Holy See's Address to UN International Labor Conference

«Work Is … an Opportunity for People to Transform Reality»

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GENEVA, Switzerland, JUNE 13, 2011 (Zenit.org).- Here is the address Archbishop Silvano Tomasi, permanent representative of the Holy See to the U.N. offices in Geneva, delivered last Wednesday at the 100th Session of the International Labor Conference, which is under way in Geneva through Friday.

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Mr. President,

1. The Delegation of the Holy See congratulates the ILO for its steadfast service to social development through the collaborative action of workers, employers and governments. This 100th Conference is evidence of this fruitful approach in the pursuit of the common good.

These are critical and challenging times for developed countries as they are slowly emerging from a financial crisis of unprecedented depth whose consequences are evident across all sectors of societies. These impacts are especially obvious in the acute and prolonged levels of unemployment that men and women in many countries are suffering. Social and economic safety nets have been stretched to the breaking point and austerity programs entail severe cuts in the basic services that citizens, especially the elderly, children and the poor have come to rely on.

Old formulas for recovery and economic growth are proving less certain in a globally integrated economic environment and sovereign governments in most instances have not been able to find a formula for economic growth that restores jobs and includes new employment opportunities for the millions who are looking for work. Despite the fact that the majority of macroeconomic indicators seem to have recovered to pre-crisis levels, the labour market is still suffering: unemployment rates remain high and show no sign of recovery in the short term and the long term prognosis is uneven.

The experience of a weak economic recovery that brings with it very few new job opportunities is a reality in some countries while a robust stock market recovery with only mediocre job creation is the situation in a number of other countries. Moreover, a recovery in labour markets at the global level has been uneven, with moderate improvement being delivered in developing and emerging countries but raising unemployment in advanced economies. In the advanced economies space the unemployment problem remain particularly acute as they account for 55% of the total increase in the world’s unemployment that occurred between 2007 and 2010 while accounting only for 15% of world’s labor force.

The enduring high rates of unemployment are accompanied by another critical factor in the current economic condition: the absence of any sustained increase of employment opportunities. The world economy, albeit growing at a steady level, is not able to create a sufficient number of jobs. This is true not only in advanced economies but also in emerging markets such as China and India where employment elasticity is extremely low, despite the two digit growth rates in output.

This is a structural problem that was already identified well before the outbreak of the crisis and was known as jobless growth. A sustained repetition of this paradigm will lead to severe strain on those searching for meaningful work and on the attendant social unrest in local communities. We must do our very best to avoid this scenario.

Youth Unemployment

2. An area of critical concern is the impact of unemployment on young people in different communities across the world. In fact some 78 million young people, in the 15-24 age group were unemployed in 2010, a rate 2.6 times that of adult unemployment. Youth unemployment is a common problem in every country; however, it is particularly acute in the developed world. It is somewhat ironic that post industrial economies characterized by an ageing population, are not able to create enough meaningful and decent work opportunities to meet the needs and the expectations of their young people who comprise a much smaller percentage of the population.

Youth unemployment has a wider and deeper impact that affects society as a whole. It is well documented that people who are underemployed, who become redundant or become unemployed early in their working years, can easily become demoralised, lose confidence in their abilities and in their employment prospects and find themselves trapped in a spiral of social exclusion. Documented evidence of how the financial crisis has resulted in unprecedented levels of youth unemployment has raised the spectre of a «lost generation» of young people who have dropped out of the job market.

The uncertainty over working opportunity and conditions, when it becomes endemic, tends to «create new forms of psychological instability, giving rise to difficulty in forging coherent life-plans, including that of marriage. This leads to situations of human decline, to say nothing of the waste of social resources. In comparison with the casualties of industrial society in the past, unemployment today provokes new forms of economic marginalization, and the current crisis can only make this situation worse.»[1]

Women’s employment

3. The second area of vulnerability is constituted by women. Despite the significant progress that has been made in recent decades in reducing women’s discrimination in the workplace, women continue to be penalised in the labour market with a restricted access to several jobs. Their economic activity, hence, is by no means restricted to working for a salary: their unpaid work — which does not enter GDP statistics — contributes in a crucial way to personal, societal and national well-being. If it is true, and not mere rhetoric, that human resources are the most precious among economic resources, the economic role of women should be taken more seriously than it is usually done.

In OECD countries the employment rate of women is on average 20% below that of men with this gap reaching 30% in countries such as Italy or Japan. In addition women’s wages are consistently lower by 20-30% and they continue to constitute a much larger percentage of those who are filling low-paid jobs. However, one of the greatest cross cutting discrimination realities that still exist is the fact that labour markets remain so inflexible and find it difficult to reconcile the work model and schedule with the responsibilities for childcare and the care of other dependants that many in the workforce carry. Generating and taking care of new generations is the human activity which is closest to economic investment, and the family itself is a sort of «relational» investment. As a firm is the observable outcome of risky human actions and interactions, namely an investment that implies personalized and durable relations, so is the family. As the firm is understood as a «unit» of some kind, with a «common good» of its own; so it is of the family.

