Gilbert Houngbo, the first African elected Director General of the International Labor Organization

It was the battle of the first. The first woman to lead the International Labor Organization, or the first African? It was Togolese student Gilbert Houngbo who won and who will lead the ILO for the next five years. He succeeds Britain’s Guy Ryder next October.
The election pitted five candidates against each other, the former Togolese prime minister and current president of the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD), the former French labor minister Muriel Pénicaud, the former foreign minister – Korean Kang Kyung-wha, Mthunzi Mdwaba, South African vice president of the International Organization of Employers and Australian Greg Vines, current Vice President and CEO of the organization.

Geopolitics of the moment

In the end, it took only two rounds to elect the new head of an organization that weighs in on international Geneva. It celebrated its centenary in 2019. In the first round, the Togolese reader was already in the lead with 24 votes ahead of Muriel Pénicaud (14), Mthunzi Mdwaba (13), Kang Kyung-wha (4) and Greg Vines (1). In the second round of elections, Togolese students received 30 votes, thus exceeding the absolute majority by 29 votes. Muriel Pénicaud received 23 votes, Mthunzi Mdwaba 1 vote and Kang Kyung-wha 2 votes. The failed candidate from France responded on Twitter: “I congratulate Gilbert Houngbo on his election as leader of the ILO, the first African to hold this position, at a key moment when the issues of social justice, the future of work and multilateralism are at work. be more important than ever. “

Also read: Fierce battle for the leadership of the International Labor Organization

The vote in the ILO’s governing body, made up of 56 members, 28 of whom represent the states, 14 the employers and 14 the workers, will remain secret. But two dynamics seem to have played a role in this choice. The first is related to geography. Many thought it was Africa’s turn, and this factor weighed heavier than the gender issue. The second concerns the profile of the candidate. The ILO has never elected an employer representative as leader. The candidate who was clearly supported by the employers was South African Mthunzi Mdwaba. But Muriel Pénicaud also had a support base at home. That was not enough. Geopolitics and even a north-south logic have tipped the balance.

The winner, Gilbert Houngbo, gives his reaction Time after the vote: “I am very happy. Nothing was certain, the five candidates all had their own merits. In terms of knowing what made the difference, the Togolese reader outlines an explanation: “I worked in a government, in the UN system and in the private sector. I am ultimately very centered. And given the current geopolitics, I think that a majority of states have found it appropriate to choose a unifier, and I think I meet that criterion, he believes that his current tenure as IFAD president worked in his favor because people “could judge me on the concrete” .

Gilbert Houngbo actually embodies the spirit of tripartism, a unique trait within international organizations. This search for balance is reflected in his words: “A company can only flourish if there is social cohesion. The employer must therefore respect the rights of workers. But trade unions must also realize that job creation comes from the private sector. There is no reason to oppose capital for labor. “

Universal social protection

The former Togolese prime minister makes no secret of it. He won massive support from the working group in the ILO. “They saw that my project for the ILO is close to their sensitivity.” To those who fear that the future Director-General will not be sufficiently independent by virtue of the votes he has received, he replies: “If every Director-General is to be accountable to the states that voted for him, no Directorate-General is independent. Personally, I instruct myself to work with professionalism and impartiality, to keep the communication channels open at all times. It is the duty of a day-to-day manager to create a minimum of trust between the parties.

Broken to multilateralism by Gilbert Houngbo also where he comes from. He grew up in a rural region of Togo. He worked there for a dollar a day without any social protection. Therefore, it is a priority in his eyes to formalize jobs. In Africa, between 80 and 90% of the economy is informal. Worldwide, there are more than four billion workers without social protection. “Universalizing this protection will clearly be one of my priorities, as will the modernization of the ILO. There are also certain economic sectors that are suffering from a normative vacuum. It must be filled. It will also be necessary to be very pay attention to the supply chains, which are sources of jobs and prosperity, but where workers’ rights are sometimes ignored. ” The final challenge will be to create the radical digital transformation of the labor market.

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