A lift-time spent fighting for Labour Right… Interview with Kari Tapiola, Special Advisor to the Director General of the International Labour Organisation

17 December 2018

He is an impressive man, Mr Kari Tapiola, and we were curious to know more about this man who has spent most of his life to defend workers all over the world for more than two decades. So Mr Tapiola, the floor is yours …
Q: You have a long and impressive career. Could you tell us a something about your background and what brought you to the ILO?
Answer: I started off as a journalist, and among others I covered the occupation of Czechoslovakia exactly 50 years ago. Then I became International Secretary of the Central Organization of Finnish Trade Unions. I worked for Finnish and international trade unions. Since 1974 I regularly attended ILO meetings. In 1996 I was appointed Deputy Director-General. I am retired now but still involved in some projects on labour Rights.

Q: On a personal level, what is the achievement that has given you the most satisfaction? And on a professional level, what do you consider your most important achievement?

I have got much satisfaction when negotiations lead to solving long-standing problems. Best wishes and best wishes to I spent much of a decade trying to help end forced labour in Myanmar. The ILO Declaration on Fundamental Principles and Rights at Work in June 1998 and especially its follow-up in different parts of the world is something I was closely involved in.

Q: For every victory for workers’ rights, there seems to be at least one defeat. Do you perceive workers’ rights as being in decline, and, if yes, what are some ways to stop — and turn around — this downward trend?

On the whole, workers’ rights are improving. It has been generally recognized, though not always accepted in practice, that trade and globalization should not be driven at the cost of workers’ health and welfare. Significant changes have recently taken place in Uzbekistan and Qatar. Of course there are setbacks, and the process is slow. In Myanmar, one big problem was solved but another showed up. Also, authoritarian regimes always wants to control trade unions. The importance of free organizing by workers and employers is still not understood well enough. Recently, democracies are also being subject to authoritarian tendencies, some subtle and others more brutal. The patience and tolerance for consensus building has worn thinner.

Q: One of the consequences of war and poverty is child labour. For some time the ILO has been very active in this area. What is the situation for the world’s children today, and what are the trends?

War and poverty, and child labour, take place when social justice is not observed. Child Labour has been a priority for the ILO throughout its hundred years of existence. Since 1992 it has been the focus of one of its largest technical cooperation programmes. Twenty years ago we estimated that there were some 250 million children working in unacceptable conditions. Today that figure is down to 152 million, of whom nearly half in hazardous work. While child labour is diminishing, it does so only very slowly. In addition, nearly half of the children are in the 5 to 11 years age bracket. The problem is thus endemic, and it is much deeper than just at the age when children start to transit from school to working life. These young children mainly do not get to school at all.

Q: What is the situation like in Yemen given the colossal humanitarian catastrophe?

Given the situation, the ILO is involved in the agency-wide damage and needs assessment, focusing on a rapid assessment of the impact of the conflict on employment. There is also a project for building peace and resilience in rural areas. Other projects have been on economic recovery, youth employment, skills and enterprise development, gender equality and child labour.

Q: For years, the ILO has been publishing regular reports on the situation in the Occupied Palestinian Territory, a situation that is also steadily verging on catastrophe. Could you give us your perception of it?

I headed the report team for six years. It is increasingly difficult to see how a two-state solution could be achieved. But what is the alternative? A multi-ethnic state with equal rights for all? Even if that would be agreed upon tomorrow, a lot of damage would have to be undone.

Q: Finally Mr Tapiola, if you have a message for our readers, what would that be?

Do not expect quick fixes on human rights work. And do not trust in simplistic solutions. The most sustainable solution usually is a well-negotiated compromise. Under normal circumstances, it is better to be cautious about victories, as every victory has at least one loser.

Geneva September 2018
Ekaterina Pinchevskaya