Hence, supporting women’s contribution to economic and societal well-being should obviously include affordable childcare facilities, flexible working arrangements , job sharing, maternity and parental protection, but it would also require revaluing the «common good» dimension of women’s investment in generation — that is, in meaningful and durable relationships which open the new generations to the quest for beauty, for sense, for meaning — which are undoubtedly the most significant drivers to human, economic and societal innovation and progress.

Domestic Workers

4. Another group of people calling for special attention are domestic workers and ILO is providing a timely response through a new instrument of protection carefully designed and presented for approval at this conference. The growth of domestic work as a service sector is particularly strong in developed countries and has been fuelled by several factors: significant demographic changes such as aging populations, decline in the welfare provisions provided by governments, increasing labour force participation by women, and the challenges of balancing the responsibilities of working life and family life in urban areas.[2]

The adoptio
n of a new Convention on domestic work is essential by the experience of the persistent exclusion of these workers from even the basic labor protections. Domestic workers, in many countries, are living in miserable conditions and often remain excluded from labor laws and collective bargaining agreements. This endemic exclusion from adequate social protection deprives them of the security that ‘decent work’ deserves and requires. This is even more problematic, given that many of these domestic workers are migrant women, who leave their family in order to economically sustain it; they provide care for their employer’s children or elderly, in exchange for a wage that can improve the material quality of life of their own families, which they can seldom visit. This pattern creates a sort of «global care chain» which is structurally built on the disruption of basic family relationships for all women involved. The medium-long term consequences of such disruption deserves more attention within a «relational» approach to the economic situation of women, as it is well known that families play a crucial role in providing social capital for human and economic development, especially in low-income countries.

Decency emphasizes the need to both understand and ground the ultimate significance of work. Work is not only toil and effort, which results in services, activities or production, but also an opportunity for people to transform reality and fulfill their personal vocations.

Pope John Paul II defined work as a «hard good» emphasizing the need to put effort and passion in what is man’s primary activity. It is good not only in the sense that it is useful or something to enjoy; it is also good as being something worthy, that is to say, something that corresponds to man’s dignity, that expresses this dignity and increases it.[3]

5. In this 100th session of the International Labor Conference we must reaffirm the importance of a new governance based on the principle of subsidiarity and tripartitism that gives the ILO an edge in integrating ‘real world’ knowledge about employment and work. In a globally integrated financial system that is characterized by speed, mobility and flexibility, the voice and advocacy of those who protect and promote the rights of workers and the dignity of labor is essential.

As Pope Benedict says: «In the global era, the economy is influenced by competitive models tied to cultures that differ greatly among themselves. The different forms of economic enterprise to which they give rise find their main point of encounter in commutative justice. Economic life undoubtedly requires contracts, in order to regulate relations of exchange between goods of equivalent value. But it also needs just laws and forms of redistribution governed by politics, and what is more, it needs works redolent of the spirit of gift.» [4] The challenge is laid out before all actors — public and private — who are charged with ensuring that our burgeoning and mercurial global economic system adheres to fundamental principles of justice which prioritize the needs of the most vulnerable in a way that respects individual and corporate activity within the overarching principle of the global common good. The ILO is very well situated to ensure that this process of re-assessment and reform of the global financial system remains rooted in the concerns of the smallest and most vital units that make up modern society: the family, the workplace, the community.

As mentioned by Benedict XVI «economic life must be understood as a multi-layered phenomenon». Without excluding the essential roles of market and state, «civil society» may be an essential voice to advance the good of all[5]. The Holy See brings a rich tradition that is matched by its experience across the globe and across the centuries; journeying with organizations such as the ILO, it forges an ever-expanding communion that favors the good of everyone and of all peoples.


[1] Pope Benedict XVI encyclical Letter «Caritas in Veritate,» No. 25

[2] A.Souza, «Moving towards Decent work for Domestic workers: An Overview of the ILO’s work.»

[3] Pope John Paul II , Encyclical Letter «Laborem Wxercens,» No. 27-

[4] «Caritas in Veritate,» No. 37

[5] «Today we can say that economic life must be understood as a multi-layered phenomenon: in every one of these layers, to varying degrees and in ways specifically suited to each, the aspect of fraternal reciprocity must be present. In the global era, economic activity cannot prescind from gratuitousness, which fosters and disseminates solidarity and responsibility for justice and the common good among the different economic players. … Solidarity is first and foremost a sense of responsibility on the part of everyone with regard to everyone, and it cannot therefore be merely delegated to the State.» «Caritas in Veritate, No. 37.

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