, sleep is secure…”

* * *

In recent times, I have had the great privilege South African President Cyril Ramaphosa and I have had the great privilege of gathering a group of global labour market experts on behalf of this organisation to analyse the “future of work”.

Our goal was to discuss how we could best shape the future labour market in light of the major upheavals the world is facing. 

And when we saw the analysis of these experts, of the latest research findings and reports, I felt how Gösta Rehn must have smiled up in his heaven. 

For the final report that was written, contained nothing more and nothing less, than a version of the “safety of wings” for the twenty-first century.

* * *

You are of course all aware of the upheavals that are defining our time: climate change , AI revolution.
What do they have in common?
Well, they will both require our societies to react with strength.
- By quickly re-training entire professional areas, when key work assignments can be automated, for almost everyone - from our lorry drivers to salary administrators.
- And quickly making entire sectors of the economy sustainable, as we in Sweden are now doing with our steel industry, where we aim to be able to produce steel without using coal.

And this must be done in a way that does not hamper the economy or put large groups of people out of work.

If we don’t succeed, we’ll never manage to hold our societies together, we will not manage to have economies that are strong enough to meet the third major challenge: an ageing population.

There will be very little time for this change, it will require trust and close co-operation between workers, business owners and society.
And it will require everyone to dare to try again, to try something new.
To perhaps find new abilities they didn’t know they had.

To feel a “day of thirst” for something new, something novel.

* * *

So what we propose is an agenda - that focuses on the development of women and men, and their ability to acquire new skills, to reskill to upskill,
- that creates institutions to help people with more job changes in their lifetime,
- that supports investment in decent jobs, developing the rural economy in ways that foster prosperity, sustainability and equality,
- an agenda that creates social safety nets, based on solidarity and sharing risks, and launches a Universal Labour Guarantee, giving fundamental rights to all workers, all over the world, regardless of their contractual arrangements or employment status. Because it is only when we feel secure that we dare to spread our wings.

And let me also mention something in particular.

Kerstin Hesselgren’s story did not end at the first International labour conference. When she returned to Sweden, she was elected as the first woman ever to the First Chamber of the Swedish Parliament in 1921.

The Speaker at the time he had a hard time adjusting to her presence, and for several years continued to address the Chamber by saying “Gentlemen”.

And at a service to mark the opening of the parliamentary session, Kerstin was stopped outside the church by a police officer, who said: “No, no... no women here.”

This seems comical now. But at how many workplaces, in how many leadership positions, do women still hear: “No, no... no women here”?

How many times in their working lives, do they have poorer working conditions than men, lower wages, and are looked over and ignored, just like Kerstin was – when the Speaker said “Gentlemen”?

And therefore our agenda is one that also clearly empowers women,
- promotes the sharing of unpaid care work at home,
- eliminates violence and harassment at work and all other places,
- ensures equal pay and equal opportunities,
- and strengthens women’s voices and leadership.

Because Friends, when we talk about the safety of wings, we mean the safety of wings for everyone.

* * *

So lastly – what force will implement this agenda? How will it be possible?

You know the answer. It’s through the force that has formed the basis of my own life, my country’s success, and the ILO’s hundred years of progress.

It is nothing more, it is nothing less, than the close co-operation of workers, employers and governments.
Co-operation between the social partners is like a bottle of fine wine.
You pick it up, think it looks old and mouldy, but on closer inspection you will find that it is better than ever!

* * *

So friends, let’s now look ahead to a new century!
We must continue to seek energy from pioneers like Kerstin, from workers, like Ingegerd, who want a better life, whether they are from the forests of Sweden,
- the textile mills of Bangladesh,
- the farms of Mozambique,
- or the bauxite mines of Surinam.

Together, we need to give each other the safety of wings in a time of upheaval. It is an enormous task.
Therefore, I give to you the closing lines of Karin Boye’s poem.
“Strike camp, strike camp! The new day shows its light. Our great adventure has no end in sight.”