Chair, distinguished Delegates,
I am pleased to be here today to address the Plenary of the 107th session of the International Labour Conference. It is a particular source of pride that I do so as Government Minister of a country which is a Full member of the Governing Body (GB). When Ireland was elected to the GB last June it was the first time since we joined the International Labour Organization (ILO) in 1923 that we had the honour of assuming a full seat.
Our term on the GB coincides with an ambitious period in the history of the ILO as it prepares to mark its centenary year next year. One of the Centenary Initiatives, the Women at Work Initiative, is a focus of the Director General’s (DG) excellent report to this Conference. The ILO’s record of achievement regarding its commitment to the cause of gender equality at work and in society was the subject of last year’s National University of Ireland Edward Phelan lecture. Irishman Edward Phelan is an important figure in the history of the ILO. He played a leading role in the 1919 Paris Peace Conference, became Director General of the Organisation in 1941 and is widely recognised as the architect of the ILO’s unique tripartite structure.
On the occasion of the Phelan lecture, I, together with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and the Irish Employers Federation Ibec, had the pleasure of responding to the learned lecture on “Women at Work: The Role of the ILO” delivered by Professor Mary Daly, President of the Royal Irish Academy. Professor Daly demonstrated that women and work was a core interest of the ILO from its foundation. Yet, as the DG points out in his report, almost a century later we are still a long way from the goal of equality.
Last year the Irish Government published a National Strategy for Women and Girls which reflects a number of measures set out in the Programme for a Partnership Government to reduce the gender pay gap. These include strengthening the role of the Low Pay Commission, increasing investment in childcare, reviewing gender equality in senior appointments, and promoting wage transparency. Additionally, our legislative programme includes a Gender Pay Gap (Wage Transparency) Bill.
Facilitating female participation in employment is an element of the Government’s latest Action Plan for Jobs, which recognises that enhancing female participation in the workforce has the potential to address the growing need for skills and talent and to deliver significant social and gender equality benefits.
The Irish economy has performed better than was thought possible since the first Action Plan for Jobs was adopted in 2012 in response to the severe unemployment crisis facing the State. Since then, the whole of Government focus on restructuring the economy towards export-led growth has proved highly successful. The labour market has performed very strongly with over 345,000 more people at work in the 6 years since the first Action Plan for Jobs was launched, and the unemployment rate has fallen from a high of 16% to below 6 per cent in April 2018.
Action Plan for Jobs 2018 differs from previous annual plans. It is no longer about rebuilding a broken economy, but more about solidifying progress and ensuring resilience. Brexit, the continued need to realise the potential of our regions, developing our workforce, and the ongoing drive to be competitive, productive, and innovative - all combine to inform the actions set out in the 2018 Plan.
Over the same period, in close consultation with our Social Partners, we have enhanced employment rights, strengthened our industrial relations framework and reformed the State’s workplace relations framework. More recently, work has commenced on ratification of the Forced Labour Protocol. These developments demonstrate the Irish Government’s commitment to the Decent Work Agenda.
It is vital that the Decent Work Agenda informs our thinking on the future of work in this era of unprecedented change. Amidst all the change one fixed point remains; people are, and must remain, at the centre of the world of work. Ireland is fully engaged with the ILO’s important work in this regard, including hosting a conference in Dublin last year in the context of the Future of Work Centenary Initiative.
Continuing the theme of a changing world, I would refer to tomorrow’s World of Work Summit on the topic of Employment and Decent Work for Peace and Resilience which I am very pleased to say will be addressed by President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins. The Summit will focus on the central role of employment and decent work in responding to contemporary crisis situations.
I will conclude by wishing the tripartite Conference participants every success in the important work they are doing here at the International Labour Conference which is aptly referred to as the international parliament of labour.